THE AZZAM FAMILY: LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON?
By J. Millard Burr
Tuesday, August 12th, 2014 @ 10:26PM
“Every Muslim on earth should unsheathe his sword and fight to liberate Palestine. The Jihad is not limited to Afghanistan. Jihad means fighting. You must fight in any place you can get. Whenever Jihad is mentioned in the Holy Book, it means the obligation to fight. It does not mean to fight with the pen or to write books or articles in the press or to fight by holding lectures.” — Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, First Conference of Jihad, Al-Faruk Mosque, Brooklyn, New York, 1988.
In late March 2006 Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian al-Qaeda militant who was then leading a coalition of Islamist militants giving battle to the US-led coalition forces, was relieved of command.
The change in leadership came as a surprise because it was unexpected, and particularly because it was announced by Huthaifa Azzam — a surviving son of the renowned jihadist Abdullah Azzam. The father, Palestinian-born, was a famed member and occasional spokesman for Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun). As one of the first so-called Arab-Afghan mujahedeen to do battle with the Soviet Union, he would acquire the label, “father of jihad.” And with his arrival in Pakistan he was continuing the tradition of the Jordan Ikhwan that in April 1948 had sent a unit led by Abd al-Latif Abu Qura, head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Amman, to do battle with emerging state of Israel.
The Ikhwan penetration of Jordan had begun in the nineteen thirties when members found favor with Abdullah, Emir of Transjordan from 1921 to 1946. By 1942 Ikhwan branches had been located in both Transjordan and Palestine. At one time Abdullah had urged Abdul-Hakim Abidin to lead a Jordanian government. Abidin, the brother-in-law of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, refused the offer, as he did not wish to move from Cairo to Amman. It was left to Banna personally to stimulate the Ikhwan movement in Transjordan. A breakthrough occurred in 1945 when the intellectual and Egyptian Ikhwan powerhouse Said Ramadan was able to revivify the Jordan brotherhood. Abdallah I, newly named King of Transjordan, gave it in 1946. Ramadan, the peripatetic Egyptian brother, was an amazing orator who found favor with Abdallah I. Ramadan would ever after travel on a Jordan passport presented him by the King. The first General Guide of Transjordan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood was Sheikh Abdul Latif Abu-Qurah, a leader who would lead the brigade of Ikhwan in the 1948 war with Israel.
In what has often been considered its greatest success the Jordanian Brotherhood led demonstrations demanding an end to the presence of British officers in the Jordanian army. The General Guide of the Jordanian Ikhwan was arrested several times in the early nineteen fifties, but eventually the British advisors would leave. The Ikhwan gained favor when it joined the King in his battles against the Communist and secular forces who threatened his rule. Thus, in 1957 when political parties were banned, the only movement allowed to participate in government was the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ikhwan took part in parliamentary elections even when the nationalists did not.
In July 1951 Abdallah was assassinated during Friday prayers at al Aqsa mosque, Jerusalem. The assassin was a member of an extremist group that feared the King would choose peace with Israel. Fortunately for the Jordan Ikhwan, no member was implicated in the action. Therefore, in the decades that followed the Ikhwan managed to survive thanks to its cautious politicking, and its devious pose as a reform rather than an Islamist movement. It was able to maintain a close alliance with Jordan’s monarchy despite disagreements over the creation of the pro-Western Baghdad Pact signed in the nineteen fifties, and even much later, the Jordan-Syria rapprochement that occurred in the nineteen eighties.
In Jordan, an Ikhwan al-Muslimin General Association was elected every two years, and every four years that body elected a Leadership Council of fifty members (its majlis al-shura). The council elected a Secretary General (murraqb al-am), his deputy, and an executive committee of seven members. In effect, it follows the same general organization as laid down by Hassan al-Banna and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Ironically, as the Ikhwan’s political influence grew in Jordan, its membership diminished. Arab nationalism and political secularism was a growing force and one that attracted many young Jordanians, especially university students. Consequently, by 1967 the Ikhwan in Jordan numbered between 700 and a thousand members, a very sharp decline since 1947.
