Virtual Homeland of Kashmiri Pandits

Kashmir News Network

| Home | About Kashmir Herald |

Volume 2, No. 10 - March 2003

Email this page to a friend


Ayman al-Zawahiri - THE MAN BEHIND BIN LADEN
How an Egyptian doctor became a master of terror.

Zawahiri arrived in Jidda in 1985. At thirty-four, he was a formidable figure. He had been a committed revolutionary and a member of an Islamist underground cell for more than half his life. His political skills had been honed by prison debates, and he had discovered in himself a capacity—and a hunger—for leadership. He was pious, determined, and embittered.

Osama bin Laden, who was based in Jidda, was twenty-eight and had lived a life of boundless wealth and pleasure. His family's company, the multinational and broadly diversified Saudi Binladin Group, was one of the largest companies in the Middle East. Osama was a wan and gangly young man—he is estimated to be six feet five inches—and was by no means perceived to be the charismatic leader he would eventually become. He lacked the underground experience that Zawahiri had and, apart from his religious devotion, had few settled beliefs. But he had been radicalized by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and he had already raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the mujahideen resistance.

"You have the desert-rooted streak of bin Laden coming together with the more modern Zawahiri," Saad Eddin Ibrahim observes. "But they were both politically disenfranchised, despite their backgrounds. There was something that resonated between these two youngsters on the neutral ground of faraway Afghanistan. There they tried to build the heavenly kingdom that they could not build in their home countries."

In the mid-eighties, the dominant Arab in the war against the Soviets was Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian theologian who had a doctorate in Islamic law from Al-Azhar University. (He is not related to the Azzam family of Zawahiri's mother.) Azzam went on to teach at King Abdul Aziz University, in Jidda, where one of his students was Osama bin Laden. As soon as Azzam heard about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he moved to Pakistan. He became the gatekeeper of jihad and its main fund-raiser. His formula for victory was "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, and no dialogues."

Many of the qualities that people now attribute to bin Laden were seen earlier in Abdullah Azzam, who became his mentor. Azzam was the embodiment of the holy warrior, which, in the Muslim world, is as popular a heroic stereotype as the samurai in Japan or the Hollywood cowboy in America. His long beard was vividly black in the middle and white on either side, and whenever he talked about the war his gaze seemed to focus on some glorious interior vision. "I reached Afghanistan and could not believe my eyes," Azzam says in a recruitment video, produced in 1988, as he holds an AK-47 rifle in his lap. "I travelled to acquaint people with jihad for years. . . . We were trying to satisfy the thirst for martyrdom. We are still in love with this." Azzam was a frequent speaker at Muslim rallies, even in the United States, where he came to raise money, and he often appeared on Saudi television. Generous and elaborately polite, Azzam opened his home in Peshawar to many of the young men, mostly Arabs, who had heeded his fatwa for all Muslims to rally against the Soviet invader. When bin Laden first came to Peshawar, he stayed at Azzam's guesthouse. Together, they set up the Maktab al-Khadamat, or Services Bureau, to recruit and train resistance fighters.

Peshawar had changed in the five years since Zawahiri had last been there. The city was congested and rife with corruption. Camels contended in the narrow streets with armored vehicles, pickups with oversized wheels, and late-model luxury cars. As many as two million refugees had flooded into the North-West Frontier Province, turning Peshawar, the capital, into the prime staging area for the resistance. The United States was contributing approximately two hundred and fifty million dollars a year to the war, and the Pakistani intelligence service was distributing arms to the numerous Afghan warlords, who all maintained offices in Peshawar. A new stream of American and Pakistani military advisers had arrived to train the mujahideen. Aid workers and freelance mullahs and intelligence agents from around the world had set up shop. "Peshawar was transformed into this place where whoever had no place to go went," says Osama Rushdi, a former emir in a university branch of the Islamic Group, who is now a political refugee in Holland. "It was an environment in which a person could go from a bad place to a worse place, and eventually into despair."

Across the Khyber Pass was the war. Many of the young Arabs who came to Peshawar prayed that their crossing would lead them to martyrdom and then to Paradise. Many were political fugitives from their own countries, and, as stateless people, they naturally turned against the very idea of a state. They saw themselves as a great borderless posse whose mission was to defend the entire Muslim people.

This army of so-called Afghan Arabs soon became legendary throughout the Islamic world. Some experts have estimated that as many as fifty thousand Arabs passed through Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets. However, Abdullah Anas, an Algerian mujahid who married one of Abdullah Azzam's daughters, says that there were never more than three thousand Arabs in Afghanistan, and that most of them were drivers, secretaries, and cooks, not warriors. The war was fought almost entirely by the Afghans, not the Arabs, he told me. According to Hany al-Sibai, an alleged leader of Jihad (he denies it) now living in exile, there were only some five hundred Egyptians. "They were known as the thinkers and the brains," Sibai said. "The Islamist movement started with them."

Zawahiri's brother Mohammed, who had loyally followed him since childhood, joined him in Peshawar. The brothers had a strong family resemblance, though Mohammed was slightly taller and thinner than Ayman. Another colleague from the underground days in Cairo, a physician named Sayyid Imam, arrived, and in 1987, according to Egyptian intelligence, the three men reorganized Islamic Jihad. They began recruiting new members from the Egyptian mujahideen. Before long, representatives of the Islamic Group appeared on the scene, and once again the old rivalry flared up. Osama Rushdi, who had known Zawahiri in prison, told me that he was shocked by the changes he found in him. In Egypt, Zawahiri had struck him as polite and modest. "Now he was very antagonistic toward others," Rushdi recalled. "He talked badly about the other groups and wrote books against them. In discussions, he started to take things in a weird way. He would have strong opinions without any sense of logic."

