Arab elite warms to Al Qaeda leaders
Al Qaeda biographer stops sales of book because it's too critical.
Mahfouz Azzam is a prominent Egyptian lawyer who proudly describes himself as an uncle and godfather to Al Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al Zawahiri.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Azzam has seen the Al Qaeda videos and listened to the calls for war against the United States. But from his plush office 37 floors above the Nile, he insists "Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden have never confessed that they have committed any crime. I challenge the CIA or anyone to prove that they have confessed. They did say that they were pleased with the events of Sept. 11th because they thought maybe it would shock the US into changing its anti-Islamic policies."
Azzam's attitude toward the Al Qaeda leadership, say terrorist experts, is part of a disturbing and growing phenomenon prevalent in intellectual and Islamist circles from Cairo to Riyadh.
In many Arab states nearly 11 months after the September attacks in the United States, there is a steady trend toward historical revisionism that promotes Al Qaeda leaders as the "good guys" and US officials as the "bad guys" in an ethics and morality public relations war that is far from over.
Azzam, who holds the power of attorney for Mr. Zawahiri, slams his fist on the desk, and sounds almost as if he's endorsing the views that led to the killing of innocent civilians on Sept. 11. "Any American civilian who serves against our cause [to liberate Islamic lands] defends, helps, or pays money against us should be punished," he says.
So powerful are the forces backing Al Qaeda, that one of the organization's top critics in Egypt agreed this month to remove his book "Ayman Al-Zawahiri, As I Knew Him" from store shelves until a time when Zawahiri is in a position to respond directly to the criticism.
In his book, published earlier this year, Montasser al Zayyat pulled no punches in lambasting Zawahiri as being an Islamic leader both out of touch with Egyptian Islamists and misguided in violently attacking the US. The author's influence in Islamic circles in Egypt and the Middle East is substantial, and he has gained a reputation over the past two decades as a staunch legal defender of accused Islamic militants.
He charged in his paperback that Zawahiri tortured at the hands of the government and forced to betray Islamist colleagues in the early 1980s had fled the country and sought recklessly to regain his role as an Islamist leader by, among other things, masterminding attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
But Mr. al Zayyat's criticism is now muted, due, he admits, to the pressure from Zawahiri's supporters in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
"All these groups, including Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, said you should wait until conditions improve for Ayman," he says, sitting in a swivel chair across from his young daughter in his central Cairo office. He says he wasn't "physically" threatened to pull the book. "I agree that, at the moment, Ayman has limited means of contacting the outside world. If conditions become better, if President George Bush is removed from office, that could change, and there may be an easier way for him to communicate."
Zayyat describes his "old friend" Zawahiri as a stubborn and determined man, driven by a sense that the "wrongs" committed against pure Islam and its followers have to be righted.
Zawahiri's uncle, Azzam, says, however, that Mr. bin Laden's right-hand man began his professional career as a "marvelous, intelligent, and very good doctor;" a modest man who never sought aggrandizement.
As a member of the Muslim Brotherhood from the age of 16, Zawahiri began to play a highly secretive role in helping to recruit Islamic dissidents from within the Egyptian military. It was his strategy of trying to change the world from the inside out.
It may have been his interest in this behind-the-scenes work that led Zawahiri to the idea of training Al Qaeda "sleeper cells" in Afghan training camps who would stealthily disperse themselves across the Middle East, the US, and Europe.