Imagine your father is a dashing, self-made businessman. Outside of your country’s royal family, he has more wealth than anyone in your corner of the world. Good. Now imagine your father has a total of 22 wives. And more than 50 children. You are child number 17. What would that be like? I think it’s fair to say you’d yearn for your share of fatherly attention, and there wouldn’t be much.
Osama bin Laden’s father was Mohammed bin Laden -- the billionaire owner of the largest construction company in Saudi Arabia. A man consumed with growing his business as fast as his family. And so his 17th child barely saw him. And then Mohammed bin Laden literally fell from the sky one day in 1967 … and died. Osama was ten years old.
PETER BERGEN: Well I think if your father dies when you’re age 10, it’s going to be a big deal.
CNN’s Peter Bergen, author of the book, The Osama bin Laden I Knew.
PETER BERGEN: If you look at his life, I think he was often in search of father figures.
In his early thirties, Osama would look for a devout Muslim man, versed in jihad, to guide him. He would have two such men to choose from. Both veterans of the Afghan War. One essentially told him: Osama, use your fighters against the near enemy: those who would oppose an Islamic government in Afghanistan. But the other man said, No, fight the far enemy. Attack the West and overthrow secular governments in Muslim countries.
And then, under mysterious circumstances, one of the men died. Some even whispered that Osama was involved ... though there’s no evidence of that. What IS known is that the man left standing, as much as anyone, steered Osama bin Laden toward becoming a global figure. And waging war on America.
This is Blindspot: The Road to 9/11. The story of the long, strange wind-up to the attack that remade the world … and the chances we had to stop it. I’m Jim O’Grady.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: That was the beginning of Al Qaeda.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: Osama Bin Laden was a hero.
EMAD SALEM: They see the entire world media. They try to send a message.
ARTURO MUÑOZ: You can’t do this peacefully, it has to be done violently.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.”
ABDULLAH ANAS: You don’t believe what kind of level of hate.
Episode Six: The Choice
In 1945, toward the end of World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sailing back to America from the Yalta Conference … when he made a curious pit stop in Saudi Arabia. At least that’s how it seemed to some people. Of all the gin joints in all the world -- or, I should say, of all the states to have emerged after the final break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, how did FDR end up in this one? Well, we all know the answer to that now. But at the time, the visit signaled something new: the West’s calculated interest in this part of the world. And back then when a subject was important, it got its own breathless newsreel. This one was titled, and I’m going to use the old newsreel voice:
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: “FDR Meets Middle East Potentates.”
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: The ship’s vast decks are covered in rich oriental rugs.
Rugs on the deck of a US Navy warship. There to cushion the feet of FDR and King Abulaziz, founder and ruler of Saudi Arabia.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: He is accompanied by 48 men, among them his sons and many famous sheikhs.
FDR and the king sit in chairs on the deck of the ship … and they’re talking, face-to-face.
NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: Centered on the vastly important question of oil. The potential American development of the oil concession granted by the king.
The second half of the 20th century is dawning and these two men, as much as anyone on the planet, are aware that it will be dominated by oil. So they strike a deal. Former U.S. ambassador to Saudia Arabia, Chas Freeman, describes the terms.
CHAS FREEMAN: 1945, FDR met with King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia to ensure continued access to Saudi oil, which had been very important in the Second World War. And the deal was in return for continued American preferred access to Saudi energy supplies, the United States will defend Saudi Arabia against foreign enemies.
To radical Islamists like Osama bin Laden, this is the original cynical bargain. It allows American infidels to exploit Arabia, Land of the Prophet. And that is a sacrilege. Princeton historian Bernard Haykel:
BERNARD HAYKEL: There is a relationship of a dominant superpower and a client state. And he felt that that was not acceptable.
A sign to bin Laden that his homeland, which should be a leader among Muslims, had lost its way.
BERNARD HAYKEL: Muslims should have their own empire and they should be the superpower themselves, and not be clients to any superpower.
This, in short, became bin Laden’s dream. He would bend so many of his efforts toward making it real.
Let’s have Ambassador Freeman, using his very First World perspective, describe Saudi Arabia’s beginnings.
CHAS FREEMAN: Until the discovery of oil, there was nothing there except they grew dates and they had camels. And that was it.
