Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of Under the Black Flag (IB Tauris, 2015). He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation.

  • Al-Qaeda’s roots stretch beyond bin Laden’s seed, On: Sun, 21 Jan 2018

  • Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri treads precarious paths between rival camps, On: Sun, 21 Jan 2018

  • Ahed Tamimi provides powerful icon but also distraction from real issues, On: Sun, 14 Jan 2018

  • Russia-backed Syrian Army encircling Turkish troops in Idlib, On: Sun, 07 Jan 2018

  • UN talks on Syria fail unmourned in Geneva , On: Sun, 24 Dec 2017

  • Paris conference tries to help Lebanon after Hariri crisis, On: Sun, 10 Dec 2017

  • Future of Assad stumbling block in Geneva talks but Russia still calling the shots on Syria, On: Sun, 03 Dec 2017

  • Expanded Syrian opposition looks ready to deal with Damascus regime, On: Sun, 26 Nov 2017

  • Sochi conference on Syria back on track, On: Sun, 19 Nov 2017

  • Sochi talks already a non-starter, On: Sun, 12 Nov 2017

  • Osama Bin Laden, Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, On: Sun, 12 Nov 2017

  • Osama Bin Laden, Al Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, On: Sun, 12 Nov 2017

  • Russia assumes the lead in Syria’s peace process, On: Sun, 05 Nov 2017

  • Abadi’s Riyadh visit augurs well for Iraqi-Saudi relations, On: Sun, 29 Oct 2017

  • In Syria, emblematic ISIS capital falls but painful memories linger, On: Sun, 22 Oct 2017

  • After liberation of Raqqa from ISIS, no ‘Syrian Kurdistan’ on the horizon, On: Sun, 22 Oct 2017

  • Turkey negotiating jihadist quiet withdrawal from Idlib de-confliction zone, On: Sun, 15 Oct 2017

  • King Salman, Putin and the Syrian elephant in the room, On: Sun, 08 Oct 2017

  • Iran manoeuvres for share of Syria’s territorial spoils, On: Sun, 01 Oct 2017

  • The greatest curse of the Middle East region, On: Sun, 24 Sep 2017

  • Outcry but nothing more after Hezbollah-ISIS deal , On: Sun, 10 Sep 2017

  • Questions about Hezbollah’s role in Lebanese offensive, On: Sun, 27 Aug 2017

  • Syria’s transition scenarios for future rounds of talks , On: Sun, 20 Aug 2017

  • Syria’s Ghouta prepares for uncertain peace, On: Sun, 13 Aug 2017

  • Unlike Russia, regional powers reserved about Kurdish vote, On: Sun, 06 Aug 2017

  • Ammar al-Hakim’s attempt at rebranding not totally convincing, On: Sun, 30 Jul 2017

  • Making Syrian refugees feel unwelcome in Lebanon, On: Sun, 23 Jul 2017

  • Latest Syria agreement sparks fears of partition, On: Sun, 16 Jul 2017

  • Greater military role in Russia’s Syria strategy , On: Sun, 09 Jul 2017

  • Astana and Geneva unlikely to yield immediate end to war, On: Sun, 02 Jul 2017

  • Changing the mandate of UN forces in southern Syria, On: Sun, 25 Jun 2017

  • Qatar’s Iran connection a factor in the Gulf crisis, On: Sun, 18 Jun 2017

  • Even with Israel, old amity is eroding, On: Sun, 18 Jun 2017

  • Syrian opposition wary of Qatar crisis fallouts, On: Sun, 11 Jun 2017

  • Qatar’s bears brunt of its support to Muslim Brotherhood, On: Sun, 04 Jun 2017

  • Conflicting strategies on the way to Raqqa, On: Sun, 04 Jun 2017

  • Erdogan’s Ottoman visions in Syria , On: Sun, 28 May 2017

  • Progress but questions remain after Washington and Astana, On: Sun, 21 May 2017

  • 69 years on, al-Nakba is history and Iran is the Arabs’ enemy, On: Sun, 14 May 2017

  • Al-Qaeda’s roots stretch beyond bin Laden’s seed

    To many who witnessed the early years of al-Qaeda, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam is the group’s real ideologue, theorist and fundraiser.

    2018/01/21 Issue: 140 Page: 13

    Older jihadists from across the Muslim world like referring to him as “Father.” Others call him “Imam al-Jihad.” To many who witnessed the early years of al-Qaeda, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam is the group’s real ideologue, theorist and fundraiser — the one worthy of reverence and homage — and not Osama bin Laden.

    Behind closed doors, many expressed extreme discomfort with bin Laden, who they claim hijacked al-Qaeda, becoming both its public face and chequebook, immediately after Azzam was killed by a car bomb in Peshawar, Pakistan, in November 1989. Almost everything written about al-Qaeda says it had been founded by bin Laden but the real founder, they believed, was Abdullah Azzam.

    Levantines in the global jihadi community often market Azzam’s rather aggressively, given that, as a Palestinian from the West Bank, he breaks the Saudi monopoly over al- Qaeda that emerged after 9/11. Mid­dle Easterners who flocked from the Palestinian territories, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon were drawn by Azzam, not bin Laden, they argue.