In 1967 the Six Day War was yet another blow to the Muslim World, with Jordan losing its foothold in the West Bank. Then in September 1970 Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser died, and the Middle East was thrown into confusion. In that same year King Hussein of Jordan, the grandson of King Abdallah, launched an attack (the “Black September”) against the Palestinian elements located in his country. They hardly threatened Israel but certainly threatened his Hashemite throne.
Thousands of Palestinians fled to Syria where many joined Assad and his Baath party loyalists. In Jordan the Ikhwan survived thanks to the effort of Muslim Brother Ishaq al-Farhan, the Minister of Education. He kept the movement alive and along with Brothers like Abdullah Azzam the Ikhwan infiltrated Jordan’s education system and continued their struggle against the Jordanian communists and secularists.
ABDULLAH AZZAM IN PAKISTAN
Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who never renounced the Muslim Brotherhood, left Palestine’s West Bank a few months after the 6-Day War with Israel in 1967. At the time he disagreed with Yasser Arafat arguing that the only resolution to the question of Israel was jihad. His credo became “Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogs.” It was the same credo that would be used by Arab mujahedeen fighting in Afghanistan.
A graduate of Cairo’s Al Azhar University, Azzam went on to teach at university in Saudi Arabia where among his students was Osama bin Laden. With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 Azzam, who was then teaching at the University of Jordan in Jordan, transferred from there to the Islamic university in Islamabad, Pakistan. Once there, he soon moved from Islamabad to Peshawar to be closer to the field of battle in Afghanistan. There, Azzam was largely responsible for constructing the religious base that underpinned what came to be called the Arab-Afghan jihad in Afghanistan. During his years in Peshawar he was known as both a successful fundraiser and military recruiter.
In 1984 Azzam created the famous Services Bureau for Arab Mujahedeen (MAK). It operated from Peshawar and provided guest houses and a point of departure for Arab-Afghan mujahedeen. Thanks to Saudi funds and Muslim Brotherhood contacts he was able to construct a puissant Arab-Afghan edifice. It became the locus of a battle against Soviet forces, and survived well after Azzam’s mysterious death by car-bomb in 1988. During his years in Pakistan Azzam encouraged thousands of Muslims, including his former student Osama Bin Laden, to enter the jihad. His assassination and the death of two sons in a mysterious car-bombing in Peshawar in 1988 was mourned the length of the Muslim World.
Had he lived, Azzam would not have supported the “War of the Warlords”, an event that beggared Afghanistan through much of the nineteen nineties. He had on various occasions denounced movements that pitted Muslim against Muslim. In contrast to Azzam who “advocated a traditional, fundamentalist interpretation” of Jihad that required to reconquest of the Dar al-Islam (in Europe and Palestine), his student and associate Osama Bin Laden developed other ideas. In the place of the MAK he would create a secret organization with a decided purpose — perpetual jihad against the West and the enemies of Islam. He and his nascent Al Qaeda organization would declare just who those enemies were.
Abdullah Azzam was known for his famous statement, “Muslims cannot be defeated by others. We Muslims are not defeated by our enemies, but instead, we are defeated by our own selves.” Before his assassination it was generally understood that he opposed the internecine struggle for Afghanistan that he foresaw. Thus, he was planning to end his involvement in the Saudi-funded Ikhwan-supported MAK and return to the Levant and the struggle against Israel. There his considerable energy and reputation would have been put to use in the First Intifada — the revolutionary street movement that erupted in Palestine in December 1987 and from which emerged Hamas, a movement tied hand in glove to Abdalla Azzam’s International Muslim Brotherhood.
