North Africa, West Asia

An eyewitness account of Arab-Afghans and the inception of the Jihadi movement

How did the first generation of Arab jihadists lead the way to today’s Islamists? A book review.

Vicken Cheterian
2 October 2019, 5.43am
Mujahideen at sunset prayer, Afghanistan 1987
Erwin Franzen/flickr. Some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Abdullah Anas’ long awaited account of Arab-Afghans is important work not only for what he tells, but also for what he doesn’t. It is the story of a journey of a young man from rural Algeria, who out of ideological convictions lands in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation, before ending as an asylum seeker in England where he lives today. The central theme of the book is why the jihadi movement that was meant to be self-sacrifice out of idealism, went so wrong. In developing his narrative, Anas deconstructs some of the jihadi myths – and touches some of the central weaknesses of the movement, such as their lack of leadership and lack of political literacy. But the author does not go far enough; he does not reveal many secrets that still remain to unveil, because he remains ambiguous to the original foundation on which the Arab-Afghan movement was based upon.

Abdullah Anas is a privileged witness: he joined the Afghan jihad early on. He details how he first went to Afghanistan – early 1984 - after which he spent most of the next ten years inside Afghanistan, with occasional visits to the Arab Afghan headquarters in Peshawar, Pakistan. He also did some fund-raising trips to the US. He is one of the founders of the “Arab Service Bureau” or MAK – the Arab-Afghan logistics organization, which he even directed for a while. The Bureau had 52 legal offices in the US during the Afghan jihad, an information that could surprise many who cannot imagine the political alliances and divisions during the cold war era. Later, MAK would evolve to become “the base” for jihad, or al-Qaeda, under the domination of Ossama Ben Laden. Anas also knew well jihadi notorieties such as Ben Laden, Khattab (a jihadi who fought and died in Russian North Caucasus), and even had Abu Mus’ib Zarqawi in his wedding party, therefore making his revelations of particular interest.

The aim of the book seems to clean the reputation of the first generation of Arab-Afghans, Afghan mujahedeen, and especially that of Abdullah Azzam, by dissociating them from the horrors of al-Qaeda. “I, being one of the MAK’s founders, should bear some responsibility for the spawning of this monster that became al-Qaeda. But I am adamant that I am not responsible for it” says the author (p. 145). Anas has two heroes: the first is Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Islamist who could qualify as the father of Afghan-Arabs, for his role in issuing a fatwa (edict) in 1979, co-signed with leading Muslim scholars of the time, making jihad in Afghanistan the individual obligation (fard ‘ayn) of every Muslim. This is an innovation in Islamic law, where warfare is carefully regulated under the authority of the Muslim state.

By this fatwa, the doors of hell were opened loose, making the act of deciding who fights where a personal choice but also a religious obligation, creating a spiral of continuous radicalization of political Islam. Moreover, unlike the other signatories, Azzam was present in Afghanistan-Pakistan area, organizing Arab aid to Afghan resistance groups. Anas would later marry Azzam’s daughter. The other hero is Massoud, the Afghan resistance commander.

When Anas reached Afghan soil, there were only fifteen Arab fighters inside the country (page 42). At no time were there more than one hundred Arabs inside Afghanistan fighting the Soviets. He concludes that the Arab Afghans, “in the grand scheme of the Afghan Jihad, was of no consequence” (p. 141). The overwhelming Arab-Afghans reached there after February 1989 that is after the last Soviet soldier crossed the Druzhba Bridge back to Soviet territory. They mostly came to fight the regime of Najibullah – and one wonders why they did not fight their own authorities, which were of the same ilk. So much for the myth of jihadis destroying the Soviet empire.

The book describes the deep divisions within the Afghan mujahedeen, and among the Arab-Afghans from their beginnings. Soon, the young Anas would understand that the problem of the Afghan resistance was not lack of heroes, but lack of unity: “I realized that the situation in Afghanistan required the sort of fighter who was cultured, who could provide education, humanitarian aid, and religion instruction as well as military assistance. Diplomacy, statesmanship, was just as important as making the Soviets eat Kalashnikov bullets. We were none of those things.” (p. 55). Here, and in several other places, the author fails to notice the dangers and deformations associated with armed groups being in charge of relief work or education. But more important in this quote is the lack of the Arab volunteers in understanding politics, a problem that starts from day one of the movement taking them to the mountains of Central Asia. This problem, the incapacity to read the news and understand the balance of forces and the end result of an armed struggle, plagued radical Islamic movements ever since.

From its inception, the jihadi movement was self-destructive. Both of Anas’ heroes were killed not by Soviet enemies, but by Islamic radicals who were supposed to come to Afghanistan to support the Afghan people: Massoud, the hero of anti-Soviet resistance, was killed by two Tunisian-Belgian jihadis sent by Bin Laden, disguised as journalists, who detonated their explosives hidden in their TV cameras, killing the Afghan commander on September 9, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks. Twelve years earlier, in November 1989, a roadside explosion killed Azzam himself, “the spiritual master of Afghan Jihad” (p.204) with two of his sons, on the way to a mosque for Friday prayers. The author does not name directly al-Qaeda or other jihadi groups for the crime, but he describes a campaign of denigration that started by takfiri groups in 1988, accusing Azzam of being an “agent”, of siding with Massoud (while most Arabs in Peshawar sided with Hekmatyar) and creating the environment for his assassination.

In his attempt to dissociate Azzam from the salafi-jihadi violence that followed, Anas portrays Azzam as noble, moral but also very naïve. Azzam is a religious authority contrasted with Bin Laden and Zawahiri who were men with no religious training (p. 261). It is true that Azzam never wanted to create an Arab military force that acted independently from the Afghans, his aim was to be at the service of a population suffering from foreign occupation. Yet, the book fails to make the link between the first generation of Arab-Afghans, their weaknesses and contradictions, which created all the necessary conditions for the emergence of al-Qaeda and ISIS. I would argue that by making jihad a personal responsibility of every Muslim, Azzam laid the ground of leaderless jihad, undermined not only political authority but also religious morality, by making the act of joining war a personal, holy obligation, not a political, collective one. Azzam “never introduced political ideas on the fresh-faced young men who came to fight in Afghanistan” writes Anas naively (p. 180). Moreover, by taking Arab youth to a foreign country, to Central Asia, where Arabs could not understand the local languages, history, religious and other traditions, Azzam dissociated jihad from politics, creating a perfect environment for the emergence of a nihilist, takfiri ideology.

This separation of waging war from political context is at the heart of Azzam’s enterprise. Why did Azzam the Palestinian, abandon the Palestinian guerillas resisting Israeli onslaught in the summer of 1982, when Yasser Arafat and his guerillas were encircled in Beirut, and chose to wage jihad in a country he could not make sense of? I asked this question years back to Anas personally, as well as to other people who had been close to Azzam, but never received a meaningful answer, because there is none. Azzam went to Afghanistan to fight the superpower that armed the Palestinian guerillas in Lebanon, the Soviets, and helped the other superpower, the USA, that supported Israel, the enemy of the Palestinians. Could there be more political nonsense than this? Paradoxically, by calling for jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Azzam transplanted the Palestinian guerilla culture to Central Asia, dissociated it from Middle East politics, and undermined the importance of the Palestinian cause to Arab politics.

In the late 80’s, by listening to the call of Azzam to join the caravans of jihad, hundreds of Arab youth went to fight a war they had no clue about. The end result is a disaster that continues to haunt us all.

To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan, by Abdullah Anas with Tam Hussein, London: Hurst, 2019

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData