From Pakistan To New York City, The Maktab al-Khidamat

Adam Fitzgerald
12 min readApr 11, 2020

“I mentioned to Sheikh Sayyaf in the presence of Sheikh Abdallah Azzam that the number of Arabs was gradually increasing, and i said we would like it of you — as the emir of the Mujahidin and President of the Union — permit us to establish an office or a house where we can receive these Arab brothers and benefit from their potential. So he permitted us to do so, Indeed, we established the office immediately after Hajj and the work went on from there.” (Osama Bin Laden recollection about establishing a services office, September 1984, “The Caravan” by Thomas Hegghammer pp: 212)

Sheikh Abdullah Azzam had envisioned Afghanistan as the staging point for the Islamic ummah to come as a whole, and to unite against a secular invader, the Soviet Union. He tried, unsuccessfully to unite the Afghan clans which were led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Yunis Khalis, Burhanuddīn Rabbani and Ahmad Galani. Too much politics and differences within Islamic jurisprudence and it often led to internal bickering about who would be the primary leader and benefactor within the cities and towns of the besieged Afghan country. Azzam had arrived in Pakistan, from Egypt in November 1981. He had dreamed of entering an “Islamic struggle (jihad)”. Afghanistan would be that dream. The last thing he needed was political turmoil between “opportunists” and “egotistical men”.

Abd Rabib al-Rasul Sayyaf, leading commander of the Northern Alliance and one of the most influential mujahid in the war was responsible for internationalizing the Afghan jihad against the Soviets, and thus creating a vocal point of concerns to Muslims in the Middle East. The Saudi Kingdom had been quite enamored with Sayyaf, due to his indulgent and theological posturing. He was also one of the primary influences of Azzam, and had met him when he landed from Islamabad International Airport. Azzam had initially lived in Peshawar, and stayed by the side of Sayyaf thru-ought 1981–82. Azzam’s family had accompanied him, and for financial means, Azzam began teaching Islamic Theology at the University of Islamabad, head of the faculty of Sharia.

Azzam wished to convey the message to not just the Afghan Mujahid, but to the foreign Muslims around the world. His idea? To cater to the Pan-Islamic public and to cease the invasion of an Islamic land from disbelievers (kafir). In 1981, Jalaluddin Haqqani, a influential warlord who attracted generous support from prosperous Arab countries compared to other resistance leaders, had sent representatives to Saudi Arabia and the United Ara Emirates, to help establish information offices, which would lend assistance to the Afghan Mujahid.

During this time, Haqqani began mentoring a young Saudi who was becoming a rising star due to his prominent wealth obtained from the Saudi Bin Laden Group, in Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden had begun to construct roads and also started to invest in construction vehicles, all at his expense of course. Many Islamic charities began to invest in the cause, one of the primary organizations that gave millions, was the Islamic World League. Saudi private donors and also “Non-profit organizations” who were also non-Islamic, European donors. Azzam didn’t want them around, he saw Afghanistan as primarily an “Islamic cause” not a Western one.

In 1983–84 many doctors had started to come to Peshawar, one of them being an Egyptian surgeon and leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Ayman al-Zawahiri. al-Zawahiri had just been released from Tora prison in Cairo and was not wanted. The Soviets gave him a reason to come however with the intrusive conflict into Kabul, Afghanistan's capitol. al-Zawahiri would offer his services at Kuwaiti Red Crescent Hospital. Meanwhile many intelligence services, including Pakistan ISI, Saudi General Intelligence Directorate and the CIA began funding the more notable warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf being the choice for these agencies due to their size of armies.

Sayyaf, Northern Alliance and Hekmatyar’s, Hizb-I-Islami. Many Saudi donors began visiting Peshawar, and met with high ranking Afghan Mujahid leaders in 1983, Yunis Khalis, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Muhammad Nabi, Ahmad Galani, Burhanuddīn Rabbani and Sibghatullah Mujaddid. Prominent Saudi clerics like the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdullah ibn Baz, had also declared that it was not necessary for Muslims to engage in conflict, but to financially support the war was.

