The son of the father of jihad

Huthaifa Azzam defends his father's 'misunderstood' militant legacy from detractors but also former disciples, he tells Mary …

Huthaifa Azzam defends his father's 'misunderstood' militant legacy from detractors but also former disciples, he tells Mary Fitzgerald in Amman

It was not what you could call a normal adolescence. At 12 Huthaifa Azzam learned how to load and fire a gun in an Afghan mujahideen camp. As a gangly 15-year-old dressed in military fatigues and traditional Pashtun garb he tramped through Afghanistan's mountains with hundreds of others like him, Kalashnikovs slung over shoulders, to fight the Soviet occupation.

By 16 he knew Osama bin Laden as a close family friend. At 18 he made regular trips to the airport to collect dozens of young Muslims who had heeded the call for jihad in Afghanistan. One of them was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian who was to achieve notoriety for his part in the Iraqi insurgency until his death in an American strike last month.

For Huthaifa Azzam, 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.


A respected Palestinian theologian who had studied at Cairo's Al Azhar university, Azzam provided the religious underpinning for the war against Soviet occupation, recruiting Arab fighters to realise his vision and establishing the international network his protege Osama bin Laden would later transform into al-Qaeda.

The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad, an 11-volume jihadist handbook, mentions two men in its dedication - bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam, who is often referred to as the "father of jihad". Azzam's life and writings are legendary in militant circles, with some groupings even taking his name as a badge of honour.

But such credentials do not make Huthaifa Azzam, now in his mid-30s, immune to those he believes are distorting his father's ideology and tarnishing his legacy. Nor does his own experience as a self-described jihadist in Afghanistan, Bosnia and, more recently, Iraq.

In April, a package was left on the doorstep of Azzam's Amman home. It was a message from al-Zarqawi admonishing Azzam for denouncing the triple suicide bombings al-Zarqawi 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.

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 honourable 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 signalled 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.

After September 11th, that debate took on a higher pitch as Muslims attempted to explain a concept many non-Muslims began to associate with "holy war". The word jihad comes from the Arabic root j-h-d, which means to strive or make effort. In the Koran and the Hadith (the Prophet's sayings recorded after his death) the word appears many times, sometimes in the context of moral striving. At other times it is clearly used in reference to armed action in defence of the Muslim community, albeit with strictly defined conditions and rules.

Islamic scholars and jurists have for centuries quarrelled over the meaning of these references to jihad, particularly the way the militant tone of some Koranic verses and hadiths relates to others of a more moderate nature.

Take for example the often-quoted hadith that refers to the Prophet Muhammad returning from battle and telling his followers that they were leaving the lesser jihad (actual fighting) to face the greater jihad. Many moderates claim this shows that jihad is primarily an internal struggle against one's own desires and ego.

Others, such as Abdullah Azzam, have ruled out this notion, dismissing that particular hadith as unreliable. Some go as far as insisting jihad represents a sixth pillar of Islam, equal in importance to praying and fasting.

Huthaifa Azzam 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 Bakr [ 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."

Azzam's father took the idea of defensive jihad to mean that any land formerly under Muslim control, even if it were as small as the span of a person's hand, should be reclaimed by force if it is taken over by others. He wrote in his influential treatise Defence of Muslim Lands: "With reference to the Russians, it is not permitted to negotiate with them until they retreat from every hand span of Muslim territory. With the Jews in Palestine, likewise."

ABDULLAH AZZAM LEFT his home in the West Bank for Jordan following the 1967 war. He later distanced himself from Yasser Arafat's PLO, criticising its secularist outlook. "There will be no solution to the Palestinian problem except through jihad," Azzam wrote, a declaration that chimed with his motto: "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences, no dialogues."

Azzam went on to teach at a university in Saudi Arabia. One of his students was Osama bin Laden.

Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Abdullah Azzam moved to the Pakistani border town of Peshawar, declaring that it was the duty of all Muslims, not just Afghans, to fight the occupation.

He set up the Maktab al-Khadamat, or Services Bureau, to organise and train Muslims who flocked from some 20 countries to join the Afghan resistance. By 1989, he had inspired between 16,000 and 20,000 to fight the Soviets.

