DR. AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI Biography - Religious Figures & Icons


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Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, a surgeon by profession, is the head of the Egyptian "Islamic     
Jihad" and second in command of the Al-Qa'ida organization. He is the                     
intellectual and ideological force behind it and its leader, Osama bin Laden.             
Azzam Tamimi, director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thoughtin London,           
says Al-Zawahiri "is their ideologue?His ideas negate the existence of common             
ground with other Islamist groups."                                                       
Following the air attacks by the United States on the Al-Qa'ida bases in                 
Afghanistan, and fearing that he might be killed, Al-Zawahiri was able to                 
smuggle to England a short manuscript detailing the evolution and the travails           
of the Islamic Jihad and his association with the Islamist movements in Egypt             
and, ultimately, with bin Laden. The book, titled "Knights Under the Banner of           
the Prophet," with the subtitle "Reflections into the Jihad Movement," was               
serialized in the London-based, Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat between                 
December 2-12, 2001. In addition, "a combination of happenstance and the                 
opportunism of war" allowed a reporter of the Wall Street Journal to acquire for         
$1100 in Kabul Al-Qa'ida computers left behind following the escape of their             
operators. The reporter was able to download hundreds of files regarding the             
organization, particularly concerning Al-Zawahiri's internal correspondence and           
mode of operation.                                                                       
Most rank-and-file members of the terrorist movement in Egypt, the Islamic Jihad,         
come from a peasant stock or from the slums of the Egypt's large cities, mired           
in poverty and driven by despair. Ayman Al-Zawahiri does not fall into a typical         
category of Egyptian extremists-- socially, economically or intellectually.[6]           
He comes from a distinguished family that seems never to have faced social or             
economic hardships; many of its members would be considered part of the elite in         
any society.                                                                             
Al-Zawahiri's family has its roots in the Harbi tribe from Zawahir, a small town         
in Saudi Arabia, located in the "Badr" area where the first battle between               
Prophet Muhammad and the infidels was fought and won by the Prophet. Ayman Al-Zawahiri's 
great grandfather, Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Zawahiri came to Egypt in the 1860s and             
settled in the city of Tanta in the Nile Delta where a mosque still bears his             
name. His grandfather, Sheikh Al-Ahmadi Al-Zawahiri was the Imam of Al-Azhar             
Mosque in Cairo. His father, Muhammad Rabi' Al-Zawahiri was a professor of               
pharmacology at Ein Shams University who passed away in 1995. His maternal               
grandfather, Abd Al-Wahab Azzam, was a professor of oriental literature and               
president of Cairo University as well as the Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan,             
Saudi Arabia, and Yemen, and was so known for his piety that he was referred to           
as "the devout ambassador." His grandfather's brother, Abd Al-Rahman Azzam [pasha],       
became the first Secretary General of the Arab League.                                   
Ayman Al-Zawahiri was born on 1 June 1951, in Cairo's Al-Ma'adi neighborhood.             
After graduating in 1968 from the Al Ma'adi secondary school he enrolled in the           
medical college of Cairo University and graduated, cum laude, in 1974, with an           
MD degree. He received a master's degree in surgery in 1978 and was married in           
1979 to Izzat Ahmad Nuwair who had graduated from Cairo University with a degree         
in philosophy but who met the criteria of "a devout wife." Al-Zawahiri's wife             
bore him one daughter in Cairo and at least three other daughters and a son               
elsewhere, but no information on his children is available.[8] He has two                 
brothers -- Hassan, who studied engineering and lives outside Egypt, and                 
Muhammad, who followed Ayman's path to Jihad and is reported to have vanished in         
At a young age, Al-Zawahiri began reading Islamist literature by such authors as         
Sayyid Qutb, abu Alaa Al Mawdudi and Hassan Al Nadwya. Sayyid Qutb was one of             
the spiritual leaders of Islamic religious groups, especially the violent Jihad           
groups. While other Islamists at the time, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood,           
were looking to change their societies from within, Qutb was an influence on             
Zawahiri and others like him, "to launch something wider." But like most                 
Islamists before him and after, Qutb's world views, defined in his book "Ma'alim         
'Ala Al-Tariq (Signposts on the Road), published in 1957, was predicated on a             
perfect dichotomy between believers and infidels, between Shari'a (Islamic law)           
and the law of the infidels, between tradition and decadence and between violent         
change and sham legitimacy. To quote Qutb himself, "In the world there is only           