In December 1989, the nineteen-year-old Huthaifa Azzam, already an experienced mujahedeen was present when twenty-three year old Abu Musab al-Zarqawi arrived at Peshawar. Zarqawi was the toughest recruit among a group of raw Jordanians who eventually joined Mullah Omar’s faction in what had become the War of the Afghan Warlords for supremacy in post-Soviet occupied Afghanistan. Zarqawi was “a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp.” Zarqawi was a difficult man to like, as even Osama Bin Laden complained following their first meeting in 1999. Zarqawi arrived in Peshawar a sociopath, and left it that way a few years later.
Whether the puissant Jordan Muslim Brotherhood had anything to do with the movement of Zarqawi from Jordan to Abdallah Azzam’s Arab-Afghan center that still existed at Peshawar is not known. Nor is it known how long Huthaifa and Zarqawi were associates. One thing is certain, however, Huthaifa Azzam later claimed that Zarqawi soon acquired a reputation for brutality, and he wanted nothing to do with the man.
Following his father’s death In Peshawar, Huthaifa soon became convinced that Pakistan authorities would no longer tolerate his presence in Peshawar. He was arrested by them and turned over to Egyptian intelligence officers for questioning regarding a possible involvement in a string of attacks on the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad. Not long after being freed, Hut Haifa Assam and his mother departed Pakistan for Jordan where he planned to live and begin his studies.
We have only the bare-bones of how Assam survived after 1989, where he lived, and with whom he worked. In Jordan he began to study for a degree in classical Arabic literature. It was said (but evidence is lacking) that in the nineteen nineties he took part in the War in the Balkans at the behest of the international Muslim Brotherhood. He traveled around the Middle East, but despite his Khan contacts neither he nor anyone from his family was allowed to enter Egypt. Still, he did maintain contact with leading Muslim Brothers in Egypt where the Khan al-Muslimun center was only gradually emerging from decades of wandering in a political wilderness. Surprisingly, he was an occasional visitor to Syria — Where earlier Assad had ruthlessly attacked the Syria Muslim Brotherhood and driven it from the country.
Huthaifa apparently lived quietly. There is no indication one-way or the other whether he joined the Jordan Muslim Brotherhood. If he was his father’s son, almost assuredly he did. In 1989, shortly following the death of his father, the Ikhwan took part in Jordan’s parliamentary elections and become the nation’s largest party with 23 of 80 seats. It was the movement’s high-water mark; in 1994 the Ikhwan opposed the Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty signed that year. The Ikhwan had for decades maintained a modus vivendi with Jordan’s monarchy thanks to its cautious politicking, and its posing as a reform rather than an ant regime movement. With the death of King Hussein his son Abdullah II ascended the throne in February 1999. Shortly afterward the son, who had little use for the Ikhwan, gave the organization a scare when he ordered the arrest of some thirty senior Ikhwan. Thereafter the Brotherhood had reason to worry that the King might be planning to prorogue the Ikhwan (which he did not).
Since 9/11/2001, King Abdulah has seen to it that Ikhwan activity has been circumscribed. Dr. Azzam Huneidi, head of Jordan’s Islamic Action Front, which represents the Muslim Brotherhood in the Jordanian parliament, walks a fine line in his support for the Kingdom while expressing his support of Hamas in Palestine.
Huthaifa obviously remained in touch with his Peshawar buddies, including Omar the fourth son of Osama Bin Laden who had had a falling-out with his father in Afghanistan sometime in the year 2000. Writer Peter Bergen has stated that Huthaifa accompanied Omar in 2003 on a hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. They spent four days together in the same tent and engaged in long talks during which Omar “heaped abuse on his father” for what he considered his involvement in the crazy attack on the United States. Azzam himself agreed that the Islamist movement had been damaged and benefited little from that spectacular success.
ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI ACTIVITY
Graduating from the conflict in Afghanistan, and prior to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi would practically disappear. It is known that Zarqawi traveled to Europe where he founded the al-Tawhid, an Islamist movement devoted to the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy and the installation of an Islamist regime. Returning to Jordan, he was arrested and reported spent six years in prison in the nineteen nineties until his release in December 1999 in a general amnesty.
