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A Jihadi Murder-Mystery: Who Killed Abdullah Azzam?
Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian shaykh closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, is probably most famous to history for his late 1984 fatwa that escalated the flow of Arabs to join the fighting alongside the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which had been conquered by the Soviet Union in December 1979. Azzam was not, as is often said, a “founder”—or even a member—of Al-Qaeda, but he was connected to a lot of people who were, including of course Usama bin Laden. As interesting as Azzam’s life is, perhaps the most intriguing and consequential aspect of his biography is his death. In November 1989, Azzam was very dramatically assassinated in Pakistan, leaving a theological legacy that set in train the jihadi-Salafist movement’s course to global significance and a murder-mystery that persists more than three decades later.
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AZZAM, AFGHANISTAN, AND JIHAD
The definitive profile of Azzam, drawn on considerably in this post, is, The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad, published in 2020 by Thomas Hegghammer.
Hegghammer notes that by the 1970s, there was a gathering in Saudi Arabia of Islamists, many of them from the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), most of them Egyptian and Syrian, who had created a milieu of militants that was almost definitionally international—they were basically stateless refugees—and since the Saudi government had no more tolerance for their political shenanigans domestically than their home countries, the outlet they were allowed for their activism was global Muslim causes.1 This pan-Islamist community brought together Ikhwani political methods and Salafist/Wahhabist theological concepts,2 which later fed into the Saudi anti-government “Islamic Awakening” (al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya) movement in in the 1990s and the jihadist movement.
Modern historiography tends toward a structuralist, Marxist-inflected vision of events, downplaying individual agency. While conceiving of itself as sophisticated, this tendency in practice is often simplistic, evading the messiness of the real world, and giving events a sense of inevitability that is a retrospective imposition. It was well-mocked by Vladimir Nabokov in his novel The Eye: “It is silly to seek a basic law [to the universe], even sillier to find it. … [N]o such laws exist: a toothache will cost a battle, a drizzle cancel an insurrection. Everything is fluid, everything depends on chance”.3 It is possible that the Islamist milieu in the Hijaz would have produced some kind of foreign fighter mobilisation, somewhere, at some point, but Hegghammer argues persuasively that the history we actually have—the organised mobilisation of Arabs to Afghanistan in the 1980s—was the work of one man, and resulted from one trip he made to Pakistan in 1981.4
Azzam had issued a fatwa earlier in 1984 calling for Muslims to help the Afghan resistance, but at this point the ruling was still (a) rather obscure, printed “at the back of a new edition of his book Signs of the Merciful”, and (b) optional—it was only for Afghans that jihad was fard al-ayn (an individual obligation).5 The first fatwa had some effect, but the number of Arabs in Afghanistan was still small, and would never be especially large: about 2,000 Arabs in total cycled through Afghanistan before the Soviets announced their withdrawal in 1988, with never more than 400 Arabs present at once, amid an insurgency of Mujahideen run by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency with around 200,000 men.6
Azzam’s public focus on Afghanistan came after the late-1983 debacle at Urgun, where the corruption and incompetence of the “Arab-Afghans” had given impetus to the idea of a body to manage their affairs. This idea was formulated by Mustafa Hamid, an Egyptian jihadist who was the first Arab in Afghanistan, along with two friends, from June 1979,7 and had the support of Rashid Ahmad, a largely forgotten Pakistani Major involved in the training the insurgents (foreign and local) in Afghanistan from 1981, plus two of the most Arab-friendly Mujahideen commanders, Nasrullah Mansur and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Hamid brought on board another such Mujahideen commander, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and a paper by Hamid laying out the scheme was given to Haqqani, who took it with him on haj to Mecca, where he convinced Bin Laden and Azzam of its necessity.8 The Services Bureau (al-Maktab al-Khadamat) was created as the body to manage the Arab-Afghans in October 1984, with Azzam as its leader and the newly-arrived Bin Laden as its main financier, a month after Azzam issued the more famous second fatwa in a speech, making jihad—at least by money—“now an individual obligation on every Muslim everywhere on Earth”.9
If Azzam’s life had laid the foundations for jihadi-Salafism, his death provided the spark to launch it. The Arab-Afghan community had been fracturing by the late 1980s. Azzam’s death and his theological legacy ruptured it. What Azzam had done, as Hegghammer explains, was “not a radical innovation—only an incremental one—[which] is why many were swayed by it. Put very simply, Azzam combined two existing but previously unconnected ideas. The first was the age-old and uncontested Islamic legal principle that occupation of Muslim land [by unbelievers] triggers a duty to repel the invaders through jihad. The second idea was the argument developed by militant Islamists in the 1970s that the duty of jihad is universal and not subject to approval by any one nation-state.”10 It was an innovation that would haunt the jihadist movement.
Azzam had made the duty to do jihad individual, taking it out of the hands of governmental, clerical, and even parental authorities that previously regulated it. In so doing, Azzam had become the authority, and while he had the stature to make this tenable—he could (somewhat) suppress the intra-Muslim fighting that he detested above all things—it was not a role that could be passed on. Azzam had handed a license to any Islamist group leader to declare jihad, and even the prohibition on fighting other Muslims could be nominally adhered to through takfir (excommunication), by saying opponents were not Muslims at all. Takfir, though an implicit tendency in Azzam’s ideology, was held in check by the force of his personality, which obviously died with him. The upshot was a movement whose leadership had weak defence mechanisms against internal challengers who wanted to push things in more extreme directions: within just a few years, there was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA); most infamously, the Islamic State (IS) challenged Al-Qaeda on just these grounds; and then within IS a trend emerged, known as Al-Hazimiyya (the Hazimis), that turned the group’s logic in escaping Al-Qaeda’s authority against the caliph.
Throughout the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, more of the Mujahideen leaders had been killed in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar while on their downtime than on the battlefields in Afghanistan, cut down by each other over issues large and small, eliminated by Pakistani intelligence to ensure the ISI retained control of the insurgency, and of course the KGB and its Afghan clone, the State Intelligence Agency (KHAD), waged a ferocious spy-war with their Mujahideen adversaries in this town.11 Towards the end of the war, other foreign intelligence services, notably the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Israel’s MOSSAD, began to take an interest in the cast of characters along the Durand Line that were preparing to make their bids for power in Kabul, and in many cases planning to use Afghanistan as a stepping stone for a larger international project.
It was not surprising, then, that it was in Peshawar that Abdullah Azzam met the violent end he had always known was a possibility, though the method of Azzam’s departure—blown up in his car with two of his sons, in full public view, just after midday on 24 November 1989, as he arrived at the main Arab mosque, Sab al-Layl, to give the Friday sermon—might perhaps have surprised him. A month before Azzam’s demise, a bomb was found underneath the podium from which he preached at the mosque. Little had been done to reinforce Azzam’s bodyguard, supplied by Mujahideen commander Burhanuddin Rabbani since Arabs were not allowed to carry weapons in Peshawar, because of Azzam’s fatalistic attitude about life and death.12
The list of suspects for Azzam’s murder is long and the evidence is thin.
