The Fatwa and the Bet
Winter 1998. “So, Ali, now let me ask you a personal question.” I was having dinner with John O’Neill, my boss and the FBI special agent in charge of the National Security Division in the FBI’s New York office. We were at Kennedy’s, on West Fifty-seventh Street in midtown Manhattan, sitting at a table by the fireplace. It was John’s favorite spot in the restaurant, especially when the weather was cold, as it was that evening.
John and I had spent the previous few hours discussing a memo I had written on a figure then little-known outside government circles, Osama bin Laden, who had just issued a fatwa declaring war against America. It was this memo that had brought me—a rookie in the bureau—to the attention of John, one of the most senior members in the office. Someone of my standing would usually have had to go through several chains of command to reach John O’Neill.
We had just finished dessert, and John was cradling his preferred drink, Chivas Regal with seltzer. His question signaled that he was done talking terrorism and now wanted to get to know me as a person. This was something he liked to do with all new agents he took under his wing, a colleague had told me. The question appeared to be a good sign.
The thought that he was considering taking me under his wing made me smile inwardly. John was an FBI legend and was known to be one of the few senior U.S. government officials who understood the necessity of making counterterrorism a national priority. To others, the war on drugs, foreign governments spying on us, and other nonterrorism-related matters were of greater concern. For anyone who believed, as I did, that a response to acts of terrorism carried out by violent Islamist groups needed to be prioritized, working alongside John was where you wanted to be.
“Sure, boss,” I answered. “What’s your question?”
“What I want to know, Ali,” he said, leaning forward and looking at me and swirling his drink in the palm of his left hand, “is why did you join the bureau? What led you, a boy born in Beirut, from a family of intellectuals, to our ranks? You’re not a typical recruit.” Ending with a statement rather than a direct question was customary for John, and on that note he gave a quick smile, leaned back in his chair, and took a sip of his drink.
I studied John as he asked the question. He was, as usual, immaculately dressed, wearing one of his trademark double-breasted suits and expensive brogues, with a Rolex watch on his wrist. John didn’t dress like a typical government employee. He valued looking good over saving for the proverbial rainy day (government salaries don’t allow both).
I noticed the bulge near his left ankle as he leaned back and stretched out his legs. While John was too senior to be a street agent knocking on doors asking questions anymore, like any good agent he always kept his weapon by his side. In John’s case it was a 9 mm gun. He didn’t mind if people saw it, either: in truth, it could have been pushed a bit more discreetly toward his inner leg, but along with being a classy dresser John also cultivated a tough-guy persona—perhaps to show he wasn’t a typical senior manager and was still “one of the boys,” or even to intimidate people, if necessary.
While John did have an element of showmanship to him, he was one of the hardest-working and most effective senior agents in the bureau. “When you’re that good, you can be a tough guy and wear expensive suits. Apparently it works,” I once told a colleague who criticized John’s appearance and affect.
John’s question made me slightly nervous. I laughed, struggling to appear at ease. I was trying hard to make a good impression, and my answer wasn’t the typical “I-always-wanted-to-join-the-bureau-from-when-I-was-a-little-kid-because-I-want-to-protect-our-country-and-the-FBI-is-the-best” that most supervisors would have wanted to hear—and what most people in my shoes would have given.
John wasn’t a typical supervisor. His conversation with me was laced with no-nonsense blunt talk and honesty about successes and failures, and he didn’t shy away from profanities. My instinct was that John probably wouldn’t like a soppy answer anyway. But I was still with someone far higher than me, and part of me felt the temptation to play it safe.
That part of me lost the debate going on inside my mind. “You’re not going to believe me,” I said, trying to find a way in.
“Try me,” John responded.
I took a sip of my drink. “Well,” I said, “it was a bet . . .”
“A bet?” John repeated, raising his left eyebrow.
“Yes,” I replied with a guilty grin. “My fraternity brothers made a bet with me, and with each other, on how far I could get through the bureau’s selection process. I never expected to make it all the way, but I passed every level, even the polygraph . . .” I paused. “And when the offer came from the bureau it was too tempting to pass up, and here I am today.”
“You’re kidding me,” John said, and then started laughing. “Well, I see you’re honest—I like that, ha!” He shook his head, still smiling. “Cheers,” he continued, raising his glass, and we both downed the remainder of our drinks. He added, with his signature smile, “And they say gambling doesn’t pay off.”
My path to the FBI did start as a bet. I got my undergraduate degree at Mansfield University, in rural Pennsylvania, and there the vice president of student affairs, Joe Maresco—with whom I had a close relationship, as I was president of the student body—suggested, during a conversation about my prospects, that the perfect job for me might be working for the FBI.
I thought he was crazy. I didn’t think I met the profile of an agent. I was an Arab American born in Lebanon. I was also a fraternity boy, and I enjoyed all the revelry that entailed. I certainly didn’t fit in with the straitlaced white bureau types I envisioned—an image shaped by television shows. Nor had I ever considered a career in law enforcement or intelligence. It was as if Joe had suggested I join the circus or become a Formula One race car driver—it had never crossed my mind.
As I walked through the door of my fraternity house after my conversation with Joe, a few of my housemates were sitting on the couches, watching television, and I repeated, half-laughing, his career recommendation. They started laughing, too. “If you send in an application you’ll probably get it back in the mail a few weeks later marked ‘Return to Sender,’” one guy said. Another chimed in: “You won’t even pass the physical.” A third added: “They’ll probably think it’s a joke application . . .”
“I think he could do it,” another countered. “If he could convince everyone in the university to raise funds for a new student center, he could convince some drug dealers to come clean.” He was referring to a campaign I had led persuading everyone, from the students to the school administration, to donate to the building cause.
And the debate began, with no one, including myself, taking Joe’s advice seriously.
Still, for the next few days I reflected on what Joe had said and began to find myself intrigued: now that I thought about it, a career in the FBI could be exciting. More than that, my nature has always been to not accept that there is something I can’t do, and my fraternity brothers’ insisting that I had no chance was such a challenge. I was always the child who, given a dare, accepted it. I got that partly from my father, who loved adventures, and it was partly due to the circumstances of my childhood: the Lebanon of my youth was a war zone, and, after that, things like the dark or being locked in a closet just didn’t frighten me. One of my earliest war memories is of hugging the bottom of the stairs in my house as bombs exploded in our neighborhood. (The center of a house, where the stairs were, was said to be the safest part.) We would huddle silently, listening as windows shattered and rubble fell. Sometimes, after what seemed like an eternity of silence, screams would shatter the quiet as people discovered dead bodies and severely injured loved ones.
