As the Lenin of international jihad, Abdullah Azzam didn’t invent his movement’s ideas, but he furthered them and put them into practice around the world. He constructed the religious ideology for the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, recruited Arab mujahideen to implement his vision, and built the international network that his disciple, Osama Bin Laden, would turn into al-Qaida. Azzam applied his ideas in his native Palestine, too, where he served as a founding member of Hamas. After Sept. 11, Americans believed that Bin Laden transformed the world in one swift stroke. But it was Azzam who, years before, laid the groundwork for the current wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Political Islam’s Great Communicator and traveling salesman, Azzam trotted the globe during the 1980s to promote the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. By the time of his death in 1989, he had recruited between 16,000 and 20,000 mujahideen from 20 countries to Afghanistan, visited 50 American cities to advance his cause, and dispatched acolytes to spread the gospel in 26 U.S. states, not to mention across the Middle East and Europe. His Mujahideen Services Bureau in Peshawar, Pakistan, served as a way station and training ground for fresh recruits as they arrived. Among those inspired by Azzam: Mohammed Salameh, convicted of conspiracy, assault, and explosives charges for his involvement in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; Wadih El-Hage and Mohammed Odeh, convicted for their roles in the 1998 East African embassy bombings; and Osama Bin Laden. The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, an 11-volume al-Qaida training manual, names two men in its dedication. One is Bin Laden, who is listed as the “faithful helper” of the other man, Abdullah Azzam.
Why should we care about Azzam now, 13 years after his death? Because his ideas live on after him, fueling the conflagrations in Afghanistan and Palestine. Azzam proclaimed that any land that was once ruled by the Islamic caliphate, even if it were as small as the span of a person’s hand, must be recaptured if it falls into the hands of infidels. As he wrote in Defense of Muslim Lands, his best-known booklet, “With reference to the Russians, it is not permitted to negotiate with them until they retreat from every hand span of Muslim territory. With the Jews in Palestine, likewise.” This doctrine roused Bin Laden to issue his 1998 fatwa declaring that Muslims must kill Americans in order to expel the United States from Saudi Arabia’s holy sites. It also sheds light on the “tragedy of Andalusia,” a phrase mentioned on the Oct. 7 videotape released by Bin Laden and his lieutenants. If the caliphate is to be restored to its full glory, radical Muslims must reconquer all of Islam’s historic lands, including southern Spain.
The caliphate also included, of course, Palestine, by which Azzam meant Israel. Unlike Bin Laden, who was (is?) more concerned with toppling secular Arab regimes, Azzam insisted that the Palestinian cause was pre-eminent. As a young man, Azzam fought in the Six Days War, fleeing to Jordan after Israel occupied his hometown, a West Bank village near Jenin. In 1970, he broke with Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization because he believed the PLO was too secular. He accused the PLO of trying to overthrow Jordan’s King Hussein rather than focusing on the true goal, the destruction of Israel.
Azzam’s dispute with the PLO foreshadowed a disagreement that developed between him and Bin Laden in the late 1980s. As the battle with the Russians approached endgame, Bin Laden hoped to wage jihad on multiple fronts, simultaneously against the United States and against the profane rulers of the many nations from which the mujahideen had been recruited. Azzam, however, had always seen the Afghan war as a training ground for the ultimate war in Palestine. Now he hoped to transfer the mujahideen to his homeland and take the war directly to Israel.
Already, Azzam had helped to establish Hamas, and during the first intifada in 1987, Arafat’s PLO was forced to co-opt Azzam’s ideas and rhetoric when Hamas championed them. (Yossef Bodansky, in Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, says the PLO also sent Palestinian youths to Afghanistan for mujahideen training.) Azzam had redefined the conflict: For many, Palestinians were no longer engaged in a nationalist struggle to establish a state. They were conducting an uncompromising battle to reclaim lost Muslim lands. “There will be no solution to the Palestinian problem except through jihad,” Azzam wrote in accordance with his motto, “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues.”
Before he could attempt to carry out his plans, Azzam was assassinated in Peshawar by a car bomb. (His murder was never solved, though the Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and Bin Laden have all been touted as suspects.) Bin Laden assumed control of Azzam’s organization and directed it toward his ends. Azzam’s hopes of a climactic struggle with Israel appeared dashed.
More than a decade later, however, Azzam’s vision appears triumphant. The Arab mujahideen never followed him home to Palestine, but his ideas took root there. The result is delivering suicide bombers into the heart of Israel, fulfilling the dream he expressed during a 1988 speech: “The Palestinian youth came here to Afghanistan, and also non-Palestinians, and they were trained, and their souls became prepared, and the paranoia of fear disappeared, and they became experts. Now, every one of them returns … ready to die.”