In the late 1980s, there was a serious division within the Arab-Afghans between a takfir-inclined faction of Egyptians that included the recently slain leader of Al-Qaeda who was then-just about to become the head of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had been trying to steer the energy of the Afghan jihad and Bin Laden’s largesse into a war against the “impious” Arab autocracies, specifically the regime in Cairo, and Azzam, who opposed any Muslim-on-Muslim conflict, preferring that the Arab-Afghans and Bin Laden’s resources be channelled into the then-ongoing First Intifada against Israel and other areas where Muslims confronted unbelievers.13 That said, by late 1989 there was more harmony among the Arabs than there had been in a long time—and even among the Afghan Mujahideen, there were tentative steps, mediated by Azzam, towards reconciliation between the ISI’s main man Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masud.14
This is important context when considering whether Bin Laden was behind Azzam’s murder, making a theory that already struggles for evidence and logic that bit more unlikely. Bin Laden was back in Saudi Arabia, for one thing—he left Peshawar in October 1989.15 For another, Bin Laden was a friend and admirer of Azzam’s all the way along. In one notable instance, when the hardline Egyptians were acting against Azzam, accusing him of theft and collaboration with infidels in a way that potentially threatened his life, Bin Laden stepped in and rescued him.16
The possibility that Dr. Al-Zawahiri did away with Azzam, however, has a great deal more inherent plausibility. The degree to which Al-Zawahiri was influencing Bin Laden in the late 1980s has probably been overstated,17 but even outside of any competition for Bin Laden’s attention and money, Al-Zawahiri clearly regarded Azzam as an obstacle to his ideological ends. It is also known that Al-Zawahiri had been calling Azzam an American spy—one of the most toxic charges that could be levelled among the Arab-Afghans—in the two days before his death.18 The arguments against this are: at that time, there was no precedent for Arabs assassinating Arabs in Peshawar (though such things became commonplace later, and somebody had to go first); there are doubts Al-Zawahiri and his group had the technical expertise to carry out the attack; and it is unclear why Al-Zawahiri would stage the attack in such a demonstrative way if all he needed was Azzam out of the way.19
Another suspect is Hekmatyar (some theories have him colluding with Al-Zawahiri20). Hekmatyar was notorious for attacking other Mujahideen, so much so that American intelligence wondered if his Hizb-i-Islami was one of the many Mujahideen groups secretly controlled by the KGB to create chaos within the insurgency.21 Even allowing for the Soviet active measures against the Mujahideen commanders that made Hekmatyar a “central target”, playing up his reputation as a ruthless murderer to try to discredit the ISI’s favourite weapon,22 there is no denying Hekmatyar’s group was proficient in assassination and tried to eradicate all rivals for power, even before the civil war among the Mujahideen began in 1992.23 But if Hekmatyar had the capabilities to assassinate Azzam, there is reason to doubt he had the motive.
It is undoubtedly the case that Hekmatyar was suspicious of Azzam’s outreach to Masud beginning in late 1988, since Hekmatyar had by then prioritised enmity with Masud over fighting the Afghan Communist regime, yet there was no (public) break between Azzam and Hekmatyar. An important example is the July 1989 “Farkhar massacre”, when Hekmatyar’s Hizbi-i-Islami ambushed Masud’s Jamiat-i-Islami: Azzam sided with Hekmatyar, supporting the narrative that a rogue Hizb commander was responsible and agreeing with Hekmatyar’s lower estimate of the casualties.24 Still, Azzam tried as best he could to remain impartial and pressed on to secure a fragile Hekmatyar-Masud accord the day before his death. Part of this deal was a Mujahideen investigation into Farkhar. Some claim the findings of the committee, which included Azzam, were going to be unfavourable to Hekmatyar, motivating Hekmatyar to murder Azzam.25 Maybe. By all the evidence, though, Azzam and Hekmatyar were on rather good terms right to the last, professionally admiring—Hekmatyar appeared more regularly than any other Mujahideen commander in Azzam’s Al-Jihad Magazine, including the October 1989 issue, the last one before Azzam was killed—and personally close.26 After Azzam’s death, Hekmatyar “seemed genuinely upset” and eulogised his “friend” handsomely.27 Perhaps this was all a ruse by Hekmatyar to cover up what he had done; it was very well-done if so.
The CIA is, of course, widely believed to be the culprit, especially among the Islamists. There were American officials, notably diplomat Edmund McWilliams, who worried about the nascent jihadi trend, specifically about Hekmatyar,28 and Azzam’s closeness to Hekmatyar could be said to constitute motive. But this argument does not stand up to scrutiny. At the tactical level, there is no evidence that the CIA understood anything of the Hekmatyar-Azzam relationship at that time, and there is the overarching fact that McWilliams was a lonely and losing voice within the U.S. administration. The American intelligence community did not see the problem with even Hekmatyar, let alone the Arab-Afghans, whose networks inside the United States were not, as documents from 1989 show, considered a security threat.29
Given that Azzam’s operations in the “homeland” were not considered by the U.S. to be worth acting against, and had they been the U.S. government could simply have arrested Azzam during one of his trips to the U.S., it is difficult to believe the U.S. would have gone to such trouble half a world away, and the timing makes even less sense. The George H.W. Bush administration decided, however misguidedly, it had few interests in the “Af-Pak” area once the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, refusing entreaties from Congress to remain engaged. It is thus very unlikely for Bush to have been so intimately involved in Afghan affairs that he ordered an action primarily intended to shape the emerging post-Communist political scene in Afghanistan.