Zarqawi re-emerged with the presence of the United States forces in Iraq, . In 2003 to take charge of what would soon be labeled the Al Qaeda in Iraq. He had not changed much, and he was soon known to be an especially vicious individual. However, there was no indication that Al Qaeda as represented by Ayman Al Zawahiri — who had approved his role in the first place — had found him wanting. For that matter there was no indication that the Mujahedeen Shura Council (aka, the Consultative Council of Holy Warriors), founded in Iraq in January 2005 by five Islamist entities including Al Qaeda in Iraq, had originally opposed the Zarqawi leadership. In the end it is reported that Zarqawi was deposed not because his tactics were too brutal, rather, he was ousted because he attacked and opposed absolutely any alliance with Iraq’s Muslim Shiites.
Before his ouster as head of the umbrella Holy Warriors in 2006, Zarqawi had become associated with savage bombings, assassinations and beheadings. Even though he was ousted from the Islamist’s umbrella organization he would continue as leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq. He did so despite the fact that he, “openly criticized bin Laden in justifying his [own] attacks on Shiites.”
CHALLENGING THE SUNNI-SHIA RAPPROCHEMENT
To this day it seems that Zarqawi’s demotion had little or nothing to do with his loss of support within Al Qaeda or, especially, of AQ’s second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri. For more than a decade Zawahiri himself had been beholding to Iran.
In the nineteen nineties he had used Iran’s backing to enlarge his own Egypt Islamic Jihad and fund its training bases in Yemen and the Sudan. However, that Zarqawi might be the cause of a Sunni-Shia split did not seem to bother Zawahiri who placed loyalty to his person above all other considerations. True to his cause, Zawahiri devoted great effort to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). Composed in the main of like-minded Egyptians, the EIJ was never much more than a small congregation. It would remain so because Zawahiri lacked the one indispensable element that all terrorist organizations require, and one that Bin Laden (and even Zarqawi) had been able to call on: A dependable source of funds required to maintain the movement.
Bin Laden, the Al Qaeda leader, was a different case. He had never publicly advocated sectarian warfare between Sunnis and Shiites. Equally important, the international Muslim Brotherhood leadership, including Sudan’s Turabi, Tunisia’s Ghannouchi, Yemen’s Zindani, Turkey’s Erbaken, the Egyptian Center, the Pakistani brothers, and the European exiles had all tried to square the circle, seeking a Sunni-Shia rapprochement in their common war with the West.
Importantly, the Azzams, both father and son, had supported that rapprochement and the two most famous jihadists — Osama Bin Laden, the Sunni jihadi and Imad Mugnihya the Hezbollah tactician — had a close personal relationship. Finally, in Iran Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the Iranian parliament beginning in 1980, and President of Iran undertook the cooperative effort from 1989 to 1997.
From all accounts from the first time Bin Laden met Zarqawi he wanted little to do with the Jordanian. He was afraid that his organization had been penetrated by the Jordan secret police. He found the man to have no real religious training or military understanding. Seemingly, he last met Zarqawi in 1998 and after that date wanted little to do with the man. By the time Zarqawi took charge of Al Qaeda in Iraq Zawahiri was in charge of day-to-day operations and it was not known if Bin Laden was living or dead.
