The story of al-Qaeda's lost leader, Abdullah Azzam, illuminates the murderous nature of global jihad
In September 2007, on the sixth anniversary of 9/11, a bespectacled Saudi cleric settled into his chair at MBC, an Arab satellite channel, to discuss al-Qaeda. His presence immediately stirred the attention of viewers who recognised Salman al-Awdah as one of Osama bin Laden’s longtime mentors. What he said in that interview shocked al-Qaeda and its supporters.
“How much blood has been spilled? How many innocent children, women, and old people have been killed […] in the name of al-Qaeda?” he asked. Reading an open letter to “brother Osama”, he dissociated himself from al-Qaeda. It came just four months after another of al-Qaeda’s chief ideologues, an imam called Dr Fadl, expressed similar views in a letter sent to Arab newspapers from his jail cell in Egypt.
This public spat between al-Qaeda’s leaders quickly fuelled suggestions that the movement was imploding under the weight of internal dissent. They prompted author Peter Bergen, who interviewed bin Laden in 1997, to label these developments as “the unravelling” of al-Qaeda. Lawrence Wright, who also profiled Dr Fadl for the New Yorker this year, was similarly confident that his letter would deal a fatal blow to the movement, branding Fadl an al-Qaeda apostate.
But that optimism belies the terror group’s history and ignores circumstances that first gave rise to it almost 20 years ago, suggesting that al-Qaeda is likely to emerge from this storm unscathed. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the story of a hugely-influential Islamist militant named Abdullah Azzam.
In 1979 the world of Sunni Islam was in a state of drift and confusion. The Shia were enjoying a political triumph in Iran with the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini; Egypt had become the first Arab country to recognise Israel; and Islamist militants had seized Mecca’s Grand Mosque, holding worshippers hostage for nearly two weeks during the annual Hajj pilgrimage.
When the Soviet Union committed troops to Afghanistan later that year, the conflict offered Sunni Islamists salvation and a cause that was their own – often with the blessing of Arab governments. The man who did more than anyone to lead and inspire this Sunni resurgence was Azzam. It was he who led the initial trickle of Arabs who went to support the Afghans, and eventually paved the way for thousands more to join them. In the process he became both military and spiritual leader to a growing band of Arab jihadis.
Little has been written about Azzam, although an examination of his life as a leader during the ’80s reveals that challenges to al-Qaeda from within have dogged it from the start, and that the organisation is well placed to withstand the kind of dissent which now threatens it.
Azzam was born in 1941 in what was then British Mandatory Palestine. He earned a degree in Shariah law from Damascus University and a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence from al-Azhar University in Cairo, the oldest institution of religious learning in the Islamic world. There he read books by Syed Qutb, the intellectual Godfather of modern Islamic fundamentalism, and met members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement he would later join. He also came into contact with both Ayman al-Zawahiri – the now de facto leader of al-Qaeda – and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind sheikh convicted of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre.
After completing his studies, Azzam moved to Jordan and joined Palestinian nationalists fighting Israel. However, he was disillusioned by the PLO, whose leaders spent their spare time gambling and drinking. He moved to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia to lecture at the King Abdul-aziz University, a hotbed of radicalism where exiled members of the Muslim Brotherhood from neighbouring states regularly found refuge, and where Azzam first met bin Laden.
When Azzam left Saudi Arabia for Afghanistan in 1979, he initially moved to Islamabad University. He soon decided to dedicate himself to the jihad full time and to create a channel for Arab fighters who wanted to join him. Before the Hajj that year, he visited America to enlist new fighters and raise funds.
I interviewed Jalal Abualrub, a Palestinian who had been studying in the US in 1979 and who helped Azzam visit more than 50 US cities, spreading the word about the Afghan jihad and raising funds. Jalal explained that Azzam’s subsequent trip to Mecca to have his fatwa about jihad endorsed by Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti and other Wahhabi scholars inspired him and many others to go to Afghanistan. “Having the backing of the scholars was very important,” Jalal explains. “Once we had that there was nothing stopping us.” The trickle of foreign fighters entering Afghanistan became a flood.
Another Azzam protégé, Abdullah Anas (who later became Azzam’s son-in-law), was a young imam in Algeria when he first read about Arab volunteers going to join the Afghan struggle. “I went for pilgrimage in 1984 and bumped into Abdullah Azzam entirely by chance,” he recalled over coffee in West London. “I asked him whether the jihad in Afghanistan was a duty and whether the Saudi scholars had backed it. He told me, ‘Yes’, and I decided to go immediately.”
Within weeks, Anas had arrived at Azzam’s house in Islamabad and was introduced to a man calling himself Abu Abdullah; he was a tall, slim man with a flowing beard and pointed features. Abu Abdullah turned out to be the nom de guerre of bin Laden. Anas joined Azzam and bin Laden to create the “Services Bureau”, which organised travel and accommodation for Arab fighters before sending them to join training camps in Afghanistan.
However, Azzam’s authority over the “Afghan Arabs” was soon eroded by a large influx of Egyptian fighters. They came in the wake of the Egyptian government’s repression of al-Jihad, the militant Islamist group which had assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Its leaders included al-Zawahiri. “They were harsh and relentless,” Jalal recalled. “From the moment they arrived, the fanaticism in the Arab camps began to rise.”
