A Russian Agent At The Right Hand Of Bin Laden?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 1

The Arabic television channel Al Jazeera broadcast an audiotape on December 19, 2003, that was said to be from Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the right hand man of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In it, Zawahiri claimed that his group was chasing Americans everywhere, including in the United States. This claim helped raise the terror threat level.

But where is Zawahiri, whose head now carries a price of US$25 million? Recent media reports have said that he is hiding in Iran, though Iranian authorities deny this. Yet it could be that Russian intelligence knows exactly where he is and may even have regular contact with the elusive Egyptian.

Zawahiri as Prisoner

There are many accounts of Ayman al-Zawahiri published in the press. These stories cover Zawahiri’s childhood and his relatives, his study of medicine, his connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, his involvement in the assassination of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, his close relations with Osama bin Laden, and his role in major terrorist attacks against the United States. But there are few authors who mention that Zawahiri spent half a year in close contact with representatives of Russian intelligence while in their custody.

Significantly, these contacts led to a change in Zawahiri’s political orientation. Long talks with Russian intelligence officers “forced a critical change in his lethal planning. …America, not Egypt, became the target… Freed from Russian jail in May 1997, Dr. Zawahri found refuge in Afghanistan, yoking his fortunes to Mr. bin Laden. [Zawahiri’s group] Egyptian Jihad, previously devoted to the narrow purpose of toppling secular rule in Egypt, became instead the biggest component of al Qaeda and a major agent of a global war against America. Dr. Zawahri became Mr. bin Laden’s closest confidant and talent scout.” [1]

The story of Zawahiri’s Russian experience begins on December 1, 1996, when he was traveling under the alias “Mr. Amin” along with two of his officers–Ahmad Salama Mabruk, who ran Egyptian Jihad’s cell in Azerbaijan under the cover of a trading firm called Bavari-C, and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, a militant widely traveled in Asia. The group was accompanied by a Chechen guide. They were trying to enter Russia between the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in an effort to discover whether Chechnya could become a base for training militants. It was here that the group was arrested by Russian police for a lack of visas. They were soon handed over to the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.

When Zawahiri’s computer was later discovered in Afghanistan by two journalists, it provided insight into Zawahiri’s side of the story. In short, it goes as follows:

The Russians failed to: 1) find out Zawahiri’s real identity and the goals of his visit to Chechnya; 2) read the Arabic texts in his laptop, which would have revealed the nature of his activities; and 3) read the coded messages that he sent from custody to his friends.

Zawahiri’s Version Debunked

Yet based on my own twenty years’ experience with Russian intelligence people involved in Arab affairs, these claims simply do not ring true. The Soviet KGB had good–albeit indirect–connections with Islamic fundamentalists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian Jihad. The curriculum of Arab terrorists who studied at Moscow International’s Lenin School placed special emphasis on cooperation between Marxists and Islamists. Soviet instructors would encourage Arab terrorists to consider the Muslim Brothers and other Islamic extremists as “allies in class struggle.”

Good contacts between the KGB and Islamic fundamentalists existed at the time of the Egyptian Jihad’s 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, after which Zawahiri was jailed by Egyptian authorities. Since the KGB followed these events very closely and may have even been indirectly involved in the plot, the KGB would have put Zawahiri’s name into its records at that time. Therefore, when Zawahiri crossed the KGB’s path again, that organization likely would have soon discovered his real identity.

Additionally, local Islamic organizations flocked to Zawahiri’s aid during his detention and trial in such large numbers that the Russians and even Zawahiri’s own lawyer were puzzled by the outpouring. [2] This would have been another tip-off to the authorities that they had more than just a mere merchant (Zawahiri’s reported claim) in custody. Also, the fact that he was arrested along with a Chechen should have raised additional suspicions.

Perhaps most difficult to believe from Zawahiri’s version is that his captors would not have read the Arabic information contained within his laptop computer. Russian intelligence has probably the best Arabists in the world. One of them–Dr. Evgeny Primakov–headed the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service from December 1991 until January 1996 and made a considerable efforts to bring many talented Arabists into this service. These individuals would have been able not only to read Zawahiri’s Arabic text, but also to decode his encrypted messages without any problem.