The discovery came in 1938. That’s when engineers with Standard Oil, an American company in partnership with the Saudis, sank a drill into the desert and started tapping an ocean of crude. After that, the country changed with almost surrealistic speed.
CHAS FREEMAN: Oil in Saudi Arabia transformed a society from one with no electricity - people living in mud huts - to one of the most modern 21st century physical environments on the planet.
Someone had to build it.
Why not an illiterate immigrant from Yemen named Mohammed bin Laden? He arrived in Jeddah at age 23 in a camel caravan. Took work as a bricklayer. Lost his right eye in an accident on a job site -- that’s what some say. Others say it was a blow from a teacher that blinded him as a boy.
Didn’t matter; didn’t stop him.
Mohammed bin Laden started his own construction company and wheeled and dealed his way through the oil boom to become the royal family’s master builder. He went from a threadbare nobody to a smiling, goateed CEO in flowing robes cutting ribbons on the country’s biggest projects. That’s according to Steve Coll, author of the book, The Bin Ladens.
STEVE COLL: Osama bin Laden’s father really came of age as a businessman in the late 1940’s. And this was when the oil was flowing, the cash was flowing.
These were, let’s say, fertile times for Mohammed bin Laden.
PETER BERGEN: Osama’s father kind of had a rather legalistic interpretation of what Islam says. Islam says, at least some people view, that you can have up to four wives provided you can support all of them.
PETER BERGEN: And so what Mohammed bin Laden would do was to sort of rotate the number four. So, he ended up having 20 wives because he was constantly divorcing one of them. And one of them was Osama bin Laden’s mother who lasted, you know, a couple of years. They - he had Osama and then he cast her off.
Mohammed’s eleventh wife gave birth to Osama in 1957. The boy grew up in Jeddah, a cosmopolitan coastal town that serves as the gateway to the holy city of Mecca, an hour away. The bin Ladens spoke English and took European vacations, including to Sweden, although Osama seems to have skipped that trip. Unlike many of his siblings growing up, he stuck close to home.
PETER BERGEN: A lot of them went to college and university in the United States. After all, a lot of their family wealth is involved in the oil business, which has a very big American component in Saudi Arabia. Most of the bin Laden family is quite pro-American. There's a bunch of people wearing highly westernized clothes who seem very comfortable in the West. And they were.
And then the patriarch took a business trip to a southern Saudi province in a twin-engine plane.
STEVE COLL: Mohammed bin Laden had a plane that he used to fly to desert construction sites. The pilots that flew the family around were often Americans. They would be hired away from TWA by the family to fly their private planes. And in 1967 he flew out to one of these sites along the Yemeni border. And the pilot got caught up in a wind gust as he was approaching, tried to pull out too fast. The plane stalled, tipped, and fell straight down from, hundreds of feet in the air, smashed and burned. Bin Laden died instantly. So the irony was that Osama’s life was disrupted by an airplane crash involving an American pilot that occurred in the very part of Saudi Arabia where the 9/11 hijackers eventually came from.
Bin Laden went to a high school for the children of Jeddah’s elite. The only school in town with air conditioning. The students did not wear the traditional Saudi headdress. Instead they put on Western uniforms: grey slacks with white button-down shirts and ties -- and in the winter months, charcoal blazers. The schoolmaster had a cane. He used it to beat the barefoot soles of misbehaving boys.
The school was Western in style but Islamic at heart. Students were expected to follow strict Islamic ritual. They knelt together each day for the traditional noon prayer. This is the side of the school that appealed to bin Laden, says Peter Bergen.
PETER BERGEN: Fasting twice a week and praying His idea of a fun evening was to bring his friends to chant religious songs about Palestine.
Khaled Batarfi was one of Osama bin Laden’s childhood pals.
KHALED BATARFI: He loved quizzes about Islamic history, and then he would ask for example in what year was the prophet born? Who has the answer? Oh, congratulations you win. You have a point.
But he was not all pray and no play. He rooted for a local soccer team and a friend says he drove a gray Mercedes, sometimes at high speeds.
KHALED BATARFI: Of course we knew bin Laden very well. It’s like Rockefeller in America.
It’s worth emphasizing his point: bin Laden wasn’t just typical trust fund rich, he was Rockefeller rich. The bin Laden family possessed the kind of stupefying wealth that automatically brings power … and allows for the grandest of visions.