one party, the party of Allah; all of the others are parties of Satan and                 
rebellion. Those who believe fight in the cause of Allah, and those who                   
disbelieve fight in the cause of rebellion." In his book, Al-Zawahiri asserts             
that the Jihad movement had begun its march against the government in the mid-1960s       
when the Nasserite regime confined to prison 17,000 members of the Muslim                 
Brotherhood and hanged Sayyed Qutb, the leading thinker of the movement at the           
At the age 15, Zawahiri joined "Jam'iyat Ansar al-Sunnah Al-Muhammadiyya," (The           
Association of the Followers of Muhammad's Path); a "Salafi" (Islamic                     
fundamentalist) movement led by Sheikh Mustafa Al-Fiqqi, but soon left it to             
join the Jihad movement. By the age of 16, he was an active member of a Jihad             
cell headed by Sa'id Tantawi. Tantawi trained Al-Zawahiri to assemble explosives         
and to use guns. In 1974, the group split because the group declared Tantawi's           
brother as kafir (infidel) because he fought under the banner of kuffar or               
infidels which characterized the Egyptian army. In 1975, after the split,                 
Tantawi went to Germany (and is said to have disappeared) and Ayman took over             
the leadership of the cell. He immediately organized a military wing under Issam         
Al-Qamari, an active officer in the Egyptian army at the time (Al-Qamari became           
Al-Zawahiri's closest friend and ally. In his book, Al-Zawahiri as I Knew Him,           
lawyer Muntasir Al-Zayyat maintains that under torture of the Egyptian police,           
following his arrest in connection with the murder of President Sadat, Al-Zawahiri       
revealed the hiding place of Al-Qamari which led to his arrest and eventual               
execution). Al-Zawahiri's extreme caution and secretive nature spared him the             
attention of police. To aid their secrecy the group avoided growing beards like           
most Islamists, and hence they were known as "the shaven beards."                         
The defeat of Egypt in the Six-Day War of 1967 has further radicalized Al-Zawahiri       
and his generation. As he points out in his memoirs:                                     
"The most important event that influenced the Jihad movement in Egypt was the "Naksa"     
(or "the Setback") of 1967. The idol, Gamal Abd Al-Nasser, fell. His followers           
tried to portray him to the people as if he was the eternal leader who could             
never be defeated. The tyrant leader who used to threaten and pledge in his               
speeches to wipe out his enemies turned into a winded man chasing a peaceful             
solution to save at least a little face."                                                 
Abd Al-Nasser was consumed by termites and he fell on his face amid the panic of         
his followers. The Jihad movement got stronger, realizing that the enemy was             
nothing but an idol created by the propaganda machine and the tyrannical                 
campaigns against innocent people. The Nasserist movement was knocked out when           
Gamal Abd Al-Nasser died three years after "the Setback" and after the                   
destruction of the legend about the Arab nationalist leader who will throw               
Israel into the sea.                                                                     
Abd Al-Nasser's crowded funeral was nothing but evidence of the coma that the             
Egyptian people were living through. It was the farewell for a leader that the           
Egyptians soon replaced with a new leader who took them to another direction and         
started to sell them a new illusion.                                                     
At the age of 24, Al-Zawahiri's intellectual development was greatly enhanced by         
Dr. Abdallah Azzam, a Palestinian, who came to Egypt to study at Al-Azhar                 
University. His studies at Al-Azhar convinced Azzam of the role of Islamic Jihad         
as the solution to social and political problems. Azzam would become the                 
spiritual leader of the movement of Arab and Muslim volunteers to the Jihad in           
Afghanistan, and the spiritual father of Osama bin Laden. (Azzam was blown up             
with his two sons in their car in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989, and their murder           
has remained unsolved).                                                                   
Al-Zawahiri's advancement in the Jihad movement was relatively rapid. In a               
recent book by Muhammad Salah on The Afghani Arab Journey to Jihad, the author           
considers Al-Zawahiri as a distinctive phenomenon. Not only was Zawahiri's               
background different from most radical Islamists but also his rapid rise to the           
top and his "heavy-weight impact on the thoughts of the various Islamic                   
movements, in general, and on the Jihad Movement, in particular, was phenomenal."         
Indeed, by the early 1970s, barely 20 years old, Al-Zawahiri had obtained the             
rank of "amir" (or leader of a group or front) when he was implicated in the             
murder of President Anwar al-Sadat.                                                       
Sadat's Legacy and the Rise of Religious Extremism                                       
When Anwar Al-Sadat had become President of Egypt upon the death of Gamal Abd Al-Nasser   
in September 1970, he envisioned Egypt as "The State of Science and Faith."               
