November 24, Peshawar, Pakistan
On the morning of Nov. 23, 1989, Waheed Muzhda, an Afghan translator working in Peshawar, Pakistan, for one of the most important Arab leaders of the anti-Soviet jihad, noticed something peculiar on his way to work. Laborers had blocked off a small intersection leading to a mosque popular with the Afghan Arabs, as the foreign jihadis were called, and were cleaning the drainage culvert of accumulated garbage. At work, Muzhda joked with his colleagues that the mayor had probably received funds for a neighborhood cleanup, but would spend only enough to prepare one corner for an official inspection.
The next day, Muzhda's boss, a charismatic Palestinian preacher called Abdullah Azzam, left his house for the Arab mosque where he was due to lead the Friday prayer. A month before, unknown men had planted a bomb under the minbar from which he usually preached. It had been spotted by a cleaner before the service, but Azzam knew there would be other attempts on his life. Still, he shrugged off the threat, telling journalist Jamal Ismail, "My destiny is already written. Nothing I can do will prevent what is meant to happen."
That November morning, Umme Mohammad, Azzam's wife, waved goodbye to her husband and two sons, Mohammad, 23, and Ibrahim, 14, as they drove to the mosque, then turned to the kitchen where she began to prepare the evening meal. A few minutes later she heard a loud explosion. A plume of black smoke filled the sky from the direction of the mosque. "I already knew," she told me recently, sitting in her living room in Amman, Jordan. But she called the office anyway. "I asked, 'Was it the mosque, or the car?' 'The car.' My husband and sons had become martyred."
The explosion was witnessed by Jamal Azzam, Abdullah Azzam's nephew and assistant, who was following Azzam's car as it passed over the culvert where Muzhda had spotted the cleaning crew the day before. "There was a loud noise and the car jumped in the air," says Jamal Azzam. When the smoke cleared he saw that the car had been blown in two. Mohammad's body had been thrown into a tree. Ibrahim's legs were tangled in the electrical wires overhead, while his hands landed across the street. But Azzam's body was hardly scratched, Jamal says. "There was just a little blood coming from his mouth."
The bomb that killed Azzam was not packed with nails or shrapnel, which may have been intentional. If no Pakistanis were killed, the investigation would be cursory at best. "Nobody paid attention to the Arabs," says district leader Mansoor Elahi. "Normally when something like this happens the investigators try to figure out the man's enemies, but because he was a foreigner, no one took the time to look." If they had, it might not have helped. A lot of people wanted Abdullah Azzam dead.
Revered and Reviled
At the time, Azzam's murder barely registered outside the Arab world and the rough borderlands that unite and divide Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yet it is easy to argue that his assassination was the critical turning point in the development of al-Qaeda, the extremist network that has defined the global war on terror. Azzam was a man who was widely revered to this day, friends, relatives and students speak of him in glowing terms, calling him "an angel," "a holy man," "generous." If he had lived, says his son, Hutaifa, "there would have been no September 11."
But Azzam was also reviled, and feared, for his power to inspire others to share his dedication to jihad. There were no less than five assassination attempts on Azzam in the months leading up to his death, says Hutaifa, and countless threats. In the teeming, faction-ridden streets of Peshawar, they could have been launched by one group or several. "Who didn't want to kill Azzam?" asks journalist Ismail, who worked with Azzam and covered the anti-Soviet resistance throughout the 1980s. He counts the possibilities on his fingers: "There was the KGB and KHAD [the intelligence service of the communist government in Afghanistan] because he was a powerful leader in the jihad. Israel and Mossad, because he helped found Hamas. The [Pakistan] government of Benazir Bhutto, which came to know that he helped instigate a no-confidence vote against her in Parliament." There were the Americans, because Azzam objected to their efforts to reconcile the mujahedin with the Afghan government after the Soviets left; Shi'ite elements in Iran who saw him as chief of the Sunnis; Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a powerful Afghan warlord who resented Azzam's support of a rival; and other Arabs, who were concerned about his growing power. "The only person I can say for a fact didn't kill him is myself, because I was getting married in Jordan that day," says Ismail.
Barrel-chested, with a long black beard streaked with white, by 1989 Azzam had become a familiar figure on the streets of Peshawar and in the battlefields of Afghanistan, where he was known as the godfather of jihad. Born in Jenin in 1941, Azzam fled to Jordan after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967. He studied at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, then taught at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he met a quiet, pious student, the son of a rich Saudi construction magnate, who became his patron. Until his death and beyond it, Azzam would be linked to that student Osama bin Laden.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Azzam, who felt humiliated by the occupation of his homeland, found an outlet for his rage. In a 1984 book he advanced a new theory, declaring that religious war to liberate Muslim lands from foreign occupation was compulsory for all Muslims as important as praying, fasting and tithing. The book galvanized an international Islamist movement, and not long after it was published, Azzam himself moved to Peshawar, the staging area for the anti-Soviet resistance, where he set up the Makhtab al-Khadamat, or Services Bureau, to organize the influx of Arab volunteers. Bin Laden, whose wealth provided the Arab jihadis with plane tickets, housing and expenses, backed him. Together they published Al Jihad magazine, a full-color monthly that glorified battle, denounced the atrocities of the Soviets and asked for donations. But after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, funding for the resistance from the U.S. and Saudi Arabia dried up. In Peshawar, a city crawling with opium smugglers, arms merchants and intelligence agents, jihad had become as much a business as a religious calling. Deprived of a cause, the Arab Afghans argued about where the jihad should go next and squabbled over shrinking resources. Bin Laden, with his deep pockets, was the prize.
