In a videotaped message released last week, Al-Qaeda’s number two man, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, ridiculed President George W. Bush, who he claimed was “addicted to drinking, lying and gambling”, an obvious reference to Bush’s long-admitted moral failings dated a long-time ago. But since Zawahiri is interested in dragging up the distant past to mock his nemesis, let’s take time to revisit a couple of episodes from his own past that shed a less-than-flattering light on the principles of Osama bin Laden’s right-hand man and the public face of Al-Qaeda in recent years.
In Lawrence Wright’s recent book, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf, 2006), and in his lengthy September 2002 New Yorker profile of Zawahiri, “The Man Behind Bin Laden”, Wright recounts two incidents from Zawahiri’s biography that the Egyptian terror leader has been reluctant to advertise his own qualifications as Jihad’s Judas.
In one instance following the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Zawahiri fingered one of his closest friends sought by authorities and actively participated in setting up a trap to capture his fellow jihadi; and in the other instance, Zawahiri was directly involved in the car bomb assassination of Al-Qaeda founder Abdullah Azzam over a disagreement in the future direction of the Afghanistan mujahedeen and to advance his personal position.
On October 8, 1981, President Sadat was reviewing a military parade in Cairo, when a military vehicle carrying a group of assassins – associates of Zawahiri – veered towards the viewing stands where Sadat was seated. The assassins began throwing hand grenades into the stands and firing volleys of automatic rifle fire into the President, killing him immediately. Zawahiri claimed that he wasn’t aware of the plot until a few hours before it occurred, but immediately following the assassination, he was helping his closest friend and fellow member of Zawahiri’s jihad cell, Essam al-Qamari, coordinate a follow-up attack at Sadat’s funeral in an attempt to decapitate the government and install their own “Islamic” government. However, one of the conspirators was arrested before the plot could fully develop.
In the aftermath of the Sadat assassination, Zawahiri inexplicably was not immediately taken into custody, nor did he flee or go underground; Qamari, however, was the most wanted man in Egypt. Eventually, Zawahiri was brought in for questioning by Interior Ministry officials and his communications monitored. According to multiple sources, it was at this point that Zawahiri divulged the whereabouts of his friend, Qamari. This is confirmed by a former friend of Zawahiri’s and one of his cellmates, Montasser al-Zayyat, in his tell-all book on Zawahiri, The Road to Al-Qaeda: The Story of Bin Laden’s Right-Hand Man:
After he was arrested on October 15, 1981, Zawahiri informed the authorities of Qamari's whereabouts. He had taken a refuge in a small mosque where he used to pray and meet Zawahiri and other members of the group. It was this painful memory which was at the root of Zawahiri's suffering, and which prompted him to leave Egypt for Saudi Arabia. He stayed there until he left for Afghanistan in 1987.
According to Wright’s account of Zawahiri’s betrayal of Qamari (found on pp. 52-53 in The Looming Tower), Zawahiri was present at the time of Qamari’s arrest to finger his associate. Zawahiri later testified against Qamari and thirteen other associates during their trials.
But as one analyst explains, in an attempt to cover-up the shame of his betrayal of Qamari, Zawahiri has engaged in a creative re-interpretation of the events surrounding Qamari’s capture (after Qamari was conveniently dead) in a series of articles he had published in December 2001 in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in response to Zayyat’s book:
…one reason for Al-Zawahiri's desire for a quick exit from Egypt had to do with the information he had given to the police which led to the arrest of his close friend, Issam Al-Qamari. The police investigation minutes, quoted by Al-Zayyat, suggest that Al-Zawahiri arranged to meet his friend at a location surrounded by security personnel so that Al-Qamari could be arrested without bloodshed. By contrast, in his memoirs Al-Zawahari draws a fantastic picture of great heroism shown by Al-Qamari and a small group of his comrades who were hiding in a workshop. When the police tried to break into the hiding place Al-Qamari, according to Al-Zawahiri, lobbed hand grenades and opened fire from automatic weapons causing a lot of fatalities and confusion among the police. Al-Qamari was chased by the police in the narrow lanes of the poor Cairo neighborhood lobbing hand grenades at his pursuers. The battle went on for hours until Al-Qamari's ammunition was exhausted. Al-Zawahiri's story sounds like a sheer fantasy. (Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli, “Radical Islamist Profiles (3): Ayman Muhammad Rabi' Al-Zawahiri: The Making of an Arch Terrorist,” MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis Series - No. 127 [March 11, 2003])
While Zawahiri’s betrayal of Essam al-Qamari might be excused on the grounds that his cooperation in capturing Qamari was obtained through the threat of torture, the assassination of one of the top mujahedeen leaders in Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam, a mentor to both Bin Laden and Zawahiri and the founder of Al-Qaeda, over disagreements in the direction of jihad after the defeat of the Soviets, clearly shows that Zawahiri is hardly the man of principle and courage portrayed in his videos, but a power-hungry opportunist that will turn to murdering fellow jihadis to improve his position in the global jihad.