Think of it this way: Who but the Rockefeller family could’ve levelled an entire neighborhood in Lower Manhattan and willed the Twin Towers into existence? And who but their Arabian counterpart would’ve felt entitled to bring them down?
Bin Laden was an average student but could’ve gone to college in the West if he’d wanted. Or he could’ve traveled. Stretched his gangly legs and seen the world -- paid for with his $1 million annual allowance. Instead he enrolled at King Abdulaziz University … in Jeddah.
One of his professors was the brother of Sayyid Qutb. That Sayyid Qutb.
Sayyid Qutb first showed up in Episode Two, when I described how he’d inspired the Egyptian extremist the Blind Sheikh to call for the assassination of Anwar el-Sadat.
AP: President Anwat Sadat was shot today while he was reviewing the 6th of October parade, which commemorates the 1973 Middle East …
Osama read a book by Qutb that said leaders of Muslim countries were not following “the right path of Islam but … their wishes and lusts.”
In his schooling and in his reading, bin Laden would’ve learned that the United States occupies Muslim countries, steals their resources, and poses an existential threat to Islam. Just look at the crooked deal between FDR and the Saudi King.
Arturo Muñoz was working as a CIA analyst at the time. He studied political currents throughout the Middle East, where most of the countries were not experiencing a Saudi Arabian-like boom. This is what he saw:
ARTURO MUÑOZ: You had all these young people that couldn’t get jobs. Secularism doesn’t work. Pan-Arab nationalism doesn’t work. Islam. This is the answer. And I think it was attractive to a lot of people.
Islam is the answer. Proof came in 1979, Osama’s senior year. A popular uprising toppled the Shah of Iran, an American-backed dictator.
AP: Millions of Iranians celebrate the departure earlier today of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi…
He was replaced with the Ayatollah Khomeini.
PETER BERGEN: That’s significant because here is an American backed dictator overthrown by a religious movement.
It was inspiring to a devout Saudi student.
PETER BERGEN: All these events are kind of percolating as bin Laden’s at university and have a profound influence on him.
But it was another professor at the school who would change Osama’s life. An imam named Abdullah Azzam -- that name should sound familiar. He’s the fiery preacher from Episode One of this podcast, the man whose long black beard had streaks of white on either side, like lightning bolts. Who came to the U.S. year after year to preach his version of jihad, including in New York and New Jersey. The man who liked to quote a line of Arab poetry that said, “I shall make war my mother.”
ABDULLAH AZZAM: Jihad is the worship of a lifetime, not a worship limited to space or bound by time.
If Osama was in search of a father figure, Azzam, fit the bill. Abdullah Azzam was an actual father too. Here’s his son, Huthaifa Azzam, who’s in his fifties now.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: I have lived with Osama bin Laden for more than 12 years. Very close to him.
Huthaifa recalled watching his father take bin Laden under his wing.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: Osama met my father as a teacher in the university and he had a long conversation with my father. “When we’re put in the corner, we don’t have any other solution, and we can’t get our rights. Except one way: it’s the jihad.”
Not the jihad of spiritual striving but violent jihad.
Abdullah Azzam had intense political convictions ... and he was the rare academic who would uproot his entire life for them. And that made an impression on the young Osama bin Laden.
Peter Bergen says it began in 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.
PETER BERGEN: Which is a, you know, a godless, totalitarian state attacking a very observant Muslim country.
Azzam did more than just issue a fatwa condemning it. Although he did do that. He said able-bodied Muslims were obliged by jihad to take up arms against the Soviet occupiers. And what if they didn’t? His answer was to quote The Prophet: Allah would “hate” them and look upon them as “a corpse by night and an ass by day.”
This guy knew his way around a rhetorical flourish. And he backed it up by leaving his job at the university to join the mujahideen in bringing Islamic rule to Afghanistan.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: My father saw in this movement a hope of bringing the Muslim world to the power again.
Osama bin Laden agreed.
Azzam would tell audiences that when he first stepped foot in Afghanistan in 1980, he felt “reborn.” He set up shop in Peshawar, across the border in Pakistan, a frontier city famously crawling with arms dealers and spies.
