Abdullah Yusuf Azzam

From New World Encyclopedia

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam
1941 - 1989
Place of birth As-ba'ah Al-Hartiyeh, British Mandate of Palestine
Place of death Peshawar, Pakistan
Allegiance Maktab al-Khadamat

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941 - November 24, 1989) was a highly influential Palestinian Sunni Islamic scholar and theologian, and a central figure in preaching for defensive jihad by Muslims to help the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet invaders. He fled the West Bank in 1967, in the Palestinian exodus to Jordan, taking a leading role in the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood. There he adopted the teachings of Sayyed Qutb, most significantly the inevitable clash of civilizations between Islam and the non-Islamic world as well as war with all secular states to establish Islamic states.

Azzam moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, teaching at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah until 1979. Among his students was Osama bin Laden who had grown up in Jeddah. In 1979, Azzam sent out fatwa to resist the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, moving to Pakistan's northern region to train international recruits for war in Afghanistan, while preaching Islamism. Azzam persuaded Osama bin Laden to come to Afghanistan and help the jihad after bin Laden graduated from university in Jeddah in 1981. Bin Laden used his fortune to recruit and train recruits for the war against the Soviet Union. They agreed upon the basic teachings of Sayyed Qutb yet disagreed on the direction of global jihad after expelling the Soviets from Afghanistan. That disagreement put Azzam at odds with the leadership of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, too. That fundamental disagreement led to his assassination by a bomb blast in Peshawar, Pakistan, November 1989, possibly detonated by Bin Laden's personal aid.

Early life in the West Bank

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam was born in 1941 in the village of As-ba'ah Al-Hartiyeh (Seilat al-Harithia village), a few kilometers northwest of the city of Jenin, in the Jenin Sanjak (District), then administered as the British Mandate of Palestine. After completing elementary and secondary school education in his home village, he studied agriculture at Khadorri College near Tulkarm. After graduation from college, Sheikh Azzam worked as a teacher in the south Jordanian village of Adder. He subsequently joined Sharia College at the University of Damascus where he obtained a B.A. in Sharia in 1966. After the 1967 Six-Day War ended in Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, Azzam left the West Bank and followed the Palestinian exodus to Jordan, where he joined the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood.

His father, Mustafa Azzam, died in 1990. His mother, Zakia Saleh, died in 1988, one year before the Sheikh was killed. She was buried in the Pabi camp, in Peshawar, Pakistan, where Abdullah Azzam was later assassinated in a car bombing.

Life in Jordan and Egypt

Flag of Hamas

In Jordan, Azzam participated in paramilitary operations against Israel but became disillusioned with the secular and provincial nature of the Palestinian resistance coalition held together under the umbrella of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and led by Yasser Arafat. Instead of pursuing the PLO’s Marxist-oriented national liberation struggle supported by the Soviet Union, Azzam envisioned a pan-Islamic trans-national movement that would transcend the political map of the Middle East drawn by non-Islamic colonial powers.[1] He may have played a role in founding the Islamist Hamas movement in Palestine.[2]

Azzam then went to Egypt to continue Islamic studies at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University where he earned a Master’s degree in Sharia. He returned to teach at the University of Jordan in Amman, but in 1970, the Jordanian military expelled PLO militants from Jordan during what became known as Black September, thereby preventing the use of Jordanian territory for anti-Israeli and anti-western attacks. In 1971, Azzam received a scholarship to once again attend Al-Azhar University where he obtained his Ph.D. in the Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Usool ul-Fiqh) in 1973.

During theological studies in Egypt, Azzam met Omar Abdel-Rahman, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other followers of Sayyed Qutb, an extremely influential leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, who had been executed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966. Azzam adopted elements of Sayyed Qutb’s ideology, including beliefs in an inevitable “clash of civilizations” between the Islamic world and non-Islamic world, and in the necessity of violent revolution against secular governments to establish an Islamic state.

Life in Saudi Arabia

After obtaining his Doctorate in Egypt in 1973, Azzam returned to teach at the University of Jordan, but his radical views were suppressed there. So Azzam then moved to Saudi Arabia. Since the 1960s, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia had welcomed exiled teachers from Syria, Egypt, and Jordan, so that by the early 1970s many Saudi high school and university teachers commonly involved with exiled dissident members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

As one of those Jordanian dissidents in the early 1970s, Azzam took a position as lecturer at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he remained until 1979. Osama bin Laden had grown up in Jeddah, and was enrolled as a student in the university there between 1976 and 1981 and he probably first made contact with Azzam at that time.