They undermined Azzam’s authority by urging Arab fighters to wage jihad against their own governments in the Middle East, arguing that these governments’ deviation from literalist interpretations of Sharia made them apostates. They wanted to revive a Caliphate in the Arab world which could then destroy Israel and subjugate the West. Azzam disagreed, declaring that Arab rulers, though decadent, were still legitimate. He wanted his men to focus their efforts instead on Afghanistan. According to some reports, Azzam and Osama bin Laden also quarrelled about whether or not the Arab fighters should be integrated into Afghan mujahideen units or fight separately.
A bitter feud erupted. Zawahiri, along with another founder of al-Jihad, Sayyid Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif, who took the name Dr Fadl, accused Azzam of selling out and being a CIA stooge. They refused to acknowledge his authority and urged followers not to pray with him.
Bin Laden too was increasingly intoxicated by Zawahiri’s vision of global jihad. But bin Laden also had an established relationship with Azzam which stemmed from their time in Jeddah and continued to pray with him and to acknowledge him as leader of the Arab mujahideen. This irritated Zawahiri, but the Egyptian and his followers needed the financial and logistical support of bin Laden’s construction business in Saudi Arabia for their global jihad.
For a while, bin Laden tried to straddle the widening gulf between Azzam and Zawahiri by financing both of them, creating an alternative network of guesthouses called al-Masadah, the lion’s den.
When Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Azzam wanted to consolidate control in Afghanistan, transforming it into a base for Islamist activity before turning his attention to Israel. He implored bin Laden to use his money and construction skills to develop their Afghan stronghold. But by this stage, bin Laden was already committed to the Egyptians’ strategy of immediate global holy war.
Then, just months after the victory against the Russians, Azzam was killed by a car bomb in Peshawar. The murder was never solved, although former jihadis remember just how bitter the conflict between Azzam and the members of al-Jihad had become. “I believe it was al-Zawahiri, but there’s no real proof,” Abdullah Anas said. “But even if it wasn’t him, he was certainly pleased about it.”
A few months after the murder, Anas married Azzam’s daughter. A videotape of their wedding reveals a who’s who of modern terrorism, with bin Laden and scores of al-Jihad members in attendance. A scrawny innocuous-looking guest sitting alone in a corner is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who would later lead a vicious Sunni insurgency in Iraq, regularly beheading foreign contractors, Shias, and even Sunnis who opposed him until killed by coalition forces in 2006.
In 1990, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and made common cause with Salman al-Awdah, a cleric who had refused to approve the government’s decision to allow Western troops into the Kingdom. This decision had reinforced Zawahiri’s message about the corruption of Arab regimes and spawned the culture of indiscriminate bombings which are now a hallmark of al-Qaeda’s tactics.
It is unlikely, however, that things would have been significantly different even if Azzam had not been assassinated in 1989. Despite the tensions which overshadowed the relationship between al-Qaeda and Azzam, his memory is still invoked by the terror group today in their appeals to young Muslims. He was certainly no pacifist and shared the same vision of an expansionist, totalitarian theocracy as al-Qaeda, differing only over the methods to achieve it. Though he is often cited as an inspiration by suicide bombers and terrorists in organisations like Hamas, he believed that jihad should have rules. Some of his followers, like Jalal, continue to believe that only genuine military targets are legitimate, and that civilians in buses and restaurants are not. However, the members of al-Qaeda had no such qualms and Azzam could not contain their fanaticism, inspired by a victory in the mountains of the Hindu Kush.
When al-Awdah delivered his open letter to MBC he echoed the sentiments of Azzam – trying to control the jihad, rather than end it. There is limited solace in this. The rupture between Azzam and al-Jihad originally occurred over two critical issues: how Muslim governments should be viewed; and what attitude should be adopted towards civilians. The members of al-Jihad who later formed al-Qaeda reasoned that every Muslim ruler was an apostate if they failed to rule by puritanical and literal interpretations of Shariah law. They also took a narrow view over the definition of “civilians”, regarding most non-Muslims as infidels and therefore legitimate targets for attack, and only Muslim non-combatants as true civilians.
The debate created by the letters from al-Awdah and Dr Fadl is simply a revival of the same discussions which Azzam had with bin Laden almost 20 years ago when al-Qaeda was first launched.
For them, the ends remain the same although the indiscriminate nature of al-Qaeda’s attacks – and the alienation of Sunni tribes in Western Iraq – has precipitated the current debate on the future of the movement. The challenge laid down to al-Qaeda is therefore not an ideological one, but a tactical debate. For al-Awdah and Dr Fadl, the al-Qaeda attacks that have killed Sunni Muslims in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are counter-productive.
Although al-Qaeda’s totalitarian vision first caught our attention after 9/11, this was not the start of the global jihad. Through the ’90s the group bombed targets across the Middle East, aiming to snatch power by unseating Arab regimes. It also targeted Western interests, including the bombing of US military bases in Saudi Arabia, the embassy bombings in East Africa and an attack on the USS Cole docked in Yemen. These were tactics entirely consistent with the message Azzam had preached. Suggestions that al-Qaeda might therefore implode under the weight of criticism from jihadist clerics like al-Awdah and Dr Fadl misreads the history of Azzam and the ideas of modern jihad. Where al-Qaeda parted with him was by shifting the centre of its campaign into the Western world, with 9/11 marking a dramatic break with its earlier tactics – not ideology. The debate now is about where the jihad heads next.