Azzam’s assassination occurred as a power struggle broke out among two Egyptian groups in Afghanistan: Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad and the Saudi-funded Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiyya. Raphaeli describes the heart of the conflict between the two organizations:
Al-Murabitoon (a magazine published by Al-Jama’a) accused Al-Zawahiri of depositing in his Swiss bank account money he had collected to support the Mujahedeen. He was also accused of selling arms provided by bin Laden and using the proceeds to buy gold nuggets. In the face of these accusations, some relief agencies decided to cut off their aid to Al-Zawahiri, and the need for funds forced him to seek assistance from Iran. This move further alienated the Gulf countries, particularly, Saudi Arabia which henceforth channeled all its aid to Al-Jama'a. By the time the Soviet Union started pulling out of Afghanistan in 1992 the conflict between the two groups reached the stage of mutual accusation of Takfir, or apostasy, and individual acts of assassination. Al-Zawahiri emerged the winner from this conflict, largely because of bin Laden's support and because of the murder of Abdallah Azzam, the spiritual leader of bin Laden.
Most analysts agree that Zawahiri was the chief beneficiary of Azzam’s assassination, and it solidified his position alongside Bin Laden among the jihadis that remained in Afghanistan. Western intelligence authorities believes that the assassination of Azzam was carried out by Zawahiri’s close Egyptian associate, Mohammad Atef, under Zawahiri’s orders.
But as Wright explains in his New Yorker article, the murder of Azzam and his sons was driven by nothing more than ideological and strategic differences between the Azzam and Bin Laden/Zawahiri factions within Al-Qaeda:
Bin Laden's final break with Abdullah Azzam came in a dispute over the scope of jihad. Bin Laden envisioned an all-Arab legion, which eventually could be used to wage jihad in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Sheikh Abdullah strongly opposed making war against fellow-Muslims. Zawahiri undermined Azzam's position by spreading rumors that he was a spy. "Zawahiri said he believed that Abdullah Azzam was working for the Americans," Osama Rushdi told me. "Sheikh Abdullah was killed that same night." On November 24, 1989, Azzam and two of his sons were blown up by a car bomb as they were driving to a mosque in Peshawar. Although no one has claimed credit for the killings, many have been blamed, including Zawahiri himself, and even bin Laden. At Azzam's funeral, Zawahiri delivered a eulogy.
Azzam’s plan to take the jihad from Afghanistan to Israel would die with him. Instead, Zawahiri’s plan of launching attacks against the Muslim regimes in the Middle East prevailed, and the presence of American troops in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf War a few years later would provide the justification for Al-Qaeda leadership to focus on taking out the only remaining Cold War superpower, the US. But it would take the murder of one of the brightest stars of jihad, Azzam, to put their plan into action – a murderous program repeated by Bin Laden and Zawahiri just days before 9/11 with the preemptive assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud, hero of the anti-Soviet resistance and leader of the Afghan Northern Alliance.
Of course, it is easy for Zawahiri to mock President Bush and cite his past faults as he is hiding in a cave on the other side of the planet. But as we know, that takes no more courage than writing an op-ed for the New York Times or Washington Post. But as indicated by the two separate incidents of betrayal of his own, Ayman Al-Zawahiri has no moral high ground to lecture President Bush for his past personal failures or the American people for our foreign policy.
Perhaps Zawahiri should learn that people looking establish shari’a throughout the world, especially Jihad’s Judas himself, should not be so quick to throw stones.
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