Abdullah Azzam: The Unmentioned Founding Father of al-Qaeda and Hamas

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I would guess that most people who know the name “Abdullah Azzam” today know it as the name of a terrorist network, the “Abdullah Azzam Brigades,” a group that claimed responsibility for a recent attack in Lebanon and whose leader, Majid b. Muhammad al-Majid, just died of, uh, “natural” causes while in the custody of the Lebanese government. The Brigades were founded in 2009 by a Saudi fellow named Saleh al-Qaraawi, currently a prisoner of the Saudi government but still alive as far as we know, as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tasked with taking AQI’s fight against the Americans and the new Iraqi government on the road. Branches of the group now exist in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, Iraq, and Egypt, where they may take other names of more local significance. They’ve claimed responsibility for a number of attacks throughout the region, but seem to be primarily active in Syria and now Lebanon, effectively taking the Syrian fight back to Hezbollah’s home turf.

Anyway, I would suspect that far fewer people know about the group’s namesake, Abdullah Azzan. This is a shame, because Azzam was instrumental in the formation of two notorious Islamic terror organizations: al-Qaeda and Hamas. He wasn’t alive to see the creation of al-Qaeda, and in fact may have been murdered because of his opposition to its formation, but he was a mentor to Osama bin Laden and one of the leaders of the Afghan mujahideen network out of which al-Qaeda arose. A Slate article on Azzam from 2002 called him “the Lenin of international jihad,” which I assume makes Sayyid Qutb the Marx, and bin Laden the Stalin, and then Ayman al-Zawahiri would be the…Trotsky? Well, the analogy starts to break down at some point.

His objections to it (which we’ll discus below) aside, Azzam was one of probably four figures who could be considered the principals (obviously there were many others who played smaller roles) behind the formation of al-Qaeda, alongside bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, the blind Egyptian terrorist leader doing life in a federal prison over his role in a plot to strike numerous targets in and around New York City in the 1990s. Muhammad Atef, the first of the long line of “al-Qaeda number threes” (who after Bin Laden’s death were promoted to “al-Qaeda number twos”) to be killed by the United States, may have been a fifth key figure in the process.

Azzam was born in a small West Bank village in 1941, when the whole place was still called “Mandatory Palestine.” No doubt affected by the events of 1948 (the creation of Israel and the subsequent Arab-Israeli War and displacement of the Palestinians), in the 50s he joined the Muslim Brotherhood’s Palestinian branch and began to absorb its teachings about the role of Islam in the modern world. In 1966 he graduated with honors in Islamic Law from the University of Damascus and returned briefly to the West Bank before moving into Jordan after the 1967 Six Day War. There he became very active in the Palestinian paramilitary movement, but he rejected the secular nationalist ideology of the PLO under Yasser Arafat in favor of an Islamist ideology that he believed would not only win the fight against Israel but would free the entire Middle East from European interference. The work he did at this time helped lead eventually to the formation of Hamas as the Islamist rival of the PLO/Fatah.

Azzam alternated the next several years between studying Islamic Jurisprudence at al-Azhar in Cairo and teaching at the University of Jordan, eventually receiving his doctorate from al-Azhar in 1973. It is during his time in Egypt that Azzam met devotees of Sayyid Qutb (who had been executed by the Egyptian government in 1966) and became immersed in Qutb’s teachings and philosophy. These fellow travelers included Ayman al-Zawahiri and Omar Abdel-Rahman, the latter also there to get a doctorate in Islamic Jurisprudence. Booted out of the faculty at the University of Jordan due to his growing radical tendencies, Azzam’s next stop was Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, where he taught at King Abdul Aziz University until 1979. It was there that he must have had his first encounters with a wealthy young Jeddah resident and student at the university named Osama bin Laden.

In late 1979 a group of Islamic radicals forcibly seized the Grand Mosque at Mecca and declared that the Day of Judgment was at hand. After the Saudis put down the revolt and retook the mosque, they began to purge university faculties of anyone with suspected links to or sympathies with extremist groups, and Azzam was forced to leave the country. He went to Pakistan, the better to get involved with the incipient Islamic rebellion against the Soviet-backed government in neighboring Afghanistan. He had already, while in Jeddah, issued a fatwa declaring that the struggle in Afghanistan, and the struggle over Palestine, were jihads, and that it was not only permissible but required for all true Muslims to fight and kill the “occupiers” of those lands.

When he got to Pakistan, Azzam briefly taught at the International Islamic University in Islamabad but soon gave that up to move to Peshawar, which was much closer to the Afghan border. There he established Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), “The Services Office,” where international would-be mujahideen (the Arabic word means “strugglers” but in this context they’re guerrilla fighters) could stay and train before they crossed the border to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. To finance this venture he turned to his former student bin Laden, whose family had made billions in the construction business in Saudi Arabia and who was now obsessed with jihad. Osama emerged as a great fund raiser as well as a personal source of funding. The fight against the Soviets was very popular, and, as their efforts in Syria will attest, Saudi elites have never minded exporting religious war to other places (they only have a problem when the jihadis start coming back home), so bin Laden was able to use his connections to the highest circles of Saudi society to raise funds to recruit, arm, and train fighters for the Afghan cause.

Azzam was very much a follower of Qutb in his belief in the use of violence to defend Islam from unbelievers; he would say “Jihad and the rifle alone; no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues.” Azzam’s wife said that “jihad for him was like water for a fish.” He described seeing Afghanistan for the first time as a rebirth. He would visit refugee camps and talk to the mujahideen who were based in Peshawar, and his stories about their experiences took on attributes of myth (animals aiding the fighters, mujahideen who were caught in hails of gunfire but miraculously emerged unharmed, angels riding into battle with the Afghan fighters, that kind of thing). Azzam took those stories and shared them all over the Islamic world, recruiting young men to come and fight the Afghan jihad.