Jordanian intelligence is sometimes mentioned as a suspect, but there is little reason to think Amman, which probably did have the capability, would assassinate Azzam on its own initiative. Jordan was not faced with a domestic security issue from the Islamists and, if the Jordanians had been concerned about the activities of Azzam and the Muslim Brethren in the Kingdom, they could have acted much earlier. Moreover, Jordan had no history of assassinating Islamist militants abroad and tends to try to manipulate or co-opt jihadist leaders, notably Issam al-Barqawi (Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi) and Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini). The possibility the Jordanians were acting on American instructions is unlikely for the reasons stated above.30
A “few sources” point to Saudi intelligence as the culprit. The reasoning—worries about Azzam radicalising foreign fighters and challenging Saudi influence over the Arab-Afghans—is tenuous at best. What made the Saudi assassination of Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018 so shocking was that it was so wildly out of character: the Saudis just did not do this kind of thing—and in 1989, almost certainly could not. The Saudis in the late 1980s were faced with more immediate threats, external agitators like Al-Barqawi and an internal threat from a branch of the Iranian Revolution (Hizballah al-Hijaz), and in neither case resorted to assassination.31
Israel, like America, is frequently blamed in Islamdom generally and by Islamists in particular for being behind almost everything, up to and including the weather. In the Azzam case, for once, the accusation cannot be dismissed out of hand. Israel had been aware since April 1984 that Azzam and his Muslim Brotherhood allies in Jordan were running a pipeline between Afghanistan and the Palestinian Territories that was training Islamist militants in guerrilla and terrorist tactics against the Israelis,32 and Israel knew that some of these people had been involved, with Azzam’s active guidance, in the founding of HAMAS in August 1988 during the First Intifada.33 It is true that in 1988-89, MOSSAD was the only organisation in the world carrying out transnational assassinations against terrorists, specifically Palestinian terrorists, which is surely how Israel viewed Azzam. But it is also true that Israel did not, at this time, view HAMAS as a security threat on par with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The Israelis, indeed, were not entirely displeased with the emergence of HAMAS, which acted as a counterweight to the PLO, dividing the Palestinian insurgency, and presenting a much less sympathetic face to the global audience that was so enraptured with the PLO. As well as the doubts about Azzam meeting the criteria to be put on a MOSSAD hit list in 1989, there are questions about whether Israel could carry out such a complicated operation on such hostile terrain.
The KGB (often through KHAD) carried out weekly assassinations of Mujahideen operatives in Peshawar during the occupation of Afghanistan.34 There is, therefore, no doubt about the Soviets’ capability. The very fact that the KGB/KHAD had so vastly infiltrated the area, however, and built up such a robust capacity to liquidate insurgents in Peshawar raises doubts about their responsibility for assassinating Azzam. Azzam had never been that difficult to find: Why kill him nine months after the Red Army has departed Afghanistan, rather than earlier when it might have made a difference? One possible answer is that it was a revenge strike, and the shocking, public way it was carried out was simply catharsis for a humiliated adversary. But why Azzam? Why not Hekmatyar? And did the KGB really have the bandwidth for such a difficult symbolic operation so far away as it struggled within the Soviet Empire against Mikhail Gorbachev’s “New Thinking” and the revolutions in the Captive Nations?
