An Interview with Umm Mohammed: The Wife of Bin Laden’s Spiritual Mentor Abdullah Azzam

For the forthcoming book, To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan
by Abdullah Anas and Tam Hussein, (Hurst), 2019, I thought I would add materials that are useful for those who are interested in this seminal period in the history of global jihadism. Below is an article I found in Asharq Al-Awsat. It is an interview with Abdullah Azzam’s wife, Umm Mohammed. 

Abdullah Azzam is known as a central figure to the global Islamist movement, Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor and the spiritual leader of the Afghan Arabs. He joined the fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in 1982 and took part in military operations. He traveled across many countries calling on young Arab and Muslim men to join the Mujahideen.

Living with other Afghan Arab fighters in Peshawar, Pakistan, he established ‘Bait al-Ansar’ (House of Helpers), which acted as the first nucleus for al-Qaeda, to provide aid within Afghanistan. His aim was to unite Arab Mujahideen in their different guises.

In November 1989, a car bomb killed Abdullah Azzam and two of his sons in Peshawar. Asharq Al Awsat met Umm Mohammed, his lifelong companion and wife who spoke about different stages of his life and how her husband urged Arabs to integrate into Afghan society.

Umm Mohammed answered the questions of our colleague Naheel Shahrouri in Jordan. She revealed the reasons behind the disagreement between Abdullah Azzam and his student Osama Bin Laden, leader of Al Qaeda. She indicated that the biggest disgrace was Bin Laden’s connection to the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, one of the leaders of Afghan jihad.

Q: How did you meet Sheikh Abdullah Azzam? How would you describe him as a husband, father and individual?

A: Our families are strongly connected. We are one of the many Palestinian families who became refugees after the 1948 war. Our families have intermarried and sought refuge in Jenin. I was born in the house of Sheikh Abdullah’s sister. He was eight-years-old at the time. We later left for Tulkarem and he happened to have been there studying. He visited us once, and three days later, his father asked for my hand in marriage and we got married.

Sheikh Abdullah was religious from an early age, around seven or eight years old. His religious feelings became stronger after he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He traveled to Tulkaram to study and then to the Sharia college in Damascus. He asked to marry me when I was twelve years old.

He was a wonderfully kind husband and a caring father. Perhaps there are other men like him in this world but none share his unique humanity. He insisted on learning and was concerned about teaching me and training me to become a mother that would fill the gap during his absence.

He cared a lot about his children, if one of them fell ill, he would not sleep at night. He was very close to his son Ibrahim, who died with him.

What distinguished him most was that he put jihad at the forefront of his concerns.

Q: How was jihad reflected in the life of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam?

A: Since getting married and even prior to traveling to Pakistan, he was preparing himself for jihad and a hard life. During the cold winter days, he used to go out and pray the morning prayers and insisted on using cold water to perform his ablution. He would only eat one type of food, and sometimes only have one meal. Sometimes, he would only eat bread. He was getting himself used to life in the mountains and to becoming a Muhajid. Most times, he owned two pairs of trousers: he would wear one and wash the other. Nevertheless, he was always clean and well groomed. Jihad for him was like water for a fish.

Q: Did the Sheikh discuss affairs of jihad and the latest developments in this respect with you?

A: Arab women played an important role in recognizing and examining the problems of Afghan refugees who had fled the conflict because men and women did not mingle in the refugee camps. At the time, men spent most of their times in trenches on the frontlines fighting the Russians. We would often visit the camps and inform Sheikh Abdullah about the problems the families suffer from and their lack of foodstuff etc. As for matters concerning jihad or killing, Sheikh Abdullah did not discuss them with the family because of the sensitivity of such information.

Q: How do you evaluate the period you spent in Pakistan and Afghanistan?

A: I have never met a sister who was with us in Pakistan during the jihad that felt any unhappiness about those days.

Q: Ayman Al Zawahiri and Al Qaeda are accused of killing Ahmad Shah Massoud allegedly because of his stand against jihad in Afghanistan. What is your opinion on this?

