By Thomas Hegghammer, The Atlantic
March 6, 2020
It was freezing cold with gusting winds in Indianapolis on New Year’s Day 1978. While much of the city was presumably waking to a hangover, the Islamic Teaching Center was busy hosting prominent preachers from the Middle East. Among them was Abdallah Azzam, a 36-year-old rising star of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood. In Indianapolis, Azzam would meet a young Saudi student with a now-famous name: Osama bin Laden. It was a historic moment, one that marked the rise of an extensive jihadist network in the United States.
That Azzam and bin Laden met in America is no coincidence. They came because, unlike other countries in the Middle East, the U.S. allowed them and other Islamists to preach, fundraise, and recruit followers without interference. My new biography of Azzam shows that in the 1980s, radical Islamists exploited U.S. territory to an extent not previously recognized. In fact, for more than a decade, America was among the most hospitable jihadist-recruitment grounds in the world.
To understand why, one has to look at the Afghan War. A few years after their Indiana meeting, Azzam and bin Laden co-founded the Services Bureau, an organization in Peshawar, Pakistan, that sought to bring Muslim fighters to Afghanistan. As its leader, Azzam spearheaded a worldwide effort to fundraise and recruit, especially from the Gulf countries and the United States.Although based in Pakistan from 1981 onward, Azzam crossed the Atlantic at least once a year, and by the end of the decade had visited New York, Texas, California, Seattle, and several other states in between. The message was always the same: Muslims in America should fight in Afghanistan, or at least donate money to the jihad. He spoke not in underground cellars, but in large, open venues, such as the annual meeting of the Muslim Arab Youth Association, which usually brought together hundreds of people. He stayed in the apartments of young local supporters, impressing them with his charisma and humble lifestyle. U.S. authorities became aware of these activities in the late ’80s, but did not consider Azzam a threat.
In December 1984, Azzam launched al-Jihad magazine, an Arabic-language monthly aimed at raising awareness of the Afghan cause. Within eight months, the magazine had a U.S. distributor—the Islamic Centre in Tucson, Arizona—and by the late ’80s, it had a nationwide network of agents who sold thousands of copies each month and made America one of the magazine’s most important markets.
Azzam’s activities didn’t stop there. In late 1987, a group of activists in Brooklyn approached Azzam with a proposition to make their recently established NGO, the al-Kifah Refugee Center, the American branch of the Services Bureau. Azzam was delighted and later wrote the following in al-Jihad:
I was pleased that [the brothers] have opened a Services Bureau, appointed a lawyer, gotten him a government license, and started coordinating trips to Afghanistan … I have opened an account in my name in Brooklyn, and the account number is 016714446, Independence Saving Bank … Whoever wants to send a check, he may send it to this address: Maktab al-Khadamat in Brooklyn (552 Atlantic Ave, Brooklyn NY; tel. 718-797-9207). Write my name on the check: “Dr. Abdallah Azzam.”
Al-Kifah soon set up regional branches in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, and Tucson. It even had a national hotline run out of Chicago that people could call to hear a recorded news bulletin about the Afghan jihad.
The efforts paid off: Hundreds of Muslims from all over America joined the Afghan jihad, and some even became prominent figures in the nascent jihadist movement. Wa’il Julaydan became a key fundraiser for the Services Bureau in Peshawar, Muhammad Bayazid became one of the co-founders of al-Qaeda, and Wadih El Hage also joined al-Qaeda; he was later convicted for his involvement in the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings. Americans were a minority in the Afghan Arab community, but their language skills and high level of education gave them an outsize importance.
But how was it even possible that America had become a cherished recruitment ground for Azzam? The main reason was that America offered unparalleled political freedoms. Azzam and his lieutenants were seen as religious activists, something for which there was high tolerance in the United States. Meanwhile, the U.S. government did not consider them a security threat, because at that time, Sunni Islamists had virtually never perpetrated terrorist attacks in the West.
The United States was the only country outside Pakistan where Azzam was able to set up an official branch of the Services Bureau. Even Saudi Arabia, which generally approved of Azzam’s efforts, never allowed him to open an office, and it sometimes canceled his talks. Other Middle Eastern countries were even more hostile. Azzam was able to visit only Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Jordan in the ’80s. The rest denied him entry, and Jordan closed the door on him after 1984. America was also a convenient destination. With one visa, you had access to a large, wealthy, monolingual society. Europe, by contrast, was more cumbersome: You needed a new visa and a new language for every country. Azzam visited several European countries, including the U.K., Germany, Spain, and Italy, but he never attempted to build a European recruitment infrastructure like the one he had in America.
It helped that the Muslim Brotherhood had a strong presence in the United States, especially in Muslim student societies. For example, the guests at the Indianapolis meeting in 1978 were Muslim Brothers. By the ’80s, the brotherhood had evolved into a nonviolent movement, but it was not pacifist, and it cared deeply about Muslim liberation struggles such as those in Palestine and Afghanistan. Azzam’s own Brotherhood background allowed him to connect easily with activists across America during that decade.
We know from declassified documents that Azzam only came to the FBI’s attention in 1989, in connection with the case of a 17-year-old high-school student in Dallas who had gone to Afghanistan. As late as May 1989, a secret cable from FBI headquarters to Dallas said, “Searches of Bureau indices revealed no information that [Azzam], the Islamic Jihad, or the Mujahideen was involved in the recruitment of mercenaries to fight in Afghanistan.” Of course, it mattered that the United States was heavily involved in Afghanistan on the same side as Azzam. Everyone had their eyes on the prize, which was the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Why care about a small number of hotheads joining a war the Americans themselves supported?
The jihadist haven in America would not last long, because it soon brought violence. In November 1990, an Egyptian Islamist extremist murdered the militant Jewish nationalist Meir Kahane, and in early 1993, militants detonated a car bomb under the World Trade Center, killing six people and injuring more than 1,000. In mid-1993, the FBI foiled the potentially more lethal New York landmarks plot, for which a number of U.S.-based Islamists were convicted in 1995. With these incidents came more scrutiny of jihadist networks in the United States, and after 9/11, the scrutiny turned into a crackdown. Today, America is one of the world’s most hostile areas of operation for transnational jihadists.
It was because everyone saw the ’80s Afghan jihad as legitimate that nobody sounded the alarm about the Afghan Arabs and the Americans who joined them. And yet we saw it again in the early stages of the Syria conflict, when most of the international community supported the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Both Western and regional governments were initially loath to prevent their citizens from going, because the cause was seen as legitimate. Later, when European countries saw thousands joining the Islamic State and other Islamist groups and threatening attacks at home, they took stricter measures against foreign fighters.
The story of Azzam and his American network ended badly for him. In late 1989, Azzam was assassinated in Peshawar by unknown perpetrators. Soon after, infighting broke out in the al-Kifah center, culminating with the murder of its leader, Mustafa Shalabi, in 1991. In 1993, the center closed down, and the Services Bureau headquarters disbanded in 1995. Osama bin Laden fared differently. He went on to build al-Qaeda, declare all-out war on the United States, and mastermind the 9/11 attacks, ushering in the War on Terror, with all its tragic consequences.
About the Author
Thomas Hegghammer is Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Oslo. He is the author of The Caravan: Abdallah Azzam and the Rise of Global Jihad.