The final potential suspect is the ISI. Pakistan had never been over-keen on the Arab involvement in the anti-Soviet jihad, not least because the Arab-Afghans were far less controlled by the ISI, and as the war came to an end Islamabad found the Arab presence even more irritating. The Arabs meddled in Mujahideen politics: Azzam’s attempt to foster a rapprochement between Masud and Hekmatyar clashed with the ISI’s desire for Hekmatyar to take Afghanistan alone. Then the Arab-Afghans began to turn on Pakistan itself and publicly accuse the state of insufficient piety.35 The Arab Islamists—Azzam included—had a well-developed narrative wherein the CIA had killed the Pakistani president, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, in August 1988,36 and installed the government of Benazir Bhutto, which acted as America’s puppet, hence the pressure against the Arab-Afghans.37
It can certainly be argued that the ISI had the motive, capability, and opportunity to stage Azzam’s assassination with the intent of terrorising the Arabs to leave. One nagging doubt about this is why such an effort would be needed when the ISI had easier ways of expelling the Arab-Afghans, not to mention that the Arabs did not in fact leave.38 Another issue is why the ISI would target Azzam first, when Al-Zawahiri was clearly the more urgent threat to Pakistan, not only ideologically but operationally. As could have been predicted, Al-Zawahiri’s EIJ soon started carrying out terrorist attacks inside Pakistan, yet the ISI did not eliminate Al-Zawahiri. To the contrary, the ISI sheltered Al-Zawahiri right down to the end.
In sum, the suspects in Azzam’s killing that can be ruled out with any confidence on the current evidence are America—thus by extension Jordan—and Bin Laden. Israel and Saudi Arabia also seem unlikely. Of the remaining suspects—Al-Zawahiri, Hekmatyar, the KGB/KHAD, and the ISI—every observer will rank their likelihood of being the perpetrator in their own way.
Thomas Hegghammer (2020), The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad, pp. 107-10.
Stéphane Lacroix (2011), Awakening Islam: The Politics of Religious Dissent in Contemporary Saudi Arabia, pp. 51-2.
David Rampton (1993), Vladimir Nabokov, p. 44.
Thomas Hegghammer, ‘The Origins of Global Jihad: Explaining the Arab Mobilization to 1980s Afghanistan’, Policy Brief for the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, 22 January 2009. For what led to Azzam’s trip to Pakistan—and details about how the trip itself came about, which it very easily might not have—see: The Caravan, pp. 120-25.
The Caravan, p. 301.
The Caravan, p. 365.
Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall (2015), The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, p. 34.
The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, pp. 65-70.
The Caravan, p. 302.
The Caravan, pp. 302-3.
Lawrence Wright (2006), The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda’s Road to 9/11, p. 121.
The Caravan, p. 437.
The Looming Tower, pp. 110-44.
The Caravan, p. 437.
Thomas Hegghammer (2010), Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979, p. 100
The Looming Tower, pp. 136-7.
The Caravan, pp. 359-61.
The Looming Tower, p. 144; The Caravan, p. 442.
The Caravan, p. 442.
Peter Bergen (2006), The Osama Bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of Al-Qaeda’s Leader, p. 93.
Vasily Mitrokhin and Christopher Andrew (2005), The World Was Going Our Way, pp. 409-10.
Milton Bearden and James Risen (2003), The Main Enemy: The Inside Story of the CIA’s Final Showdown with the KGB, p. 236.
The Caravan, pp. 444-6.
Chris Sands and Fazelminallah Qazizai (2019), Night Letters: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Afghan Islamists Who Changed the World, pp. 263-70.
The Caravan, p. 445.
The Caravan, p. 446.
Night Letters, p. 270.
Night Letters, p. 244.
The Caravan, p. 262.
The Caravan, pp. 440-41.
The Caravan, p. 441
Ronen Bergman (2018), Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, pp. 412-13.
The Looming Tower, p. 130.
The Looming Tower, p. 121.
The Caravan, p. 448.
Zia’s death in an apparent plane crash, with his entire military elite, the sitting U.S. ambassador Arnold Raphel, and the chief American military attaché in Pakistan Brig.-Gen. Herbert Wassom, is a mystery as profound as Azzam’s. Contrary to the Islamist beliefs, the signals in terms of responsibility point East not West.
The Caravan, p. 325.
The Caravan, pp. 448-9.