A: Sheikh Abdullah was Osama Bin Laden’s spiritual mentor. We cut off all contact with him a long time ago. However, there was a transformation in his character. Sheikh used to love him and described him as a good person. Osama used to live like other Mujahideen, if not in worst circumstances, despite financing most of them. I do not know Ayman al-Zawahiri personally and I do not know why al-Qaeda committed this mistake. The connection between Bin Laden and the assassination of Massoud tarnished his reputation.

As for Massoud, he is the symbol of jihad in Afghanistan. Sheikh Abdullah wrote a book about him after living with Massoud for a whole month, during which he had gotten to know him and observed him. He said, “I came to write about you because of the rumors that you are an agent for the French government.” Masoud allowed him to sit in his office and examine all his files and videos. His book, entitled ‘A Month Amongst Giants,’ contains a number of truths about Massoud, his faith and personality.

Q: Did Sheikh Abdullah permit Arab Mujahideen fighters to become involved in inter-Afghan fighting?

A: He never allowed any Arab fighter to take sides in favor of any Afghan commander. His role was to reconcile fighters, and all the leaders of jihad in Afghanistan loved him and listened to him.

Q: Did Sheikh support incorporating civilians into the fight against the Soviet occupiers or did he believe it should be restricted to the trenches?

A: The leaders of the jihad in Afghanistan conferred amongst each other and decided to move families away from Afghanistan and to Pakistan when the fighting became fierce.

Q: During his presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, did Sheikh Abdullah establish an independent group baring his name or did he place his life in the service of Afghans?

A: He never even accepted to have bodyguards protect him despite the threats he received. He never built anything in his name. Even the charter of jihad in Afghanistan, which he wrote, was not published in his name. He announced it in the name of the then Afghan Prime Minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Even in Palestine, when Hamas sought to announce its charter, they contacted him to write the introduction and edit the document.

Q: How do you explain the transformation of Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri from symbols of jihad to the worlds most wanted?

A: This is to be expected because they declared war on all those fighting Islam.

Q: What was your relationship with Bin Laden’s wives and to Umm Mohammed, al-Zawahiri’s wife? What did you think of them?

A: I did not know al-Zawahiri’s wife but I knew Bin Laden’s wives before settling in Pakistan because we were living in Saudi Arabia where we used to meet them.

Q: What is your opinion on the rumors that Egyptian Islamic Jihad is responsible for planning to assassinate Sheikh Abdullah Al Azzam?

A: This is not true. In reality, there were many disagreements between the Egyptian Jihad and Sheikh Abdullah. However, I do not believe these disputes would have led to their involvement his murder.

Q: Is it true that Bin Laden was easily influenced and manipulated by those around him?

A: A few incidents took place but I do not like to deride anyone. We owe bin Laden our respect; he took part in jihad with his money, effort and sons. He sacrificed himself and his money. However, in truth, he is not a very educated man. He never studied at university. He holds a high school degree. He enrolled in university but soon left. It is true that he gave lectures to ulema and sheikhs but he was easy to persuade. Nevertheless, he did not oppose Sheikh Abdullah or desert him. Bin Laden became convinced of certain issues that Islamic Jihad in Egypt supported.

Q: Did your husband’s departure have an effect on you and your children?

A: Sometimes I used to tell him “you leave your children for too long.” He would reply, “Why have I trained you [to take care of them]?” Dawaa (preaching) and jihad were his priorities.

Q: When did Sheikh Abdullah first embark on jihad?

A: He began in 1976 when the [Israelis] invaded the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. He continued to fight until the border was shut. He believed jihad was the best approach for the victory of religion. This is why he searched for jihad until he was sent from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan to teach at the International Islamic University. He obtained a Masters degree and a PhD and returned to Jordan where he taught at university until he was dismissed. He traveled to King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia because of debts he had accumulated. Otherwise, he would not have left his country.

In Pakistan, he was entrusted with organizing the curricula at the Islamic University. However, jihad was always more important to him. He believed jihad was the pinnacle of Islam and used to tell me: “Those who live on the summit find it difficult to go down to the slope.”

During the years of jihad in Afghanistan, we used to feel as if there was a mini-state of Arabs in Pakistani territory. There were no fights between us and everyone was open to the others. All those I meet look back with fondness to these years.

Sheikh Abdullah taught young men in order to prepare them to perform jihad in the name of God. A whole generation of fighters grew up under his wings.

Q: Do you believe that al-Qaeda is currently following in the footsteps of Sheikh Abdullah Azzam?

A: According to their own admission and to what they broadcast occasionally of video and sound recordings, they are saying, “he is our sheikh and our mentor in jihad.” I saw a few interviews with Osama Bin Laden where he placed on the table in front of him the books of Sheikh Azzam and the cameras focused on that. In his televised speeches, Bin Laden has also repeated word for word the statements of Sheikh Abdullah.

Q: In your view, what caused the disagreements between Abdullah Azzam and Bin Laden? Were traitors sowing hatred between them?

A: I do not know if there were traitors or not. However, differences emerged concerning the scope of jihad and the distribution of military camps and other issues. They held different opinions and Bin Laden followed his own interpretation. In order to avoid a clash, Bin Laden sought to establish his own military training camps, under his banner, to receive Arabs that want to fight in Afghanistan. This caused the split because Bin Laden preferred camps especially for Arabs while Sheikh Abdullah Azzam believed that it was necessary for Arabs and Afghans to mix and for them to become one because the Arabs came to help the Afghans achieve victory. He also believed that it was wrong for Arabs to plot against Afghans in the latter’s own country. For his part, Bin Laden sought to pamper Arab fighters. Even their food was different from that of Afghan Mujahideen. Bin Laden used to bring them special foodstuff in containers from Saudi Arabia. This was the crux of the disagreement. The split happened as a result.

Sheikh Abdullah did not agree with Bin Laden and tried to stop him isolating himself in special training camps. He believed that Arabs should be included in all Afghan groups in order to teach them the Quran and give lectures about the jurisprudence of jihad, including how to deal with prisoners of war according to Islam.

The reason for this is that most of the ulema in Afghanistan had been martyred during the fight against the Russians. Afghanistan is a large country with 28 provinces and young men needed to be guided to the true path of Islam.

At the time, Arab Mujahideen in Afghanistan included doctors, pilots, teachers and others who had left their jobs and futures in order to help the Afghan people. They were, without exception, living in difficult circumstances in trenches side by side with Afghan fighters. Sheikh Abdullah wanted Arabs to integrate into the fabric of Afghan society while Bin Laden believed the opposite.

Q: If Abdullah Azzam were alive today, would he have supported al-Qaeda’s operations and the September 11 attacks?

A: I do not believe he would have supported such an attack. In his lifetime, the Mujahideen were better equipped but they never discussed such a matter. It was easier at the time to travel between countries but he supported clear jihadist movements, which would face those hostile to Muslims and permitted their blood to be shed. Sheikh Abdullah preferred jihad with a clear objective and refused sending Arab fighters to Bosnia and Herzegovina because the scope for fighting there was not clear.

Q: What are Bin Laden’s most prominent mistakes in your opinion?

A: The biggest mistake in Bin Laden’s life had to do with his involvement in the assassination of the Lion of Panshjir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, because I consider Massoud a Muslim jihadist. If it is true [al-Qaeda or its supporters killed him], this tarnishes Bin Laden’s status.

Q: If Abdullah Azzam were alive today, where would he be, in Iraq or with Bin Laden?

A: Perhaps in Guantanamo Bay with other al-Qaeda leaders.

Q: Do you recall the wives of Arab Mujahideen fighters in Peshawar? What was your relationship with them? Are you still in contact with them?

A: Everyone who participated in the jihad in Afghanistan brought his wife with him. They would leave them behind in Peshawar and we all lived as one family. They used to consider me a mother figure. The wives of Mujahideen coordinated amongst themselves. I am still in contact with some families in Jordan.

This article was first published in April 30, 2006 by ASHARQ AL-AWSAT