Azzam argued for taking the jihad back to Palestine. But a newly radicalized group of Arabs led by the Egyptian doctor Ayman al-Zawahiri was gaining strength. Al-Zawahiri was a takfiri, one of those Muslims who had an extreme belief in the evil of apostasy, and urged the overthrow of Arab regimes such as Egypt's and Saudi Arabia's, which he declared had strayed from the true path. Azzam stuck with the conventional doctrine that Muslims should not kill Muslims. As the embodiment of jihad and bin Laden's mentor, Azzam was hence an obstacle both to al-Zawahiri's ambition to foment Islamic revolution, and to his desire to get bin Laden to fund it.
In the early summer of 1989, as Afghanistan started collapsing into civil war, bin Laden and al-Zawahiri convened a meeting that formalized the establishment of an élite fighting force destined eventually to use terror to achieve its aims. The new recruits, who signed an oath of fealty to bin Laden, eventually became known as al Qaeda, or "the Base," after the camp where they trained. Azzam was appalled, according to his Algerian confidant and later son-in-law Abdullah Anas: "He was against the method of trying to recruit people not for jihad in Afghanistan but for planning to do something else." Al-Zawahiri retaliated by calling Azzam a CIA spy.
A Multitude of Motives
For all that bitter history, on the rare occasions that the Afghan Arabs once allied to Azzam meet, few believe that the enmity between him and al-Zawahiri led to the assassination. "Zawahiri was a nobody," scoffs Umme Mohammad. "He didn't have the power or the following to do something like that." Muzhda, Azzam's translator, isn't so sure: "Peshawar was a city where if you had money, you could pay to get any work done, from street-cleaning to assassinations."
That is doubtless true, but there were others besides al-Zawahiri and his supporters who could have availed themselves of the same services, and had every reason to want to. As the Soviets withdrew, the Afghan mujahedin factions, deprived of a common enemy, fell upon each other in the beginnings of a brutal civil war that would last five years and eventually usher the Taliban into power. The Afghan Arabs were forced to take sides. Most, including al-Zawahiri, allied with Hekmatyar, a fearsome Pashtun warlord who also benefited from support from Pakistan's intelligence agencies the very people who would have run any investigation into Azzam's assassination. Azzam backed Hekmatyar's great rival, Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik whom he anointed "the new hero of jihad" and who was eventually murdered by an al-Qaeda hit squad two days before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Azzam's embrace of Massoud infuriated Hekmatyar. "The first thing that came to mind when I heard the news of Azzam's death was that Hekmatyar was behind it," says Abdullah Abdullah, Massoud's aide and later Afghanistan's Foreign Secretary. "There was a lot of money being channeled to Hekmatyar at the time, and Azzam's support for Massoud would have had an impact on that."
Still, argues journalist Ismail, there were other groups who would have had more invested in seeing Azzam dead. Like al-Zawahiri, Azzam saw Afghanistan's potential as an international jihad training ground. Soon after the launch of the Palestinian intifadeh in 1987 and the formation of Hamas, an openly Islamist branch of what had up to then been a Palestinian resistance dominated by secular nationalists, Azzam started taking young men from Palestine to Afghanistan to train in special camps. The Palestinians went in under false passports, to protect them from Israeli intelligence. But the existence of the camps came to light after a foiled car bombing at a Marriott hotel in Tel Aviv. The would-be bombers confessed, which led to the discovery of several militant cells throughout Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. "They didn't know anything about each other," says Ismail. "Their only common link was that they had all trained against Israel in Azzam's camps." A blunt warning to Azzam arrived by a curious messenger a representative of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization, which Azzam had long dismissed for its secular ideology, went to Peshawar. "Israel is after you," the envoy told Azzam, according to Ismail. "Take care." "That was the beginning," says Hutaifa. "Mossad knew that my father had built a very strong foundation against Israel, and that after Afghanistan, it would be Israel's turn." Jamal, Azzam's nephew, is convinced Mossad was behind his death.
The Israelis may indeed have had a motive. But nobody has come close to showing that they killed Azzam. Ahmad Zaidan, a Syrian journalist who covered Azzam's assassination, throws up his hands in exasperation when asked who might have planted the bomb. "It's an enigma," he says, "just like the others. Who killed [John F.] Kennedy? Who killed Benazir Bhutto? I can't make up my mind who would have wanted to kill him the most."
Would history have been different if Azzam had lived? He was no angel, by any standards other than those of jihadis. But many believe that he would have been a moderating force on bin Laden, and that his scholarship and charisma would have tempered al-Zawahiri's crazy radicalism. Azzam's son-in-law, Anas, thinks that Azzam would have continued his mission to liberate Muslim lands from the grip of infidels. "He called people to fight in Afghanistan because it was occupied by the Soviets," Anas says. "If he saw what happened in Iraq and what is happening in Palestine he would say the same thing. But what is going on in the name of jihad, killing civilians, kidnapping, hijacking airplanes, explosions in the public places that is not what Abdullah Azzam called a jihad."
It is a comforting thought, up to a point, but we will never know if it is well founded. Nor, probably, will we ever know who blew up a car in Peshawar 20 years ago. A lot of people wanted Abdullah Azzam dead.
with reporting by William Lee Adams / London and Ershad Mahmud / Peshawar