How did Osama bin Laden come to join forces with an Egyptian jihadist named Ayman al-Zawahiri to create the world’s most feared terror group?
by Joel C. Rosenberg | September 12, 2022
File photo dated May 1, 1998 of Osama bin Laden, with Ayman al-Zawahiri, his right hand man in Jamkha, Afghanistan. (Photo: Balkis Press/ABACAPRESS.COM)
Osama bin Laden was transformed in the explosive events of 1979.
First, he was electrified when the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini set into motion the “Iranian Revolution” that year.
Bin Laden watched in awe as Khomeini mobilized millions of newly radicalized Iranian Muslims to drive the Shah Reza Pahlavi out of Iran, took control of Iran for himself, declared the country to be an “Islamic Republic” governed by Sharia law, and then humiliated the “Great Satan” of the United States when the American embassy was seized by Iranian young people.
Next, bin Laden was enraged when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December of that year.
He was inspired to see Arabs racing to Kabul from all over the Muslim world to drive the godless, atheist, communist Russian forces out of Muslim lands. And soon, catalyzed by his Palestinian mentor, Abdullah Azzam, to become a jihadist himself, bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan, took up arms and began fighting the Soviets on the frontlines.
READING THE WRITING ON THE WALL
By the late 1980s, bin Laden could see the handwriting on the wall.
The Soviets were getting their clocks cleaned by the mujahadeen – the so-called Muslim “freedom fighters” – and he suspected Moscow might soon withdraw.
When they did, bin Laden wanted to be able to boast that Allah had defeated one of the world’s two infidel superpowers and was now ready to take down the other.
Moreover, he wanted to be part of that second take down, but he knew he could not possibly take on the “Great Satan” alone.
He needed to build a team, an organization, and a movement.
Yet the son of one of Saudi Arabia’s savviest and most successful businessmen soon realized he did not need to start from scratch.
A joint venture would do just fine.
Enter Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri.
A photo of Al Qaeda’s leader, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, is seen in this still image taken from a video released on September 12, 2011. (Photo: REUTERS/SITE Monitoring Service via Reuters TV)
WHO WAS AYMAN Al-ZAWAHIRI?
As the leader of an up-and-coming terrorist movement known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, Zawahiri had met bin Laden sometime in 1984 or 1985.
Zawahiri—about six years older than bin Laden—was born in Egypt in June 1951.
Heavily influenced by the Brotherhood and the writings of Sayyid Qutb, he formed his first jihad cell group in 1966, when he was only 15 years old.
Recruitment was slow going at first.
But a year later, Egypt lost the Six-Day War with Israel.
Three years later, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser died of a heart attack.
Three years after that, then-President Anwar Sadat lost the 1973 war with Israel.
By this time, Zawahiri was 22.
The case he had been making to his emotionally devastated Egyptian friends was finally winning him converts.
Zawahiri argued that secular nationalist movements, such as those led by Nasser and Sadat, were never going to help Arabs regain their honor or lost glory.
Nor were such movements ever going to liberate Jerusalem.
Islam was the only answer, he argued; violent jihad was the way, and now was the time.
By the time he finished medical school in 1974, Zawahiri had 40 members in his cell.
But he was not nearly satisfied.
Soon, he adopted four smaller cells operating in the Cairo area.
Then came the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Zawahiri was captivated by the Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision of a global jihadist movement, not just one limited to a single country.
He also became intoxicated by accounts of the “miracles” of the mujahadeen destroying the Soviets with Allah’s help.
Zawahiri wanted to learn everything he could in order to take the lessons back to Cairo, overthrow Sadat’s regime, create a Sunni version of the Islamic Revolution, and then export the Revolution throughout North Africa and the Sunni Middle East.
CREATING “JIHAD, INC.”
It quickly became clear to bin Laden that Zawahiri had a bold and sweeping vision, a detailed strategy, and a ready-made organization of highly educated and well-trained warriors and experienced cell commanders.