His job was to organize the Arab recruits then showing up from around the world -- Africa, Asia, America -- eager to battle the Soviets. Bear in mind, these Arab volunteers were different from the native Afghan fighters. The two groups were brothers in arms … but with somewhat different aims. The Afghans, they were out to reclaim their invaded homeland. They did most of the fighting … and dying. The volunteers had come to assist but were mainly there to fight for an idea. Or ideas, like jihad, Sharia law, and, fundamentally, Arab pride.
Azzam stressed this theme in his preaching.
ABDULLAH AZZAM: When Almighty God saw the Muslim nation had fallen to despair, and thought they had no values, He met them and raised the issue of Afghanistan.
He told his volunteers he hoped they had “a thirst for martyrdom.” Because soon he’d be sending them through the Khyber Pass to the front lines in Afghanistan, where they would have their chance to slake that thirst.
Back in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden was seriously considering leaving home and joining Azzam. And y’know, this might seem like a radical move, but according to Saad al-Fagih, it wasn’t. Al-Fagih is the head of a Saudi opposition group based in London. And he says the Saudi government encouraged its citizens to train with the mujahideen.
- SAAD AL-FAGIH: Either publicly or indirectly supported by the regime. You need to pay only 25 percent of the ticket price, 75 percent is paid by the government.
So like dozens or maybe hundreds of Saudi men in the early 80s -- exact numbers are hard to come by -- Osama bin Laden caught a flight to the Afghan War.
- SAAD AL-FAGIH: Everybody goes there under the umbrella of charity, but they join jihad with the full knowledge of the government.
Steve Coll says some of the men in the training camps would go on to see brutal combat. But for others, the trip was more like a coming-of-age ritual.
STEVE COLL: Some of it looked a little bit like summer camp for Saudi teenagers. You would go in, uh, take a little bit of calisthenics, pick up an AK-47, shoot it across a valley, and then go home after 6 weeks and tell your parents that you had just been a righteous volunteer.
A hardcore handful were more serious. Like a young man who came to be known as Abdullah Anas. In 1984, he read Azzam’s fatwa at his local library in western Algeria. Everyone around him had read it, too, and they were asking,
ABDULLAH ANAS: Where is this Afghanistan?
Later that year, Anas made pilgrimage to Mecca. He was standing with his friend inside the marbled expanse of the Grand Mosque when his friend spotted a man in the crowd who looked like Abdullah Azzam. You know, the guy who wrote the fatwa. Anas approached him.
ABDULLAH ANAS: And then I asked him, “Are you Sheikh Abdullah Azzam?”
He was. Anas said, I’m thinking about joining the mujahideen. Azzam reached into his pocket and handed him his business card. Before the year was out, the 26-year-old Anas was in Peshawar, receiving a new name.
ABDULLAH ANAS: My nom de guerre is, uh, Abdullah Anas. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam gave me this name when I first met him.
Anas would rise through the ranks of the mujahideen … and eventually marry Azzam’s daughter. In the mid-1980s, he remembers meeting a quiet, serious-looking recruit.
ABDULLAH ANAS: This new face appeared suddenly, and Sheikh Abdullah Azzam introducing him to me, saying, “This is, uh, your brother in Islam, uh, Osama bin Laden.” What I remember, this guy is very shy, uh, didn’t talk too much. So the impression I got, this good guy from Saudi. After that I asked Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, and he said, “He used to visit me, trying to understand what is going on and bringing me some money for the mujahideen.” And also Osama bin Laden he was his student, he was his follower, he was just ready to serve Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
Abdullah Azzam’s son, Huthaifa, joined Osama for target practice. He says the newbie would jump at the sound of gunfire, and that it took awhile for him to adjust to life in camp.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: To live with this situation of bombarding and bombs and shootings, and battles.
Huthaifa adds that, during this phase, Osama would name-drop to compensate.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: He used to jump and say, “Oh, bin Mohammed, I’m the son of- of Mohammed.”
I’m the son of Mohammed bin Laden.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: He used to mention his father’s name.
Osama bin Laden used his father’s name to quickly establish his status, especially among the Saudi jihadists. He used his father’s money to methodically accumulate clout throughout jihadist circles. Abdullah Azzam, a broke-ass academic until then, and an opportunist, saw nothing wrong with that.
The two men helped each other. Osama paid Azzam’s bills and looked up to him as a leader. In return, Azzam protected Osama and showed him the ropes.
