The Book Club

The Strange Ties That Bind Al-Qaida’s Creators


Wa laikum salaam! You’ve already topped me on the Osama memorabilia front, but if he could just get a decent marketing agency, he could finance al-Qaida out of licensing fees. And thanks for your comments about The Looming Tower, which are especially gratifying coming from the author of the most authoritative book on America’s adventure into the Afghan jihad, Ghost Wars.

Obviously, the connection of Osama Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri is key; neither man could have created al-Qaida without the other. Bin Laden had money and connections, but he lacked the organization. Zawahiri supplied him with well-trained operatives connected with his own group, al-Jihad. When they created al-Qaida in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1988, Bin Laden was mainly an anti-communist; al-Qaida, to him, was a Muslim foreign legion that could chase the Soviets out of Central Asia and run the socialists out of South Yemen. To Zawahiri, al-Qaida offered the opportunity to fortify his al-Jihad, giving it the training, resources, and financial backing to carry on his war against the Egyptian regime. From the beginning, each man was pulling al-Qaida in a different direction, so it’s useful to think of the organization as a vector of these forces. The turn toward global jihad was, in a way, a compromise; after the Soviet Union fell apart, Bin Laden had an army, but he didn’t have an enemy. Zawahiri’s forces in Egypt were completely routed. America represented a softer target, and by attacking it, al-Qaida hoped to taunt the United States into following the Soviet example of stumbling into Afghanistan and bleeding to death.

You can compare Zawahiri’s relationship to Bin Laden with that of Col. Parker and Elvis Presley. One man was clearly the star, who couldn’t have managed his affairs without the acumen of his older advisor, but Zawahiri’s Egyptians formed a highly protective cadre that surrounded Bin Laden and cut him off from other influences. Jamal Khalifa, Bin Laden’s brother-in-law, recalled going to visit Bin Laden in his camp in Jaji in 1986. He was furious when the Egyptians tried to prevent him from talking his old friend out of the idea of creating a separate Arab fighting force, which would eventually be called al-Qaida. Essam Deraz, an Egyptian filmmaker who was Bin Laden’s first biographer, told me that he saw in Bin Laden the potential to be “another Eisenhower”—a kind of Arab military hero who would be a force for peace and stability—but Zawahiri had other plans for him.

Zawahiri exposed Bin Laden to a dangerous new line of thought: Takfir, or excommunication, is the condemnation of another Muslim as an apostate. The takfiris believed that only their extreme interpretation of Islam qualified as the true religion and that they had the right—in fact, the religious obligation—to kill everyone who disagreed with them. That included the largely Sufi population of Afghanistan, the country they were nominally there to defend. Indeed, with the exception of 9/11, most of al-Qaida’s victims have been other Muslims. Purification was the goal of these ideologues, not government, and of course purity and terror go hand in hand, ever since the French revolution.

There was another telling factor in their relationship. Zawahiri is a medical doctor. It is a myth that Bin Laden suffers from kidney disease, but there is ample testimony from his colleagues that he was often ill, particularly in times of stress, such as during battles. His back pain was often disabling, and his blood pressure was so low he was subject to fainting spells. Moreover, he had an abnormal craving for salt, frequently dipping a finger into the small bag of salt he carried with him. I speculate in my book that he suffers from Addison’s Disease (JFK suffered from it), which manifests similar symptoms. Zawahiri would occasionally administer saline transfusions to Bin Laden in the trenches. So, there was always this element of dependency in their relationship that transcended their alliance of convenience. Bin Laden placed his life in Zawahiri’s hands.

The sources I draw upon to describe the relationship of Zawahiri and Bin Laden include Zawahiri’s disaffected followers in al-Jihad, who feel that their leader sold them out when he joined forces with Bin Laden. They feel that by turning away from the “near enemy”—the despised Mubarak regime in Egypt—to the “far enemy”—the United States and its Western allies—Zawahiri has steered their movement into a dead end. There is a trove of e-mails between Zawahiri and his angry constituents debating this issue. I also had the opportunity to talk to Bin Laden’s friends, such as Jamal Khalifa and Abu Rida al-Suri, a fascinating figure who is in exile in Khartoum. He is a Syrian who was living in Kansas City, Mo., when he answered the call to jihad; later, he was the recording secretary at the founding of al-Qaida. I sucked up everything I could find in court documents, interviews with FBI investigators, and reports in the Arabic press. There are still people I wish I could have spoken to—not only Zawahiri and Bin Laden but men who are now in U.S. custody, either in prisons or in Guantanamo. If the courts would let reporters talk to these men, a lot of the dark spaces could be illuminated. Good luck with this in your next book, by the way!

But of course, the rise of al-Qaida is just one part of the story of The Looming Tower; the other part is the tragic failures of understanding on the part of the U.S. intelligence community to grasp the nature of the threat.