Azzam followed closely the events in Iraq and from his base in Jordan. Because he himself had known combat at age fifteen and was a field-blooded mujahedeen, his words carried weight. He seems to have played no direct military role during the war in Iraq, yet it was he who announced in early 2006 that the Islamists were “unhappy” with Zarqawi’s tactics. He stated that Zarqawi had a “tendency to speak for the insurgency as a whole” (See “Zarqawi not leading Iraq Unrest” and “The Short, Violent Life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi”). His actions were seen as counterproductive in the battle for Iraq, and in ordering the bombing of Jordan hotels in 2005 Zarqawi certainly exceeded his authority (and threatened Huthaifa Azzam’s and the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood pied-a-terre). Azzam criticized Zarqawi for attacking non-combatants in the war, something that his father had opposed
Most importantly, it was Huthaifa Azzam who named Zarqawi’s replacement. It was an important moment because the name Azzam still had magical connotations among Arab-Afghans and the Al Qaeda. In July 2006 journalist Mary Fitzgerald interviewed Huthaifa Azzam in Amman, after which she wrote: “Jihad is a family affair. There are few as steeped in the philosophy and practice of jihad as his immediate family. His late father Abdullah is credited with fine-tuning the modern interpretation of jihad first applied in Afghanistan.” She noted that Azzam defended his father’s militant legacy “from detractors but also former disciples.” That Huthaifa had his share of enemies in Islamist circles was quite clear. A package was delivered to Azzam in Amman with a message from Zarqawi, “admonishing Azzam for denouncing the triple suicide bombings al-Zarqawi had orchestrated in Amman which left 60 people dead. With its accusations of betrayal and treachery, some interpreted the message as a thinly veiled death threat.” Threats aside, according to a BBC report, Huthaifa spoke “with a certain authority about the jihadi groups in Iraq.”
It was clear that Huthaifa was still a jihadist insider when he became the first jihadi to publicize that the Consultative Council of Holy Warriors had chosen the unknown Abdullah al-Baghdadi to replace Zarqawi. Experts soon posited that al-Baghdadi was really a nom-de-guerre, and the Baghdadi name had been used to give the Islamist involvement “an Iraqi face.” It was soon clear that the change hoped to unite the Sunni and Shiite jihadis who were fast drifting apart.
Zarqawi would survive only a few more months. Perhaps fingered by one of his enemies, he was killed in an airstrike in June 2006. Al Qaeda in Iraq was then led by Abu Ayyub al Masri (AKA Abu Hamza al-Muhajer). In October Abu Ayyub announced the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as leader. Both the Al Qaeda in Iraq and its arm, the ISI were badly damaged when both leaders were killed in a US-Iraqi assault. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi then assumed control of ISI in April 2010, while Al Qaeda in Iraq seemed to fade away.
With the ouster of Zarqawi the Consultative Council of Holy Warriors named the unknown Abdullah al-Baghdadi to take charge of the umbrella Islamist organization. Baghdadi did not have long to consolidate his leadership because in January 2007 President George W. Bush announced the deployment of 30,000 troops in what was to become known as the “Surge.” With the Sunni mujahedeen soon on the run, Abdullah al-Baghdadi soon disappeared from news reports. He was replaced by the equally mysterious Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as head of the Islamic State in Iraq. Little more was known of Abu Omar other than he had been in constant contact with Ayman al-Zawahiri (still Bin Laden’s deputy in the Al Qaeda hierarchy). He was killed in 2010, with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki claiming an Iraqi-led strike had killed both Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. It then appeared that the head of the Islamist snake had been cut off at a single blow.
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was replaced by the equally unknown Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Reportedly born in Samarra in 1971, he had been Zarqawi’s trusted lieutenant before the Al Qaeda in Iraq leader was killed in 2006.
With declining fortunes in Iraq, the Al Qaeda was only revived with the 2011-2112 outbreak of anti-Assad sentiment in Syria. Elsewhere in the Middle East, in early 2011 pro-democracy protests would lead to the ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.
OSAMA BIN LADEN IS KILLED
With the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Ayman Zawahiri, who like Bin Laden had been in hiding for years, was prepared to assume the Al Qaeda leadership. He did so and thus become the most wanted man in the terrorist hierarchy. And with the raid that killed Bin Laden the press once again sought out Huthaifa who, if he could be found, was always good for a quote or two. In an AFP interview on 3 May Azzam predicted that with Bin Laden dead Al Qaeda would become more extreme under Ayman al-Zawahiri — the man who had envied Bin Laden’s close personal relationship with Abdullah Azzam and who some felt initiated the Peshawar bombing that had killed him. Huthaifa argued that once Zawahiri took charge the Al Qaeda would become much more dangerous. As he put it, “The Americans have killed Osama bin Laden, giving a perfect excuse to Zawahiri, who is more extremist, to carry out revenge acts.” As far as Huthaifa was concerned Al Qaeda had already been grasped by “the iron fist of Egyptian Zawahiri.”