My father used to tell me what Lebanon was like before the civil war, when Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East, as people liked to say, and when the country was renowned for its culture, intellectuals, and natural beauty; but I never knew that country. I grew up in a land that was a country only in name. Part was occupied by regional powers, and the rest was divided among different Lebanese ethnic and religious groups who ran their areas like feudal fiefdoms. Turf wars broke out regularly, and the losers were always ordinary civilians. I remember once crouching on the floor of our house as two militias battled each other from the two ends of our street, and we didn’t know when it would end, or if we would survive. Everyone in Lebanon knew someone who was killed in the violence. I lost two classmates in a single semester in fifth grade.
To this day I vividly remember, down to minute details, Palestinian militants pulling up in jeeps outside homes in our neighborhood, swinging their machine guns toward the occupants, and ordering them to hand over their car keys. People had no choice but to obey, as there was no effective police force to appeal to for help.
A few months after my conversation with Joe, there was a career fair, and the bureau had a booth, reminding me of the bet. A few days later I decided to send in an application—more out of curiosity than anything else. I still didn’t know much about what the bureau did, beyond the conventional knowledge and what I’d “learned” from some social science classes, movies, and, of course, the television shows. But after I submitted the application, I spent some time researching the FBI.
The information was mostly new to me. I discovered that the bureau was created in 1908—given its prominence today, I had thought it would have been around longer. I also learned that only under J. Edgar Hoover had it been built into the powerful law enforcement tool it is today, which makes the bureau’s successes and reputation even more impressive. The application process includes tests of all sorts, from physical to aptitude, along with lots of interviews, often spaced out over months. As I jumped through the hoops, my friends started a pool betting on how long I’d last.
During the polygraph tests—while I was hooked up to the machine—the polygrapher asked: “Have you ever done anything that would embarrass you if your mother knew about it?”
“Yes,” I replied, which puzzled him: it was not the answer he was expecting. I jokingly explained to him that the machine probably wasn’t programmed to take in how strict the ethics of a Muslim mother can be.
After completing the long series of interviews and tests, for almost a year I didn’t hear anything from the bureau, and I began to think that my application had failed somewhere and that they had forgotten to notify me. It didn’t bother me too much, as applying to the bureau had been more a source of amusement than anything else, and I certainly hadn’t been basing my future on the FBI. I was planning on a career in academia, and as I was finishing up at Mansfield, I had applied to do a master’s degree in international studies at Villanova University. By the time I was at Villanova, I had almost completely forgotten about the bureau, and so it was a surprise to receive a letter of acceptance as I was finishing and preparing to move to England to pursue a PhD. I went back and forth in my mind as to what to do, with friends and family divided in their recommendations. Ultimately the bureau’s offer was too tempting to pass up. The idea of being an agent appealed to my sense of adventure, as did the chance to help protect America, a country I had come to love dearly. I loved it because of the welcome it had given me and my family and because, having grown up in a country pulled apart by sectarian discord, I had come to appreciate the greatness of the United States and admire the ideals that had created the nation.
I was fascinated by the protections the U.S. Constitution provides citizens. While the Constitution and the Pledge of Allegiance may perhaps seem largely symbolic to many Americans, to those of us who have lived with alternatives, they are filled with meaning. I know that the protections offered therein are very necessary.
The idea of being part of something bigger than me prevailed. I accepted the offer, and, in November 1997, after sixteen weeks of training at the FBI Academy, in Quantico, Virginia, I joined the bureau as a special agent, assigned to the New York office.
The FBI’s New York field office, located in downtown Manhattan, in many ways resembles the city in which it is housed: it’s full of colorful characters who are not afraid to voice their opinions and for whom politeness is often an unnecessary convention that gets in the way of making a point. The bluntness, the jokes, and the camaraderie of the NYO were, to me, far more appealing than the cold and formal atmosphere of many offices.
I did have an advantage over other out-of-towners in my ability to adjust, however. While New York City was entirely different from the rural Pennsylvania that had been my home in previous years (and which I loved), the lively characters did remind me in different ways of some of the interesting figures of my childhood in Beirut, and this helped me feel at home. Before new recruits are assigned to specific squads, they rotate through different sections of the office, starting with the applicants’ squad (conducting background checks), then moving on to special operations (doing surveillance), and finishing at the command center—ensuring that newcomers gain an understanding of all the work the office does. This boosts camaraderie between squads and efficiency for the bureau as a whole, with everyone coming to know the roles and capabilities of other teams. It is also meant to help the recruits see which squads appeal to them, and it gives senior management a chance to see rookies at work before deciding where to place them.
Through the rotation period we met senior agents from different divisions who gave us advice and explained what their groups did. What most interested me was counterterrorism, and the senior people in this area whom I met were Pat D’Amuro, assistant special agent in charge (ASAC) of counterterrorism, and John O’Neill, who was Pat’s superior, running the entire National Security Division.
In college I was always interested in the effects of nonstate actors on global stability. My experience in war-torn Lebanon shaped my view that groups like the Irish Republican Army, Hezbollah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and Hamas can be more influential than the states themselves in setting political and security agendas. My graduate research focused on the cultural approach in international relations. Most of my professors were students of the realism school, which maintains that a country’s national interest is central to how it acts, but I always believed that realism in many ways is shaped by the cultural lenses of different peoples. My research developed into a hobby, and gradually led me to follow the activities of a Saudi Arabian millionaire named Osama bin Laden.
What piqued my interest was reading newspapers from the Middle East. I kept up with them in order to stay up to speed on my Arabic and because I obviously retained an interest in the region. Bin Laden’s name often appeared; there was a fascination with him among many in the Middle East, as he had given up a life of privilege to go fight with the mujahideen against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and had then maintained the life of a fighter.
Over time I noticed bin Laden’s declarations toward the United States growing increasingly aggressive, and it became clear to me that someone with his pedigree and resources was going to be very dangerous someday. I began following him more seriously, turning him from an academic interest into part of my job: actively searching the Arab media for his name and keeping a folder of interesting articles about him.
Bin Laden was the seventeenth child (out of an estimated fifty-four) of Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, a household name in much of the Middle East. Born to a poor family in the south of Yemen, Mohammed had moved to Saudi Arabia, working as a porter before starting his own construction business. He built a reputation as a good builder and attracted the attention of the Saudi royal family, which began using him for their projects. Commissions started with roads, then moved on to palaces, until he was given the highest honor: renovating the Grand Mosque—al-Masjid al-Haram—in Mecca.
