Rice University sociology professor Craig Considine, a self-proclaimed “Islamic apologist,” likes to quote the dubious hadith that the “ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.” In his argumentation, this canonical narrative about Islam’s prophet Muhammad evinces Islam’s pacific nature, yet Muslim scholars often inspire the shedding of martyrs’ blood.
The Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s clearly demonstrated this nexus in Islam between the pen and the sword. House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare Director Yossef Bodansky analyzed this phenomenon in his 1999 book, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. Herein he examined the relationship between Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and one of his spiritual mentors, Abdullah Azzam.
Bodansky set the scene for their partnership:
In the late 1970s Afghanistan, a desolate and backward landlocked country, was ruled by a Soviet-sponsored Communist government being challenged by Pakistani-sponsored Islamist subversion. With the Communist regime increasingly unstable, the Soviet armed forces marched into Afghanistan, occupied the country’s strategic infrastructure, assassinated the president, and replaced him with a docile Soviet puppet. They also began a systematic campaign to suppress the Islamist subversion.
The Soviet invasion was the first time since World War II that non-Muslim forces had occupied a Muslim country—and these were anti-Islamic Communists to boot. Little wonder that the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the last days of 1979 shocked the entire Muslim world to its core. The occupation of a Muslim state by Communist forces insulted the most basic sensitivities of Islam. But however immense the shock and however great the condemnation by the Arab states, little was actually done.
In contrast, “Osama bin Laden was one of the first Arabs to go to Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion,” Bodansky wrote. “In retrospect, bin Laden now considers the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a turning point in his life,” he added. “In our religion, there is a special place in the hereafter for those who participate in jihad,” bin Laden told an Arab journalist; “One day in Afghanistan was like one thousand days of praying in an ordinary mosque.”
With his background as a construction mogul, bin Laden proved himself an effective jihad organizer, Bodansky detailed:
On arrival bin Laden was appalled by the chaos in Pakistan and the lack of Arab unity and devoted himself to political and organizational work, establishing a recruitment drive that over the next few years would funnel thousands of Arab fighters from the Gulf States to the Afghan resistance. At first he personally covered the travel costs of these volunteers to Pakistan and Afghanistan, but more important, he set up the main camps to train them. In early 1980 bin Laden established Ma’sadat Al-Ansar, then the main base for Arab mujahideen in Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, Bodansky continued, bin Laden came
into contact with Sheikh Abdallah Yussuf Azzam, who was key in establishing what is today the International Legion of Islam—the highly proficient and dedicated hard core of international Islamist terrorism. Azzam was born in a small village near Jenin, Samaria, in 1941. His pious family sent him to get religious schooling from an early age. After receiving most of his early education in Jordan, he entered Sharia College of Damascus University, where he obtained a B.A. degree in Sharia (Islamic law) in 1966. After the 1967 Six Days War, during which Israel captured Azzam’s hometown, Azzam escaped to Jordan and joined the jihad against Israel. He found his calling not on the battlefield but in education and incitement. Toward this end he was sent to Egypt, where he received a master’s degree in Sharia from the prestigious al-Azhar University. In 1970 he began teaching at Amman University but returned in 1971 to al-Azhar on scholarship and in 1973 obtained a Ph.D. in principles of Islamic jurisprudence.”
A few years later, Bodansky related, the learned
Azzam went to Saudi Arabia to teach at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, a hub of Islamist scholarship that had a strong influence on Saudi youth. Osama bin Laden was studying at the university at the time, and there is evidence that he attended one of Azzam’s lectures. In Jeddah, Azzam formulated his doctrine of the centrality of the jihad to the liberation of the Muslim world from the stifling embrace of Westernization.
This was not an academic discussion for Azzam, Bodansky explained:
In 1979, with the declaration of the Afghan jihad, Azzam left the university and went to practice what he had been preaching, becoming one of the first Arabs to join the Afghan jihad. But the Pakistani and Afghan leaders in the jihad urged him to resume teaching rather than take part in battle. Azzam was first appointed as a lecturer at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, but he decided to move to Peshawar, closer to the Afghanistan border, and devote all his time and energy to the jihad in Afghanistan.
“In Peshawar, Sheikh Azzam founded the Bait-ul-Ansar, which received and trained the first Islamist volunteers pouring into Pakistan to participate in the Afghan jihad,” Bodansky wrote. There Azzam formed a dynamic duo with bin Laden. As Bodansky observed:
Bin Laden had money, knowledge, and enthusiasm and implemented Azzam’s ideas. Azzam and bin Laden established the Makrab al-Khidamat—the Mujahideen Services Bureau-which bin Laden soon transformed into an international network that sought out Islamists with special knowledge, from medical doctors and engineers to terrorists and drug smugglers, and recruited them for service in Afghanistan.
Azzam’s mentorship of bin Laden explodes the myth that jihadists like him have no proper understanding of Islamic doctrine, as Michael Scheuer, the director in the years before and after 9/11 of the CIA’s unit for tracking bin Laden, noted. Bin Laden always presented himself as a “simple Muslim” merely following established Islamic teachings, Scheuer wrote, along with many other Muslims who waged jihad in Afghanistan from countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Many other Muslims would follow Azzam and bin Laden’s call to turn Afghanistan into a base for global jihad, as the next article in this series will examine.