No one was more taken with Azzam’s teachings or his stories than bin Laden, who saw his former teacher as a role model, and Azzam for his part seems to have admired bin Laden’s commitment to the cause and his devotion to living an austere life despite his family’s incredible wealth. Bin Laden’s fund-raising prowess was so great, and his importance to the cause so considerable, that the relationship between the two men changed from teacher-student to more or less an equal partnership, and they set out to make the MAK the formal recruitment and training operation for all Arabs who wished to fight in Afghanistan. Bin Laden and his family moved to Peshawar in 1986 and he and Azzam began to work in earnest to recruit new fighters. Between bin Laden’s money and Azzam’s ability to arouse the passions of disaffected young Arab men all over the world for jihad (and especially the prospect of martyrdom), they made a formidable team, and by the time the Afghan War was over they may have recruited as many as 20,000 fighters for to the cause. Many of them would continue on to become part of al-Qaeda.

It was actually over bin Laden’s strict focus on recruiting and training Arabs that he and Azzam began to drift apart. Azzam was (not unlike Qutb) a pan-Islamist–ethnic and national distinctions meant little to him. But bin Laden had a bit of Arab chauvinism, and while Azzam had always tried to disperse his Arab recruits among the local Afghan forces and subordinate them to the command of Afghan leaders, bin Laden imagined an Arab army that could go anywhere in the world and wage war against modernizers, unbelievers, and the like. Many Arab fighters in Afghanistan grew tired of taking orders from the Afghans and gravitated to bin Laden, particularly those who had come from Zawahiri’s group, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). There may also have been a little national rivalry at play–many of Azzam’s recruits were coming from Saudi Arabia, and it’s possible that they felt more comfortable being led by a fellow Saudi, bin Laden, than by the Palestinian Azzam.

Suddenly bin Laden wasn’t just the money anymore, though Azzam seems to have believed that his former student would never be anything but a figurehead in the movement. Azzam was comfortable with bin Laden in a position of formal authority but remained confident that he would really be running things. Zawahiri, meanwhile, saw bin Laden as the potential leader of an international jihad network, but one that would conform to his plans for jihad, not Azzam’s. Azzam believed that the fight was against non-Muslims, kafir in the traditional sense. But Zawahiri seems to have introduced bin Laden to the concept of takfir, the idea that the devout Muslim had the right and the duty to identify other supposed Muslims who had fallen into apostasy and unbelief (takfir is the act of declaring someone a kafir).

Azzam saw the jihad movement as having two fronts: Afghanistan and Israel, in both places fighting to liberate Islamic lands from kafir interlopers. Zawahiri, who had been radicalized by Qutb’s execution and his own imprisonment and torture by the Egyptian government following Answer Sadat’s assassination in 1981, was more interested in taking the fight to those Muslims he saw as apostates, collaborators with the corrupting West, particularly leaders in places like Egypt and Syria who he argued were leading their people away from the path of true Islam. Azzam rejected this kind of talk as the seeds of fitna, or division, in the Muslim community. Bin Laden, it seems, increasingly began to see Zawahiri’s point, and Azzam found himself shoved off to the sidelines of the movement he had founded. He seems to have had a hard time seeing the writing on the wall, and may still have been unable to imagine bin Laden as anything more than a financier.

Azzam was preaching in Peshawar in 1989 when it was discovered that somebody had planted a massive amount of dynamite under his pulpit; the explosives failed to detonate. On November 24, though, an IED struck the car that was taking Azzam and his two sons to Friday prayer, and he was killed. Suspicion immediately fell on the usual conspiracy targets in that part of the world: Mossad and the CIA. Other theories include Jordanian intelligence, perhaps working with the CIA, and even the Iranians. However, there is a more compelling (in my view) case to be made that Azzam was killed by Zawahiri or someone else in or close to Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Most analysts believe that what we know today as “al-Qaeda” was formed the year before Azzam’s murder, in a meeting between him, Zawahiri, and bin Laden, when the leaders agreed to merge MAK and EIJ to continue the global jihad once the Soviets were finally run out of Afghanistan for good. But since Azzam and Zawahiri were completely at odds about how and where they should continue the jihad, it makes sense that Zawahiri would see the elimination of Azzam, who remained an almost legendary figure for many of the foreign recruits and who may still have had some sway with bin Laden, as crucial to his efforts to implement his vision for the new organization. Interestingly, shortly after Azzam was killed, the director of the MAK’s New York fund-raising and recruitment office, who agreed with Azzam that the next target of the jihad ought to be Israel, also died under murky circumstances. It’s even possible that bin Laden himself ordered the hit on Azzam, but that seems less likely.

Though he would have disagreed with the direction the organization took after his death, al-Qaeda wouldn’t have been born without Abdullah Azzam. The professional recruitment and training operation he established to bring foreign fighters to Afghanistan was the foundation of al-Qaeda’s recruitment and training programs, and many of the men he recruited held high positions in al-Qaeda’s command structure. His teachings about the importance of jihad and particularly of the militant variety had a huge impact on the generation of fighters who formed al-Qaeda, most particularly on Osama bin Laden himself. Azzam may even have given the group its name. It’s said he talked about the importance of establishing an elite group of devoted fundamentalists who could serve as “a solid base” upon which to build the new Islamic society. “Base” translates into Arabic as qaʿidah or “qaeda.”

This essay drew heavily on The Looming Tower: al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright (2006)

One thought on “Abdullah Azzam: The Unmentioned Founding Father of al-Qaeda and Hamas

  1. bin Laden as Stalin? That makes on hell of a lot of sense; I’m going to use that one, with proper attribution of course.

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