The World's Second Most Wanted Man
by Samir Raafat
1 November 2001
* * *
Statesman Abdelrahman Azzam Pasha persuaded King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud to join the Arab League in 1945 and later betrothed his daughter to the King's grandson.
Another Azzam descendant is also linked to Saudi Arabia--he's the right hand man of Saudi millionaire Ossama Bin Laden, the world's most wanted man.
Under ordinary circumstances Ayman al-Zawahri should have figured as yet another doctor in the infinite list of successful medics that characterizes his father's extended family.
If Ayman's uncle, Mohammed al-Zawahri, features among the country's top dermatologists, another uncle is ex-dean of Cairo University's school of medicine. There is that other relation who is senior executive of the Egyptian branch of German pharmaceutical giant Hoechst. And while a half dozen Zawahris practice medicine at al-Azhar, Islam's oldest university, mention should also be made of the Zawahri surgeons and dentists in the Gulf region. And let's not forget the Zawahri medics in the United States including a dentist, a GP, a consultant and a neurologist.
When he passed away on 9 August 1995, Ayman's father, Dr. Mohammed-Rabie al-Zawahri was deputy chair of the department of akakeer--pharmacology at Cairo's Ain Chams University. While two of his sons went to engineering school (one of them, Mohammed, was Ayman's partner in Afghanistan and is today apprehended in Yemen), true to family tradition Ayman studied medicine as did two of his three sisters. Typically, they married MDs bringing the total list of successful medics belonging to the al-Zawahri clan to over 40.
As Ossama Bin Laden's chief lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri is excluded from the above roll call. Instead, he features at the top of another list: America's Most Wanted.
In the quest of finding out why Ayman al-Zawahri changed course we inevitably come face to face with the two families which produced him: The al-Zawahris and the Azzams. But first, let's examine the town he grew up in.
Born in June 1951, Ayman spent his formative years in what was then a garden suburb situated some 10 kilometers south of Cairo. The then tiny bedroom community of Maadi, created by the British back in 1906, was known for its urbane temperament where the babble of a half dozen languages was simultaneously heard at the local sporting club. Before the mid-1960s this suburb was something of a social United Nations proud of its liberal multi-ethnic and multi-racial composition.
Up until the mid-1950s, the town's few shops were owned by Greeks, its sporting club run by the British, and its inhabitants a mix of well-to-do French, Italians, Germans, Levantines and worldly Egyptians. If anything, Maadi was severely secular where Xmas was sometimes more in evidence then Moslem holidays. In fact, the town had more churches than mosques (two Catholic, one Anglican and one Coptic church as opposed to one Sefardi synagogue and one mosque) evidencing the population mix that existed in Maadi until the mid 1950s.
Equally important and what still makes Maadi attractive today despite the downhill turn that came with Nasser's socialism, are two schools very much in demand: the Cairo American College and a the French Lycee Francais. Both are run outside the antiquated Egyptian educational system. Although Ayman did not attend Maadi's foreign-language schools--his family preferring to place him in the less expensive state-run secondary school system, he must have come into contact with a variety of non-Egyptians in his youth.
Were these encounters counter-productive, especially for the introvert offspring of a severely traditional family of unpretentious means?
Perhaps the pious Zawahris and the provincial Azzams were themselves a speck out of place in this neoteric pseudo-western enclave.
Except for Ayman's father, the Zawahris lived in different sections of Cairo far less urbane than Maadi, a suburb characterized by western women still stroll in shorts and men jog year round. Decidedly, Ayman's modest childhood home was on the wrong side of Maadi's tracks, smack in the town's more popular area, frequented mostly by shopkeepers and lower income state employees.
On the right side of tracks stood stately homes surrounded by gardens with manicured lawns. It was there that Ayman's more fortunate Azzam cousins lived having moved to Maadi from the declining township of Helwan. One of them was great-uncle Abdelrahman Hassan Azzam Pasha. Although a late comer to Maadi Abdelrahman's family chose for his twilight years a lovely colonial villa once occupied by a British general and a French author. The pasha however spent his retirement years in Saudi Arabia as advisor to Kings Saud and Feisal. Today, the villa is home to his son, Engineer Omar Azzam and the pasha's resourceful grandsons, owners of a trendy online publishing house in London.
Could this disparity have affected Ayman al-Zawahri in his younger years?
The Azzam clan originated in the Arabian Peninsula. Like many other itinerant tribes they settled all over the Fertile Crescent (Greater Syria, Palestine and Egypt) some two or three centuries ago. The modestly wealthy Egyptian branch established itself in El-Shoubek El-Gharbi, Giza--some 18 kilometers south of the thermal town of Helwan--where family loyalty and tribal vendettas are still very present. One such vendetta survived several generations of Azzams and was only settled a few years ago.
