What Was Ayman Al-Zawahiri's Relationship With Osama Bin Laden?

The Federal Bureau of Investigation offered a $25 million reward for information about the man named their "Most Wanted Terrorist." AP News reports that he helped plan and carry out one of the most deadly attacks on Americans in decades. When Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed, he was a wanted man. Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri, and how was he connected to former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden?

Al-Zawahiri was born in 1951, and raised in Cairo, Egypt (via BBC). He became infatuated with politics while he was still a teenager, and was arrested for the first time at age 15 for his involvement with the Muslim Brotherhood. He completed college in the 1970s, earning a master's degree in surgery. The Washington Post reports that Ayman al-Zawahiri started his career as an eye surgeon, where he continued to work in Egypt. Initially, he wanted to keep his family business going, per BBC. 

He tried to open a medical clinic, but he was really drawn to radical groups. So al-Zawahiri joined the Egyptian Islamic Jihad in 1973 and dedicated himself to the cause. He joined a group of radicals who dressed up as soldiers and murdered President Anwar Sadat, Egypt's then-president. The group got caught, and during their trials, al-Zawahiri led the group as they advocated for their beliefs in the Islamic state. Being arrested only made him more radical: he was reportedly tortured and beaten while in jail. When he got out in 1985, he left Egypt altogether.

Bin Laden's doctor, interpreter, and more

CNN reports that 1985 was the year Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri finally met. Al-Zawahiri began working in Pakistan as a surgeon, and he and Bin Laden formed a close friendship. They bonded over their radical ideologies, and began to plan numerous terrorist attacks and assassination attempts.

But he mainly was Osama Bin Laden's right-hand man for decades (via The Washington Post). Sometimes, in interviews with journalists in the 1990s, he acted as an interpreter for Bin Laden. But he would also contribute information to the conversation, like when he told a journalist that he had nuclear weapons, easily obtained on the Russian black market "if you have $30 million."

Per CNN, al-Zawahiri also served as Osama Bin Laden's personal physician in the 1990s. But, according to BBC, he was also considered the brains of the operation, while Bin Laden would handle the public-facing aspects of al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahiri plotted terror attacks with Bin Laden

In the 1990s, al-Zawahiri was reported to be leading both the Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Vanguards of Conquest (via BBC). The Vanguards of Conquest was responsible for murdering tourists, while the groups' other attacks led to the deaths of at least 1,200 Egyptian citizens. Al-Zawahiri became a world traveler, before spending six months in a Russian jail. After escaping from Russia in 1997, without officials ever discovering his real identity, al-Zawahiri absconded to Afghanistan — specifically, to Jalalabad, where Osama Bin Laden was reportedly living at the time. 

Combined, he and Osama Bin Laden gathered together several other radical Islamic militant operations, creating a huge collective called the World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri both helped write a fatwa, or a type of religious mission statement. It endorsed the killing of Americans.

According to AP News, al-Zawahiri became Bin Laden's deputy starting in 1998. CNN reports that al-Zawahiri was closely involved with numerous attacks on Americans, both in the United States and abroad. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri managed plans to bomb Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies where Americans worked. These attacks killed 200 people and injured 5,000. Next, in 2000, the two plotted an attack on an American ship stationed in Yemen, killing 17 people and injuring 39 by blowing up the ship.

Escaping United States troops

The two men created the plan for the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York on September 11, 2001 (via CNN). Al-Zawahiri didn't try to hide his motives; instead, he created some video and audio messages targeting Western culture. He attempted to recruit Muslims to join the attacks in an attempt to retaliate against the CIA and other U.S. officials, who he thought had wronged him on several occasions.

After the 9/11 attacks, the two were always on the run from American soldiers. In Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri lived with his family for some time. He evaded American troops, though in one attack in the Tora Bora region, he escaped, but his wife and children were killed.

In 2001, Zawahiri reached a new level of infamy: He was added to the FBI's Most Wanted Terrorists list, only second to his boss, Bin Laden. Now highly influential to followers, his messages could inspire more violence: In 2003, his recordings reportedly inspired suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia that killed 23 people, nine of whom were Americans (per CNN).

He increased followers by 400%

Ayman al-Zawahiri made 16 videos and audio clips in 2007, making him far more outspoken than Bin Laden (per BBC). They wanted to increase their recruiting efforts. The group expanded four-fold under al-Zawahiri's leadership, even if he never got the same name recognition that Osama Bin Laden had (via The New York Times). He reportedly wasn't the most charismatic leader, but he did provide direction to al-Qaeda, and guided the group through tumultuous periods, like the Arab Spring in 2010.

CNN reports that al-Zawahiri didn't officially start leading al-Qaeda until 2011, when Osama Bin Laden was killed. Per PBS, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Navy located Bin Laden in Pakistan and killed him, ending his reign as head of al-Qaeda. 

In total, al-Zawahiri was in charge from 2011 to 2022. As The New York Times reports, in 2022, American intelligence believed they finally knew where the al-Qaeda leader was hiding.

'This terrorist leader is no more'

American intelligence officials knew al-Zawahiri's family was definitely in living Kabul, but al-Zawahiri never seemed to leave the house (via The New York Times). However, he did stand on his balcony a lot, and that was where American troops finally spotted him. CNN reports that al-Zawahiri hadn't been hiding his tracks as well, and was more easily spotted since he was frequently publishing videos and moving around relatively openly. 

After spending many months confirming his location, President Joe Biden gave the all-clear to fire targeted missiles at al-Zawahiri (via The New York Times). As al-Zawahiri was standing on his balcony at 6:18 a.m. on July 31, the 71-year-old was killed, but his family was spared, and no one else was harmed during the mission. AP News reports that when he was killed, al-Zawahiri was reportedly staying at the home of a top Taliban leader.

According to The New York Times, President Joe Biden announced that Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in Kabul after a 21-year-long search for him, saying, "Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more."