Azzam then made two egregious mistakes. First, he claimed, “I expect more Al-Qaeda operations against the West as well as Pakistan, which, the group believes, killed bin Laden.” That turned out not to be true. Second, he argued, “attacks by Al-Qaeda on Arab countries were unlikely.” That argument was shortsighted as Al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries shortly joined in attacks on Muslim government from Mali, through Libya to the Syria of Bashir Assad and set the Muslim World aflame.
THE AZZAM NAME PERSISTS
Huthaifa Azzam would later state that he travelled to Iraq shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 in order “to assist the nascent insurgency.” He attempted to enter Iraq at a later date but was detained at an unknown border crossing and turned back. He never wavered in his support for the Sunni opposition in Iraq. In doing so, he later explained his own reliance on what his father had called a “defensive” jihad, or the reclaiming of any land formerly under Muslim control: “If I find the way, I would go today to fight jihad in Iraq because it is compulsory for me as a Muslim… But it can only take place inside the borders of Iraq, you cannot bring it outside. If I saw an American or British man wearing a soldier’s uniform inside Iraq I would kill him because that is my obligation. If I found the same soldier over the border in Jordan I wouldn’t touch him. In Iraq he is a fighter and an occupier, here he is not. This is my religion and I respect this as the main instruction in my religion for jihad.”
Whether Huthaifa liked it or not the name Abdullah Azzam persisted, often in ways that were not pleasing to him. In 2004 the nascent “Battalion of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam (BMAA)” carried out bomb attacks in Egypt. The organization then continued a bombing spree, including a major car bombing attack at Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai. BMAA was also known as Al-Qaeda in the Levant and Egypt, Al-Qaida in Syria and Egypt, and the al-Qaida organization. The incipient organization sought to take Jihad to Egypt, Jordan and Syria. As the Middle East descended into chaos, the “Al Qaeda in Levant and Egypt’s Martyr Abdullah Azzam Brigades” even attacked US military ships docked in Jordan’s Aqaba in August 2010.
Huthaifa condemned BMAA’s often-indiscriminate attacks in the Arab media. He and objected to his father’s name being associated with such terrorism. Following the Sinai bombings in 2011 he stated, “I swear by God, if Abdullah Azzam were alive, he would have been the first to fight against this thought, he would have been the most prominent person to confront this thought.” Earlier, in 2006, speaking to journalist Mary Fitzgerald, “Pointing at one of the large framed copies of his father’s will and testament that hang in several of the rooms in his home… ‘The people who do this kind of thing have given the West a bad idea about Islam. Now if you say you are Muslim in many western countries, it means you are a terrorist. That is the last thing my father would have wanted but he knew the dangers of it. He always warned people to stay away from the extremists; he even put it in his will. What is happening today with al-Qaeda is not his way.”
Such statements made Huthaifa persona non grata among many Islamist movements. The radicals were uninterested in “defensive” jihad. The Salafists were unmoved by the death of Muslim women and children in their attacks on the secular powers and their leaders approved death by suicide bombing, something the religious leaders of many Muslim institutions considered forbidden (haram).
By the time the war for Syria reached a flash point in mid-2012 there was announced the birth of yet another tentacle of the Al Qaeda octopus, the Al-Nusra Front. Funded by very wealthy Kuwaiti Muslim brothers, the Al Nusra was at that time likely the most important Al Qaeda front in operation. And as Al Nusra did battle with Syria’s Assad, photos of Zarqawi, who remained a hero in Islamist movements, circulated throughout the war zone, in what became a confusing turn of events, thanks to Qatar financial support.