Along with the Saudi donors, the Muslim World League (MWL)had become rather surprised at the lack of cohesiveness within the Afghan factions. Muhammad al-Majdhub, was a MWL delegate who offered a visit to one of the camps, led by Hekmatyar, the camp was led by the Hizb-I-Islami. It catered to guerrilla tactics, and was funded by many of the Intelligence services. However there was another problem. Many Afghan mujahid didn’t want the Arab fighters, who were slowly starting to enter Pakistan and join the conflict.

Afghan’s are particularly a nationalist sect, and thought having foreign fighters would become a problem down the road. However Afghan leaders such as Sayyaf and Haqqani didn’t agree, and were considered, more “enlightened” than the more traditional leaders. Azzam agreed. This was not a war just for the Afghans. This was a religious duty, an Islamic jihad. Azzam had Haqqani’s influence in catering to the Islamic world as a whole, and spread the message with Azzam travelling not just in the Gulf, but around the world. Even inside the United States.

There was also a previous idea which had influences Azzam later. In 1983, Mustafa Hamid, an Egyptian journalist, who was also friends with Abdullah Azzam when they went to Cairo University, had tried to operate a foreign recruitment office. The initial idea however was a failure to Hamid, primarily because he personally did not have the necessary financial means to operate it. The idea of operating a recruitment office, would take major funding and also many people to help operate it. By late 1983, Azzam noticed that the Afghan Mujahideen, had become largely fragmented due to infighting.

The differences ranging from ideology and strategy, with the many different personalities and ambitions from these leaders. Azzam had become disillusioned with the politics and disassociated himself from trying to have them come together. He vowed never to try again.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar

Abdullah Azzam began concentrating on how to influence Arab’s to enter the conflict, as he would wrote many essay,s books and give endless lectures between 1983–84. Azzam feared that with American and European NGO’s were trying to “Westernize Afghanistan” and he resented their presence. He began to formulate an idea which would have only Afghan-Arab funding the conflict. By the mid 1980’s with the rising influx of Arab’s entering Pakistan, the rise of anti-Americanism began to take hold. The Arabs were more hostile toward the NGO’s then their Afghan brethren and were far more hostile, as they saw them as “colonial invaders”. Azzam traveled back to Peshawar and began lobbying the Muslim Brotherhood (for which he was a member of the Jordanian branch), Saudi clerics and Pakistan Islamists for assistance in the war. As Azzam traveled the globe in help spread the message for the recruitment and assistance for the war, he then began lobbying the most prominent organization for financial assistance. In spring of 1986, Azzam had persuaded the Muslim World League to help him operate and financially assist in a recruitment office, the idea his affable friend, Mustafa Hamid tried just three years earlier.

Azzam had pitched the idea to the one man who he knew, could be the primary source for said funding, Osama Bin Laden. Azzam pitched the idea to Bin Laden and to Wael Juladin, Juladin had known Azzam previously while they were in Saudi Arabia. Bin Laden agreed to help fund the bureau office. It would be funded by Bin Laden and Juladin and directed by Jamal Khalifa. At the same time, Bin Laden begins opening up a camp in the Paktia Province, east of Afghanistan. Al-Masada was the name of the camp.

Azzam had named the office, Maktab al-Khidamat (Afghan Services Bureau). The bureau had a dual mission:

1. To service the Afghan Mujaheddin.
2. To be the starting point for Arabs in the service of Afghans.

There would be a variety of domains within the bureau as well, as they would cater to logistics, education and medical support. The notion of operating the bureau inside Peshawar had to be approved by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who agreed to have the office located inside the city. Bin Laden was enthusiastic in funding the bureau, as this was the beginning of having an actual center of operations for recruitment and financial support of Arabs. The bureau at first existed in the Muslim Student Union building at Peshawar University. However it quickly came to an end as the influx of Arabs daily at the union office was not met with enthusiasm for the students there. In November 1984, Bin Laden would visit Peshawar, and he would rent a house which would become the base of operations for the bureau. The name of the house was Bayt Abu Hamza, named after an Afghan mujahid who was killed in Afghanistan.