While Mohammed had a reputation for integrity in business, in his personal life he was more lax. He married a total of twenty-two women, often “marrying” and divorcing in a single day, as Islam forbids more than four wives at a time. Osama was the product of Mohammed’s tenth marriage, to a Syrian woman named Hamida al-Attas; he was born on March 10, 1957.
True to form, Mohammed divorced Osama’s mother soon after his birth to marry someone else. Mohammed was killed on September 3, 1967, when his private plane crashed while landing in southwest Saudi Arabia. Osama was ten; his image of his father was based less on personal interaction than on the legend of his father’s building a company from scratch. The company continued to flourish after Mohammed’s death, and the young Osama grew up with a desire to emulate his father in building something great.
After a religious upbringing, a young and devout Osama bin Laden traveled to Afghanistan in 1980 to join the fight against the Soviet invaders. While bin Laden did reportedly participate in some battles, due to his Saudi contacts he developed a reputation as a financier and worked with the charismatic cleric Abdullah Azzam in operating Makhtab al-Khidmat—the innocuously named Bureau of Services, which channeled money and recruits into Afghanistan. MAK was founded by Azzam in the early 1980s in Peshawar, Pakistan, and boasted global outposts, including in the United States, where its center of activity was al-Farouq Mosque, on Altantic Avenue in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn.
Osama bin Laden was in many ways a product of the mixture of two extremes of 1970s Saudi Arabia: a militant version of Wahhabism and Saudi wealth. Oil had transformed the Saudi government budget from $9.2 billion (1969–1974) to $142 billion (1975–1979). Many lucrative contracts went to the Saudi Binladin Group, as the family business was called, ensuring Osama and his many siblings a steady stream of money.
The Saudi state also used its newfound wealth to spread its Wahhabi sect of Islam across the world, building mosques and madrassas (religious schools) wherever it could while at the same time allowing strict Wahhabism to dictate most domestic law. This created some problems for the luxury-loving royals, whose indulgences were often at odds with their own laws. They solved this dilemma by buying homes and yachts on the French Riviera and in other showy places and playing out their fantasies there, all the while acting like pious Muslims at home. By satisfying their desires abroad, they simply put enough distance between the exercise of these two warring impulses so that Saudi citizens and, more importantly, clerics couldn’t see them acting against their religion.
Wahhabism by itself is a peaceful version of Islam, as attested to by the millions of Muslims in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states who are practicing Wahhabis and have nothing to do with violence or extremism. The extremism and terrorism arise when Wahhabism, a puritanical form of Islam with a distrust of modernity and an emphasis on the past, is mixed with a violent form of Salafism (a strand of Islam that focuses heavily on what pious ancestors did). An even more potent combination occurs with the introduction of the idea of takfir, wherein Muslims who don’t practice Islam the same way are labeled apostates and are considered to be deserving of death. The result is like mixing oil and fire. It was in Afghanistan, during the first jihad, when Muslims from all across the world came to fight the Soviets, that these concepts combusted. Wahhabis came from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, Salafis primarily from Jordan, and takfiris mainly from North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, Libya, and Egypt). Takfir was popular among the North African jihadists, as they had been fighting their own (nominally Muslim) regimes and therefore had to justify their terrorism and the killing of fellow Muslims in the process.
The Saudi government encouraged and helped young men travel abroad to fight in the Afghani jihad. This served a dual purpose of ensuring that Wahhabism influenced the mujahideen and enabling the country to get rid of would-be religious troublemakers by sending them abroad. It also helped shape the future of Afghanistan by helping to facilitate the rise of the Taliban.
And so Osama and hundreds of others headed to Afghanistan, their mission endorsed by the government both financially and operationally.
While I was doing my initial rotation, in February 1998—I was on the applicants’ squad, performing background checks—I read in an Arabic newspaper, published in London, about the fatwa signed by bin Laden and other radical clerics, sanctioning the murder of American citizens anywhere in the world. The statement had been issued in the name of the World Islamic Front. It claimed that because America had declared war on God, it was the duty of every Muslim to kill Americans: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate al-Aqsa Mosque [Jerusalem] and the holy mosque [the Grand Mosque, in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and unable to threaten any Muslim.”
Unaware of any existing bureau focus on bin Laden, and seeing that his rhetoric had morphed from vague utterances to direct threats, I wrote a memo explaining who he was and recommending that the FBI focus on the threat he posed to the United States. I gave the memo to my applicants’ squad supervisor, who said that she would pass it to Kevin Cruise; she explained that Kevin was on the I-49 squad, under whose purview bin Laden fell. After receiving the memo, Kevin asked to see me. He introduced himself and explained what I-49 did—it focused on Sunni terrorist groups, including Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). It covered the first World Trade Center bombing and after that had kept a focus on bin Laden, given the link between the plot and people in bin Laden’s orbit.
I showed Kevin portions of bin Laden’s August 1996 declaration of war against America, issued in response to the U.S. presence in the Arabian Peninsula: “Terrorizing you, while you are carrying arms on our land, is a legitimate, reasonable and morally demanded duty. It is also a rightful act well known to all humans and all creatures. Your example and our example are like a snake that entered into a house of a man and got killed by him. The coward is the one who lets you roam freely and safely while carrying arms in his country.” Kevin was fully aware of the background information and said that the FBI was already pursuing a criminal case against bin Laden. Daniel Coleman was the bureau’s bin Laden expert, and Kevin later introduced me to him. At the time, Dan was assigned to the CIA’s Alec Station, set up by the agency’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC) in 1996 to monitor bin Laden’s activities. (Initially the CTC was called the Counterterrorist Center.) Kevin also introduced me to the other members of the I-49 squad, and we discussed the fatwa, agreeing that it was a serious warning and that an increased focus on bin Laden was needed. Kevin told us that the other branches of government were in agreement.
In May 1998, at the surveillance phase of the new agent rotation—I was working a mob case—I was paged by the office. I called in and was patched through to Kevin.
“Ali,” he said, “bin Laden has just done an interview with ABC. He’s talking openly about attacking the United States.” Later that afternoon, I stopped in to watch it. The interview, which occurred as an offshoot of a press conference called by bin Laden, was conducted by John Miller (who later went to work for the FBI), and bin Laden was direct: “Today, however, our battle against the Americans is far greater than our battle was against the Russians. Americans have committed unprecedented stupidity. They have attacked Islam and its most significant sacrosanct symbols. . . . We anticipate a black future for America. Instead of remaining United States, it shall end up separated states and shall have to carry the bodies of its sons back to America.”
“What do you think?” Kevin asked. I shook my head.