Thus, with Zawahiri’s true identity and purpose uncovered by the Russians, these authorities would have been faced with several options. One would have been deportation to either Egypt or the United States, with gratitude from those governments for Russian President Yeltsin, burnishing his image as a fighter against terrorism. But apparently the Russians decided not to do this, believing perhaps that their national interest was better served by another alternative.

One should bear in mind that at the time of Zawahiri’s capture, Chechnya was enjoying a period of actual independence from Moscow. The Kremlin was having great difficulty finding “agents of influence” among the Chechen people. At the same time, Moscow knew that representatives of al Qaeda and other foreign Islamic fundamentalists were present in Chechnya and exercised strong influence on the Chechen leaders, especially on the military commanders. It would have been logical, therefore, for the Russians to try to persuade Zawahiri to cooperate with them in directing the activities of Arabs in Chechnya, in getting information about the plans and activities of Chechen leaders, and in influencing the Chechen leadership.

It may not have been too difficult for Russian officers to persuade Zawahiri to go along with such a plan. The prisoner would have been very frightened by the prospect of being deported to Egypt or remaining jailed in Russia. Furthermore, methods of torture during interrogation used by KGB officers would have truly almost scared Zawahiri to death. Execution very likely was just one threat.

Once made aware that the KGB knew of his true identity, Zawahiri would have realized that it would be useless to lie further. At a minimum, Zawahiri would have had to agree to cooperation with Russian intelligence to save his life and to buy his freedom. It is possible that the Russians also offered some form of assistance to Zawahiri and al Qaeda. This could have been in the form of explosive technology or other weaponry.

It is notable that Taliban and al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan received regular re-supplies of Russian arms. The man responsible for these deliveries was Victor Anatolievich Bout, the son of a top KGB officer. His father’s connections helped establish Bout in the arms trade, which is linked to the Russian government and particularly to its intelligence services. Bout and his family currently reside in the United Arab Emirates. [3]

It is also not difficult to imagine that the Russians managed to get some information from Zawahiri about his colleagues that could have been used to blackmail him if he tried to avoid cooperation after his release. With an agreement reached between Zawahiri and the Russians, the authorities would have taken steps to make the Egyptian look “clean” to his Arab comrades and the Chechens. It would not have been difficult for them to stage Zawahiri’s trial, at which the judge gave him only a six months’ sentence, much of which he had already served.

A final note: Arabs are still very active among the Chechen militants today, and yet the Russians appear to turn a blind eye toward their infiltration and do not hunt them particularly. Even the most influential among the Arabs, Khattab, may well have been killed by his own people. Arabs have also never been listed as POWs. Perhaps the Russian forces have an order to kill Arabs on the spot: Nobody wants them to reveal unwanted information during interrogations. Thus left alone, the Arabs exercise significant influence over the activities of Chechen commanders according to orders from Zawahiri. Presumably they do so without understanding that they could well be the Trojan horses who actually execute the Kremlin’s orders. For example, the Arabs apparently do not encourage Chechen militants to direct any attacks against Russian leaders in Moscow. This could be accomplished simply by refusing to pay for such operations.

In contrast, the Arabs do seem to encourage the taking of hostages from among the common people, as in the Moscow youth club Nord-Ost incident, thus making it easier for the Kremlin to stoke public anger against “Chechen terrorists.” This in turn helps Vladimir Putin garner popular support for his own authoritarian actions as well as those of his former KGB colleagues who now occupy 65 percent of top governmental positions. Dr. Zawahiri may thus be the queen in the Kremlin’s chess game not only in Chechnya, but also in Russia’s power struggle at the highest levels. If so, it is not likely that the Russians would surrender him merely to help win the global war on terror.

Dr. Novikov is a senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation.


1. “Saga of Dr. Zawahri Sheds Light On the Roots of al Qaeda Terror;” Andrew Higgins and Alan Cullison; The Wall Street Journal, July 2, 2002.

2. Ibid.

3. “International Business of Russian Mafia,” Sueddeutsche Zeitung, February 1, 2001.