Abdullah Assam: The Man Before Osama Bin Laden
By Steve Emerson
The Jihad in Afghanistan will broaden until the entire world will be conquered because Allah has promised the victory to Islam" declared Abdullah Azzam.
The Muslim leader most responsible for expanding the jihad into a full-blown international holy war without borders was not Osama Bin Laden, or Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman (the radical Islamic cleric most known to the American public for his conviction in the World Trade Center bombing trials), but a leader whose name remains today virtually unknown to the West Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Azzam is more responsible than any Arab figure in modern history for galvanizing the Muslim masses to wage an international holy war against all infidels and non-believers until the enemies of Islam were defeated.
Born in Palestine in 1941, Azzam moved to Jordan and then to Saudi Arabia before migrating to Pakistan at the start of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. In Peshawar, Azzam set up the Office of Services of the Holy Warriors (Mujahideen) and set about re-igniting the Islamic power rage against those non-Islamic powers that had conspired against Islam since before the Crusades. Darting off with not much more than a storefront in Peshawar, Azzam would ultimately succeed in rejuvenating the concept of jihad among the Arab masses.
Those who met Azzam were dazzled by his spellbinding oratorical skills, his capabilities as a military strategist, his religious leadership, and his interminable energy. Azzam helped bring about the mobilization of the Muslim Brotherhood movement more than any other leader. Today, the military wing of Hamas in the West Bank is called the Abdellah Azzam Brigades.
Azzam combined hatred for the West Christians and Jews whom he routinely accused of carrying out diabolical conspiracies against Islam, with a nostalgia for the days of the Islamic caliphate, when non-Muslims were treated formally as second-class citizens. It was the United States that seemed to epitomize for Azzam the ongoing Jewish-Christian conspiracy; yet, ironically, it was in the United States that Azzam was able to raise critical amounts of money, enlist new fighters, and most important, provide the political freedom to freely coordinate with other top radical Islamic movements. Between 1985 and 1989, Azzam and his top aide, Palestinian Sheikh Tamim Al-Adnani, visited dozens of American cities, exhorting their followers to pick up the sword against the enemies of Islam. They succeeded in recruiting thousands of fighters and believers.
As he went around the country, Azzam focused his rage on the evils of the infidels, particularly on the United States, whom he accused of sabotaging the victory of the anti-Soviet mujahideen. In one speech picked at random from hundreds that he gave and which are recorded on videotapes sold throughout the world by Islamic fundamentalists given to a group of followers in 1988 in Kansas, Azzam said, "Today, humanity is being ruled by Jews and Christians. The Americans, the British and others. And behind them, the fingers of world Jewry, with their wealth, their women and their media. The Israelis have produced a coin on which it is written 'we shall never allow Islam to be established in the world'."
Azzam's enmity toward Jews was not based on politics but rather the product of a pure hatred of the Jewish people; he combined European blood libel propaganda from the Middle Ages and passages from the Koran. In a 1998 speech, for example, Azzam talked about how the Jews "mix the blood of a Christian or Muslim into (bread) dough."
In what was called the First Conference of Jihad, held at the Al-Farook Mosque in Brooklyn on Atlantic Avenue in 1988, which also served as the headquarters for Al Kifah, Azzam instructed his audience of nearly 200 to carry out jihad no matter what they were, even in America. " Every Moslem on earth should unsheathe his sword and fight to liberate Palestine. The Jihad is not limited to Afghanistan. Jihad means fighting. You must fight in any place you can get. Whenever Jihad is mentioned in the Holy Book, it means the obligation to fight. It does not mean to fight with the pen or to write books or articles in the press or to fight by holding lectures."
Azzam acknowledged Bin Laden's largesse numerous times as the financial sponsor of Ali Kifah. "There is one person who has always stood by us Osama bin Laden," declared Azzam in one speech he gave in Peshawar at his Al Kifah offices.
In November 1989, Azzam was killed by a devastating bomb blast that also killed two of his sons. No perpetrator was ever found responsible, but many of Azzam's followers blame the United States for the assassination. Azzam was just the first of several radical Islamic leaders and groups most holding an unabiding hatred for the U.S. who would make the U.S. a center of their activity.
Osama Bin Laden's Special Operations Man
On November 8, 1990, FBI agents raided the New Jersey home of El Sayyid Nosair, the Egyptian born Islamic militant, following his arrest in the shooting of Rabbi Meir Kahane in New York City. Among the many items found in Nosair's possession were sensitive military documents from Fort Gragg, North Carolina. The documents, some of which were classified Secret, contained the locations of U.S. military Special Operations Forces exercises and units in the Middle East, military training schedules, U.S. intelligence estimates of Soviet forces in Afghanistan, a topographical map of Fort Bragg, U.S. Central Command data and intelligence estimates of Soviet force projection in Afghanistan. Appended throughout the documents were Arabic markings and notations believed to be that of Ali Mohammed. Some documents were marked "Top Secret for Training otherwise unclassified". Other documents were marked "sensitive."
[An FBI prepared inventory contains the entire listing of materials seized from Nosair's residence. Beyond the U.S. military documents, the raid on Nosair's residence produced a veritable treasure trove of terrorist documents, publications and materials. Included were actual plans for destroying skyscrapers in New York.]
The military documents had been given to Nosair by Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian born Islamic fundamentalist who had come to live in the United Statesin 1985. He had been in the United States earlier that decade, having graduated as a captain from a Special Forces Officers School at Fort Bragg in 1981 in a program for visiting military officials from foreign countries. He joined the U.S. military in 1986 and received a security clearance for level "secret." He was assigned as a sergeant with the U.S. Army Special Operations at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He also served unofficially as an assistant instructor at the JFK Special Operations Warfare School at Fort Bragg where he participated in teaching a class on the Middle East and Islamic fundamentalist perceptions of the United States.