It was, in short, a turnkey scenario enabling bin Laden to establish what would effectively become “Jihad, Inc.,” a multinational corporation dedicated to destroying Judeo-Christian civilization and imposing Sharia law on the entire planet.
What Zawahiri needed was cash — and a safe base of operations to train more men, plan terrorist actions, and launch attacks without being under the constant watchful eye of the Egyptian authorities.
For bin Laden money was no object.
His family, all located in Saudi Arabia, had decided to bless him and his efforts rather than disown him.
Thus, his own personal fortune was now estimated at between $60 and $300 million.
He also had thousands of names and addresses of donors who had helped him as he helped the mujahadeen.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan seemed to bin Laden like an ideal place to set up training camps and his global headquarters.
Once the Soviets were gone, it would essentially be a no-man’s-land, teeming with unemployed but experienced mujahadeen looking for new work and a new target.
On September 10, 1988, therefore, with help from Zawahiri and Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Osama bin Laden formed a new jihadist organization known as al Qaeda (Arabic for “the base”).
Bin Laden was only 30 years old.
BUILDING AL-QAEDA FROM SCRATCH
“I am only one person,” bin Laden told 15 colleagues at their first planning meetings.
They had to build a movement of Sunni jihadists, and they had to build fast, he told them.
Bin Laden’s plan was to have 314 trained terrorists on the payroll in Afghanistan and ready to embark on missions within six months.
By 1990, al Qaeda had established cells, recruiters, and fund-raising operations in 50 countries, including the U.S.
By 1993, al Qaeda had trained more than 6,000 Arabs to export jihad throughout the world.
“New recruits filled out forms in triplicate, signed their oath of loyalty to bin Laden, and swore themselves to secrecy,” reported Lawrence Wright in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road To 9/11. “In return, single members earned about $1,000 a month in salary; married members received $1,500. Everyone got a round-trip ticket home each year and a month of vacation. There was a health care plan and—for those who changed their mind—a buyout option: They received $2,400 and went on their way. From the beginning, al -Qaeda presented itself as an attractive employment opportunity for men whose education and careers had been curtailed by jihad.”
What accelerated the growth of the fledgling organization so quickly?
The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, plain and simple.
In nine years, more than 15,000 Soviet soldiers and airmen were killed in Afghanistan, and another 30,000 or so were injured. Hundreds of Soviet jets and helicopters were shot down.
And, all the while, bin Laden passionately argued that the mujahadeen’s victories against the Soviet infidels were proof that Allah was on their side.
But in bin Laden’s mind, the defeat of the Soviets was only the beginning.
He knew he needed to seize the momentum from this perceived victory and channel it into future operations.
So, no sooner had the Soviets retreated than bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia and took a victory lap.
“The praise and media attention made bin Laden a sought-after celebrity,” reported Youssef Bodansky, author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, one of the best biographies written about the enigmatic jihadist. “He spoke at countless mosques and private gatherings. Some of his fiery speeches were recorded; well over a quarter of a million official cassettes were sold, and countless illegal—and later, underground—copies were also made and distributed.”
“Allah . . . granted the Muslim people and the Afghani mujahedeen, and those with them, the opportunity to fight the Russians and the Soviet Union,” bin Laden preached to anyone and everyone who would listen, including American journalists. “They were defeated by Allah and were wiped out. There is a lesson here. The Soviet Union entered Afghanistan late in December of ’79. The flag of the Soviet Union was folded once and for all on the twenty-fifth of December, just ten years later. It was thrown in the waste basket. Gone was the Soviet Union forever. We are certain that we shall—with the grace of Allah—prevail over the Americans and over the Jews, as the Messenger of Allah promised us in an authentic prophetic tradition when he said the Hour of Resurrection shall not come before Muslims fight Jews and before Jews hide behind trees and behind rocks.”
The fledgling terrorist organization was growing fast.
But a clash of visions was coming between Bin Laden’s two closest advisors, Abdullah Azzam and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
[Tomorrow – Part 3: How did Osama Bin Laden navigate the fierce clash of visions between his mentors and decide to publicly declare war on the United States?]
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