Doctor of Death – in Ayman al-Zawahiri’s 50-year career at the heart of the global jihadist factory
New Delhi: Few things had ever outraged Maadi Sporting Club’s sensibilities like this upside-down scandal – not the hot pink banter of pashas and princesses, nor duller teenage pregnancies. Azza Ahmad Nowari, the daughter of renowned lawyers, had ditched her skirts and heels and retired to niqab- like the baladi women who own donkey carts. Even as his peers spent their evenings at parties where they could be introduced to suitable young men, Azza read the Koran until dawn.
In the living room, facing the lawn dotted with water lilies that attracted the pink flamingos of the Nile, and on the all-sand eighteen-hole golf course nestled in the shadow of the pyramids of Giza, a terrible realization arose. is made at the Maadi Club – Azza would never, ever find a husband.
Then a young doctor called Ayman al-Zawahiri, from a legendary family that lived down the road, arrived to ask for Azza’s hand in marriage. He lifted her veil briefly, as was the custom, then did not see each other again until their wedding day. There was no music at the wedding, held at the Continental-Savoy Hotel, and photography was prohibited.
“It was pseudo-traditional,” a guest told writer Lawrence Wright, author of an authoritative account of the 9/11 attacks. “Lots of cups of coffee and nobody makes jokes.”
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The Doctor of Death
The killing of 71-year-old al-Zawahiri in a US drone strike on his home in Kabul’s upscale Sherpur neighborhood on Sunday – in accommodation believed to have been provided by the Taliban interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani – represents the end of the generation that built the road to 9/11. In the decade since the elimination of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in 2011, al-Zawahari has carefully nurtured his relationship with the Taliban, using it to lay the groundwork for new regional affiliates.
Although al-Zawahiri embroiled al-Qaeda in religious conflicts across India, Bangladesh and Pakistan, the organization did not have a significant recruitment framework or staging operations from its shrines in Afghanistan. This task he left to a new generation of leaders.
The real significance of Ayman’s story, however, lies in the insight it provides into the genesis of al-Qaeda and its rise as the vanguard of the global jihadist movement. Far from being driven by senseless religious fanaticism, al-Qaeda was entangled in a broader ideological and political struggle against secularism and modernity.
Few Egyptian families had such respectable credentials as the al-Zawahiri family. Sheikh al-Ahmadi al-Zawahiri, Ayman’s paternal grandfather, was the imam of the famous al-Azhar mosque. His father, Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, was a professor of pharmacology at Ain Shams University. His maternal grandfather, the literary scholar Abdul-Wahab Azzam, served as Egypt’s ambassador to Pakistan and the first rector of Saudi Arabia’s first university.
Even though the family lived in the very westernized Maadi of Cairo, their cultural moorings were distinct. Ayman studied at an Arabic-language public school, not English-speaking Victoria College, and the family, despite their wealth, never joined the Maadi Club.
From the mid-1960s, according to his biographer Muntaser Zayyat, Ayman began to imbibe the ideas of the ideologue Sayyid Qutb, the dark star of Egypt’s growing Islamist movement. He drifted into the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest Islamist movement. First imprisoned at just fifteen, the quiet teenager was beginning a five-decade career as a global jihadist.
Turn to God
In late 1949, literary scholar and bureaucrat Qutb arrived in the small American town of Greeley, beginning a journey that would transform the Islamist world. Closely bound by conservative Christian values, city laws even prohibited establishments from serving alcohol — something the State Department officials who funded Qutb’s education thought was a plus.
“You’ll be bored to death in less than five hours,” poet Sara Lippincott once warned through friends. “There is nothing but irrigation.”
Other Egyptian students, like Maadi’s elite, reveled in the small pleasures of the flesh offered by Greely. For Qutb, however, Greeley provided proof that industrial civilization led to moral downfall. American women, Qutb wrote in his memoirs, were “living, howling temptations.” Jazz was the music “which the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires”.
Early in his life, Qutb had encountered the anti-Enlightenment ideas of Nobel Prize-winning French eugenicist Alexis Carrel. Instead of liberating human beings, according to Carell, technological civilization has subjected them to a crippling system of control. The answer, for Qutb, lies in the word of God.
In his key work, MilestonesQutb mapped out a roadmap for the jihadist movement – a civilizational struggle existed between Islam and jahiliyah, a state of ignorance of the order of God. Even states like Egypt, though ruled by Muslims, constituted the world of jahiliyahsince they defied the law of God, the Sharia.