"If you take my father's view, when it comes to Afghanistan under the Soviets, Palestine under the Israeli occupation, Chechnya under the Russians, and Iraq under American occupation, jihad is a compulsory duty," Huthaifa says. "Defensive jihad is the only obligatory jihad in Islam. Every Muslim has to be part of that in Iraq today, whether it's fighting himself or offering support, money or preaching to spread the message."

Huthaifa says he travelled to Iraq shortly after the invasion in 2003 to assist the nascent insurgency. He tried to enter Iraq again at a later stage but was detained in a border area. "If I find the way, I would go today to fight jihad in Iraq because it is compulsory for me as a Muslim," he says. "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."

Abdullah Azzam's widow, Umm Mohammed, lives with Huthaifa and his family in Amman. Sifting through a battered old suitcase full of her late husband's possession, she recalls: "Since the first day I met him, he spoke of jihad. He told me that for him living without jihad was like a fish taken from the sea. But he was clear about the banner of jihad. You had to know your enemy - the enemy was the one who aggressed against you, violated you and took your land and home so you had the right to resist.

"He was against attacks outside the battlefield. The enemy had to be clear and known and you didn't leave the battlefield to attack elsewhere."

In the suitcase there are newspaper clippings, some gruesome jihad recruitment posters and faded postcards originally printed for the Afghan mujahideen to send home to their families. One features an old man in traditional dress weighed down with ammunition. He has a neatly clipped white beard and a puckish smile. The inscription on the back reads in Arabic and English "Never too old for jihad".

Another shows young boys fiddling with rocket launchers. "Jihad is their school," the card declares.

There are scores of family snaps taken in Afghanistan. Many feature Abdullah Azzam, strikingly tall with black and white striped beard, with legendary mujahideen leaders such as Ahmed Shah Massoud. This stash of photographs comes across like a Hall of Fame for the Afghan war, but there is one face missing - Osama bin Laden.

Azzam worked closely with bin Laden in Afghanistan, acting as a mentor of sorts until they fell out over the direction of jihad. Increasingly influenced by Egyptian militants such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden was intent on fomenting global jihad while Azzam, with his emphasis on defensive jihad, had his eye on the Palestinian cause.

Before travelling to Afghanistan, the Azzam family had stayed with bin Laden at his home in Saudi Arabia. "At that time he was obsessed with the idea of being a holy warrior and bringing his kids up to be holy warriors," remembers Huthaifa, who often refers to bin Laden using the respectful title "Sheikh Osama".

"It was his life, his plan to be a mujahed [ someone who undertakes jihad]. I remember he would take his three-year-old son away from his mother and when my father asked why, bin Laden would say that he wanted his son to grow up a tough and brave mujahed."

Umm Mohammed remembers a man of few words. "He was a kind, gentle and emotional man," she says. "As a woman I would sometimes correct his behaviour or reprimand him and he would accept my advice with an open heart. He is not as he is portrayed to the world. He is just a simple man who is zealous about his religion."

Later she admits quietly: "Some of his current thought did not exist when we knew him before but we do not know what has caused that change. We just don't know."

In 1989, some time after the rift with bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and two of his sons were killed in a car bombing in Peshawar. His murder was never solved and suspicion has fallen at various times on the Pakistani intelligence forces, the CIA, and elements of bin Laden's new circle.

The name and legacy of Abdullah Azzam lives on, however, even if that legacy is often interpreted in ways his family insist run contrary to his philosophy. In 2004 a hitherto unheard of organisation calling itself the "Battalion of the Martyr Abdullah Azzam" claimed responsibility for several bomb attacks in Egypt, claiming the lives of 34 people in total.

Last year the group was blamed for a series of car bombings that ripped through the Egyptian coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, killing 88 and wounding 200. Yet another group calling themselves "Al-Qaeda in Levant and Egypt, the Martyr Abdullah Azzam Brigades" claimed they were behind rocket attacks that targeted US military ships in the Jordanian port of Aqaba last August.

Huthaifa condemned the attacks in the Arab media and objected to his father's name being associated with such groups. "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," he told Al-Arabiya television following the Sharm el-Sheikh bombings.

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, Huthaifa shakes his head. "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," he says.

"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."

Mary Fitzgerald is the inaugural Douglas Gageby fellow at The Irish Times. "The Faces of Islam" appears every Friday.