In 1998, I joined a group of journalists traveling to Afghanistan’s Khost province to meet the leaders of a militant group who'd already logged a string of attacks and were announcing a new terrorism conglomerate. As we arrived, Arab fighters fired into the air to welcome their leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and his patron-in-chief, Osama bin Laden, at their makeshift headquarters in the eastern Afghan province, not far from the Pakistan border.
The sky lit up with tracer rounds and the tall mountains echoed gunfire and jihadist chants of camouflaged bodyguards as the two white-robed men disembarked from their Toyota trucks. At the time, bin Laden was already a known figure in the region; al-Zawahiri’s name was then confined mostly to Egyptian media, but the cleric brought with him an air of seriousness and international focus for the cluster of Arab, Afghan, Punjabi, Kashmiri and Bengali fighters congregating in Afghanistan.
Despite his years in an Egyptian prison, al-Zawahiri, who had studied medicine as a younger man, left his mark on militant Islamist movements in his home country, including an alleged role in the 1981 assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, a leadership role in the Islamic Jihad, and the 1995 attack on the Egyptian Embassy in Islamabad. He also popularized the writings of Egyptian radical Sayyid Qutb, making him well-known among his extremist contemporaries.
Both in their 40s, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden had contrasting physiques. The former was significantly shorter (hardly 5 feet or 152 centimeters tall) and rounder than the tall and slim bin Laden, who was five years his junior — an age gap the slender Saudi appeared to respect.
It was May 26, 1998, and the two men, along with another Saudi radical, Sheikh Taseer, sat in a hall before 13 journalists to announce the merger of a new terror conglomerate, the International Islamic Front. None of them then used the title al-Qaida for the joint venture.
Al-Zawahiri was then leader of the Egypt-based Jama’at-ul-Jehad (Islamic Jihad) and bin Laden told the reporters that the newly formed front had won the support of al-Zawahiri’s organization. The two had a common goal: taking out infidels from the Arabian Peninsula.
That much was announced by bin Laden during the presser, but al-Zawahiri explained the purpose of their new group in a more informal discussion during a break for tea, during which he spun stories promoting their cause. Bin Laden opted to watch, letting the articulate al-Zawahiri indulge reporters’ curiosity about the group’s plans, life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, and his doctrine of revenge.
Throughout the discussion, al-Zawahiri's embrace of Islamist fundamentalism at age 15 and his deep dive into radicalism was evident.
He introduced us to loyalists, including Muhammad Showqi al-Islambuli, brother of Khalid Islambuli, the main assailant in Sadat's murder. He appeared to take special pride announcing that he was also hosting the three sons of Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Egyptian cleric with ties to the 1993 bombing at New York's World Trade Center.
Foreshadowing of larger war
Calling himself a staunch enemy of the U.S. and its allies in the Arab world, he recited a litany of complaints against the West while referencing attacks on U.S. bases and personnel in Saudi Arabia and Somalia, foreshadowing the war that his followers would soon expand. In August that year, terrorists backed by bin Laden and al-Zawahiri attacked U.S. embassies in Tanzania, and Kenya. Around 200 people, including 12 Americans, were killed in the August 7 attacks. The U.S. retaliated weeks later, firing cruise missiles at a training camp in Khost, near where journalists had interviewed the men about two months before.
While al-Zawahiri at the time was already an ideological leader in his movement with bin Laden, the August attacks expanded his public profile.
It was al-Zawahiri who was talking on a satellite phone with a journalist in Peshawar about the terrorist attack in eastern Africa that was traced by the U.S. and used to train Tomahawk missiles on the compound. The two men survived the attack, but the compound crumbled as about 20 Pakistani radicals were killed in an instant.
But that was not the last time that the U.S. missed al-Zawahiri. Intel communities later said he also survived the U.S.-led bombing of the cave complex at Tora Bora, a mountainous range on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in December 2001.
When they were both alive, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were believed to be living together in Afghanistan under the Taliban’s first reign, from 1996 to 2001. Some videotapes showed them walking together along rocky mountain slopes after the 9/11 attacks. Al-Zawahiri was lucky again in May 2011 when U.S. Navy SEALs killed bin Laden in a compound in Abbottabad, a garrison city in Pakistan. Analysts believed al-Zawahiri was probably hiding somewhere else along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, or perhaps somewhere closer to bin Laden inside Pakistan.
Afghanistan was then not a desirable location for al-Qaida leaders, in part because U.S.-led forces had the ability to strike anywhere within the country. Following the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan last August, media reports said the al-Qaida leader felt comfortable moving to a house in central Kabul, where on Sunday a U.S. drone strike killed him while he stood on a balcony.