While bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in 2011, was widely seen as the terrorist mastermind behind those attacks, many counter-terrorism experts viewed al-Zawahiri as more responsible.
With his white turban and thick, gray beard, his forehead scarred by the bruises that some Muslims value as a sign of the piety of frequent prayer, al-Zawahiri had little of bin Laden’s charisma. But he was widely portrayed as the intellectual backbone of al-Qaida — the chief operating officer, public relations executive and a deep influence who helped bin Laden grow from a charismatic preacher to a deadly terrorist with global reach.
During Al-Qaida’s Zawahiri leadership, the organization’s global influence waned as the IS group grew. But the group remained a threat, with affiliates in several countries carrying out attacks. And al-Zawahiri, to whom they all swore allegiance, was still one of the world’s most wanted terrorists at the time of his death.
Al Zawahiri led a cat-and-mouse life from his teens in an upscale Cairo suburb, serving prison terms in Egypt and Russia, and being hunted by opponents, including US counter-terrorist authorities, who put a $25 million bounty on his head. Yet he always seemed to stay one step ahead, hiding in the rugged fortifications of Afghanistan and the tribal areas of Pakistan. A trained surgeon – one of his pseudonyms was The Doctor.
Over time, his goals and ideology evolved from a deep-seated hatred of secular rule in Egypt to a virulent campaign to attack the so-called “distant enemy,” the US. The group’s tactical strength lay in its ability to launch spectacular attacks, beginning with the simultaneous attacks on the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the suicide bombing of the US destroyer USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, culminating in the 9/11 attacks. Over the next decade, the US pursued bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. Drone attacks have decimated Qaida’s leadership.
In May 2011, a navy The SEAL team killed Bin Laden in a raid. Al-Qaeda has been silent for more than a month about its future leadership. Then al-Zawahri posted a 28-minute video of himself. With a gun in the background and a chopping motion with his hand, he promised that bin Laden would continue to “terrify” America. “Blood for blood,” he said.