Life in Pakistan and Afghanistan

1979 became a pivotal year for Islamic fundamentalism, with three huge revolutionary events in the Muslim world. First, on January 16, 1979 the Iranian Revolution began with the forced exile of the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which then brought about the world's first modern Muslim theocracy under the rule of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

The second major attempt at Islamic revolution that year was the November 20, 1979 Grand Mosque Seizure at Mecca, in western Saudi Arabia, the holiest site in Islam. The hostage-taking, two week siege, and bloody ending shocked the Muslim world, as hundreds were killed in the ensuing battles and executions. The event was explained as a fundamentalist dissident revolt against the Saudi regime. The Saudi regime responded with repression, and in 1979, Azzam was expelled from the university at Jeddah. He then moved to Pakistan to be close to the nascent Afghan Jihad.

In the third major event of the year, on December 25, 1979, the Soviet Union, attempting to suppress a growing Islamic rebellion, deployed the 40th Army into Afghanistan, in support of advisers it already had in place there.

Support for Afghan mujahideen

An Afghan Mujahideen demonstrates positioning of a hand-held surface-to-air missile. August 26, 1988.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Azzam issued a fatwa, Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith,[3] declaring that both the Afghan and Palestinian struggles were jihads in which killing occupiers of your land (no matter what their faith) was fard ayn (a personal obligation) for all Muslims. Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti (highest religious scholar), Abd al-Aziz Bin Bazz supported the edict.

In Pakistan in 1980, Azzam began to teach at International Islamic University in Islamabad. Soon thereafter, he moved from Islamabad to Peshawar, closer to the Afghan border, where he then established Maktab al-Khadamat (Services Office) to organize guest houses in Peshawar and paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan to prepare international recruits for the Afghan war front. From Peshawar, a major border city of a million people in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan, Azzam organized resistance directly on the Afghan frontier. Peshawar lay only fifteen kilometers east of the historic Khyber Pass, through the Safed Koh mountains, connected to the southeastern edge of the Hindu Kush range. That route became the major avenue of inserting foreign fighters and material support into into eastern Afghanistan for the resistance against the Soviets, and also in later years.

After Osama bin Laden graduated from the university in Jeddah in 1981, he also came to live for a time in Peshawar. Through al-Khadamat, bin Laden's fortune paid for air tickets and accommodation, dealt with paperwork with Pakistani authorities and provided other such services for the jihad fighters. To keep al Khadamat running, bin Laden set up a network of couriers traveling between Afghanistan and Peshawar, which continued to remain active after 2001, according to Yusufzai. After orientation and training, Muslim recruits volunteered for service with various Afghan militias tied to Azzam. In 1984, Osama bin Laden founded Bait ul-Ansar (House of Helpers) in Peshawar to expand Azzam’s ability to support “Afghan Arab” jihad volunteers and, later, to create his own independent militia.

In 1988, Azzam convinced Ahmed Said Khadr to fund raise for an alleged new charity named al-Tahaddi based in Peshawar. He granted Khadr a letter of commendation to take back to Canadian mosques, calling for donations. The pair had a sensationalist show-down when Khadr insisted that he had a right to know how the money would be spent, and Azzam's supporters labeled Khadr a Western spy. A Sharia court was convened in bin Laden's compound, finding Azzam guilty of spreading allegations against Khadr, though no sentence was imposed.[4]

Employing tactics of asymmetric warfare, the Afghan resistance movement fended off the Soviet Union’s superior military forces throughout most of the war, although the lightly armed Afghan mujahideen suffered enormous casualties. The Saudi Arabian government and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) gradually increased financial and military assistance to the Afghan mujahideen forces throughout the 1980s in an effort to stem Soviet expansionism and to destabilize the Soviet Union.

The Khyber Pass located near Peshawar, Pakistan

Azzam frequently joined Afghan militias and international Muslim units as they battled the Soviet Union’s forces in Afghanistan. He sought to unify elements of the resistance by resolving conflicts between mujahideen commanders and he became an inspirational figure among the Afghan resistance and freedom-fighting Muslims worldwide for his passionate attachment to jihad against foreign occupation.

In the 1980s, Azzam traveled throughout the Middle East, Europe and North America, including fifty cities in the United States, to raise money and preach about jihad. He inspired young Muslims with stories of miraculous deeds, Mujahideen who defeated vast columns of Soviet troops virtually single-handed, who had been run over by tanks but survived, who were shot but unscathed by bullets. Critics complain those stories proliferated because Sheikh Abdullah paid mujahids to bring "him wonderful tales."