“That’s it,” I told him, “that’s the third warning. First there was the 1996 declaration of jihad, then the February fatwa, and now he’s going public straight to the American people. I think it’s a warning that al-Qaeda is about to attack. We need to be prepared.”
We didn’t realize how right we were. Two months later, the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, were bombed.
My initial rotation was up, and it was time to decide on a squad. I had become friends with a few agents in I-40, which dealt with Palestinian terrorist groups like Hamas, as well as terrorist-sponsoring countries, like Iraq under Saddam Hussein. The squad supervisor, Tom Donlon, who had been the case agent on several important cases, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, took me to see Pat D’Amuro.
On Pat’s desk was a box filled with packets of Advil, Tylenol, and other painkillers—“for all the headaches related to the task force,” he liked to joke. I spent a fair amount of time with him that day. He spoke about his experience in running a task force made up (at the time) of more than thirty-five federal, state, and local agencies handling virtually every terrorist group and state sponsor of terrorism around the world, and of the importance of agents remembering that they are bound by the Constitution. He said that we should never forget about the endgame—disrupting terrorist plots while keeping all options on the table, including prosecutions in a court of law.
Tom Donlon told Pat that he thought I was a suitable candidate for counterterrorism, based on my educational background in international affairs and my personal background—as someone born in Lebanon and fluent in Arabic. Pat asked if I was interested in joining the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). He explained that the JTTF was the first such effort in the nation, and that it was made up of various squads that covered virtually every terrorist group in the world, as well as the states that sponsored them. Agents, investigators, analysts, linguists, and other specialists comprised the team, drawn not only from the bureau but from other law enforcement and intelligence agencies. I gratefully accepted the invitation.
Pat then took me to meet John O’Neill, whose office was on the twenty-fifth floor of the FBI building. I stared for a few seconds out the window; John had the corner office, with huge windows and a view of lots of Manhattan: you could see the Empire State Building. We sat down on couches next to a coffee table piled with books on French art and Ireland, and we spoke about terrorism.
I was familiar with Tom Donlon’s track record from some of the people on his squad, and as a new hire it was exciting for me to work under such an experienced agent. Tom had also agreed that I would continue to help the I-49 squad, and so I did operational work for I-40—tracking suspects and questioning people—and spent the rest of my time analyzing intelligence and working with agents on I-49 matters.
I was briefed on the investigations I-40 was running, and I spent my early weeks monitoring suspicious activities carried out by what we thought might be front organizations for terrorist groups. I also worked on foreign counterintelligence matters targeting state sponsors of terrorism, but as those cases are still classified, the stories can’t be told here.
I continued to research different terrorist organizations, with a special focus on religious radical groups. Tom Donlon encouraged me to write a memo on the subject—“to spread the knowledge around,” as he told me. I was more than happy to draft it. Among the people to whom Tom passed the memo was John O’Neill, who, I later learned, in turn distributed it across the entire terrorism branch management.
“Ali, what you working on?” I heard a voice say behind me. It was late in the evening, and I thought I was the only one left in the office. The voice was John O’Neill’s. I didn’t expect him to be around this late, let alone approach me at my desk. John laughed, realizing that he had startled me.
“Sorry, boss, you scared me.” I worried that I had looked foolish.
“Don’t worry,” he said, as if reading my mind. “And great paper, by the way. I like that you took the initiative to write it, and the analysis was sharp. Good work.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Next time you write something, send it directly to me as well.”
“Yes, sir, I will.”
“It’s late and you’re probably hungry. Let’s go out to dinner and chat. I also had some questions I wanted to ask you.”
The bartender at Kennedy’s, Maurice, whom many in the law enforcement community and the FBI viewed as the best bartender in New York, welcomed us with his warm Irish smile. A waitress led us to John’s usual table, and we started discussing my memo. John, I quickly saw, was the kind of leader who saw no shame in admitting when he didn’t know something, and he was appreciative when gaps in his knowledge were filled.
“What do you think makes this guy tick?” he asked, about twenty minutes into the conversation. He was referring to Osama bin Laden, whose activities we had been discussing.
“To understand that, we probably need to start with the global, regional, and local context—what surrounded him as he entered the scene,” I replied.
“Where would you start?”
“The key moment is 1979.”
“Osama bin Laden was twenty-three in 1980, when he went to Afghanistan to join the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union. The events of the previous year, 1979, had a big impact on the way that he and countless other young Muslims across the region saw their countries, their religion, and their role in the world—and it shaped their worldview and subsequent actions.”
“And those events were?”
“The Iranian revolution, the signing of the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the Iranian hostage crisis, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. They all happened in 1979.”
With the Iranian revolution and the overthrow of the shah, an Islamic state was established under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. It was the first success of a political Islamic movement in modern history, and its effect was felt across the Muslim world: Shiite communities elsewhere now had a protector as well as a similar goal to aim toward, and Sunnis—especially the more radical groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia—dreamed of repeating the revolution within their own framework. Other Sunnis saw a Shiite theocracy as a threat to Sunni Islam’s dominance in the region and were motivated to try to counter it and strengthen their own influence.
Khomeini’s seizure of power was itself a revolution in Shiite political thought. The traditional view is that an Islamic regime can’t be established until the return of the twelfth, “missing” imam. Until then the ideas of Islam can be used to bring about a just society, but not an Islamic state. Khomeini broke with this traditional view, and he justified his actions—over the objections of dissenting clerics—by advocating the doctrine of Velayat-e faqih, or rule of jurisprudence. He argued that religious leaders can be ambassadors of the twelfth imam and therefore can establish an Islamic regime prior to his return.
Of course, modern political Islam wasn’t created by Khomeini alone. He drew many of his ideas and religious justifications from Sunni Islamic thinkers, chief among them the Egyptian author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb (1906 –1966).
Qutb was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization founded by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, when Banna was a twenty-two-year-old teacher of Arabic. The Muslim Brotherhood sought ultimately to create a state based on Sharia, or Islamic law. Its aim was to build its own social network by providing social services to the lower classes. The movement arose, in part, to challenge the rule of King Farouk, who was seen as corrupt and without sympathy for the poor. The Brotherhood was organized into small cells of five-member units, making it difficult for the king’s security services to penetrate it—if one cell was cracked, the rest of the group would remain untouched. When the government officially tried to disband the Muslim Brotherhood two decades after its founding, the organization’s membership rolls numbered more than a million.
Qutb joined the group shortly after Banna’s death and through it met Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and other military leaders plotting to overthrow King Farouk. They were looking for allies, and the Brotherhood, with its strong support among the lower classes, seemed ideal. Together the military officers and Brotherhood leaders carried out the successful 1952 coup.