Osama initially made his mark as the moneybags of jihad -- the man who helped open the Saudi spigot of donations to the Afghan cause. But in 1986, he wanted to test himself in battle and give orders under fire. So he took a ragtag crew of Arab volunteers and set up camp on a mountaintop near the village of Jaji.
When Abdullah Azzam stopped by, he saw immediately that the position was vulnerable to Soviet attack. So he sent some of his own troops as reinforcements. Osama didn’t ask for it but Azzam had sent help, anyway. Paternalistically, you might say.
In an interview years later, Osama bin Laden said this about Azzam:
OSAMA BIN LADEN (in translation): Islamic Jihad in Afghanistan has not benefited from anyone the way it benefited from Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
High praise. Azzam’s reinforcements would help bin Laden and his men survive a week-long battle with the Soviets. The fight at Jaji didn’t change the outcome of the war. But it established the bin Laden legend. He has cast aside aside the comforts of wealth, observers said, and risked his skin for jihad.
This was also the high point of his relationship with Abdullah Azzam. Recall Peter Bergen’s observation that Osama bin Laden was in search of a father figure: Azzam, to this point, had filled the role.
But now a new man arrives on the scene. He’ll cast a shadow over bin Laden’s relationship to Azzam … and put pressure on him to make a choice. And as it happens, these two equally forceful men had something in common: Brooklyn.
MUSIC - MIDROLL
STAND-UP: AL-FAROOQ MOSQUE
Jihad is expensive. Sure, if you’re fighting the Soviets the CIA will give you all the weapons you can carry. That’s a savings. But still, there are warlords to bribe and safehouses to maintain and Arab fighters to train and equip and truck to the front.
That’s why Addullah Azzam and Osama bin Laden set up a global fundraising network. And one of their cash cows was here, at the Al-Farooq mosque on very busy Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
And it’s on the kind of city block that personally I love. It’s got a kind of theme to it. There’s a law office with script on the plate glass window. There’s something called The Fertile Crescent, Middle Eastern grocery story. And across the street here, there’s a building with a sign that says Islamic Library.
I live nearby and I’ve passed this mosque a million times and never noticed it. But now, when I see it, I ogle it like a celebrity. I know that from researching this story that Abdullah Azzam came here in the 1980s, and spoke several times, gave sermons, and raised lots of money.
It was an Azzam sermon that inspired Sayyid Nosair to assassinate Rabbi Meir Kahane. And as you know, Nosair beat the murder rap at trial, helped by a $20,000 donation from Osama bin Laden, who later thanked him for his service.
But there’s something I recently learned from a footnote in The Looming Tower, y’know that’s Lawrence Wright’s majestic book about 9/11. I learned that a doctor from Egypt spoke here, too. In 1988. And this would be the man who worked furiously to wrestle the father figure role away from Azzam. His name is Ayman al-Zawahiri. We need to talk about this guy.
Think back to the trial of Anwar el-Sadat’s assassins in Cairo. To the military courtroom with the cage inside it.
SOUND OF COURTROOM, YELLING
The Blind Sheikh is in there because he has inspired the plot. Next to him is Ayman al-Zawahiri -- a balding man with thick glasses in a white tunic and dark scarf. He’s gesturing through the bars and yelling in English
AYMAN AL-ZAWAHIRI: ...We are not sorry! We are not sorry about we have our right for our religion! And we have sacrificed! And we are still ready for more sacrifices till the victory of Islam!
The tape is hard to understand but he’s saying, “We have our right to our religion! And we have sacrificed! And we are still ready for more sacrifices till the victory of Islam!”
Emad Salem, then an officer in the Egyptian military, remembers the moment.
EMAD SALEM: Ayman al-Zawahiri is a doctor. So he speaks English. So they took a chance during the trial. They see the entire world media, they try to send a message that we are Muslim people and we speak our mind and this infidel government should not put us in cages.
Zawahiri was convicted on a weapons charge and sentenced to three years, which he’d nearly finished serving by the end of the trial. But the crucial events occurred before the proceedings even began. Between the arrest and the trial. In the Egyptian jail where Zawahiri and others were tortured.
Allow me to offer an insight by Wright in The Looming Tower. He writes, “One line of thinking proposes that America’s tragedy on September 11 was born of the prisons of Egypt.” And this line of thinking is in answer to a common question about the attacks: Why was Al Qaeda so bloodthirsty -- so interested in slaughter?
