September 27, 2001

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam:

Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor

Colonel (Res.) Jonathan Fighel
ICT Researcher

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam was born in the village of Seelet Al-Hartiyeh, in the province of Jenin in the West Bank in 1941. He received his early elementary and secondary education in his village, and continued his education at the agricultural Khadorri College near Tul Karem, where he obtained a Diploma. After graduating from Khadorri College, Azzam worked as a teacher in a village called Adder in southern Jordan, and later enrolled in Sharia College at Damascus University, where he obtained a B.A. Degree in Shariah (Islamic Law) in 1966.

After the 1967 war, in which Israel conquered the West Bank from Jordan, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam immigrated to Jordan. There, in the late 1960’s, he joined the Jihad against the Israeli occupation. Soon afterwards, he traveled to Egypt and graduated with a Masters Degree in Shariah from the University of Al-Azhar.

In 1970 Jordanian forces expelled the PLO militants from Jordan. This effectively ended the Jihad against Israel from Jordanian territory, and Sheikh Azzam took up a teaching position in the Jordanian University in Amman. In 1971 he was awarded a scholarship to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, eventually obtaining his Ph.D in Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usool-ul-Fiqh) in 1973

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam spent many years involved in the Palestinian Jihad. However, he eventually came to believe that those involved in the Jihad were too far removed from “The real Islam.” For this reason, he turned his back on Jordan and his home in the West Bank, and traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he took up a university teaching position. Sheikh Azzam became convinced that only by means of an organized military force would the Ummah (Islamic nation) emerge victorious. He became preoccupied with religious warfare: “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues.”

In an attempt to practice what he preached, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam became one of the first Arabs to join the Afghan Jihad against the Soviet forces, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He left his teaching position at King Abdul-Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, to be close to the Afghan Jihad. There, he became acquainted with the leaders of the Jihad. During his initial time in Pakistan, Azzam was appointed a lecturer at the International Islamic University in Islamabad. However, he eventually resigned this position in order to devote all his time to the Jihad in Afghanistan.

In the early 1980’s, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam immigrated with his family to Pakistan in order to be closer to the fighting. Soon after, he moved from Islamabad to Peshawar to be even closer to the front lines. In the Jihad, he said, he found the “satisfaction of his longing and untold love to fight in the Path of Allah”.

In Peshawar Azzam founded the Bait-ul-Ansar (Mujahideen Services Bureau), with the aim of offering all possible assistance to the Afghani Jihad and the Mujahideen. The bureau’s mission was to establish and manage projects in support of the cause, and to absorb and train the many volunteers pouring into Pakistan to participate in the war. However, this work did not satisfy Sheikh Azzam’s desire for Jihad, and his lust for battle eventually drove him finally to Afghanistan to take part in the fighting.

In Afghanistan he rarely stayed in one place for long. Instead, he traveled throughout the country, visiting most of its provinces and states. Among the places that Azzam reportedly visited at one time or another were Lujer, Kandahar, the Hindukush Heights, the Valley of Binjistr, Kabul and Jalalabad. These travels made a deep impression on him, allowing him to witness first-hand the “heroic” deeds of these ordinary people, who had sacrificed all that they possessed—including their own lives—for “the Supremacy of Islam.”

Upon his return to Peshawar, Azzam became an active propagandist for the Jihad. He attempted to bring together the estranged Mujahideen commanders, and called upon those who had not yet joined the fighting to take up arms and to follow him to the front while there was yet time. In this way, he gained a reputation for leadership, eventually becoming one of the foremost figures in the Afghani Jihad, apart from the Afghan leaders themselves. In particular, he was instrumental in promoting the Afghan cause to the rest of the world, especially in the Muslim world.

In his travels throughout the Arab world, he called on Muslims to rally to the defense of their religion and lands. In addition, he wrote a number of books on Jihad, including Join the Caravan and Defense of Muslim Lands. Azzam’s goal was to impel young Muslims all over the world to join the fighting in Afghanistan, which he presented as an Islamic cause, of significance to all Muslims. Due to his efforts, the Afghani Jihad became an Islamic symbol, bringing together Muslim volunteers from every part of the globe. Azzam saw his goal to be the establishment of the Khilafah, or “Allah’s Rule on earth,” which he believed to be the responsibility of each and every Muslim. The Jihad, according to his belief, was the vehicle that would establish the Khilafah (Islamic Rule) over the whole world.

His work in Afghanistan had made Abdullah Azzam the main pillar of the Jihad movement in the region. He played a significant role in influencing the minds of Muslims concerning the meaning of Jihad, and served as a role model for the younger generation of Muslims, who flocked to Afghanistan in droves.

However, Sheikh Azzam was not without enemies within the Jihad movement. The movement was split by rivalries and factionalism. In 1989 a lethal amount of TNT explosive was placed beneath the pulpit from which the Sheikh was to deliver his Friday sermon. The bomb did not explode.

On 24 November 1989 three bombs planted along the route that Abdullah Azzam regularly traveled to the mosque detonated as he passed. The Sheikh was killed, along with two of his sons. Rumors have consistently linked Osama Bin Laden to Azzam’s assassination, though there is no proof of a connection. Upon his death, Azzam left behind him dozens of books on religious doctrines, religious Fatawa (rulings) and a comprehensive ideology of Jihad.

The ideology founded by Abdullah Azzam, and its realization in the Afghan war, gave rise to a number of processes in modern history:

  • The creation of a kind of Islamic “internationale” through the recruitment of volunteers throughout the Muslim world to aide the struggle of the Afghan mujahideen.
  • The creation of a global network of radical Muslim terrorists through ties between these volunteers and radical Islamic movements throughout the Muslim world.
  • The creation of a mystique of invincibility. The Islamic fighters’ victory over the Soviet forces won them international acclaim and served as a source of inspiration to Islamists throughout the Muslim world.
  • The creation of a broad-based cadre of highly motivated and experienced warriors, bent on exporting the Islamic revolution to the world at large.
Osama bin Laden is one of the outstanding products of the Afghan war, and his Al-Qa’idah organization is one of the main expressions of the Afghan phenomenon. Bin Laden views his struggle as part of the conflict between the Islamic world and other civilizations, particularly “the Jewish-Crusader Civilization,” as he calls it.

As a cultural struggle, the world-wide Jihad is waged on three fronts. The most immediate front is within Muslim countries, where the goals is to reinstate the rule of Shari’a law. The second front is in countries with Muslim minorities, situated on “fault lines” with other cultures, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, Kashmir, etc. And the last front is the international cultural struggle, in which Islam takes on Western— particularly American—civilization, perceived by the fundamentalists as the source of all evil, and the primary threat to Islam.