The building was located in Gi Syed Jamal-Ud-Din Afghan Road in University Town south of Peshawar University. By 1985 the bureau adds another house named Bayt Abu Uthman. This house was used for the foreign and Saudi donors and VIP’s coming to aid in the conflict. Bin Laden would then rent another guest house named Bayt al-Ansar. Then another is also added, Bayt al-Shuhada. By 1988, there would be seven buildings operating as the Maktab al-Khidamat. The operation was growing exponentially and often times wouldn’t be able to keep up, as more Arabs began replacing the Afghans killed in action.

By Summer of 1986, 1986, Khaled Abu el-Dahab, the right hand man of double agent Ali Mohamed, informally founds the branch in Brooklyn, New York, and it soon becomes the most important US branch. By 1987, Mustafa Shalabi, Fawaz Damra, and Ali Shinawy formally file papers incorporating Al-Kifah, which is called the Al-Kifah Refugee Center. Al-Kifah was located at 566 Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York City. With Shalabi being the primary director of operations while being an imam at Al-Farouq mosque, just a few doors down from the refugee center. Soon many cities would become centers of operations for Maktab al-Khidamat. With The Al Kifah Refugee Center actually being the only place where a building operated in. With Shalabi, he recruits two men to assist him, Mahmud Abouhalima, and El Sayyid Nosair. Both men would become regular attendees of Al Farouq Mosque in Brooklyn and also Masjid al-Salaam in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Azzam was named the “emir” of the bureau, with Mamdoh Mahmud Salim acting as Deputy Leader “Munir” in 1986. However Salim had left the position by 1988. There would be two committee’s in the bureau.

Bureau Committee — Jamat al-Maknab
Consultative Committee — Majis al-Shura

The Consultative Committee were headed by Osama Bin Laden, Wael Juladin, Abu al-Bara, Abu Hudhayfa al-Urdini, Nur al-Din, Abu Dawoud al-Urduni, Abu Mudah al-Sharkasi, and Abu Hajir al-Iraqi.

There would be other committees added over time, Reception Committee, Education Committee, Scholars Committee, Orphans & Widows Committee, Medical Committee and Media Committee. The Maktab al-Khidamat subsided annually at $200,00-$300,000 during the decade of the 1980’s. Azzam had envisioned the bureau and the war in two categories, one for education and other for ideology. However running the bureau was quite problematic as many of its employees received no informal training and were from various parts of the world. By 1987, internal problems arose which had to be dealt with. But managed to survive the internal strife. Even with all of its problems, the Maktab al-Khidamat was the primary source of recruitment into the conflict. It was the sole source of the global mobilization for Arabs into Afghanistan.

Azzam would travel to Saudi Arabia again in 1988, and began to implore donors to financially support the bureau. The idea of a center of operations for Arabs was met with enthusiasm, and while they disagreed on whether the Afghanistan war was for just Afghans and Arabs, the bureau began funneling military training as well as financial backing from Western Intelligence, indirectly of course. Bin Laden didn’t need their money, and Azzam resented the West itself for trying to use the Afghan War to politicize it. Azzam began holding lectures in Riyadh and in Peshawar regarding the Western Powers and their disastrous influences towards Muslims worldwide. Azzam preached that it was a “Muslims duty to engage in jihad” in the Afghan conflict. Soon some disagreement from notable imams around the world began to voice their opinions about Azzam’s stance.

