By Paul Martin.
CAIRO – Al Qaeda loyalists made a desperate failed effort to persuade Osama Bin Laden to call off his planned 9-11 onslaught against America, a leading former senior jAl Qaeda fighter has claimed.
In the first details ever revealed about what went on in the Al Qaeda leadership prior to the 9-11 attacks, Mohammed Abdel Rahman said many Al Qaeda activists – and even the Taleban leader Mullah Omar – were opposed to the attacks when Bin Laden sent messengers to reveal his plan two months in advance.
“As soon as we learned of the plan, two months before it happened, we went to him to try to convince him not to strike at the US,” Abdel Rahman told me inside a backstreet apartment in a teeming downmarket part of the Egyptian capital.
“But he insisted on attacking the Americans, saying it would break the Americans’ pride and severely damage their economy.”
Ayman Zawahiri, then the Al Qaeda number two but since Bin Laden’s death its leader, was also vehemently in favour of the attack, Abdel Rahman stated.
Abdel Rahman claimed that the majority of Al Qaeda leaders were against the attack – not for moral reasons, but because they feared the American reaction would be to attack Afghanistan, expel Al Qaeda and so remove their vitally needed jihad training camps.
“Most of the people in Al Qaeda did not agree on the need to strike against America,” Abdel Rahman added. “As a result Afghanistan was attacked by the Americans and it’s taken twenty years for Afghanistan to regain its freedom.”
Abdel Rahman said Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taleban, had not tried to veto the planned attack, But, for fear of American retaliation, he had urged Bin Laden only to carry out the attacks once he and the plotters had all left Afghan soil. “Mullah Omar asked for anyone who planned to attack the US to do whatever they liked once they had left the country,” said Abdel Rahman.
In the wake of the attack the US gave the Taleban an ultimatum – to expel Al Qaeda or face the consequences. Mullah Omar said he could not expel fellow-Muslim jihadists, and a war ensured in which the Taleban were toppled.
I watched and listened, as the only journalist invited to attend. when a special tribute was arranged ato Bin Laden days after his death. Abdel Rahman gave a fiery speech there from the pulpit. Abdel Rahman, known then by his nom de guerre “Assad Allah – Lion of God” – says he was captured by US forces and held in grim conditions inside Bagram Airbase for seven months.
He claims to have been subjected to freezing water, minimum food rations, and loud Western music blaring 24 hours a day “so we could not even hear the call to prayer from the nearby mosques”.
He was then secretly flown to his native Egypt in an extraordinary rendition as the sole passenger. “I travelled first class,” he joked.
“I was asked to pay for mistakes I did not commit. The Americans applied a blanket theory to every jihadist.”
He was imprisoned in two Egyptian prisons run by security services, but released months after the overthrow of President Mubarak in 2011, only to be rearrested. He was eventually released again in 2017.
Since the Egyptian revolution overthrew President Hosni Mubarak, Abdel Rahman, now 48, campaigned to get his father freed from a US prison.
His father, the blind Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, was convicted of a “seditious conspiracy” to destroy a number of landmark buildings in New York and other parts of the US, including the United Nations.
Sheikh Rahman was also alleged to have been the mastermind of the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, when several of his followers drive a truck into the building’s underground car park and set off explosives. Six people died and over 100 were injured, but the Tower did not collapse.
The sheik’s son Mohammed had become a jihadi fighter soon after leaving Egypt when aged 16. He says he used to compete against Bin Laden – at keenly contested football matches between the Egyptian jihadis and the rest.
“Our main relaxation was soccer,” he remembers. “Sheikh Osama insisted on playing. But we were terrified we would injure the great leader, so we never actually tackled him when he had the ball.”
Zawahiri, a medical doctor jailed for three years in Egypt after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, had been a keen sportsman as a youth, but would sit and watch the Al Qaeda football games – because, says Mohammed, he has an injured leg.
According to Mohammed, Zawahiri would insist on personally bringing food and drink to guests and jihadist fighters.
The best player was former Egyptian special forces officer Saif al-Adl – “he was fast and sharp,” says Abdel Rahman. An explosives expert, he later became Al Qaeda’s chief military strategist in the post-Bin Laden era and intelligence sources say he is in de facto command of operations. They also say that Adl, an explosives expert, was involved in the planning of the 9-11 attacks as well as the massive explosions at two American embassies in east Africa that killed hundreds, mainly local Africans.
While he says he does not agree with all Zawahiri’s ideas, Abdel Rahman admires Zawahiri as a “fine human being”. He declined to comment when I pointed out that Zawahiri had previously written a manual, captured after the invasion of Afghanistan, advocating the use of chemical and biological weapons in the jihad against the West.
“Zawahiri is pious and has all the good traits that a Muslim can aspire to. He is very calm, he is funny and he is good to people, but he is stubborn. He was ready to defend his thoughts with violence. Particularly when it came to jihad and fighting, nobody could change his mind.”
Zawahiri has expressed pride in all 19 hijackers in the four planes that were used as murder weapons on 9-11. He has also expressed anger at those who hold conspiracy theories over what happened.
In his audio and video messages, Zawahiri boasted it was all Al Qaeda’s work and the killers all belonged to the organisation. He even accused conspiracy theorists of being part of – a conspiracy against Al Qaeda.
Zawahiri is being hunted by the US as the main target for elimination. Not long after Bin laden’s death Zawahiri wrote a long poem in Arabic to his fallen leader. He is fluent in English, loves English poetry and Shakespeare, according to his sister, Dr Heba Zawahiri. I managed to track her down in Cairo and spoke to her at her home in the elegant Cairo suburb of Maadi, where she daily would encounter the many Westerners who live there.
In a message posted on the Internet, Zawahiri also had a warning for the world – expect more terrorism. Al Qaeda, he said, will remain a ‘source of horror and a nightmare chasing America, Israel and their allies’.
His sister says the warning should be taken seriously. “He’s always been a man who does what he promises — no matter how long that will take.”
I first saw Zawahiri as he made an impassioned speech from behind the bars of a courtroom cage holding him and around a dozen other alleged conspirators. They had been involved in an attempt to overthrow the Egyptian regime just hours after their fellow-conspirators had shot President Anwar Sadat dead, along with ten other people attending a military parade on October 6 1981. Zawahiri, a young medical doctor, was sentenced to a surprisingly short three years in jail, while others were executed.
The organisation Zawahiri later co-founded, Al Jihad, amalgamated with Bin Laden’s Saudi-based group to form Al Qaeda.
Additional Reporting by Amr Esam.
Copyright Paul Martin / Correspondent.World
By Paul Martin.