Ali Mohammed became active in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and soon connected with Islamic militants in New Jersey who had been training and supporting the jihad. Mohammed was introduced to El Sayyid Nosair by Khaled Ibrahim, an Egyptian born Islamic fundamentalist in New Jersey. Ibrahaim had become active in the Office of Services of the Mujihadeen, known Al Kifah, the group that recruited volunteers and funds for the jihad in Afghanistan. Al Kifah, headquartered in Peshawar, Pakistan, maintained scores of offices worldwide, including three dozen in the United States, with Al Kifah's primary American offices located in Brooklyn, Jersey City and Tucson, Arizona. As noted by federal prosecutors earlier this month, the Office of Services was transformed into the terrorist organization of Osama Bin Laden, known as Al Qaeda.
According to transcripts of the World Trade Center bombing trials, Ali Mohammed began giving training sessions in New Jersey in guerilla warfare in 1989 to Islamic militants that included among others, El Sayyid Nosair, Mahmud Abuhalima (later convicted in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy) and Khalid Ibrahim. Other training sessions took place in Connecticut where Islamic militants trained on weekends. A FBI report, based on Connecticut State Police intelligence, summarized the activities of the training sessions using semi-automatic weapons.
According to military records, Ali Mohammed left the military in November 1989 and moved to Santa Clara. Law enforcement officials say he traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan where he befriended Osama Bin Laden and other top militants in the Islamic fundamentalist movements who had sought sanctuary in Peshawar.
Mohammed maintained a very close and active relationship with the Office of Services in Brooklyn (funded by Osama Bin Laden) and in particular its head Mustafa Shalabi. Telephone toll records reveal that Shalabi and Mohammed maintained regular contact while Mohammed was still at Fort Bragg and later when Mohammed moved to Santa Clara, California. On February 26, 1991, Shalabi was found murdered in his home in Brooklyn, the victim of an internal feud with Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman's followers over how the funds of the Office of Services were to be spent. Ali Mohammed came to Brooklyn after the murder and was entrusted with moving Shalabi's family back to the Middle East and with safekeeping Shalabi's documents that have never surfaced since Shalabi's death.
From his base in Santa Clara, Mohammed soon emerged as a top aide to Osama Bin Laden. Federal officials say that Mohammed traveled regularly to and from Pakistan and Afghanistan, having helped oversee Bin Laden's terrorist bases in Khost and other terrorist camps in Afghanistan. In 1991, Mohammed was the person in charge of Bin Laden's move from Afghanistan to the Sudan. The move was considered perilous since Bin Laden had made so many enemies. Mohammed helped Bin Laden set up his new home and terrorist base in Khartoum, Sudan where 2000 "Arab Afghans" the name given to the Arab veterans of the Afghanistan jihad were headquartered in Bin Laden terrorist camps. Mohammed continued to travel between the terrorist camps in Afghanistan, Bin Laden's base in the Sudan and the United States. Mohammed continued to train new Islamic recruits in the expanded holy war, or jihad, against the United States, Israel, the Philippines, Bosnia, Egypt and Algeria.
Law enforcement records show that Mohammed's extended stays outside the United States would range from weeks to half a year. But he would always return to the United States, which provided him a safe base from which to travel around the world on behalf of Bin Laden. In California, Mohammed became involved in smuggling illegal aliens into the United States, including suspected terrorists. Law enforcement sources say that a favorite route for Mohammed was to smuggle illegal aliens through Vancouver, Canada.
In a seemingly bizarre twist, while in California, Mohammed volunteered to provide information to the FBI on a smuggling operations involving Mexicans and other aliens not connected to terrorist groups. Within time, officials say, the relationship allowed Mohammed to divert the FBI's attention away from looking at his real role in terrorism into examining the information he gave them about other smuggling. This gave Mohammed a de facto shield in effectively insulating himself from FBI scrutiny for his ties to Bin Laden. And the relationship helped protect Mohammed from being scrutinized by other federal agencies. Mohammed has succeeded in creating an ingenious scheme all the while he worked for Osama Bin Laden. Mohammed had also tried to cultivate a relationship with the CIA, which did not succeed, although he had far better success in playing off the FBI against the CIA in his dealings with both agencies. Like a John Le Carre thriller, Mohammed played the role of a triple agent and nearly got away with it.
Federal law enforcement officials say that Mohammed's role and association with the Islamic militants surfaced in connection with the World Trade Center bombing trials in 1994 and 1995. He was named on a list of some 118 potential unindicted co-conspirators in the World Trade Center bombing conspiracy released by federal prosecutors.
In 1996, according to intelligence reports, Mohammed helped move Bin Laden back from the Sudan, which wanted to maintain an official arms' length relationship (yet keeping its close connections secret), to Afghanistan. Mohammed continued working for Bin Laden in 1997band 1998, maintaining his role as one of Bin Laden's top lieutenants.
To those who know Mohammed, he is regarded with fear and awe for his incredible self-confidence, his inability to be intimidated, absolute ruthless determination to destroy the enemies of Islam and his zealous belief in the tenets of militant Islamic Fundamentalism. The question now is will he cut a deal.
Steve Emmerson is an investigative reporter and correspondent specializing in counterterrorism. He is the producer of the award-winning documentary, "Jihad in America" and author of four books.