During the trial, Ayman al-Zawahiri took off his shoes and raised his shirt to show the marks of torture on his body. His allegations were later substantiated by forensic medical reports. “They kicked us,” he cried. “They beat us … they shocked us with electricity! And they used wild dogs!”
I talked in the previous episode about torture’s many failures as an interrogation method. But torture does succeed in this: humiliating its victims.
Wright says, “The theme of humiliation, which is the essence of torture, is important to understanding the radical Islamists’ rage.” He quotes one of Zawahiri’s fellow prisoners: “The traumatic experiences suffered by Zawahiri in prison transformed him from being a relatively moderate force ... into a violent and implacable extremist.”
This is not an excuse, of course. There are no excuses for Al Qaeda’s attacks. But it’s the context for what follows.
So. What does this humiliated man do once he walks out of that Egyptian prison? This bitter extremist who holds the United States responsible for propping up the regime that subjected him to torture? He gathers up some of his allies and he goes to Peshawar … to see Osama bin Laden.
ABDULLAH ANAS: Strange things happening when this Zawahiri came to Peshawar. And from the first day, they were enemies of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam.
That’s Abdullah Anas again, the mujahideen who married into Azzam’s family. He says that from the start, Zawahiri was there to grab power by bulldozing, even eliminating, his opponents.
ABDULLAH ANAS: You don’t believe what kind of level of hate. If you have a different opinion to him, you are out of Islam. You are infidel. “This man is bad. This man is not good. This man is less Muslim.” Busy with classifying people.
If you vote, if you go to election, if you believe in democracy, if you believe in political- forming political parties, your blood is free, should be killed.
Arturo Muñoz of the CIA was tracking Ayman al-Zawahiri.
ARTURO MUÑOZ: He wants to accomplish the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood which is bring about an Islamic society, an Islamic government except his experiences in Egypt and his review of everything that happened in the Middle East, has led him to the conclusion, that you can’t do this peacefully, it has to be done violently.
ABDULLAH ANAS: He brought that level of hate from Egypt to Peshawar.
Anas starts to notice a change in bin Laden.
ABDULLAH ANAS: One day we are sitting with Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and saying, “Look, Osama bin Laden, even he is not saying hello to us, not saying As-salamu alaykum to us and he more closer to this, uh, Egyptians.”
Bin Laden begins funding Zawahiri at the same level as Azzam, and Azzam starts hearing that his rival is spreading dark rumors about him.
ABDULLAH ANAS: Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was surprised. “Why you are going to those people?” This Osama bin Laden I don’t know.
PETER BERGEN: Zawahiri would’ve been an attractive figure to bin Laden, somebody who is, you know, very militant.
Zawahiri would seem to be beating Azzam in their competition to influence bin Laden. That’s according to FBI Special Agent Ali Soufan.
ALI SOUFAN: Osama bin Laden’s view started to change. So the jihad in his mind is not a jihad of ... fighting the enemy face to face, as it used to be in Afghanistan. Assassination, car bombing, suicide bombing. These kind of attacks that they did in Egypt. So that is for him an acceptable jihad.
NEWSCASTER: The Soviet Union officially announced this morning that the first Soviet troops have begun their pullout from Afghanistan.
It’s 1988 and the Soviets are starting their long retreat. The mujahideen have won. The Afghan fighters will now compete for control of the country. But what about the Arab fighters from around the world? The question is: Should they disband and just go home? By this point, Osama bin Laden has the money and the stature to take the lead in deciding this question. So, he calls a meeting in his home.
Abdullah Azzam is not invited. But Egyptian jihadists connected to Zawahiri are. Azzam’s son Huthaifa says his father had pleaded with Osama not to get too close to Zawahiri.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: My father actually warned him many times, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t do it.” Because my father knows those people. He knows their ideology. My father told him, “They will spoil everything, and they will send you to hell.”
Handwritten notes from that meeting survive to this day. They summarize a key debate. One side says, The mujahideen should protect Muslim citizens in Muslim countries. Period. But the Zawahiri group says, Not good enough.
STEVE COLL: They were now in a position to ask: Who should we attack next? And they began to look with increasing skepticism on their own governments. And they began to ask: should we try to stage revolutions against the so-called ‘near enemy?’ -- meaning the government of Egypt or the government of Saudi Arabia. Or should we see the enemy as the United States? -- which is really the power behind all of these puppet governments.
