Al Qaeda leader killed in Taliban stronghold: Aymen al Zawahiri in life and death


Within the community of Jihadists, Aymen al Zawahiri was the most influential terrorist leader when the US killed the al Qaeda leader on 31 July 2022. The fact that the incumbent leader of one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups was living in Afghanistan at the time of his death demonstrated that the Taliban remained a state sponsor of terrorism. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are considered the world’s two most dangerous terrorist groups. More than any other group, al Qaeda influenced and shaped the contemporary Jihad movement including the Islamic State, the group that dominated the Iraqi-Syrian theatre and staged attacks worldwide.

Before and after the return of the Taliban to Kabul on 15 August 2021, it’s leadership pledged that the Taliban will not offer safe haven to al Qaeda or any other groups. On 11 September 2001, when al Qaeda staged the world’s deadliest terrorist attack and killed 2,977 people on American soil, the Taliban too was the host of al Qaeda. Unless the Taliban, the ruling regime of Afghanistan is held accountable for hosting al Qaeda and it’s leadership, Afghanistan will remain a safe haven for the jihadist fraternity. When Zawahiri was killed, there was a bounty of USD 25 million on his head.

Hailing from an influential family in Egypt, Zawahiri guided and directed threat groups worldwide.

Wage global Jihad

Until his death, Osama bin Laden was the symbolic leader of the contemporary Jihad groups, but it was Zawahiri that influenced him to wage global Jihad. As an ideologue and a theoretician, Zawahiri instigated and inspired not only al Qaeda but a dozen other groups including the Islamic State founder leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, that later fell out with the al Qaeda leadership. Before moving to the Pakistan-Afghanistan theatre during the anti-Soviet multi-national mujahideen campaign in the 1980s, Zawahiri was the head of the Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group in Egypt.

In Pakistan, where Zawahiri doubled up as a medical doctor, he rivalled with another ideologue and a theoretician, Abdullah Azzam. After Azzam was assassinated in 1988, Zawahiri served as both the physician and ideologue of Osama bin Laden.

Zawahiri’s contribution to both the ideological and the operational formation of the contemporary wave of terrorism and violence is unmatched. In addition to radicalising the founder head of al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, he gave an ideology of continuous war and argued that the entire world was the theatre of war.  Zawahiri was also the mastermind of al Qaeda’s failed anthrax programme.

In death as in life, the writings and speeches of Zawahiri will continue to influence the global community of jihadists and other threat entities.


The author of ‘Inside al Qaeda: Inside the Global Terrorist [email protected] (Columbia University Press)’, Rohan Gunaratna is the editor of the ‘Handbook of Terrorism in the Middle East’ (World Scientific, Singapore 2022)

By Rohan Gunaratna