Claiming unproven ancestry to Prophet Mohammed the Egyptian Azzams produced several learned al-Azhar graduates. An excellent example is Ayman's maternal grandfather, the late Dr. Abdelwahab Mohammed Azzam bey born August 1894.
As a young man Sheik Abdelwahab Azzam accompanied a group of students on scholarship to the U.K. where he became the appointed preacher at the Egyptian Embassy in South Audley Street. Obtaining a degree from London's School of Oriental Studies, where he studied under Thomas Arnold, Abdelwahab Azzam authored several books on Islam and famous Sufi luminaries. The sheik-turned-professor became Cairo University's Dean of School of Literature in 1945 at which time he was elected to the distinguished Arabic Language Academy.
Hence, Abdelwahab Azzam Bey, founder and first president of the Organization of Islamic Brotherhood --Jama'at al-Ukhuwa al-Islamiyah (not to be confused with the Moslem Brothers), was the natural choice for the post of Egypt's ambassador to the Wahabite Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. A position he held twice: 1948-51 and 1954-56. In between he was appointed ambassador to Pakistan. Upon retiring, he was given the task of setting up Riyadh (King Saud) University in Saudi Arabia becoming its first administrator. When he died in office on 18 January 1959, the Saudi Royals befittingly eulogized him.
If Sheik-Professor Abdelwahab Azzam enjoyed the honorific title of "bey" signifying a man of high standing and learning, his kinsman Abdelrahman Azzam was honored on 27 December 1945 with the title of "pasha" by King Farouk himself. You could go no higher as far as titles went in the 150-year-old Egyptian monarchy.
1945, Abdelrahman Azzam Pasha flanked by King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud of
Saudi Arabia and King Farouk of Egypt at Cairo's Monasterli Palace
Below: 1946, Azzam Pasha flanked by Syrian Prime Minister Gamil Mardam Bey and Prince (later King) Feisal Ibn Saud
(photos courtesy Salma G. Mardam collection)
Up until he died in Cannes in June 1976, Abdelrahman Azzam Pasha was that other family icon exulted and revered by all subsequent generations of Azzams. In a close-knit family that contracted countless consanguine marriages he was the undisputed patriarch, the clan's favored 'grandfather' and perhaps a role model to some of its younger members.
Born in Giza on 8 March 1893, Abdelrahman Azzam broke away with family tradition twice. First when he chose to study medicine in London in lieu of al-Azhar University. And second, when he married outside the family taking for his wife the daughter of Libyan resistance leader Khalid Qarqanni.
During his internship at London's St. Thomas Hospital Abdelrahman Azzam joined the Sphinx Society, a student organization calling for an end to Britain's occupation of Egypt. Thereafter he fought on the side of the Turks in the Balkan war and joined Omar Mokhtar's freedom fighters against the Italians in Libya.
Upon returning to Egypt, Abdelrahman Azzam joined the uprising against the British. Later he became a Wafdist Party parliamentarian in the country's legislature. After serving as senior diplomat to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan in 1936-7; and Turkey in 1939, he was given the portfolio of Social Affairs in Ali Maher Pasha's wartime (WW2) cabinet. Somewhere in the middle he wrote several works on Islam including The Eternal Message of Muhammed recently translated into English.
Azzam Pasha is best remembered however as the Arab League's (an Arab version of the UN) first secretary general (1945-52) where he became a player in the historical formation of the modern Middle East and the Islamic Ummah--nation.
On one of his many visits to Saudi Arabia Abdelrahman Azzam encountered King Abd al-Aziz al-Saud and several of the latter's sons. A growing friendship with the house of Saud culminated with the marriage of Azzam's daughter to Mohammed, son of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia (i.e. Azzam's son in law is a brother of the Saudi minister of foreign affairs, Prince Saud al-Faisal).
If numerous aspiring Azzams joined the Arab League earning princely salaries during their uncle's heyday, the subsequent introduction of a direct family link to the Saudi monarchy enabled younger members of the clan to make it in the oil-rich kingdom. Others found gainful sinecures in Saudi-financed organizations such as the non-interest-bearing Faisal Islamic Bank and its regional affiliates. But Ayman al-Zawahri was not one of them. Was he out of the loop by virtue of his zealotry, or was it Ayman who shunned his sheltered and more privileged relations? Or...
