A bookworm who was good in school and hated violent sports would grow up to become the radical leader of a bloodthirsty terror group bent on destroying America.
Ayman al-Zawahiri was born to parents from two prominent Egyptian families and grew up in a middle-class Cairo suburb, where he first got into the jihadist scene.
He’s now the leader of Al Qaeda, a position he assumed after the death of Osama bin Laden, whom he’d known since before the terror group’s inception.
Lawrence Wright described Zawahiri’s youth in his book “The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11“:
As a child, Ayman had a round face, wary eyes, and a mouth that was flat and unsmiling. He was a bookworm who excelled in his studies and hated violent sports — he thought they were ‘inhumane.’
From an early age he was known for being devout, and he would often attend prayers at the Hussein Sidki Mosque; an unimposing annex of a large apartment building, it was named after a famous actor who had renounced his profession because it was ungodly. No doubt Ayman’s interest in religion seemed natural in a family with so many distinguished religious scholars, but it added to his image of being soft and otherworldly.
He was an excellent student, and invariably earned the respect of his teachers. His classmates thought he was a ‘genius,’ but he was introspective and often appeared to be daydreaming in class. Once, the headmaster sent a note to Professor Zawahiri [Ayman’s father] saying that Ayman had skipped a test.
The professor replied, ‘From tomorrow, you will have the honour of being the headmaster of Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the future, you will be proud.’ Indeed, Ayman earned perfect grades with little effort. Although others saw Ayman as serious nearly all the time, he would show a more playful side at home. ‘When he laughed, he would shake all over — yanni, it was from the heart,’ said his uncle Mahfouz Azzam, an attorney in Maadi.
Wright also details an incident from Zawahiri’s childhood when he was walking home from a mosque after prayers and he encountered Hussein al-Shaffei, who was the vice president of Egypt at the time.
Shaffei stopped his car to offer Zawahiri and his brother a ride. But Zawahiri refused on the grounds that Shaffei had been one of the judges who rounded up Islamists in 1954.
“It was unusual for the Zawahiri boys to ride in a car, much less with the vice president,” Wright noted. “But Ayman said, ‘We don’t want to get this ride from a man who participated in the courts that killed Muslims.'”
Wright observed: “His stiff-necked defiance of authority at such an early age shows Zawahiri’s personal fearlessness, his self-righteousness, and his total conviction of the truth of his own beliefs — headstrong qualities that would invariably be associated with him in the future and that would propel him into conflict with nearly everyone he would meet.”
When Zawahiri was 15 years old, he created an underground cell “devoted to overthrowing the government and establishing an Islamist state,” Write wrote.
Zawahiri and bin Laden reportedly met in the late 1980s, and Zawahiri became the Saudi’s personal physician before the inception of Al Qaeda. Eventually, Zawahiri’s group Islamic Jihad merged with Al Qaeda and Zawahiri became bin Laden’s right-hand man.
Excerpts reprinted with permission from Penguin Random House.