While both groups wanted to replace the king, their ideas for what should come next differed, with Nasser planning a secular government (and championing the idea of Arab nationalism) and the Brotherhood seeking an Islamic government (and pushing political Islam). Although it was Nasser who took power after the king’s fall, he offered Qutb a position in the cabinet, as minister of education. Qutb declined, saying that the position wasn’t senior enough for him, and began publicly challenging the regime, calling for an Islamic state.
In 1954 a member of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Abdel Latif, attempted to assassinate Nasser, firing eight shots at him from twenty-five feet away. All of them missed. While panic broke out in the assembled crowd, Nasser remained calm and simply declared: “If Abdel Nasser dies . . . each of you is Gamal Abdel Nasser . . . Gamal Abdel Nasser is of you and from you and he is willing to sacrifice his life for the nation.” The crowd cheered him and the event was widely reported across the country, causing Nasser’s popularity to soar. He used the opportunity to crack down on the Brotherhood, throwing many members, including Qutb, in jail.
Qutb was reportedly severely tortured, and the experience drove him to write his most influential work, Milestones—Ma’alim fi al-Tariq—which he had friends and family smuggle out of prison and circulate. In the book, he argues that according to Islam only God has sovereignty, and that for an ordinary person such as Nasser to serve as sovereign is the equivalent of idolatry. Such a system, Qutb writes, results in jahiliyya—the state of ignorance that preceded the life of the Prophet Muhammad. To Qutb, the modern state and Islam were incompatible, and those behind the modern state were pulling Muslims in the wrong direction.
Qutb’s doctrine held that those who tortured him and his fellow prisoners, and indeed any citizens of the state (who by implication authorized the torture), could not be real Muslims—no real Muslim would inflict torture on another. Therefore, he argued, the torturers were kafirs, or nonbelievers, deserving of a sentence of apostasy, or takfir.
The background to sentencing someone as a kafir lies in the mid-seventh century, when Imam Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, decided, as caliph, to compromise with a political opponent rather than engage in a war. His action prompted a rebellion by the Kharijites, who assassinated Ali and declared that only they were the true Muslims—all others were apostates and must be put to death. The Kharijites called themselves al-Shurat (“the buyers”), a reference to their buying a place for themselves in the next world. Kharijites (“those who went out”) was the name given to the group by other Muslims because of their extreme views. Charges of apostasy and other measures imposed by the Kharijites had no scriptural basis: according to the Quran, only those who worship idols and who persecuted the Prophet and the early Muslims can be considered apostates. Hence the Kharijites took to manipulating Quranic passages and Islamic doctrine to justify their deeds.
Qutb also drew on radical thinkers such as the Pakistani Sayed Abul A’ala Maududi, his contemporary, and much earlier figures, such as Ibn Taymiyyah. One target of Ibn Taymiyyah’s theological wrath was the Arab Muslims’ Mongol conquerors, converts to Sunni Islam. He charged them with apostasy and declared, furthermore, that anyone who dealt with them or even so much as stood near them when they were being attacked could be killed—even if they were pious Muslims. His rationale was that if the bystanders were sinful Muslims, then it was fitting that they were killed, and if they were devout Muslims and unworthy of death, they’d simply go straight to heaven—thus no harm would be done by killing them. Either way, according to his logic, the killers were committing no sin by killing bystanders.
One doesn’t have to look far in Islamic theology to see how wrong this view is: the Quran states that anyone who kills an innocent person shall be treated “as if he had murdered all of mankind.” That refers to any human being, regardless of religion. It also states: “As for anyone who kills a Muslim deliberately, his repayment is Hell, remaining in it timelessly, forever. God is angry with him and has cursed him, and has prepared for him a terrible punishment.” To this day Ibn Taymiyya’s arguments are used by takfiri terrorists—those who accuse other Muslims of being apostates—to justify the killing of innocent people. Some who subscribe to it don’t have enough knowledge of Islam to know how wrong it is, and others knowingly misuse it to justify violence.
Qutb was hanged in 1966. Beforehand, the regime offered him mercy on the condition that he recant his views, but he refused, allegedly telling his sister, “My words will be stronger if they kill me.” He surely was right in that sense, as his ideas have been used by everyone from Khomeini to bin Laden. Khomeini was fond of employing Qutb’s imagery and conceptual arguments: just as Qutb, for example, compared Nasser (whom he viewed as a tyrant) to Pharaoh, Khomeini likened the shah to the biblical Pharaoh, and by his logic whoever challenged the Pharaoh took on the role of Moses. Given Khomeini’s international prominence as the leader of Iran, his use of Qutb’s ideas and arguments gave them wide circulation in the Muslim world.
In March 1979, one month after the Iranian revolution, Egypt and Israel signed the peace treaty that formally completed the Camp David Accords of the previous year. In the Middle East, the agreement was seen as a betrayal of the Palestinians and undermined the Arab world’s solidarity against Israel. As a consequence, Egypt faced isolation throughout the Muslim and Arab world and was suspended from the Arab League. Islamist radicals in Egypt were enraged: Sadat, in the years before his assassination by extremists in 1981, had tried to sell himself as a religious president, in contrast to Nasser, who battled the Islamists and imprisoned Qutb.
On November 4, 1979, Iranian students attacked the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, taking fifty-two Americans hostage in retaliation for the United States’ having allowed the shah into the country for cancer treatment. The failed U.S. rescue attempt in April resulted in the hostages being scattered around Iran; they were not released until January 1981—444 days after they had been seized. While the student leaders who overran the embassy hadn’t sought Khomeini’s approval before they acted, he supported them once it became clear that they were loyal Islamists who had pledged fealty to him. For the duration of the 444 days, the United States under Jimmy Carter seemed powerless to respond, and the forces of political Islam appeared to be on the rise.
Sixteen days after the attack on the embassy, on November 20, the destruction of a holy place shook the Islamic world when extremists seized al-Masjid al-Haram and took pilgrims hostage. The mosque surrounds the Kaaba, which is said to have been built by Abraham and is the place that Muslims turn to face when they pray five times a day. It is considered the first house of worship and the holiest site in Islam. The extremists declared that the Mahdi, the redeemer of Islam, had arrived—it was one of their leaders—and called on Muslims to obey him. Using the Grand Mosque’s loudspeaker system, which could be heard throughout Mecca, they announced that the Saudi leadership had been corrupted by the West and demanded that the monarchy be replaced, that all ties with the West be cut, and that a stricter version of Islamic law be introduced into the country.