It was while Faisal Islamic Bank expanded its local operations during President Sadat's Open Door' economic policy in the late 1970s that Ayman al-Zawahri completed his graduate studies in Medicine. Sadat's rapid "coca-cola-ization" of an undemocratic Egypt had started and colleges across the nation brimmed with social unrest. Islam became the countervailing force to what was perceived as a Judeo-Christian attempt to weaken Islamic beliefs and values. This was particularly true of the School of Medicine, an especially fertile ground for the activities of Islamists as opposed to other departments at Cairo University.
Ditto other state Universities across Egypt.
The expanding phenomenon of the hijab-headscarf and the proliferation of the perceived Islamic dress codes and conduct was seen at the time as a temporary whim that would go away if ignored. "Bad wind blowing from Iran" remarked certain pundits in the late 1970s, as the government continued to turn a blind eye.
As campuses stewed, the political apparatus was busy elsewhere hammering out a peace treaty with Israel. Some of the dicey and much ballyhooed negotiations took place at the five-star Mena House Hotel at the foot of the Giza Pyramids. Covering these groundbreaking events as a rookie stringer for America's NBC network and its correspondent John Palmer, was Ayman's maternal cousin Ali, a great-grandson of al-Azhar 's learned Sheik Rifa'a al-Tahtawi (1801-73), founder of Egypt's modern cultural renaissance
Ali and Ayman al-Zawahri's mothers are Azzam sisters. Looking back one realizes the chasm that separated their twenty-something offspring. Ali, the more gregarious of the two was open-minded and fun loving. Living next door to a handsome villa owned by the US Embassy since the early 1950s he was used to and felt comfortable around khawagas--foreigners.
If Ayman was the quiet, axiomatic introvert retreating into religion, Ali blended well in Maadi and was anything but xenophobic. Each season brought with it new projects--stringer for NBC, commerce in Bahrain, real estate, antique cars, and still more business ventures with the help of his cash rich Saudi-backed relations.
It was just about the time when Ali and his brother were selling Arabian horses from a makeshift stud farm in Atascadero, California that Ayman al-Zawahri MD served time in jail circa 1982-3 for his association with the Jihad that claimed responsibility for President Sadat's October 1981 assassination. The downside to the Camp David's Accords (peace treaty with Israel) and its concomitant economic support from the West was that an entire generation of disillusioned and confused young Egyptians had defected to the ranks of Islamist militants, egged on by rising corruption and Khomeni's anti-American rumblings in Iran.
After three years in jail, where even the most confirmed secular will turn into a potent militant, Ayman al-Zawahri closed his modest surgery located in the worn-out section of Maadi and left for Saudi Arabia a rancorous man.
Some within Ayman's family claim he was wrongly arrested and subjected to terrible torture. In a recent CNN interview, a lawyer relation, Mahfouz Azzam, stated that Ayman was 'an outright humanitarian hence the reason why he joined the Kuwait Red Crescent Society (equivalent to the Red Cross) following his release from jail.'
From Saudi Arabia, Ayman made it to Pakistan about the time when Afghanistan was shrugging off its Soviet occupiers. It was while practicing medicine in Peshawar that Ayman al-Zawahri met his partner in terror Ossama Bin Laden.
We know the rest.
Others within the Azzam family will mention in hushed terms that Ayman "a very kind sort was influenced by his family's godly legacy and was an established member of the Jihad since the 1970s." Other family members speculate that he may have turned 'fundie' in his late teens. That his 1984 release from jail was not so much because of the fairness of the judicial but more likely due to the tribal Azzam network looking after its own; that soon after his release he was squirreled to Saudi Arabia.
Thereafter began his apocalyptic mission to 'change' the world.
But Ayman al-Zawahri wasn't the only indicted Egyptian fugitive to skip town during the 1980s. Others made their way to Sudan, the UK, Denmark and the USA. They were the newest wave of asylum seekers and 'political' refugees. How they left Egypt and how they entered the above countries remains unclear. One thing for sure, in a decade where regular citizens have a hard time obtaining tourist visas, Egypt's undesirables made it to the West thanks to covert logistical support from third parties including the CIA.
Whether Ayman al-Zawahri left Egypt from Cairo international airport or from the backdoor, it is no secret the Azzam clan does not lack men in high places. Unlike the medically minded Zawahri fraternity, the Azzams include a (albeit indicted) MP, a former governor of Giza and several state counselors and prosecutors. Likewise, the clan is top heavy with senior government administrators and diplomats. Ironically, Egypt's sitting Supreme State Security Court Chief Justice is himself a Azzam relation his natty Maadi villa guarded round the clock lest he become the next victim of a terrorist attack. (Several fatal shootings this last decade cost the lives of several members of the judicial and legislation including the speaker of parliament.
