A U.S. drone strike in Afghanistan on July 31 killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, who helped Osama bin Laden plot the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and helped Al-Qaeda survive and spread in the years after.  By finding and striking al-Zawahiri, President Joe Biden said, the U.S. was ensuring that Afghanistan under the Taliban would never again become a base for attacks on the rest of the world, as it was in 2001.

An article by Ellen Knickweyer, posted on Newsweek’s website on August 2, says an Egyptian, al-Zawahiri was born June 19, 1951, to a comfortable family in a leafy, drowsy Cairo suburb.  Religiously observant from boyhood, he immersed himself in a violent branch of a Sunni Islamic revival that sought to replace the governments of Egypt and other Arab nations with a harsh interpretation of Islamic rule.

Al-Zawahiri worked as an eye surgeon as a young adult, but also roamed Central Asia and the Middle East, witnessing Afghans' war against Soviet occupiers in that country, and meeting young Saudi Osama bin Laden and other Arab militants rallying to help Afghanistan expel Soviet troops.

He was one of hundreds of militants captured and tortured in Egyptian prison after Islamic fundamentalists' assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981.  Biographers say the experience further radicalized him.  Seven years later, al-Zawahiri was present when bin Laden founded al-Qaeda.

Al-Zawahiri merged his own Egyptian militant group with al-Qaeda.  He reportedly brought Al-Qaida organizational skill and experience—honed underground in Egypt, evading Egyptian intelligence—that allowed Al-Qaida to organize cells of followers and strike around the world.

On the run after 9/11, al-Zawahiri reportedly rebuilt al-Qaeda leadership in the Afghan-Pakistan border region and was the supreme leader over branches in Iraq, Asia, Yemen and beyond.  The article says that with a credo of targeting near and far enemies, al-Qaeda after 9/11 carried out years of unrelenting attacks: in Bali, Mombasa, Riyadh, Jakarta, Istanbul, Madrid, London and beyond.   

The article notes that the issue of what his killing could mean for al-Qaeda depends on which al-Qaeda lieutenant succeeds him.  Al-Qaeda expert Ali Soufan reportedly points to an Egyptian, Saif al-Adl, as one of the candidates to be dreaded by the West, given al-Adl's revered status within Al-Qaeda, his experience, and the potential of his charisma to draw back Al-Qaeda defectors who've moved to other groups.

But al-Qaeda overall now faces a succession crisis and a shaky future, according to the article.  That includes rivalries against aggressive upstart extremist groups that came into being after 9/11 and also have a presence in Afghanistan.

Charles Lister, another expert in violent extremist networks, wrote after the killing that the nature and spread of conflicts around the Middle East, Africa and South Asia today favor locally focused jihadist organizations rather than globally focused ones.

Al-Qaeda's next leader will have to prove his relevance to "self-confident affiliates that have been more willing to push back against a central leadership perceived as detached from the realities of conflicts thousands of miles away," Lister wrote.

U.S. official are reportedly sure that the Taliban knew that al-Zawahiri was in Afghanistan.  Asfandyar Mir, a Central Asia expert with the U.S. Institute of Peace, was cited as saying that al-Zawahiri’s presence in Afghanistan had been widely rumored for some time.  Moreover, the house where al-Zawahiri was living with his family was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, the article says, citing a senior U.S. intelligence official.

The article notes that it could be that someone among the Taliban sold out al-Zawahiri and his family to U.S. or other foreign interests.  But it was a Taliban government that took in al-Qaeda's leaders in the mid-1990s and allowed them to plot the 9/11 attacks there, sparking the 20-year U.S.-led war there.  The worry after al-Zawahiri's death in Afghanistan's capital was that the Taliban were allowing armed extremist organizations a home in Afghanistan again in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal, as the West had feared, the article concludes.

Meanwhile, some analysts say the Taliban have never condemned al-Qaeda nor cut ties, and the presence and killing of al-Zawahiri in Kabul – just a 15-minute stroll from the presidential palace – expose a collision of differing expectations between the U.S. and Taliban that is likely to worsen.