Called a mastermind of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been one of the most sought-after people by the U.S. for over two decades.
Al-Zawahiri, a trained surgeon born in Egypt, was Osama bin Laden's No. 2, and he took over Al Qaeda after a U.S. raid killed bin Laden in 2011.
He played a crucial role in planning the Sept. 11 attacks; he was indicted in absentia in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which killed 224 people; and he is believed to have plotted the 2000 attack on the USS Cole, which killed 17 sailors.
The FBI listed him as one of its most wanted terrorists in the world, and a $25 million reward was offered for information.
On Saturday, al-Zawahiri, 71, was killed in a U.S. airstrike in Kabul, Afghanistan, President Joe Biden announced Monday.
“Now, justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more,” Biden said.
Al-Zawahiri was born to a politically connected family in Cairo and got degrees in medicine and surgery before he joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad group in 1979.
He came to international attention in 1981 when he was charged in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. He accused jailers of torture and was sentenced to three years in prison.
After he was released in 1984, he went to Afghanistan, as the fight against the Soviet Union was at its height, and then to Pakistan, where he met bin Laden.
In 1998 al-Zawahiri merged his Islamic Jihad with bin Laden's Al Qaeda, becoming bin Laden’s deputy and chief Islamic ideologist. The same year, bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others issued a declaration calling for Americans to be killed all over the world.
Biden said al-Zawahiri “carved a trail of murder and violence against American citizens, American service members, American diplomats and American interests.”
But al-Zawahiri’s violence was not limited to Americans. He was a leading figure in a campaign to overthrow Egypt’s government in the 1990s that left more than 1,200 Egyptians dead, Reuters reported.
The group tried but failed to assassinate Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Ethiopia in 1995. It bombed Egypt’s embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, that year, killing 16 people, as well as the two bombers.
“This is an individual, Zawahiri, who has been involved in terrorist activities for the past 40 years,” former CIA Director John Brennan said Monday on MSNBC, for which he is an analyst.
Al-Zawahiri survived four attempts to kill or capture him from 2001 to 2007, NBC News has reported.
He was targeted twice during fighting at Tora Bora, Afghanistan, in 2001; in 2006, Hellfire missiles were fired at a location in Pakistan where he was thought to be, but Zawahiri released a video showing he was alive; and in 2007 an assault at Tora Bora did not find him.
It was a CIA drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri, two people briefed about the matter said.
In 2020, there had been rumors that al-Zawahiri was dead after no video or proof of life had surfaced, but a video was released last September, and again in April and May, The Associated Press reported at the time.
Biden said U.S. intelligence located al-Zawahiri this year, who he said had moved to downtown Kabul to reunite with family members.
Biden said he authorized a strike to kill him. None of al-Zawahiri's relatives or any other civilians were hurt, Biden said.
Two Hellfire missiles were fired while al-Zawahiri was on the balcony of the safe house, a senior administration official said.
John Kirby, spokesman for the National Security Council, said Monday night that the U.S. knew Al Qaeda was re-establishing a presence in Afghanistan and that it was going to continue to watch for threats.
“Mr. Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul certainly met that test, because he has been active in planning and plotting threats against our homeland going forward,” Kirby said on MSNBC.
The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks killed 2,977 people, including 343 New York City firefighters, 23 New York police officers and 37 Port Authority police personnel.
Andrew Ansbro, the president of the FDNY-Uniformed Firefighters Association union, said an additional 290 firefighters have also died of 9/11-related illnesses.
“This action by the United States is a reminder to each and every terrorist involved in the plotting of these attacks that the American people will Never Forget,” he said in a statement.