The rules of the game changed after September 11. A nation perpetually in denial unwilling to address the root causes of terrorism will have to come to terms with reality. Homegrown terrorists can no longer be written off as a bunch of lunatics or as the desperate and destitute pawns of a more sinister 'foreign' network. That cliché is dead at last.
These unwelcome changes reached Maadi as well. The once liberal township that produced three Egyptian Prime ministers, countless scientists, magistrates, poets, authors and artists, is today weighed down with a legacy of hatred. If the respectable Zawahris and the upright conservative Azzams unwittingly produced the second most wanted man in the world; it will be difficult to tell where the next ultimate radical will come from. Alas, as of now the enemy is from within.
Footnote: (i) Ayman's paternal grandfather is sheik Ibrahim al-Zawahri and NOT al-Azhar's Grand Imam Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahri (photo left) as mistakenly reported by the
and a variety of American, British and French publications.
Nevertheless, the Grand Imam is Ayman's ancestor. A confidant of King
Fouad of Egypt, Mohammed al-Ahmadi al-Zawahri (reportedly a Sufi) was
nominated Grand Imam from 1929-35.
[For Zawahri's ancestral tree click here]
[For al-Zawahri abridged family tree click here]
(ii) Above is a photo of a plaque mounted on the exterior wall of Masjid Azzam, a gift by Sheik-Professor Abdelwahab Azzam to his hometown of Helwan. The mosque (photo right) was inaugurated in May 1955. Marble used for plaque imported from Mecca. The mosque is located on Khosro Street opposite the now-abandoned Azzam homestead.
Date: Fri, 30 Nov 2001 11:48:52 -0500
From: An Egypian in New York
Very informative, however, I beg to differ with members of Zawahri's clan who say he was "wrongly" arrested. We have seen him on the TV here yelling and screaming in poor English from his court cell that he wanted the whole world to know about their plight and what the government is doing to them. Now excuse me, you do not kill the president of a country (undemocratic for that) and expect to get away with murder. He was ranting and raving like a wild bull in a cage. As to the Egyptian fugitives with status all over the world, I think those countries who gave them safe haven are now reconsidering their decision.
You know pretty well that many of us lost family/fortune/houses/and pride during the Nasser regime, but this did not turn us into terrorists killing innocent people in our country or in other countries. Let's not try to give excuse for weird, evil and malicious behavior. Ayman is a bitter man for a reason or another. He comes from a decent family that is a fact no one ever denied. Remember the Egyptian proverb yekhlak men dahr al alem, fassed etc...). He is the black sheep of the family and regrettably they as well as the Bin Laden are suffering for the two bad apples they have.
Subject: Your column
Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 13:20:24 +1000
From: Ursula Helmy
Thank you for enlightening me on the subject. I still have disbelief and you're probably right, khawagas and affluent Egyptians are in denial about the simmering wave of fundamentalism. The have and have nots is widening in your country. What's more, young Egyptians are well educated and in multitudes, with nowhere to go. They feel defeated after so much struggle in obtaining an education and no career, no future.
They are good soil for the future of Egypt. The Government must give the people a purpose, an opportunity to explore and expand the Egyptian economy, more employment, more opportunities, equal rights, social reform and a right to vote democratically in an informed manner.
Date: Sun, 18 Nov 2001 22:23:18 +0000 (GMT)
From: Peter Smith
Loved your piece on Ayman Al-Zawahiri -- I'm going to have to read it several times because the family tree-ery is so dense.
Subject: Zawahry & Azzam
Date: Mon, 19 Nov 2001 11:20:37 -0500
From: Mohamed ElShafie in Canada
This article is a piece of art. I enjoyed every letter there as I enjoyed all the information. I have some comments about this article if you do not mind;
1- The focus was more on Azzam than ElZawahery, however if you look at ElZawahery side you may be more surprised.
2- Also, if you look into the other family marriage connections you will be totally surprised to find out that someone like him has a strong network of family connections. These connections include a list of strong names in power, money and religion. Religion, like Zawahry, Rifa'a and Abou Elazayeam. Money like Azzam, Seoudi, Mohana. Power like Azzam, Zawahry, Mihana, al-Saud, Gyar ....... ).
3- In my opinion, Ayman is a great example for the big variety in the Egyptian society. This variety can include the most liberal icons like his cousin who liked to collect antique cars, to the other one who (she) refuses to shake hands with men!! Or to the non-believer who committed suicide a few years ago !!!
The big question now is: Is Ayman a victim or hero?? Just wondering.
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