The Sahwa Movement in Saudi Arabia did not agree with Azzam’s fatwa. Azzam’s fatwa decreed that Muslims from around the world needed to engage the foreign invaders in Afghanistan. The fatwa was declared by Azzam back in 1984. The Muslim Brotherhood also were skeptical of the fatwa, and even tried to distance themselves from Azzam. Hassan al-Turabi, Sudanese tribal leader, argued that it was both “impractical” and “unwise” to have all the world’s Muslims in one single setting, while having Muslim lands open for foreign invasion. Azzam was not deterred by this and in 1988 he would travel to the Masjid al-Salaam mosque in Jersey City. There before a couple hundred attendees, he preached about the Jihad in Afghanistan and the plight of the Muslims regarding having a Muslim republic.

“‘Blood and martyrdom are the only way to create a Muslim society.… However, humanity won’t allow us to achieve this objective, because all humanity is the enemy of every Muslim.’”

Azzam had believed that jihad was a form of worship to Allah itself even going as far as saying:

“An hour of fighting in the name of god, is better than sixty years of prayer.”

The worldview of Azzam was instituted into the Maktab al-Khidamat itself. Azzam considered himself a Pan Islamist. But he was unlike your traditional Salafi as he was also open to mixing ideas from different intellectual traditions. Defined as a Salafi but also identified with the Muslim Brotherhood and Sayyid Qutb and other traditional ideas. He was labelled as an “advanced, contemporary” by some of his peers. But there were other more radical ideas coming, which would conflict with Azzam’s.

By 1990, a known radical Egyptian cleric had come to the United States. Omar Abdel Rahman, Gamma Islamiyyah leader, was given a US Visa in Cairo by em embassy employee, who would latter turn out to be from the CIA. Rahman known also as the “Blind Sheikh” was on a terrorist watch list, for which he shouldn’t have been able to enter the country much less obtain a US Visa. He would immediately become the focal point of the Masjid al-Salaam and the al-Kifah Refugee Center. When the Soviets ended the war by agreeing to vacate Afghanistan, Rahman and Mustafa Shalabi began having a multitude of disagreements about how the funding should be used. Shalabi, a close associate to Abdullah Azzam, believed in reconstructing Afghanistan, Rahman wanted to use the funds to continue the jihad inside the United States. Soon Rahman began pushing out Shalabi, rumors starting to penetrate the Jersey City mosque that Shalabi was a foreign agent and a spy. Shalabi wanted to leave before the masses acted on Rahman’s false rumors.

On February 25, 1991, Mustafa Shalabi was found brutally murdered. The suspects for his murder came into his home and stabbed him repeatedly. Rahman had successfully rid himself of his antagonist. The al-Fifah Refugee Center’s relationship with the CIA did not end until 1993. Leaving Azzam alone as the only emir to face Rahman’s associate Ayman al-Zawahiri who was a co-owner of the Maktab al-Khidamat. Azzam wanted to relocate the funds to the Palestinian conflict, a struggle he personally had a link with, since Azzam was born in Silat al-Harithiya a village in Jenin. Azzam had many adversaries during his time in Pakistan. His ideology regarding Islam was simple…

“This religion came by the sword, was established by the sword, stays by the sword, and will be lost if the sword is lost.”

On November 24th 1989, just two years prior to Shalabi’s murder, Abdullah Azzam along with his sons, was assassinated by a pre-planted bomb hidden by the roadside as he drove to prayers on University Road. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was known to be seeking control of the Services Bureau and was rumored to be spreading the story in Peshawar that Azzam was an American collaborator, had begun the morning spreading the rumor. Similar to Shalabi’s death by Rahman’s rumors that he was a collaborator for the Americans.

The Maktab al-Khidamat in Pakistan now belonged to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden while the bureau’s office in Brooklyn, Al-Kifah Refugee Center was now controlled By Omar Abdel Rahman.

In Just ten years both entities would give the world it’s worst terrorist acts in history. The 1993 World Trade Center Bombing and the September 11th 2001 attacks.

Note: Much of the information posted in this article came from Thomas Hegghammer’s book “The Caravan”



Adam Fitzgerald

Geo-political scientist/researcher into the events of September 11th 2001.