It took two weeks for the mosque to be fully retaken, and hundreds of pilgrims and Saudi troops were killed in the process. Afterward, the Saudi monarchy made concessions to radical clerics, imposing stricter Islamic laws on the population. In a sense, the extremists won.
Khomeini and other leaders, paradoxically, blamed the United States for what had happened, and anti-American riots broke out in several countries, including Pakistan, the Philippines, Libya, and the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, was seized by a mob and burned to the ground, and the same happened in Tripoli, Libya.
The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was the final momentous event of 1979. The Soviets had been active in the country since the establishment of a Marxist-leaning Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the spring of 1978. When the Marxist government could no longer contain the Afghan mujahideen, who wanted a religious state, Soviet troops entered Kabul to prop up their allies.
Muslims across the world rallied to protect the country from the Soviet “infidel” invaders. The invasion, and the creation of a new enemy for radical Muslims, served Egypt and Saudi Arabia well; both countries saw a chance to offload their domestic extremists by supporting their traveling to Afghanistan to join the jihad. Together the two countries poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to support the mujahideen. The United States, eager to fight communism, also provided covert funding and training for the fighters.
One of the most influential figures in the Afghan jihad was Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric. A student of Qutb, Azzam had been a lecturer at King Abdul Aziz University, in Jeddah, before moving to Pakistan in 1979 to teach at the International Islamic University in Islamabad and to be closer to Afghanistan. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Azzam issued a fatwa, entitled “Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith,” in which he declared that it was a fard ayn, or personal obligation, for Muslims to defend Afghanistan against “the occupiers.” Other important clerics participated in the fatwa, including Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti, Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, giving it even more weight.
Azzam’s slogan, “Jihad and rifle alone. No negotiations. No conferences and no dialogue,” gives an indication of his worldview. His speeches influenced bin Laden—who had been a student at King Abdul Aziz University when Azzam was there—to join the mujahideen. Other top terrorists, including Ramzi Yousef, were also swayed by Azzam’s arguments and appeals. Azzam had established Makhtab al-Khidmat to facilitate the movement of mujahideen to Afghanistan. He arranged guesthouses and training camps to prepare recruits for battle, opened fund-raising and recruitment branches around the world—including the one in Brooklyn—and himself recruited thousands of individuals to fight.
“Thousands of young Arabs traveled to Afghanistan,” I told John, as we finished discussing what had happened in 1979. “Many were inspired by the ideology outlined by Azzam and other similar-minded clerics. Others were disenchanted with the oppressive regimes and lack of opportunity back home and sought an adventure. Most Muslims who came just provided muscle. Bin Laden’s advantage, of course, was that he brought his own funding, which drew others to him and bought their loyalty.”
The dessert dishes had long been cleared by the waitress, but John was keen to continue chatting and getting to know me on a personal level. When that conversation finished, we looked at our watches and saw that it was past 1:00 am.
It turned out that it wasn’t uncommon for John to be in the office late at night, and it often seemed that he never slept. He was usually in the office before anyone else, and he was the last one at his desk at night. And when he did leave in the evenings, it was to entertain foreign law enforcement and intelligence officials who were visiting or to take colleagues out to discuss work.
If John didn’t have a dinner to go to, he would walk around the office to see who was there. He often stopped at my desk and invited me out. After a few weeks of finding me always there, he just started calling me at my desk; he’d tell me to meet him outside for dinner, and we would continue our discussions wherever we’d left off the last time.
John had a few favorite restaurants, and his choice was determined by what kind of food he was in the mood for and what time of night it was. For steak, he loved Cité, on West Fifty-first Street. If it was very late, we would head to 1st, on First Avenue. (He would tell me that it was “the place where all the good chefs in the city go after-hours.”) If he was looking for a more social evening, he’d choose Elaine’s.
A place John especially liked taking officials from other countries was Bruno’s, owned, “ironically,” as John liked to say, by an Albanian. “The best Italian food in the city, and the guy’s Albanian.” There was a table on the second floor that the manager would reserve for John if he knew he was coming. An exceptional Israeli piano player usually played Frank Sinatra songs, but when John had guests he would take requests from our group.
During the investigation into the 1998 East African embassy bombings, we were entertaining Tanzanian officials, and John asked the piano player for “an African song.” Without pause the pianist started playing the 1920s Solomon Linda tune “Mbube” (“The Lion Sleeps Tonight”), more or less as rendered in the Disney film The Lion King, with its chorus of “In the jungle, the mighty jungle.” When we took Saudi officials there and John requested a Middle Eastern song, the piano player opened with “Desert Rose.”
John always tried to make foreign officials feel at home, so if there was a good restaurant in New York that served food from their countries, we went. In 1999, we were working with Saad al-Khair and his fellow Jordanian intelligence officers on the Millennium Operation, the investigation that thwarted a terrorist plot to attack American and Israeli targets in Jordan on and around January 1, 2000. We took the Jordanians to a place called Cedars of Lebanon. The restaurant’s live band often played traditional Arabic songs, which our visitors loved.
John understood the importance of personal relationships. Foreign law enforcement and intelligence officers could make life either difficult or easy for us, depending upon how cooperative they were. John endeared himself to them. When a British official’s wife had cancer, John spent time researching the best hospitals in New York and helped the couple plan their trip. In turn, officials treated him and his team well when we traveled to England.
Most of our counterparts came to adore John. A phone call from him achieved much more than official cables. I saw this firsthand when I was in England taking part in Operation Challenge, the investigation that disrupted al-Qaeda and EIJ activity there. The relationship was one of honesty and friendship, not diplomatic niceties. One evening when our colleagues from Scotland Yard were visiting, John raised his glass during dinner and told them, “Unless you get your side to help more, the queen’s going to end up living in Northern Ireland.” No offense was taken—they knew John spoke from the heart, out of genuine concern for us all—and we got the help we wanted.
The bureaucracy didn’t always understand the importance of John’s dinners and entertaining and sometimes refused to give funding approval. In those cases John would just put the dinner on his own credit card. I learned to do the same, telling others, as John had told me, “We’re not in the bureau to save money, we’re here to save lives.”
As the bureau began investigating bin Laden and al-Qaeda, agents began uncovering an American contingent with ties to the group. It wasn’t only bin Laden who saw Azzam as his mentor; several Americans fell under Azzam’s spell when he toured the United States in the 1980s to raise funds for the mujahideen and recruit believers to go to Afghanistan. Among the Americans lured were Wadih el-Hage, Essam al-Ridi, and Ihab Ali.