After years of suppression by Nasser, Muslim organizations, in general, and the           
Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, were permitted, indeed encouraged, by Sadat           
to operate openly. In the words of Al-Zawahiri, "Sadat let the genie [the Jihad           
movement] out of the bottle." This was also "a time of political change from the         
Russian era to the American era" in the political life of Egypt.                         
Sadat himself was either a former member or sympathizer of the Muslim                     
Brotherhood, and he had a soft spot for them. In fact, during the Sadat reign,           
Egypt underwent a process of clericalization, as measured by the number of hours         
devoted to religious programs in the official Egyptian media, particularly               
Egyptian television. In 1963, religious programming on television did not exceed         
2.3% of televised time but it rapidly increased to 8.97% in 1973 and to 9.54% in         
1980. In terms of programming hours, televised religious programs increased from         
528 hours in 1973 to 754 hours in 1980/81 or to an average of about two hours a           
day. On Sadat's orders, the five daily Muslim prayers were televised live.               
By the time the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood began emerging from long               
imprisonments imposed by the Nasser regime, many of them were now in their 50s           
and had lost touch with the Egyptian street, particularly with its young                 
generation. In fact, the younger Islamists had already been drawn to the                 
writings of Sayyid Qutb, whose book, Ma'alim 'ala Al-Tariq (referred to earlier),         
which was outlawed in Egypt, has become a primer for all radical Islamic                 
movements. Sadat, who considered the Nasserites and the leftists as his                   
principal enemies, overlooked the looming danger from the Islamic extremist               
movements that were advocating the violent overthrow of the regime and the               
establishment of a new regime founded on fundamental Islamic principles. These           
radical Islamic movements, operating under Sadat's benevolence, would soon               
consume him. The Islamist movement itself lived to regret the assassination of           
Sadat which unleashed a severe reprisal against them. In the words of Al-Zawahiri:       
"After Sadat's assassination the torture started again, to write a new bloody             
chapter of the history of the Islamic movement in Egypt. The torture was brutal           
this time. Bones were broken, skin was removed, bodies were electrocuted and             
souls were killed, and they were so despicable in their methods. They used to             
arrest women, make sexual assaults, call men with women's names, withhold food           
and water and ban visits. And still this wheel is still turning until today?The           
Egyptian army turned its back toward Israel and directed its weapon against its           
Although not directly involved in the planning for the assassination of Sadat (whom       
he characterizes as an American agent) Al-Zawahiri alleges that the attempt on           
Sadat's life was part of a larger plot to liquidate as many of Egyptian leaders           
as possible. In reality, no one but Sadat was assassinated. Al-Zawahiri also             
relates the attempt to assassinate President Husni Mubarak on his way to perform         
the Eid prayers in a mosque. The presidential motorcade took a different route           
and the attempt had failed.                                                               
Al-Zawahiri's association with Afghanistan, which eventually led to his alliance         
with bin Laden, started a little over a year before his arrest in connection             
with the assassination of Sadat. While holding a temporary job in Al Sayyeda             
Zaynab clinic, operated by the Muslim Brotherhood in one of Cairo's poor areas,           
Al-Zawahiri was asked about going to Afghanistan to take part in a relief                 
project. He found the request "a golden opportunity to get to know closely the           
field of Jihad, which could be a base for Jihad in Egypt and the Arab world, the         
heart of the Islamic world where real battle for Islam exists."                           
He spent the next 4 months in Peshawar, Pakistan. For him, this experience was           
providential because it opened his eyes to the wealth of opportunities for Jihad         
action in Afghanistan. His previous attempt to find a base for a Jihad movement           
in Egypt was not successful because, he says, "the Nile Valley falls between two         
vast deserts without vegetation or water which renders the area unsuitable for           
guerilla warfare, and which also made the Egyptian people submit to the central           
Al-Zawahiri completed his prison term at the end of 1984. In his memoirs he               
writes that for personal reason he was unable to leave Egypt until 1986 to               
rejoin the jihad in Afghanistan. Thus, in 1986, he left Egypt for Saudi Arabia           
under a contract with Ibn Al-Nafis Hospital. However, he would soon depart to             
Pakistan to join the thousands of so-called Arab Afghans who flocked to Peshawar         
to help the Afghan Mujahedeen fight the war against the Soviet Union. In his             
second trip to Peshawar, he worked as a surgeon in the Kuwaiti Red Crescent               
Hospital. Eventually, he would go to the war zone for three months at a time to           
perform surgeries on wounded fighters, often with primitive tools and                     
rudimentary medicines. At the same time, he opened the "Islamic Jihad" bureau in         
Peshawar to serve both as a liaison point for new Mujahedeen and a recruitment           
agency. Peshawar itself was both a gateway city and staging ground for the