Zawahiri's wife, Azza, set up house in Peshawar. Azza's mother, Nabila Galal, says that she visited her daughter in Pakistan three times, the last time in 1990. "They were an unusually close family and always moved together as one unit," she told a reporter for the Egyptian magazine Akher Saa in December, 2001. While Zawahiri was in prison after the assassination of Sadat, Nabila took care of Azza and her first child, Fatima, who was born in 1981. She visited Azza again a few years later, in Saudi Arabia, to attend the birth of Umayma, who was named after Zawahiri's mother. "One day, I got a letter from Azza, and I felt intense pain as I read the words," Nabila recalled. "She wrote that she was to travel to Pakistan with her husband. I wished that she would not go there, but I knew that nobody can prevent fate. She was well aware of the rights her husband held over her and her duty toward him, which is why she was to follow him to the ends of the earth." In Pakistan, Azza gave birth to another daughter, Nabila, in 1986. A fourth daughter, Khadiga, arrived the following year, and in 1988 the Zawahiris' only son, Mohammed, was born. Nearly ten years later, in 1997, another daughter, Aisha, arrived. "Azza and her family lived a good life in Peshawar," her brother Essam told me. "They had a two-story villa with three or four bedrooms upstairs. One of the rooms was always available for visitors—and they had a lot of visitors. If they had money left over, they gave it to the needy. They were happy with very little."

Unlike the other leaders of the mujahideen, Zawahiri did not pledge himself to Sheikh Abdullah Azzam when he arrived in Afghanistan; from the start, he concentrated his efforts on getting close to bin Laden. He soon succeeded in placing trusted members of Islamic Jihad in key positions around bin Laden. According to the Islamist attorney Montasser al-Zayat, "Zawahiri completely controlled bin Laden. The largest share of bin Laden's financial support went to Zawahiri and the Jihad organization, while he supported the Islamic Group only with tiny morsels."

Zawahiri must have recognized—perhaps even before bin Laden himself did—that the future of the Islamic movement lay with "this heaven-sent man," as Abdullah Azzam called bin Laden. Azzam soon felt the gravitational force of Zawahiri's influence over his protégé. "I don't know what some people are doing here in Peshawar," Azzam complained to his son-in-law Abdullah Anas. "They are talking against the mujahideen. They have only one point, to create fitna"discord—"between me and these volunteers." He singled out Zawahiri as one of the troublemakers.

The Egyptian filmmaker Essam Deraz, who worked in Afghanistan between 1986 and 1988, received special permission to visit the mujahideen's main base camp in a complex of caves in the Hindu Kush mountains known as Masaada (the Lion's Den). "It was snowing when we arrived at the Lion's Den," Deraz told me. "The Arabs hated anybody with cameras, because of their concern for security, so they stopped me from entering the cave. I was with my crew, and we were standing outside in the snow until I couldn't move my legs. Finally, one of the Arabs said that I could come in but my crew must stay out. I said, 'Either we all come in or we all stay out.' They disappeared and came back with Dr. Abdel Mu'iz." (The name was Zawahiri's nom de guerre. In Arabic, Abdel means "slave," and Mu'iz, one of the ninety-nine names of God, means "bestower of honor.") The man who called himself Dr. Abdel Mu'iz insisted that Deraz and his crew come into the cave, where he served them tea and bread. "He was very polite and very refined," Deraz said. "I could tell that he was from a good background by the way he apologized for keeping us outside." That night, Deraz slept on the floor of the cave, next to Zawahiri.

Deraz observed that bin Laden had become dependent on Zawahiri's medical care. "Bin Laden had low blood pressure, and sometimes he would get dizzy and have to lie down," Deraz told me. "Ayman came from Peshawar to treat him. He would give him a checkup and then leave to go fight." Deraz recalls that, during one of the most intense battles of the war, he and the two men were huddled in a cave near Jalalabad with a group of fighters. "The bombing was very heavy," Deraz said. "Bin Laden had his arm stretched out, and Zawahiri was preparing to give him glucose. Whenever the doctor was about to insert the needle, there was a bombing and we would all hit the ground. When the bombing stopped for a while, Zawahiri got up and set up the glucose stand, but as soon as he picked up the bottle there would be another bombing. So one person said, 'Don't you see? Every time you pick up the bottle, we are bombed.' And another said, 'In Islam, it is forbidden to be pessimistic,' but then it happened again. So the pessimistic one got up very slowly and threw the glucose bottle out of the cave. We all laughed. Even bin Laden was laughing."

Bin Laden's final break with Abdullah Azzam came in a dispute over the scope of jihad. Bin Laden envisioned an all-Arab legion, which eventually could be used to wage jihad in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sheikh Abdullah strongly opposed making war against fellow-Muslims. Zawahiri undermined Azzam's position by spreading rumors that he was a spy. "Zawahiri said he believed that Abdullah Azzam was working for the Americans," Osama Rushdi told me. "Sheikh Abdullah was killed that same night." On November 24, 1989, Azzam and two of his sons were blown up by a car bomb as they were driving to a mosque in Peshawar. Although no one has claimed credit for the killings, many have been blamed, including Zawahiri himself, and even bin Laden. At Azzam's funeral, Zawahiri delivered a eulogy.

Previous Part                                                                                                                                                               Next Part

Courtesy: The New Yorker

| Archives | Privacy Policy | Copyrights | Contact Us |
© 2001-2005 Kashmir Herald (A Publication). All Rights Reserved
[Views and opinions expressed in Kashmir Herald are solely those of the authors of the articles/opinion pieces
and not of Kashmir Herald Editorial Board.]