El-Hage was born in Lebanon to a Christian family but raised in Kuwait, where his father worked. There he began hanging out with Muslim friends, who introduced him to the Quran and to the faith, and eventually he converted to Islam. His family was outraged by the conversion and shunned him. The Kuwaitis who sponsored his conversion sent him to the United States to be educated.
When the Soviets invaded Pakistan, el-Hage, inspired by Azzam’s sermons, left the United States and went to Pakistan to aid his Muslim brothers. Taking the alias Abed al-Sabour al-Lubnani (the Lebanese) and serving as an aide to Azzam, he translated military books for fighters to use and performed administrative work. While working for Azzam, he met the young Osama bin Laden, and the two formed a relationship.
In 1985 el-Hage returned to the United States, and a year later he graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. He married an eighteen-year-old American Muslim named April, moved to Arizona, and, in 1989, became a naturalized U.S. citizen. El-Hage traveled regularly back to Peshawar to work for bin Laden.
Essam al-Ridi was born in Egypt in 1958 and spent his childhood in Kuwait. He studied engineering in Karachi, Pakistan, but civil unrest prevented him from finishing his degree, so he moved to Texas, where he enrolled in the now-defunct Ed Boardman Aviation School, in Fort Worth. Returning to Kuwait, he was unable to find a job, so he moved back to the United States and worked as an instructor at the flight school.
Ridi met Abdullah Azzam first in Pakistan and then again at a Muslim American Youth Association convention in the United States. Ridi had helped organize the convention, and Azzam was one of the guest speakers. They stayed in touch, discussing how Ridi could help in Pakistan, and eventually they both traveled there. Ridi spent his first night at Azzam’s house and at some point met the Afghani mujahideen leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.
Ridi’s time in Pakistan was marked by perpetual dissatisfaction and the desire to return to the United States, about which he spoke repeatedly to Azzam. He wasn’t sure that his services were actually required in Pakistan, so eventually he asked Sayyaf, “Will my help be needed here, or can I help from the United States?” When Sayyaf asked him to describe his skills, he replied, “I know how to fly and travel around the world.”
“There is no need for flying,” Sayyaf told him, “but we need someone to travel and ship things.”
For eighteen months Ridi procured items for the mujahideen—such as night vision goggles from the United States and range finders from England. He was traveling every fifteen to twenty days, visiting countries from Japan to Kuwait. He complained to Azzam several times, telling him that he couldn’t do it alone much longer, and Azzam always said there was no one to spare to help him.
In 1985, having adopted the alias Abu Tareq in Afghanistan, Ridi weighed his options. His Egyptian passport was about to expire, and as this was what allowed him to travel, he needed to get it renewed; but he had never stopped looking for an excuse to leave Pakistan. He resented people like bin Laden—rich outsiders who controlled decision making—but when he raised such objections, he was ignored. In the end he returned to the United States and resumed work as a flight instructor in Texas.
When he left, he told Azzam: “I’m not needed here, and I’m not in line with the ideology. It will be best if I move back home, but I’ll still provide the help you need.” Resettled in the United States, he continued to purchase items for the mujahideen, packing them in Wadih el-Hage’s luggage for el-Hage—who had partially assumed the role Ridi had abandoned—to take back to Pakistan. On occasion, Ridi semi-reluctantly traveled back to Afghanistan, as in 1989, when the mujahideen had difficulty adjusting the scope on long-range .50-caliber sniper rifles he had purchased in the United States and shipped to them. The fighters’ unfamiliarity with the weapons forced a trip whose sole purpose was for Ridi to show them, in person, how to fix the sights.
Initially Ridi’s reservations about bin Laden made him wary of working with him; he viewed himself as a purist and continued to be suspicious of the wealthy Saudi who had no military experience, only very deep pockets, and who nonetheless saw himself as a military leader. Ridi stayed true to his promise to Azzam to remain on call, however, and whenever bin Laden or other mujahideen wanted him to procure what they needed—and usually it was Wadih el-Hage who phoned with instructions—he would do so, traveling around the world for equipment, some of which is reportedly still being used by al-Qaeda.
Ihab Ali, known for his operational alias, Nawawi, was another Egyptian who moved to the United States with his family, attending high school in Orlando, Florida. Inspired by Azzam, he traveled to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets. He trained at the Airman Flight School, in Norman, Oklahoma, before traveling to Sudan to join up with bin Laden, to whom he, like Ridi, had been introduced by Azzam, in Afghanistan.
At the time, the U.S. government knew that individuals like these three men were traveling to Afghanistan, but because of American support for the mujahideen, they were not stopped, as they were committing no crime. While the men didn’t know each other well in the United States, they met abroad and built relationships with each other and with other Arab mujahideen, such as bin Laden.
The United States government played a major role in supporting the Afghan jihad against the Soviets. American involvement was in no small part driven by Democratic congressman Charlie Wilson, of Texas, who pushed for the Pentagon to send surplus cash to Afghanistan. Many American intelligence officials and political leaders believed that striking a blow to the Soviets in Afghanistan would deliver the United States a big cold war victory. CIA director William Casey believed that the fight needed to be waged in the third world. Under his guidance the CIA did everything it could to support the mujahideen, even printing translations of the Quran in the hope of encouraging people in Uzbekistan and other countries to rise up against the Soviets.
The United States used Pakistan as a conduit to the mujahideen, distributing weapons and money. Pakistan was a willing helper, as President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who had seized power in a 1977 military coup, didn’t want the Soviets on his border. It was in Pakistan’s interest to have a friendly Afghanistan instead.
Ironically, while the United States was supporting one group of Islamic fighters in Afghanistan, the mid-1980s saw a rise in religiously motivated terrorist attacks against American citizens and interests. In 1983, Hezbollah suicide attacks on marine barracks in Lebanon killed more than 250 Americans. Hijackings by terrorists elsewhere in the Middle East also claimed American lives.
To address the growing threat, in 1984 Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) 138, “Combating Terrorism.” The director of Central Intelligence (DCI) established the Counterterrorism Center the following year. At first it focused largely on Hezbollah and secular leftist terrorist groups, rather than emphasizing Muslim Brotherhood–inspired groups. A new, interagency committee on terrorism was also formed by the National Security Council.
While these changes were being made, however, U.S. aid to the mujahideen continued to increase. The CIA also committed support to guerrilla attacks in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and to a Pakistani intelligence initiative to recruit Muslims worldwide to fight with the mujahideen.
The biggest problem was that Washington did not have a strategy in place for what would happen after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988. Instead, Washington’s focus was on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the first Gulf War, along with the fall of the Soviet Union. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, was busy setting up a Nairobi cell to arm and train Somali warlords to fight the U.S. troops deployed to the country.