Global Jihad

Azzam's trademark slogan was "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues." In Join the Caravan, Azzam implored Muslims to rally in defense of Muslim victims of aggression, to restore Muslim lands from foreign domination, and to uphold the Muslim faith.[5]

Sheikh Azzam built a scholarly, ideological and practical paramilitary infrastructure for the globalization of Islamist movements that had previously focused on separate national, revolutionary and liberation struggles. Sheikh Azzam’s philosophical rationalization of global jihad and practical approach to recruitment and training of Muslim militants from around the world blossomed during the Afghan war against Soviet occupation and proved crucial to the subsequent development of the al-Qaida militant movement.[6]

Like earlier influential Islamist Sayyid Qutb, Azzam urged the creation of "pioneering vanguard" as the core of a new Islamic society. "This vanguard constitutes the solid base` [qaeda in Arabic] for the hoped-for society … We shall continue the jihad no matter how long the way, until the last breath and the last beat of the pulse—or until we see the Islamic state established."[7] From its victory in Afghanistan jihad would liberate Muslim land (or formerly Muslim land in the case of Spain) ruled by unbelievers: the southern Soviet Republics of Central Asia, Bosnia, the Philippines, Kashmir, Somalia, Eritrea, and Spain. He believed the natural place to continue the jihad was his birthplace, Palestine. Azzam planned to train brigades of Hamas fighters in Afghanistan, who would then return to carry on the battle against Israel."[8]

This put him at odds with another influential faction of the Afghan Arabs, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) and its leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.[9] The next group of "unbelievers" the EIJ wanted to jihad against were not Israeli Jews, European Christians or Indian Hindus, but self-professed Muslims of the Egyptian government and other secular Muslim governments. For the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, takfir against the allegedly impious Egyptian government was central,[10] but Azzam opposed takfir of Muslims—including takfir of Muslim governments—which he believed spread fitna and disunity within the Muslim community.


In 1989, a first attempt on his life failed, when a lethal amount of TNT explosive was placed beneath the pulpit from which he delivered the sermon every Friday. The Arab mosque was in the University Town neighborhood in western Peshawar, in Gulshan Iqbal Road. Abdullah Azzam used the mosque as the jihad center, according to a Reuters inquiry in the neighborhood. Had the bomb exploded, reportedly it would have destroyed the mosque, and killed everybody in it.[11]

But then on November 24, 1989, Azzam and his two sons, Ibrahim and Muhammad, among others, were killed outside the mosque, while on their way to Friday prayers in Peshawar, when unidentified assassins detonated land mines as Sheik Azzam’s vehicle approached. Among the dead was one of the sons of the late Sheikh Tameem Adnani. The explosive that time consisted of an estimated twenty kilograms of TNT. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and his sons were buried near the same site as his mother the year before, the Pabi Graveyard of the Shuhadaa' (martyrs), in Peshawar. By that time the Soviet Union had withdrawn all troops from Afghanistan. Suspects in the assassination include competing Afghan militia leaders, Pakistani Interservices Intelligence Agency, the CIA, and the Israeli Mossad.[12]

Azzam's son-in-law, Abdallah Anas, accused the EIJ of killing his father-in-law on the grounds that it "considered Sheikh Abdullah Azzam to be a rogue who had strayed from the right path of the faith … Sheikh Abdullah Azzam was murdered because he had issued a fatwa in which he stated that once the Russians were ejected from Afghanistan, it would not be permissible for us to take sides."[13] Fawaz Gerges also believed that Ayman al-Zawahiri likely orchestrated the assassination; in doing so he had hoped to become Al-Qaeda's number two.

Others suspect the killing as part of a purge of those who favored moving the jihad to Palestine. In March 1991, Mustapha Shalabi, who ran the Maktab al-Khidmat, the Services Bureau in New York and preferred "a `Palestine next` strategy, turned up dead in his apartment." Wadih el-Hage, who later became bin Laden's personal secretary, replaced him.[14] Osama bin Laden has also been accused of being a suspect in the murder, but seems to have remained on good terms with Sheikh Azzam during this time.[15]


After his death, Azzam’s militant ideology and related paramilitary manuals were promoted through print and Internet media by Azzam Publications, which described itself as "an independent media organization providing authentic news and information about Jihad and the Foreign Mujahideen everywhere." The publishing house operated from a London post office box (Azzam Publications—BMC UHUD, LONDON, WC1N 3XX) and an Internet site, www.azzam.com, that were shut down shortly after the September 11, 2001 attacks and are no longer active, though mirror sites persisted for some time afterward. Babar Ahmad, the alleged administrator of azzam.com, is awaiting extradition from Great Britain to the U.S.

