President Joe Biden announced from the White House on August 1 that a US missile launched from a drone in Afghanistan had killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Who was al-Zawahiri? Why is his death so significant? What can we now expect in the continuing battle against jihadist terrorism? How should we respond to this news biblically?
According to the Wall Street Journal, a US strike targeted a safe house in a residential area in central Kabul, Afghanistan, just after 6 a.m. last Sunday morning. This is the first known counterterrorism operation in the country since US forces withdrew last year.
A senior Biden administration official said al-Zawahiri was killed by two US Hellfire missiles fired from a drone as he stood on the balcony of his safe house. The official also stated that the US intelligence community has “high confidence” that the dead individual is al-Zawahiri. The White House said no civilian casualties resulted from the strike.
Intelligence agencies had been aware for years of a network of individuals supporting the al-Qaeda leader. They tracked several members of al-Zawahiri’s family, including his wife and children, when they moved to Kabul. They then received confirmation that al-Zawahiri himself was in Kabul.
US spy agencies built a replica of the home where al-Zawahiri was staying and brought it to meetings with President Biden and his aides. They used the model to confirm that the terrorist leader could be killed in a missile strike without collapsing the entire structure and killing civilians, including members of his family.
In a July 25 meeting with his top advisors, President Biden then made the decision to order the strike.
Who was Ayman al-Zawahiri?
According to the Washington Post, “Americans knew him as al-Qaeda’s No. 2 leader, the bespectacled, bushy-bearded deputy to Osama bin Laden. But in reality, it was Ayman al-Zawahiri’s brains and blood-drenched hands that guided the world’s most notorious terrorist movement.”
Al-Zawahiri grew up in an upper-middle-class, religiously diverse suburb in Cairo, Egypt. His father was a professor of pharmacology and his maternal grandfather was a president of Cairo University. However, he was influenced as a youth by one of his uncles, Mahfouz Azzam, who was an impassioned critic of Egypt’s secularist government.
The writings of Sayyid Qutb were extremely influential for him as well. When Qutb was executed by Egypt’s government in 1966, al-Zawahiri, then fifteen years old, organized a group of friends into an underground cell devoted to the overthrow of Egypt’s government and the establishment of an Islamic theocracy. They became known eventually as Jamaat al-Jihad or the Jihad Group.
At the same time, he earned a degree in medicine from Cairo University and served briefly as an army surgeon. He married Azza Nowair, the daughter of a wealthy, politically connected Egyptian family; the couple would eventually have a son and five daughters.
He began making visits to refugee camps along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, where he cared for mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In this way, he met a charismatic young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
However, al-Zawahiri remained committed to his own revolutionary movement. His Jihad Group initiated plots in the early 1980s to assassinate Egyptian leaders and played a key role in the murder of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981.
He was imprisoned for three years, then he began traveling frequently to South Asia, where he became bin Laden’s personal physician. In 1997, he helped plan an attack on foreign tourists at Egypt’s Luxor ruins that murdered sixty-two people, including a five-year-old British girl. His group then merged with bin Laden’s al-Qaeda (“The Base”).
Al-Zawahiri helped oversee the planning of the 9/11 attacks, after which he was preparing an ambitious biological weapons program when a US-backed military campaign forced him to abandon his bioweapons lab. After bin Laden’s death in 2011, he became al-Qaeda’s No. 1 leader. In September 2021, he released a video in which he called for al-Qaeda to renew its violent campaigns against its enemies.
What did he believe?
As I wrote in my 2011 book, Radical Islam: What You Need to Know, Qutb’s writings were the intellectual foundation for the movement we know as “radical” Islam today. In brief, he argued that the Muslim world needed to return to the “purity” of its roots under Muhammad and the first four caliphs who succeeded him.
In his view, infidels (non-Muslims) deserve to be able to choose to become Muslims. But they can make this choice only if there is a truly Muslim state for them to join. A nation is truly Islamic only if it is governed solely by Sharia (Islamic holy law).
Since none of the Muslim nations of Qutb’s day were exclusively governed in this way, he rejected them as apostate states and advocated for their overthrow by violent means if necessary. Then a truly Islamic state could be established in preparation for the coming of the Mahdi, a messiah-like figure who will rule the world for Allah.
This worldview was extremely persuasive for Osama bin Laden and his followers. It is the essential argument motivating Sunni jihadists around the world as well. (Shiite Muslims have a different view of the future and advocate for a somewhat different Muslim state.)
What does his death mean for the future?
In announcing the death of al-Zawahiri, President Biden stated, “Now justice has been delivered, and this terrorist leader is no more. 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.”
Clearly, the president believes that the “war on terror” is continuing and that we must remain vigilant. He is right.
As the Wall Street Journal notes, the Taliban had pledged to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a haven for terrorist organizations. However, the fact that al-Qaeda’s leader and his family had moved into a safe house in one of the most affluent areas of Kabul soon after the Taliban returned to power undermines this claim.
We should also note that the Taliban condemned the US attack on al-Zawahiri, calling it a violation of international law and its agreement with the US signed in 2020.
According to the Congressional Research Service, al-Qaeda has evolved from a centrally governed organization to a “hub and spoke” model in which “leaders provide inspiration, strategic vision, and some financial support but little in the way of direct tactical supervision.” As a result, the death of al-Zawahiri, while a significant blow to the organization, will not stop its operations. It continues to inspire “ideologically motivated terrorism against US interests around the world and opportunistically enters (or secures the allegiance of participants in) local conflicts.”
After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan in August 2021, al-Qaeda likely began work to reconstitute its ability to conduct external attacks from the country. It also claims affiliates in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, Algeria, and Syria. (For more on responding to radical Islam, see Dr. Ryan Denison’s “Should we fear radical Islam?”)
Three biblical responses
We can respond biblically to the death of Ayman al-Zawahiri in three ways.
One: Continue to pray for our leaders (1 Timothy 2:2) and our military as they “bear the sword” as an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Pray for their wisdom, protection, and effectiveness as they continue to defend us at home and around the world.
Two: Pray for the ongoing spiritual awakening in the Muslim world to bring jihadists such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State followers to Christ as their Messiah. Pray for God to protect and guide Muslim-background believers as they reach out across the Muslim world with the transforming grace of Christ.
Three: Look for ways to share your faith and God’s love with the Muslims you know. The vast majority of Muslims reject the radicalism of Ayman al-Zawahiri and his jihadist followers. They deserve to know that God loves them as much as he loves you and me. When we extend compassion and grace to them, we earn the right to share our Lord with them. In this way, we obey our Lord’s commission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19), beginning in our “Jerusalem” (Acts 1:8).
John Henry Newman testified, “God has created me to do him some definite service; he has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.”
Into what “definite service” is your Lord calling you today?