Egypt’s socialist-leaning president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, has often publicly mocked calls by the Muslim Brotherhood to hijab and Sharia. The failures of Nasser’s economic policy and the defeat in the war with Israel in 1967, however, gave power to the Muslim Brotherhood. From the mid-1960s, tens of thousands of Muslim Brotherhood cadres were imprisoned. The Brotherhood retreated – spawning a more violent successor, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad.
Finally, following an aborted Islamist coup in 1975, al-Zawahiri himself was imprisoned. Tortured, al-Zawahiri betrayed his idol and coup leader, former armored corps officer Issam al-Qamari, according to expert Youssef Aboul-Enein.
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A return to Pakistan
To pursue his ideological beliefs, al-Zawahiri has now turned to a distant battlefield. The anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan had broken out in 1979, and al-Zawahiri had traveled there to raise funds for jihadist groups in 1980, 1981, 1984 and 1986. Along with bin Laden, he became a key part of a Peshawar circle. Arab jihadists, grouped around the charismatic Abdullah Azzam. Al-Zawahiri treated injured jihadists, helped run Azzam’s office and published the group’s new magazine, al-Fath.
Al-Zawahiri was no stranger to the Peshawar milieu. His maternal grandfather, Abdul-Wahab, had been appointed Egyptian ambassador to Pakistan in 1954. The ambassador’s house in Karachi served as a living room for Islamist-leaning intellectuals, including Said Ramadan, the foreign minister of de facto of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liaquat Ali Khan, then Prime Minister of Pakistan, had met Ramadan in 1948, when he traveled to Karachi to attend a meeting of the World Muslim Congress. Khan gave the Islamic ideologue a weekly radio show to air his views. Ramadan, noted journalist Caroline Fourest, “was omnipresent in the media, pleading, at every opportunity, for legislation based on the Sharia”.
The Central Intelligence Agency, according to declassified documents, described Ramadan as a “phalangist” and a “fascist”. The intelligence agency, however, backed Ramadan and other Muslim Brotherhood politicians, viewing them as reliable anti-communists.
“In the 1950s and 1960s,” reports historian Ian Johnson, “the United States backed him when he took over a mosque in Munich, evicting local Muslims to build what would become the ‘one of the most important centers of the Muslim Brotherhood’.
In turn, Ramadan introduced Pakistani Islamist leader Abul ‘Ala Maududi of the Jamaat-e-Islami to Qutb. Maududi had long argued that it was imperative “to eliminate non-Islamic governments and establish the power of Islamic government in their place”. These ideas were taken up by Qutb in the 1970s.
The road to 9/11
The defeat of the Soviet Union in 1988 opened up deep divisions over the future of Arab jihadists. Azzam wanted the Arabs to stay in Afghanistan and build a strong base for the movement which could slowly expand into Central Asia. Al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden, however, feared that the jihadists would be sucked into local ethnic and factional fighting, and wanted them to join movements in their home countries. The assassination of Azzam in 1989 definitively settles this debate.
From 1989, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad waged a fierce campaign against the regime. Elsewhere in the Middle East too, from Algeria to Lebanon, the Islamists have waged a fierce war. Although fierce bloodshed followed, the jihadist movement failed to achieve victory. For the leaders of al-Qaeda, the lesson was obvious: until the United States itself was defeated, Arab regimes would not collapse.
Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri returned to Afghanistan in 1996, researcher Anne Sternersen reported, seeking to use it as a base for their campaign against America. A new jihadist campaign has begun, with the bombing of US embassies in Nairobi and Dar al-Salam. Although spectacular in its impact, the operation proved a strategic failure – al-Qaeda was hunted down throughout the Middle East and decimated in Afghanistan.
Azza, along with two of their six children, were killed in a US Air Force raid on an al-Qaeda camp.
The campaign against America has been heavily criticized within jihadist ranks. The Syrian jihadist ideologue Mustafa al-Nasr insisted “on the fact that without confrontation on the ground and without taking control of the territory, we cannot establish a state, which is the strategic objective of the resistance”. Leadership of the global jihadist movement passed to the Islamic State, which established its caliphate in 2014.
After bin Laden’s assassination in 2011, Ayman set about patiently rebuilding al-Qaeda. Leveraging its relationship with the Taliban’s largest group – the Haqqani Network – al-Zawahiri has positioned al-Qaeda as a supplier of trainers and military experts. It focused on building semi-autonomous regional affiliates, on the back of entrenched local ethnic and religious conflicts. Affiliates have slowly grown, especially in Libya, Yemen, Syria, Mali and Somalia.
Like al-Zawahiri, his successor will have to nurture that growth, hoping many Afghanistans will flourish
(Editing by Poulomi Banejee)
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