In terms of ideas, Azzam’s belief in jihad—"one hour in the path of jihad is worth more than 70 years of praying at home"—has had considerable impact. Azzam is thought to have had influence on jihadists such as al-Qaeda with the third stage of his "four-stage process of jihad." This third stage was "ribat," defined as "placing oneself at the frontlines where Islam was under siege." That idea likely reinforced militants "perception of a civilizational war between Islam and the West."[16]


  • "Muslims cannot be defeated by others. We Muslims are not defeated by our enemies, but instead, we are defeated by our own selves."[17]
  • "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."
  • "History does not write its lines except with blood. Glory does not build its loft edifice except with skulls; Honor and respect cannot be established except on a foundation of cripples and corpses."

Written works

  • Defense of the Muslim Lands: The First Obligation after Faith, 1979
  • Join the Caravan, 1987
  • The Lofty Mountain (A biographical book on the life of Sheikh Tameem Adnani, a scholar of the Afghan Jihad. It contains a unique, descriptive, first-hand account of the famous Lion's Den Operation in Jaji, Afghanistan, in 1987 whereby 50 Mujahideen held off a month-long assault by several battalions of Soviet and Communist soldiers.)
  • The Signs of Ar-Rahman in the Jihad of the Afghan (A fully checked and revised version of a book listing over a hundred eyewitness alleged accounts of miracles experienced by the Mujahideen in the Soviet-Afghan Jihad, from perfumed bodies of martyrs to accounts of angels helping the Mujahideen, and other claims.)
  • Lovers of the Paradise Maidens (Lovers of the Paradise Maidens contains the biographies and stories of over 150 Mujahideen who died in the Soviet-Afghan Jihad.)


  1. Sheikh Abdullah Azzam (Shaheed), Defense of the Muslim Lands; The First Obligation After Iman; Biography of Abdullah Azzam and Introduction. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  2. PWHCE, Abdullah Azzam, "The Godfather of Jihad." Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  3. Religioscope, Defence of the Muslim Lands; The First Obligation After Iman. Retrieved Marcy 13, 2018.
  4. Michelle Shephard, Guantanamo's Child: the untold story of Omar Khadr (Wiley, 2008, ISBN 978-0470841174).
  5. Religioscope, Join the Caravan. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  6. Osama Bin Laden and Bruce B. Lawrence, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (London: Verso, 2005), 77.
  7. "The Solid Base" (Al-Qaeda), Al-Jihad (journal), April 1988, n.41
  8. Lawrence Wright, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006), 130.
  9. Giles Kepel, Jihad (Harvard University Press, 2002), 145.
  10. Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 37.
  11. UMMAH, Profiles of Ash Shuhadaa Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  12. Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know (New York: Free Press, 2006), 97.
  13. Al-Sharq al-Awsat, London, October 6, 2001
  14. Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, The Age of Sacred Terror (Random House, 2002), 104.
  15. Lawrence Wright, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, 143.
  16. Global Security, Statement of Magnus Ranstorp to the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States March 31, 2003. Retrieved March 13, 2018.
  17. Barry Rubin, and Judith Colp Rubin, Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East A Documentary Reader (Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0195157154), 64.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Benjamin, Daniel, and Steven Simon. The Age of Sacred Terror. New York: Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0375508592.
  • Bergen, Peter L. The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al-Qaeda's Leader. New York: Free Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0743278911.
  • Bin Laden, Osama, and Bruce B. Lawrence. Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden. London: Verso, 2005. ISBN 978-1844670451.
  • Kepel, Gilles. Jihad: The Trail of Political Islam. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0674008779.
  • Rubin,‎ Barry, and Judith Colp Rubin. Anti-American Terrorism and the Middle East A Documentary Reader. Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0195157154.
  • Sageman, Marc. Understanding Terror Networks. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0812238082.
  • Shephard, Michelle. Guantanamo's Child: the untold story of Omar Khadr. Wiley, 2008. ISBN 978-0470841174.
  • Wright, Lawrence. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. New York: Knopf, 2006. ISBN 978-0375414862.

External links

All links retrieved June 14, 2023.


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