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Context of 'December 1, 1996-June 1997: Russian Arrest of Al-Zawahiri Brings Islamic Jihad and Al-Qaeda Closer Together'

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The picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri on the fake Sudanese passport he used to enter Russia in 1996.The picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri on the fake Sudanese passport he used to enter Russia in 1996. [Source: Wall Street Journal]Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of Islamic Jihad and effective number two leader of al-Qaeda, travels to Chechnya with two associates. His associates are Ahmad Salama Mabruk, head of Islamic Jihad’s cell in Azerbaijan, and Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, a well-traveled militant. Chechnya was fighting to break free from Russian rule and achieved a cease-fire and de facto independence earlier in the year (see August 1996). Al-Zawahiri hopes to establish new connections there. However, on December 1, 1996, he and his associates are arrested by Russian authorities as they try to cross into Chechnya. Al-Zawahiri is carrying four passports, none showing his real identity. The Russians confiscate al-Zawahiri’s laptop and send it to Moscow for analysis, but apparently they never translate the Arabic documents on it that could reveal who he really is. Though some Russian investigators suspect al-Zawahiri is a “big fish,” they cannot prove it. He and his two associates are released after six months. [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002; Wright, 2006, pp. 249-250] Later in December 1996, Canadian intelligence learns that Mabruk at least is being held. They know his real identity, but apparently do not share this information with Russia (see December 13, 1996-June 1997). Author Lawrence Wright will later comment: “This fiasco had a profound consequence. With even more defectors from [Islamic Jihad during al-Zawahiri’s unexplained absence] and no real source of income, Zawahiri had no choice but to join bin Laden” in Afghanistan. Prior to this arrest, al-Zawahiri had been traveling all over the world and earlier in 1996 he apparently lived in Switzerland and Sarajevo, Bosnia. But afterwards he remains in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden until the 9/11 attacks. As a result, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda will grow even closer until they completely merge a few months before 9/11 (see June 2001). [Wright, 2006, pp. 249-250]

Entity Tags: Lawrence Wright, Mahmud Hisham al-Hennawi, Osama bin Laden, Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Islamic Jihad, Ahmad Salama Mabruk

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

CIA operatives kidnap Ahmad Salama Mabruk and two other members of Islamic Jihad outside a restaurant in Baku, Azerbaijan (see Late August 1998). This is part of a covert CIA program to arrest Islamic Jihad operatives around the world and send them to Egypt (see Summer 1995). [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002] Mabruk is the closest ally of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two leader. Mabruk’s laptop computer turns out to contain al-Qaeda organizational charts and vital information about Islamic Jihad members in Europe. FBI agent Dan Coleman later calls this “the Rosetta Stone of al-Qaeda.” However, the CIA will not turn this information over to the FBI. John O’Neill, head of the FBI’s New York office, tries to get around this by sending an agent to Azerbaijan to get copies of the computer files from the Azerbaijani government. When that fails, he persuades President Clinton to personally appeal to the president of Azerbaijan for the files. The FBI eventually gets the files, but the incident deepens the tensions between the CIA and FBI. [Wright, 2006, pp. 268-269] The US monitored 67 phone calls between bin Laden and Azerbaijan from 1996 to 1998 (see November 1996-Late August 1998). Presumably, many of these would have been to Mabruk. Mabruk is sent to Egypt and given a long prison sentence. [Wall Street Journal, 7/2/2002]

Entity Tags: Islamic Jihad, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Ahmad Salama Mabruk, Central Intelligence Agency, Dan Coleman, John O’Neill, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

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