    Azzam was born in Mandatory Palestine in 1941 and is described by al-Qaeda biographers as be­ing an exceptionally bright child who excelled in mathematics and literature. He grew up hating the British colonisers and, at the age of 7, watched with a combination of awe and deep anger as the state of Israel was created, crushing the armies of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria.

    Azzam vowed to commit himself to the Palestinian resistance, join­ing the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose members fought within the Egyptian Army in 1948.

    The collective Arab command would never succeed in liberating an inch of the Palestinian territo­ries, he said, because they were mostly seculars and urban aristo­crats who were distant from the people and from God’s path.

    After completing his secondary education, Azzam left his native Silat al-Harithiya and joined the Khaduri College in Tulkarm. He taught at local Palestinian schools before moving to Syria where he en­rolled at the Faculty of Islamic Sha­ria at Damascus University, whose founding dean, Sheikh Mustapha al-Sibaii, also established the Syrian Brotherhood.

    Azzam arrived in Syria shortly after the Ba’ath Party took power in 1963, at a time when the Mus­lim Brotherhood was organising secret cells to topple the Damas­cus government. This is where he mastered the skills of the political underground.

    The Ba’athists drew on their mas­sive membership base in the Syrian countryside, calling on teachers and village officials to go to cities to take government jobs. This left the rural areas as vast playing fields for the Syrian Brothers, where they were able to teach, recruit and train young men, with little competition from the Ba’athists.

    Their headquarters were local mosques, whose imams were usu­ally either Brotherhood members or secret sympathisers.

    Young boys would go to the mosque after school for evening recitals of the Quran. Brotherhood teachers such as Azzam would single out potential recruits and train them in how to hide and load or strip a gun. Eventually, their training would be to engage in 24- hour surveillance of local Ba’athists and report on their activities to the Brotherhood cells.

    Finally, the boys would be taught how to use firearms. The Brother­hood found easy targets for shoot­ing practice in the state-employed street sweepers who were often at work before dawn when nobody else was around. From the rooftops of carefully concealed huts, the boys would practise shooting at these wretched innocents, killing many in a ruthless training exercise.

    In 1964, the Brotherhood clashed with government troops in the ancient city of Hama on the Orontes River. A manhunt ensued and Azzam hid teenage comrades fleeing arrest at an apartment in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus.

    His stay in Syria not only cement­ed his hatred for the Ba’ath mem­bers, it also made him many friends in the Damascus underground whom he recruited into al-Qaeda 20 years later. He took note of why the Islamic project had failed so drastically in Syria and vowed to do things differently — one day. Among other things, they lacked a unified leadership and sustainable funds, two elements that he embarked on securing after leaving Syria.

    After graduating from Damascus University, Azzam went to Egypt for his doctorate and moved to Saudi Arabia where he was employed as an instructor at the King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. That career was short and he was soon forced out of the country, due to his criticism of the kingdom’s pro-US policies.

    In 1979, Azzam went to Peshawar, near the Pakistani-Afghan border, as the Soviet Army was launching its infamous invasion of Afghani­stan. He saw striking parallels between Soviet practices and what was happening in the Palestinian territories, telling his aides: “It is the duty of all Muslims across the world to fight the occupiers, regardless of their name or race. All of them are infidels. A holy war against them is fard ayn (religious obligation), as dictated in the Holy Quran.”

    Azzam recruited in the countries he lived and worked in — the Pales­tinian territories, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The message he sent to old friends — almost always verbal to avoid falling into the hands of state informers — was: “Come join me in Pakistan. A new world awaits you; one that pleases Allah.”

    He would add: “From here we will return home one day, hand-in-hand, first to liberated Damascus and then to liberated Jerusalem.”

    From 1979-85, 35,000 jihadists registered with Azzam’s Maktab al-Khidamat — “Afghan Services Bureau.”

    Among his many recruits was none other than Osama bin Laden, the son of a wealthy Saudi family famed in the construction business, whom he had met in Saudi Arabia in the mid-1970s.

    Inspired by Azzam’s charisma, bin Laden invested parts of his massive fortune in the jihadist movement, which gave birth to al-Qaeda.

    Bin Laden was a sworn enemy of the Saudi royal family and of the Soviet Union. Liberating the Pales­tine territories was not on his prior­ity list, unlike Azzam, who hoped to lead a Muslim army one day into his native West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967. Azzam wanted an Islamic state, headed by a caliph, ruling an empire that spread far and wide on all four corners of the globe, with a capital in Damascus or in Jerusalem.

    He was killed in November 1989 before his ambitions bore fruit and before al-Qaeda assumed its present form and shape.

    Editors' Picks

    The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

    From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

    Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

    Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

    Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

    Senior Editor: John Hendel

    Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

    Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

    Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

    East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

    Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

    Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

    Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

    Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

    Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

    Regular Columnists

    Claude Salhani

    Yavuz Baydar


    Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

    Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

    Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

    Thomas Seibert (Washington)

    Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


    Ibrahim Ben Bechir

    Hanen Jebali

    Published by Al Arab Publishing House

    Contact editor

    Subscription & Advertising:

    Tel 020 3667 7249

    Mohamed Al Mufti

    Marketing & Advertising Manager

    Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

    Direct: +44 20 8742 9262

    Al Arab Publishing House

    Kensington Centre

    177-179 Hammersmith Road

    London W6 8BS , UK

    Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

    Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

    Follow Us
    © The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved