When Abdullah Azzam met Ahmed Shah Massoud


Dr. Abdullah Azzam has been seen as the father of global jihad both by analysts and indeed al-Qaeda itself. Al-Qaeda and Jihadis of all varieties claim him to be their founding father. What is interesting is that Azzam did not view those who al-Qaeda viewed as its enemies in the same light. One such figure is the Afghan commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. According to the likes of Western journalist Peter Bergen, Massoud is arguably the most “brilliant military strategist of the twentieth century, surviving six major Soviet operations”. The journalist found him to have an intense “charisma and integrity”. He described him as a “fundamentalist” leavened by an interest in the arts, poetry, sufism an openness towards other cultures- the very opposite of Osama Bin Laden. This impression that Massoud made on Bergen is not unique. This is something that this author whilst researching Abdullah Anas’ To The Mountains: My Life in Jihad from Algeria to Afghanistan (Hurst) 2019 have found not just in western accounts of him but also in Muslim accounts. In fact, the father of global jihad himself, Abdullah Azzam was enamoured with Massoud. And yet in the foundational myth of al-Qaeda, Massoud has often been portrayed as a traitor and an enemy of Islam, someone worthy of killing. This is something they succeeded in doing.

It is important to shatter some of these myths for historical accuracy. Below is a translated extract of Abdullah Azzam’s book: ‘A Month Amongst the Titans of the North’. It is an account of his visit to the Panshir valley, Northern Afghanistan, where he met Ahmed Shah Massoud and others. The book allegedly could not get published in Peshawar in 1989 because of the opposition of one of Massoud’s rivals, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, and have remained largely ignored. Yet this account certainly will help to clarify many misconception regarding Abdullah Azzam, Massoud, al-Qaeda and the rise of global jihad movement.

What becomes immediately clear in the extract is that Abdullah Azzam dedicates much time in the interview to Massoud. He clearly considers him an example of an idealised Mujahid and an expert in guerrilla warfare.

Selected Extract: Interview that Abdullah Azzam conducted with Ahmed Shah Massoud

A note on extract, some of the explanatory notes in [italics] are my notes and is separate from the original text.

The Meeting With Ahmed Shah Massoud in Safar 1409 Hijra, or 1st October, 1989, Abro, Khanakha, Farkhar, Afghanistan. [According to Abdullah Anas the meeting took place in September 1988. It may be a textual error or the date when he set the account down]

We arrived at Abro village, Farkhar during the middle of the night. The Mujahideen were accompanied by Commander Muhammed Siddiq Jikri and Dr. Najib president of the political council, and Abdullah Anas. The village itself did not exceed no more than ten families and we would spend the night in the house of Ahmed Shah Massoud’s trusted body guard, Taj al-Din, of eight years and keeper of his military plans.

In the morning after breakfast, I sat and began talking with Massoud. He pleased me with his candour and frankness about himself and his personal circumstances. He told me:

“My Name is ‘Ahmed Shah’ as for the word ‘Massoud’ I added that during my exile in Peshawar during the days of Daud [ Sardar Muhammad Daud, former President who deposed the Afghan King in 1973 with Marxist support and cracked down on the opposition] all of us had to choose a false identity and so I chose Massoud. From that day they added ‘Massoud’ to Ahmed Shah. As for my father his name is Dilwar Dost Mohammed and he is eighty seven years old and is known for his righteousness. From his earliest youth he was known for being attentive to his night prayers and Friday prayers. He is still alive.
As for my mother she passed away during the days of Daud, I had left for Panshir during the days when Daud was hunting us. When I returned to my house I found my whole family except her and I realised that she had died.

My father was positive about my jihad against Daud, and he used to encourage me to fight against him. He clarified the picture of Daud’s oppression in my mind. As for Taraki, [Taraki Nur Mohammed 1917-1979 became Prime Minister  of the Democratic republic of Afghanistan following the Saur Revolt Aprol 1978] during those days my father used explain and teach me various military tactics and how to adopt defensive positions. As for my brothers they are four,” here he stopped for a moment, “no actually they are five: Ahmed Diya, Ahmed Wali, Mohammed Yahya in Peshawar, Din Mohammed, the latter was kidnapped by the Kabul regime from Peshawar. My village is called Janklik, there are forty families that live there. And it is the most cultured in Panshir valley.”

[Azzam] In fact, I have seen it myself. The village is completely destroyed. At the entrance to the village and its neighbouring village (Malasaba) I saw around three hundred destroyed tanks and military equipment. It is also known that Commander Muslim [one of Massoud’s commanders] is from the same village as Ahmed Shah Massoud.

“The village Janklik [said Massoud] is considered the most communist of all the villages. God wrote that this very village would be the epicentre of Communism. Only my family alongside three other families adhered to Islam. As for the rest of them they were proud Communists. And from this town many leaders of the devils and preachers of infidelity came forth. Amongst them: Yunus Akbari, he had a PhD in nuclear physics and was a lecturer at the university of Kabul. He had the red certificate- this certificate is not awarded to anyone but the greatest Communist. And alongside Yunus there were his brothers one had a MA from Russia, the fourth brother had a PhD from Britain. There were others from the village Jal Muhammed, a lecturer in Communism in the army, his nick name in the army was Father of Communism, he was also a teacher in military cadet school, and most of the cadets were mentored by him. There was also Hadi Kareem, a graduate from the faculty of Islamic jurisprudence who became a Communist. He was imprisoned during the days of the King Zahir and later defected to Communism. He was offered the position of the Ministry of Justice by Najibullah [Muhammed Najibullah, 1947-1996, final president Republic of Afghanistan], but he refused. From Janklik around 64 famous Communists emerged and in the army around 60-70 Communist officers who graduated from the Soviet Union. There are other families with brigadiers and colonels from our village.

Massoud’s Studies

“My father was an officer and his family travelled with him wherever he was posted. When he abandoned the nomadic life for Kabul I was eight years old. I completed my studies there. My secondary school was at an independent school where we studied French as a foreign language.”

High school

“After I finished my secondary school studies I discovered that Communism was attracting my peers towards it. So I rented a room in Kabul and started to teach the boys mathematics to convince them of Islam during my contact with them. But I discovered that my own village was more in need of that. So I transferred my teaching to a room in the village. But the Communists made it difficult for me to have this room as they tightened their grip on it. Following the Daud coup and the fall of the King it was finally closed down.”

The Daud coup  in July 1973 [and the plan to overthrow him]

“The Daud coup was done with the arrangement of the Russians and as a result of that there was an increase in the activities of the Islamists at the university of Kabul. The arrival of the Daud however was premised on the fact that he had to crush the Islamic Movement. The Islamic Movement began to consider its precarious position with Daud at the helm. God decreed that I would be close to the general secretary of the Islamic Movement [A Muslim Brotherhood type organisation inspired by Hassan al-Banna, Syed Qutb and Mawdudi] Engineer Habib al-Rahman. What brought us together was the fraternal bonds of Islam, close ties to proselytisation of Islam in addition to our strong friendship. We used to study at the polytechnic that the Russians had opened. The people considered Habib al-Rahman the Syed Qutb of Afghanistan. He [Engineer Habib al-Rahman] came to me one night and told me that we had to work with the military officers because they are talking about [overthrowing] the tyrant Daud. He told me that a lot of the military officers from Panshir would like to meet me and so I got to know them. We stayed there for several months and we were just the two of us at the time moving from one good military officer to the other. And then one day he told me that he had to leave for a while and that he would return. It was during this time that Hekmatyar [Gulbuddin Hekmatyar founder of the Hezb-i-Islami and rival of Massoud] and Dr. Umar from prison were released. They had been imprisoned by the king for a year being accused of killing a Communist student at the university.”

Here I interrupted Massoud saying that we are writing the history of the Islamic Movement and that he was responsible for what he said [I suspect, Azzam is being conscious of the differences that existed between Hekmatyar and Massoud]. ‘Give me a clear picture or it will go against you.’
Massoud told me: “ I urge you by God, not to add or clip anything from the picture that is in my mind,” and he began classify the members of the Islamic Movement according to their rank.
“On the first level of the Islamic Movement were Professor Ghulam Muhammed Niyazi, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Rabbani Ateesh, Mawla Habib al-Rahman.
On the second rank were prominent, distinguished and senior student leaders. Abdul al-Rahman Niyazi, Engineer Habib al-Rahman, Hekmatyar, Sayf al-Din and Nusrat Yar.
Third Rank: Sayyid Umar from Kunduz, Sharqi who was martyred in Peshawar, there was a Ghulam Hazrat, I asked him about his ranks in proselytisation of Islam and he told me ‘except for these ranks there were none.’”

The Months with Habib al-Rahman [Massoud continues]

“Sher Ali used to be the commander of the artillery corps around the presidential palace. He had thirty tanks under his command and thirty pieces of artillery and he used to be in contact with Habib al-Rahman. When the appointed time drew closer to the coup against Daud, I went to Habib al-Rahman and told him that he needed an armed body guard but he refused saying that this would attract the government’s attention. ‘Then’ I said ‘you have no choice but to disappear a few days before the coup’. Again he refused because that would unravel the plan of action.”

“After a few days he came to me and said that he was going to Khair Khāna, a neighbourhood in the north Kabul. Alongside me he informed Abdul Saboor and Sayyid Umar from Kunduz. We kept the news to ourselves as we laid low. As for Sayyid Umar he attended many protests and demonstrations which brought him to the attention of the security services who began to follow him all the way back to Habib al-Rahman’s hiding place. During dinner at Abdul Saboor’s place one night, I was with Sayyid Umar when there was a knock on the door. It was Hekmatyar wearing black coat and looking very nervous on a motorcycle, he asked us where Engineer Habib was. Abdul Saboor asked what he wanted. Hekmatyar said that the matter was very urgent. But we refused to inform him of the whereabouts of Engineer Habib. We only understood on the following day what had transpired, but it was too late and I have been lamenting it for a long time. There has been many a time when I wished I had informed Hekmatyar about the whereabouts of Engineer Habib al-Rahman.”

Arrest of Habib al-Rahman

“On the morning of the night that Hekmatyar knocked on our door, Habib al-Rahman visited the house of Officer Umar. After leaving his house there was a group of government officials who had been waiting for him. He was surrounded, arrested and put in a car and taken away. One of the witnesses, Sharif, saw this and informed us of what had happened.”

Communication between me [Massoud] and Hekmatyar

“After Engineer Habib al-Rahman’s arrest Hekmatyar came to me wishing to continue in his footsteps and wanted the contacts of the officers. I refused to give him anything until I received a letter from Engineer Habib, after I received the letter authorising me to do so, I gave him everything.”

Attempt to Save Habib al-Rahman

“After a while three officers from the artillery corps approached me. They said: ‘we are able to free Habib al-Rahman with force and bring him to you.’ I passed this on to Hekmatyar who replied: ‘we are currently planning a military coup against Daud and if we did this, then the plot would be discovered. God willing, we will take the country, open the prisons and free our brother.'”

The War plans

[Azzam]: Then, Massoud changed subject and started talking about his strategy to fighting the Communists and the Russians. He brought out a map of Afghanistan and began talking about his plans from the time of the Communist coup [Saur Revolution April 1978] before the entry of the Soviets and went on to explain his current plans, and everyone was listening. I followed his extraordinary plans which had turned into a little school of Islamic guerrilla warfare. His immense experience had become complete and merited study, and one could benefit from the positive lessons whilst avoiding the negative. I believe that future generations will benefit from that too.

School of Guerrilla warfare

[Azzam] I asked him if he had studied the lessons of guerrilla warfare such as that of Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Min, Castro and others? He replied: “I have read all of these experiences during my Jihadi life and I continue to study and learn from these experiences.” Then he said, “But I have not benefited from books on organisation, tactics, strategies and phases as I have benefited from the the life of the Prophet. For I have studied deeply the life of Muhammed (Peace be Upon him) by Muhammed Huseyn Heikal (a celebrated Egyptian author and journalist) and learnt much from it. So I asked him have you studied the biography of Ibn Hisham [the earliest biography of the Prophet Muhammed] in depth? He replied that he had not. So I advised him to study it well.

The Stage I Have Reached with Massoud

Then I said to Massoud: ‘You know I have passed three stages with you. The first stage was one of aversion due to the vicious campaign waged against you in Peshawar [Pakistan]. This awful fuss confused your struggle. I remember saying to the orators and Imams in America, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that there is a conspiracy to turn you into a hero in the eyes of the people. And I said there are hundreds of leaders like him and stronger than him. There are hundreds of battalions and fronts like him and stronger than him. I remember writing an introduction in the second edition of Signs of the Merciful [this tract was key in attracting Arabs to the Afghan conflict] attacking you except that I refrained from doing so when the Russians launched a brutal ninth attack on you. One of the brothers Abu Jūd called me requesting help and assistance but I was harsh and refused to render any assistance. So Massoud said: “you will be asked about this in front of God”. The second stage: I adopted neutrality with regards to you. That was due to the reports that brother Nur al-Din gave me about your fronts and battalions after visiting you twice. This meant that I stopped blaming your or praising you, and during this time brothers Abu Asim al-Iraqi (Qari Muhammed Othman), brother Abu Bakr al-Suri and then later Abu Yasir al-Iraqi were sent to you. The third stage is that of love and affection towards you. This is why I am here by the Grace and Will of God, that is due to Abdullah Anas who lived with you for a period and stayed with you for three years.’

This extract was translated by @tamhussein