He was a surgeon, yet a killer. How Ayman al-Zawahiri became ‘world’s most wanted terrorist’

He was a surgeon, yet a killer. How Ayman al-Zawahiri became ‘world’s most wanted terrorist’

On the last day of July, the United States of America deployed hellfire missiles to kill Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Ayman had found solace in Afghanistan following its takeover by the Taliban, but he had also been under surveillance by US spies who who would reveal his location to the White House.

With a $25 million bounty on his head, the US government had wanted Aymanto pay for the part he played in al-Qaeda’s decades of terrorism.

The US got its justice, but what was Ayman’s role in al-Qaeda and how did he become the most wanted terrorist?


Born as Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri on June 19, 1951, in Giza, Egypt’s city housing the famous pyramids, Ayman hailed from a prosperous and prestigious family and it gave him a pedigree grounded firmly in religion and politics, according to the New York Times.

This privileged start was similar to bin Laden’s, and both men would later channel their family’s wealth to the terrorism.

Giza, Egypt

Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri was Ayman’s father and pharmacology professor at Cairo University. He came from a large family of doctors and scholars in Kafr Ash Sheikh Dhawahri, Sharqia. Rabia’a al-Zawahiri, one of Ayman’s grandfathers, was the grand imam of Al Azhar in Cairo, the mainstream centre of Muslim learning, while Abdel Rahman Azzam, one of Ayman’s great uncles, was the first secretary-general of the Arab League.

Umayma Azzam, Ayman’s mother, came from a wealthy and politically active family too. Azzam was the daughter of Abdel-Wahhab Azzam, a literary scholar who served as the president of Cairo University and ambassador to Pakistan.

His younger brother was Muhammed al-Zawahiri, and his sister, Heba Mohamed al-Zawahiri. Heba became a professor of medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute, Cairo University.

Ayman graduated from Cairo University’s medical school in 1974 and obtained a master’s degree in surgery in 1978. Those who knew him in Egypt said he was a smart youth with tendencies for extremism.


At the age of 15, Ayman was arrested for his membership in the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Arab world’s oldest fundamentalist Muslim group, in 1966, but later freed.

Ayman later became a founding member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He landed in jail again under suspicion of EIJ’s involvement in assassinating Anwar el-Sadat, the President of Egypt, in 1981. Ayman knew about the plot against Sadat some hours earlier but failed to stop the assassination.

EIJ’s primary goal was to overthrow the Egyptian government in order to establish an Islamic state. It later broadened its aims to include attacking American and Israeli interests in Egypt.

”He believes that attention brings trouble,” said Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer for Egypt’s Islamic Group, a rival faction once closely aligned with Jihad.

Al-Zayat spent three years in prison with Ayman after Sadat’s 1981 assassination. ”He believes that the best way to talk is through his operations,” al-Zayat said of him.


Osama bin Laden (Left) Ayman al-Zawahiri (Right)

Ayman was later released, and then he took over EIJ in 1984 after the Egyptian government detained Abbud al-Zumar, EIJ’s leader. He fled Egypt to Jeddah after Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s new president, began to attack dissidents.

Ayman met bin Laden in Jeddah for the first time in 1986. EIJ had already made an impression on bin Laden who was funding jihadist groups. EIJ joined five other radical Islamist militant groups, including bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, in forming the World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.

Ayman began to work with bin Laden’s group afterwards.

US Embassy after Al Qaeda attack in 1998

On August 7, 1998, nearly simultaneous bombs blew up in front of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Tanzania. Two hundred and twenty-four people died in the blasts, including twelve Americans, and more than 4,500 people were wounded.

In the aftermath of the attacks, over 900 FBI agents alone—and many more FBI employees—travelled overseas to assist in the recovery of evidence and the identification of victims at the bomb sites. The agents were also to track down the perpetrators.

These attacks were soon directly linked to al-Qaeda. The identification, arrest and extradition to the United States of several members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network for their role in the bombings followed.

In 1999, Ayman was indicted by a federal grand jury in New York for the role he was suspected to have played in the bombing of American embassies in 1998.

Bin Laden was also indicted at the time, but the two would not be caught until several years later.

Two weeks after the attacks on the US embassies, the US bombed al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan. After the American cruise missile attacks on al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998, Ayman telephoned a Pakistani reporter and warned: ”The war has started. The Americans should wait for the answer.”

”Tell the Americans that we are not afraid of the bombardment, threats and acts of aggression. We suffered and survived Soviet bombings for 10 years in Afghanistan, and we are ready for more sacrifices.”

Ayman was listed as one of Egypt’s most wanted men after authorities gave credence to claims that he had been responsible for the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan and other acts of violence. He was sentenced to death in absentia by an Egyptian court that year for activities linked to EIJ.

Read the full story in FIJ


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