I often met with John to discuss terrorism matters, and his focus never shifted; he was married to his work and to the FBI. Pat D’Amuro used to get annoyed when John would call him every hour during investigations to ask questions and micromanage. Pat wanted him to ease up and give him a break. John’s reply didn’t vary: “You have to let it consume you; there is no break.” Years later, during the USS Cole investigation, when I was the case agent and John was out of the country, I understood how Pat felt. John called me every hour; and he told me, as he had told Pat, that I needed to let it consume me.
To John the reality was simple: “The bad guys work nonstop, so do we.” To be in John’s trusted inner circle you needed to give your all, as he did, or you were out. People who were pushed out resented John for it. I understood their anger—it’s natural to want to spend time with your family—but I saw John’s perspective, too: we were in a race against the clock.
What upset other people about John was that he liked to be the center of attention. During a dinner at Cité with Pat D’Amuro and another agent, Kenny Maxwell, who much later succeeded Pat as head of the JTTF, John repeatedly referred to New York as “my city.” Kenny—Irish, like John—had lived in New York his entire life. John, born in Atlantic City, had worked mainly in Chicago and Washington, DC.
Kenny told John, “This is my city. You’re from Chicago.” John didn’t like the insinuation, and soon the two Irish guys were yelling at each other and Pat had to calm them down. Anybody who didn’t acknowledge John’s need to be center stage or who tried to outshine him might be told off for it.
John was killed on 9/11 in the World Trade Center, and stories came out afterward about his messy personal life. He was a complicated human being, but as a boss, I never saw anything but the best from him—and I worked with him on many high-profile cases. I never saw his personal life affect his work or judgment.
In April 1988 the Soviets announced that within nine months they would withdraw from Afghanistan. The question for the mujahideen, after celebrating their victory, was what should come next. Some decided to stay in Afghanistan and use it as a base of operations for jihad elsewhere. Others returned home, seeing their religious duty as having been fulfilled and wishing to resume normal lives. Many went off in search of new conflicts—in places like Bosnia, Chechnya, the Philippines, and Algeria.
Those who decided to stay gathered in Peshawar to decide upon their next steps. They were in agreement that the network they had built to fight the Soviets shouldn’t be allowed to collapse, and that the momentum should be maintained, so they set up a new group, called The Base—al-Qaeda in Arabic—to coordinate their actions. Bin Laden was chosen as the leader of the new group, which had a defined structure, with a shura, or advisory, council, along with military, political, financial, security, religious, and media committees. His rise to prominence was in large part due to his wealth and fund-raising ability, which brought him friends, influence, and power among the mujahideen.
Among the mujahideen leaders there was disagreement over direction and priorities. MAK head Abdullah Azzam, who had been bin Laden’s mentor, wanted to focus on rebuilding Afghanistan, and then to support the Palestinians against Israel. Bin Laden, however, wanted to focus on “the head of the snake,” namely the United States—a position he was supported in, and encouraged to take, by Ayman al-Zawahiri, who had considerable influence among Egyptian Islamists. Zawahiri was one of the leaders of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, the underground group aimed at creating an Islamic state in Egypt and then using Egypt as a launching pad for jihad against the West. In 1980 he had traveled to Pakistan to join the Afghan jihad, believing that his group could obtain in Afghanistan the training they needed for success in Egypt.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri bonded and had great use for each other: Zawahiri and his group found bin Laden’s financial support and network indispensable, and bin Laden, in turn, was attracted to Zawahiri’s sense of direction and his experience. After warning bin Laden of his need for enhanced security, Zawahiri offered his own men as protection; hence the al-Qaeda leader came to be surrounded by Egyptians, who helped shape his and his organization’s focus.
Among the Egyptians was Amin Ali al-Rashidi, known as Abu Ubaidah al-Banshiri—he acquired the name al-Banshiri in Afghanistan, where he had fought in an area called the Panjshir Valley. Banshiri was a former Egyptian police officer who became al-Qaeda’s military commander. His deputy, Tayseer Abu Sitah, better known as Mohammed Atef or by his al-Qaeda alias Abu Hafs al-Masri (al-Masri meaning “the Egyptian”), had also served as a police officer. The fact that someone like Abu Sitah operated under multiple names shows the complexity of trying to unravel the identities of everyone in the group.
The head of al-Qaeda’s religious committee was Mamdouh Mahmoud Salim, who took the name Abu Hajer al-Iraqi. He was a Kurd who had fought in Saddam’s army and alongside bin Laden in Afghanistan, where the two became close friends. While Abu Hajer wasn’t a cleric—he was an engineer by training, and had memorized the Quran—bin Laden believed that he was a pious figure, and he loved to hear him recite passages from the Quran. The Islamic thinkers whom Abu Hajer liked to quote included Qutb and Ibn Tamiyyah.
The disagreement between Azzam and bin Laden ended on November 24, 1989, when an improvised explosive device (IED) that had been placed under Azzam’s car killed him and his two sons. Responsibility was never assigned, but it was suspected that Zawahiri was connected. While before Azzam’s death Zawahiri had denounced him in public, after his death he pretended that they had been the best of friends.
Bin Laden, as head of al-Qaeda, wasn’t supreme over all mujahideen; al-Qaeda was only one among many Sunni groups vying for dominance. Another leader offering a vision was Omar Abdul Rahman, the “Blind Sheikh,” so called because childhood diabetes had left him sightless. Rahman led al-Gamma’a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group), a rival of Zawahiri’s group. Others influential in Afghanistan were Ramzi Yousef and his uncle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who operated independently and had no desire to be under bin Laden’s command.
When bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia in 1990, he was welcomed as a hero among ordinary people, but the Saudi regime was wary, having grown concerned about his actions. He was seen as a troublemaker, having worked in 1989, for instance, on a plot to overthrow the Marxist government in South Yemen.
The ultimate break between bin Laden and the royal family came when Saddam invaded Kuwait. Bin Laden told the royals that he and his army of mujahideen could defend the kingdom, but his offer was rebuffed, as the Saudis knew that bin Laden and his band of fighters would be no match for Saddam’s army. Instead they welcomed U.S. troops to fight Saddam.
Bin Laden was furious at being spurned, and at the royals for allowing “infidel” troops into Saudi Arabia. He publicly denounced the royal family. They took away his passport as a form of punishment, but in the spring of 1991, with the help of sympathizers in Saudi Arabia, he made it to Peshawar. He was later securely transported, by an Egyptian named Ali Mohamed, to Sudan.