Huthaifa Azzam sums up the new agreement between the Egyptian jihadists, led by Zawahiri, and bin Laden:
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: They said, “We, by our experience, you with your funds and support, we will build a new party.” That was the beginning of Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri has won the debate. Al Qaeda will move to attack the West, the U.S first and foremost. And the marching orders will emanate from Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. It’s now clear that bin Laden’s allegiance is shifting ... away from Azzam and toward Zawahiri. At least for now. But remember, things go wrong in every conflict. Tactics can change; alliances can shift.
Julius Caesar knew that, in war, it’s not enough to win. You also need to control the story of how the war was fought … and how you were the hero. Caesar structured the story of his conquest of the Gauls like a telenovela. He sent frequent dispatches to Rome describing flare-ups of temper, hardships endured and victories yanked from impossible odds. The Roman Republic lapped it up. (That Caesar was a power-mad egomaniac didn’t sink in until he’d crossed the Rubicon River and grabbed the capital.) Anyway.
Osama bin Laden knew this, too.
He believed that the war in Afghanistan was a call from God … and a branding opportunity. He saw no contradiction between these two things. So first, he developed a signature look: green camouflage jacket with a small Kalikov assault rifle by his side. If you asked him about the rifle, as many reporters did, he’d say he took it off a Russian soldier he had killed. Kinda cool … and unconfirmed.
And the press was all over it when bin Laden flew in dozens of bulldozers from his family’s company and used them to dig defensive tunnels in the Afghan mountains. Journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says the move swathed bin Laden in a Caesar-esque sheen.
ABDEL BARI ATWAN: Bin Laden was everywhere, his picture in most of the Saudi press. Osama bin Laden was a hero, as a man who actually sacrificed the wealth and joined the mujahideen.
It’s 1989. Osama is a bonafide leader of jihad. CNN’s Peter Bergen:
PETER BERGEN: Bin Laden was in charge of Al Qaeda. He was the boss. It was his group and you pledge allegiance personally to him.
Critically, bin Laden’s rise was not yet understood inside American intelligence circles. Or anywhere in the West. But Zawahiri and his group of Egyptian jihadists knew all about it … and made their move.
Posters started appearing on the walls of Peshawar -- posters hung by Zawahiri’s followers. They accused Abdullah Azzam of grave misdeeds: stealing mujahideen funds and, worse, attempting to cooperate with American and Christian organizations. The charges were sensational. Fights broke out in mosques between pro-Azzam factions and adherents of Zawahiri.
Azzam’s enemies put him on trial … and found him guilty of embezzlement. The sentence was to cut off one of his hands. At the last moment, bin Laden intervened to stop the punishment and spare Azzam from mutilation. But the verdict stood.
But even in this moment of peril, Azzam still had many defenders … and surely he could count on his long-standing, fatherly bond with Osama bin Laden.
It’s November of 1989. Mujahideen fighter Abdullah Anas is stationed in the mountains. An Afghan commander seeks him out to deliver urgent news.
ABDULLAH ANAS: “Some sad news. The Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was assassinated in Peshawar.”
En route to Friday prayer, a bomb ripped through Azzam’s car, killing him and two of his sons.
ABDULLAH ANAS: I love Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. He’s my emir. He’s my sheikh. He’s my teacher. He’s my friend, and then suddenly he’s not anymore in my life.
The news soon reached Huthaifa, one of Azzam’s surviving sons.
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: You could say it’s a shock or something. I didn’t talk to anyone for three, four days I was silent. And I cannot forget the, uh, the pictures I saw in front of me.
Anas says Azzam’s death haunts him still. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing. And the crime remains unsolved.
ABDULLAH ANAS: I don’t know who did it, but people, you know, everyone saying something. You know, someone hate America saying United States did it. Someone hates Saudi, people saying Saudi did it. I don’t be surprised if someone tells me Zawahiri did it. Many times he said, “Abdullah Azzam is an agent of United States. Abdullah Azzam is an agent of Saudi.” So, someone accusing in this very, very serious accusations, I don’t surprise if one day we found him behind the assassination.
Some even suggested that Osama bin Laden ordered the killing. In an interview, he dismissed those rumors and denied that he and Azzam had devolved into rivals at the end.
