The Russian secret service and the new al-Qa’eda commander
What do we know about the new head of al-Qa’eda, Ayman al-Zawahiri? Not very much. We know he’s a former ‘emir’ of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad who spent three years in an Egyptian prison after his group assassinated the pro-western President Anwar Sadat. He’s also said to be a qualified surgeon, who became bin Laden’s personal physician and adviser in the late 1980s. But there is one curious fact about him that it would be foolish for the West to ignore: his links with the KGB, and its successor, Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB.
It was Alexander Litvinenko, the rebel FSB officer assassinated with radioactive material in London in 2006, who named al-Zawahiri as ‘Moscow’s man in al-Qa’eda’. In a interview following the 7 July 2005 attacks in London, he claimed that the future al-Qa’eda chief had stayed in an FSB training centre in Dagestan, in the North Caucasus, in 1998. ‘He took a six-month special training course there. Then he was sent to Afghanistan, where he had never been before. Immediately after that, under supervision of his FSB bosses, he penetrated bin Laden’s entourage and soon became his deputy in al-Qa’eda … I saw those officers from the FSB directorate for Dagestan, who had been training al-Zawahiri shortly before, being reassigned to Moscow and getting promotions.’
Litvinenko repeated this allegation in a number of other interviews. And Ahmed Zakayev, regarded by many as the leader of independent Chechnya’s government-in-exile, finds the claim credible. He told me that ‘a number of emissaries’ came from the Middle East to the North Caucasus to ‘preach global jihad’ after his government made peace with Russia in 1996. ‘All of them spoke Russian, had Russian visas, and travelled through Moscow. Al-Zawahiri is simply the most infamous.’ Moscow, he says, always wanted the Chechens to talk of global jihad rather than independence; it legitimised the war against them.
In 2003, the FSB gave their version: they said they had arrested al-Zawahiri in 1997 with a fake passport, held him in Dagestan for six months and then, having failed to establish his identity, deported him as an illegal immigrant. It was only after 9/11, they said, while exchanging intelligence with Americans, that they realised they had let one of the world’s most wanted terrorists off the hook.
Litvinenko dismissed this as ‘ridiculous’: as far as he was concerned, the FSB had been caught red-handed helping terrorists and were trying to wriggle out of it. The Kremlin wanted instability in the Muslim world, he said, because it raised Russia’s status in the ‘global war on terror’, and because the regime depended on oil prices.
As for al-Zawahiri, Litvinenko believed his friendship with Russia might go right back to the Cold War. From the 1960s right until the collapse of the Soviet regime, the KGB would train, finance and arm various terrorist organisations — from Palestinian militants to ultra-left ‘liberation fronts’ all over the world. The typical form of assistance was ‘special training’ in KGB camps. Courses covered such subjects as ‘party security’, ‘intelligence and counterintelligence’, ‘clandestine techniques’, ‘clandestine communications’, and ‘combining legal and illegal party work’. The standard course took six months, exactly how long al-Zawahiri allegedly spent in FSB custody.
Corroborating evidence comes from the files smuggled out of Russia by the former KGB archivist Vasili Mitrokhin. In his book with the intelligence historian Christopher Andrew, Mitrokhin suggests Soviet involvement in the assassination of Sadat. They say groundwork for the assassination was laid by the Syrian special services and Palestinian terrorists, with the KGB’s knowledge and at least tacit approval.
And after that? Did Russia’s support for terrorism end with the Soviet Union? Litvinenko maintained it did not. ‘There were people in Andropov’s KGB who orchestrated terrorism all over the world,’ he said in a 2005 interview with Radio Liberty. ‘They were all taken back in the FSB as consultants under Putin, and restored their contacts with former KGB agents in various terrorist groups.’
With al-Zawahiri now at the top of al-Qa’eda, Litvinenko’s claims deserve close attention. After all, most Russians view their country’s recent history as one long heroic battle against western imperialism. Why should they have changed their spots? Litvinenko’s terrible death is the ultimate indication that his allegations are credible.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 25, 2011