In April 2013 there emerged yet a new split in the Al Qaeda leadership in Syria when ISIS was created (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or Shams). Why the Al Qaeda leadership opposed ISIS has never been clarified, but it seems that there was conflict between two tough personalities, Zawahiri of the Al Qaeda and the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Baghdadi (Hamed Dawood Mohammed Khalil al Zawi) was born in 1971 at Samarra in Salahuddin province, Iraqi Kurdistan. As a jihadist, he gained his reputation for hatred of the Shia while working under Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. By 2013 ISIS had outraced Al Qaeda and had enlisted thousands of foreign jihadists. In just a short time it had exceeded Al Qaeda as the world’s most dangerous jihadist movement.
Al-Baghdadi would soon presume the title of Caliph (one that had not been used by anyone with authority since the nineteen twenties); yet, there was no indication that although the man was a jihadi he met the conditions of Caliph by dint of his scholarship. Interpretation of the faith or even a descendent from the Prophet or his family. The Baghdadi nom de guerre has been assumed only because the man maintains a residence in Baghdad. Dismissed from the Iraqi army because of his extremist tendencies, Baghdadi was simply the most bloodthirsty leader to come along since Zarqawi.
As the war for Iraq nears its most crucial stage Huthaifa Azzam is content to observe developments from his home in Amman. It must have come as a shock to observe that Jordan was among the first countries to welcome the ousting of Egypt’s Morsi (and the Muslim Brotherhood) in July 2013. The action was strongly condemned by the Hashemite Kingdom’s Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless, King Abdullah II, who himself faced challenges at home from Islamists, was the first head of state to visit Egypt, 17 days after the coup. It seems Huthaifa Azzam has learned how to bide his time. Jordan weathered the so-called Arab Spring street protests calling for more inclusive government, which would reduce the King’s political power. In contrast to street scenes elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, the Ikhwan’s Islamic Action Front led protests that attracted little interest and had little effect.
In one of the most important interviews he has ever given Huthaifa Azzam he makes it clear where he stood and where he still stands.
Sitting under the huge tapestry of Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock that dominates the living room of his spacious villa, Azzam says: “You could say there is a war going on between my father’s ideology and that of al-Qaeda. They are trying to use my father’s name to justify and market their ideology. They have misused jihad and they are not working according to the Islamic rules of jihad. “We know jihad. It is something very precious and very honorable for a Muslim to do but not in the al-Qaeda way. My father would have been completely against attacking civilian people living in their own countries like what happened in London, Spain and Amman. This is not jihad.” Huthaifa justifies the Iraqi insurgency as “defensive jihad” but deplores its often-brutal nature, saying his father would never have condoned the kidnappings, beheadings and bombings of civilian targets that have defined much of it. For many Muslims, the Iraq war has signaled yet another turn in the age-old debate about the nature and meaning of jihad, a debate that, perhaps more than any other issue, highlights the difficulties of a faith with no central authority.
But Haifa Assam is scathing when it comes to those who argue jihad simply means a personal introspective struggle. “This is not true,” he says. “They are denying themselves and denying that part of Islam. They are clearly mistaken. Jihad is one of the most important parts of Islam but it also has many rules in the way it is supposed to be fought. That is something many in the West don’t understand. “When the Prophet Muhammad and Abu Bark [Muhammad’s successor] sent men to battle, they gave strict instructions not to kill any woman, child or old man. These are the Islamic instructions on jihad. We should not kill civilians. It is like praying. As Muslims we have a way to pray. You cannot pray any way you want, you have to do it according to the rules. It’s the same with jihad.”
POSTSCRIPT: It is far too early to write Huthaifa Assam’s political obituary. The Salafists may have lost their way (and the savants at Al Azhar and from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan think so). Likely only defeat will lead the more thoughtful Islamists back toward the mainstream where Huthaifa has set his flag. In Muslim terms, Huthaifa is still a young man; he still has many books to read, many argument to digest, many controversies to resolve. But in the tradition of an Ikhwan leader, the Egyptian exile Yusuf al-Qaradawi, there is time enough to grow.
We shall see.
J. Millard Burr
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