Pavel Stroilov

Moscow’s jihadi

The Russian secret service and the new al-Qa’eda commander

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.

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