OSAMA BIN LADEN (in translation): Those who lived in the battlefield know of the strong bond that ties me to Sheikh Abdullah Azzam. there was no competition we hope that Almighty Allah will accept him as a martyr.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the man who’d been humiliated and tortured in an Egyptian prison, now had unfettered access to his instrument of revenge: Osama bin Laden. The pair discussed their vision for Al Qaeda: how it would strike blows against infidel targets across the globe -- no holds barred. As bin Laden described it years later:
OSAMA BIN LADEN (in translation): There are two sides in the struggle: the Christian globalists that are in alliance with the Zionist-Jews and led by America, Britain, and Israel; and the other side is the Islamic World.
Al Qaeda’s political goal was to shift the balance of power between the West and the Muslim world. To shatter the “client state” dynamic -- like the one that had been set up with a handshake on the deck of a ship in 1945 between FDR and a king from the House of Saud.
Al Qaeda announced itself with a 1992 bombing in Yemen that killed two tourists. And the U.S. would come to believe that, in 1993, Al Qaeda played a role in the Black Hawk Down attack, claiming it was bin Laden’s men who trained the Somali militia that killed eighteen American soldiers. But Al Qaeda’s big prize -- a direct, large-scale attack against the U.S. -- that seemed out of reach.
And then in 1996, Osama bin Laden takes a meeting. It’s with a man who’s been in the shadows, assisting Ramzi Yousef. A man who wired 600 dollars to Yousef for his preparations to bomb the World Trade Center. A man who joined Yousef in the Philippines to help him with a planned assassination of the pope -- and with the Bojinka plot, which, had it worked, would’ve brought down multiple planes over the Pacific. And this man was there the day the FBI tracked Yousef to a guest house in Islamabad -- a guest house owned by Osama bin Laden.
Reporter John Miller picks up the story.
JOHN MILLER: As the agents were moving in on that guesthouse, a guy across the street who saw what was going on took off. And that was Ramzi Yousef’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.
Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, then 29 years old. A veteran of the Afghan War and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
JOHN MILLER: And he had all of Ramzi Yousef’s plans in his head, plans that had been disrupted, plans that weren’t known about, plans that were half done, and he took these and he found his way to Al Qaeda, and he brought them to bin Laden, and he kind of dusted them off and said, “You know, with some money, these could actually be brought to life.” And that kind of portended the future, which is there are other Ramzi Yousefs, there are other plots, and they’ll be back.
Next time on Blindspot: The Road to 9/11…
HUTHAIFA AZZAM: Osama, he left Saudi Arabia and he said, “I will never go back.”
STEVE COLL: And the first thing he did after he arrived in Afghanistan was essentially climb up on a mountain top and write a declaration of war against the United States.
LEON PANETTA: Terrorism was not just a Middle East problem. It was a problem that we were going to have to deal with.
GARY SCHROEN: And of course that’s exactly what happened.
“Blindspot: The Road to 9/11” is a co-production of HISTORY and WNYC Studios. Our team includes Jenny Lawton, Ursula Sommer, Joe Plourde, David Lewis, Michelle Harris, Bill Moss, and Isaac Jones.
This podcast is based on the TV documentary “Road to 9/11” produced by Left/Right for HISTORY, and was made possible by executive producers Ken Druckerman and Banks Tarver. Special thanks to Eli Lehrer [like “Brian Lehrer”], Jessie Katz, Celia Muller, and Jennifer Goren -- and to Steve Emerson for providing some of the archival audio, including that of Abdullah Azzam, used in this episode. Additional archival footage from AP Archive and NBC News Archives. All of our Arabic language tape was independently translated by Lara Atallah. Our voice over actors this episode were Ramsey Faragallah and Louis Sallan. I’m Jim O’Grady. Thanks for listening.
[sound of knocking on door]
JIM: Come in.
[sound of door opening]
JIM: What brings you here today?
YAROSH: Teach me how to ride a bike?
JIM: Oh, you want someone to teach you to ride the bike. But I can’t because I- I’m on a deadline today.
YAROSH: Milmoe can teach me.
JIM: Milmoe the dog! Milmoe, teach Yarosh how to ride a bike. Come on, Milmoe. He’s so lazy.
YAROSH: Yes, he is.
JIM: Why won’t he teach a boy how to ride a bike?
YAROSH: Because he’s a dog.
JIM: I see. Thanks for clearing that up.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.