Perhaps Ayman al-Zawahiri imagined in his last hours that he had won his jihad. His allies in the Taliban had seized power in Afghanistan a year ago, and the U.S. military had retreated from the capital in disarray. The al-Qaeda leader must have hoped that, after decades on the run, he was finally safe.
Then, as he stepped onto the balcony of his apartment in Kabul early Sunday morning, the Hellfire missiles found him — with relentless and unforgiving precision. Zawahiri managed to outlive Osama bin Laden by 11 years but, in the end, he, too, was killed. And President Biden, on behalf of the American people, had the last word: “No matter how long it takes, no matter where you hide, if you are a threat to our people, the United States will find you and take you out.”
The United States made some disastrous mistakes in the counterterrorism crusade that began on Sept. 11, 2001. We overreacted, as a country and a military, sending armies of occupation to Muslim lands in precisely the way Zawahiri and bin Laden must have dreamed we would. But in pursuing the core counterterrorism mission — seeking accountability and justice for 9/11 — this country remained focused.
Zawahiri lacked the terrifying theatricality of bin Laden, but he was perhaps a truer portrait of the contained rage that fueled al-Qaeda. Where bin Laden was the lean, elegant sheikh, Zawahiri was a stocky, bespectacled doctor. Born to an Egyptian family that commingled scientists and pious Muslim scholars, he illustrated the intersection of modern technology and seventh-century values that made al-Qaeda so combustible. Lawrence Wright, in his superb study “The Looming Tower,” counted 31 Zawahiri relatives who were doctors, chemists or pharmacists.
Bin Laden was an aristocrat of terror, but Zawahiri was the educated middle class. His roots were in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, a secretive underground organization whose members were hardened by imprisonment and torture. His inspiration was the Brotherhood’s founder, Sayyid Qutb, who saw the West as an erotic seductress that must be spurned and destroyed by pious Muslims.
Zawahiri formed his first secret cell when he was 15, according to Wright, and after he was later arrested and tortured, his most bitter memory was the “humiliation” of being forced by his brutal interrogators to provide information about others in the underground.
Zawahiri was a hard man whose resistance was fueled by hatred and contempt for his enemies. After he escaped a U.S. airstrike on his hideout in Pakistan’s tribal areas in January 2006, he called President George W. Bush “the butcher of Washington” and taunted him: “You are a failure and a loser. You are the bane of your nation. … Who is withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, we or you?”
Zawahiri saw the Arab Spring as a validation of his hopes for a Muslim uprising against the West and its supporters. He issued a manifesto in March 2011 that tried to piggyback on the Tahrir Square revolt in Cairo that, with tacit U.S. backing, had toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He sneered at the “reversal” of U.S. support for the Egyptian ruler: “For 30 years, the U.S. was silent toward the corruption and embezzlement by Mubarak, his family, and his inner circle.”
Zawahiri spoke with the authentic voice of a man forged by imprisonment, torture and a life underground. But he lacked the charisma and authority of a natural leader. Even bin Laden, whose editing notes are included in a version of the 2011 manifesto released by U.S. Central Command, seemed unimpressed. At the end of Zawahiri’s flowery panegyric, bin Laden curtly advised that Zawahiri should add pictures of Egyptian police beating demonstrators.
Zawahiri remained a zealot, who despite bin Laden’s misgivings about risking new battlegrounds, wanted to continue attacking American forces wherever they were deployed. But like so many radicals, Zawahiri found himself outdistanced by even more extreme successors.
Al-Qaeda was eclipsed after bin Laden’s death by an ultraviolent group that called itself the Islamic State and wanted to shift from fighting the United States to creating a new Muslim caliphate immediately, in Syria, Iraq or anywhere else that could be liberated. Even in Afghanistan, where Zawahiri secretly took refuge, the Islamic State became a far more potent force than al-Qaeda.
Zawahiri must have worried that in his last decade, he was a forgotten man. But that wasn’t quite true. He remained a daily obsession for the counterterrorism specialists at the Pentagon and CIA. That’s a warning for the Russians, Chinese or anyone else who doubts U.S. staying power. Americans might look impatient and undependable. But they have long memories.