From “Freedom-Fighters” to the Islamic State: The Mutation of Jihad


Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan (C. Hurst & Co, 2015)


In the decades since the United States and Saudi Arabia began funding the Pakistani-run jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the loosely knit groups of Arab volunteers who joined the Afghan mujahideen have mutated – both in reality and in western perceptions – from “freedom-fighters” to al Qaeda to the so-called Islamic State. The factors that have driven these changes, including the role of U.S. policy, have been widely debated. Less attention, however, has been given to understanding the dynamics of the jihadi movement from the perspective of its own adherents.

A new book, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan, begins to rectify this deficit. The book is not an easy read. It is intended for specialists and makes few concessions in terms of explaining events for readers who are not steeped in the history of the jihadist movement. Despite this limitation, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan is a rare piece of original research into a subject that remains little understood and is often over-simplified. The book argues, correctly, that without understanding the early history of the jihadist movement we cannot hope to assess how the movement will evolve. It is also one of the few works to try to explain this history from the perspective of an early, active participant. The Arabs at War in Afghanistan is co-authored by Mustafa Hamid, one of the first Arabs to join the anti-Soviet jihad, and Leah Farrall, an academic and former counter-terrorism analyst with the Australian police. Hamid, or Abu Walid al-Masri as he is known, was never a member of al Qaeda, but knew Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Like many other Arabs, Hamid fled Afghanistan after the September 11th attacks, and was then detained in Iran for a decade before being released to his native Egypt, where he worked with Farrall on the book.

Those Who Do Not Learn From History…

Hamid and Farrall describe the process of change among the “Arab-Afghans”, whose introduction to transnational jihad came with the war against the Russians from 1979 to 1989. As other Arabs followed in their footsteps after 1989, the Arab-Afghan groups splintered, allowing the emergence of new schools of thought in which violence became more important than political strategy. This process was neither led by al Qaeda, as is often assumed, nor the natural outgrowth of Islamist militancy. Rather it was the result of competition among different groups of Arab volunteers in Afghanistan, of which al Qaeda was only one; the impatience of young men looking for a fight; the availability of funds; and the unintended consequences of outside events. This produced fighters whose worldview was forged in the rootless and fractured jihad that flourished in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union left and has since seeped into many countries in the Muslim world. With private funding from rich Gulf merchants, they were like soldiers-of-fortune, except they were seeking martyrdom not money. Their kind dominates Salafi jihadi movements today. The book therefore not only gives us a rare insight into the drivers of change, historically, but also helps illuminate the influences likely to be at work inside major threats today such as the Islamic State.

Right from the start, the Afghan jihad was subject to multiple influences. Pakistan insisted on controlling the supply of U.S.- and Saudi-funded weapons to keep a grip on the mujahideen and prevent the emergence of a united Afghan resistance that might threaten Pakistani interests. This fractured the Afghan leadership, based in Peshawar in Pakistan. At the same time, the huge inflows of foreign funds encouraged corruption. The jihad also, in Hamid’s words, “absorbed the negative feelings in Arab countries” by providing an outlet for Islamist reformers crushed by repressive dictatorships and humiliated by Israel’s military victories in the Middle East.

It was into this milieu that Osama bin Laden was drawn, first as a financier and then as a fighter. A Saudi of Yemeni descent, his interest in jihad was far more motivated by the situation in Yemen than is commonly assumed, according to Hamid. South Yemen was then under communist rule, and bin Laden saw there the possibility of opening up another front comparable to Afghanistan. Angered by corruption, he broke away from the Maktab al Khadamat, the Peshawar-based Arab organization dedicated to support the Afghan jihad, in order to work inside Afghanistan, thus making al Qaeda an early splinter. He was only about 30-years-old at the time, relatively young and impatient, but would soon find younger men snapping at his heels.

Another major splintering happened as a result of the spectacular failure by the mujahideen, of which al Qaeda was a part, to take the Afghan city of Jalalabad in 1989. The plan was to topple the government which had survived the Soviet withdrawal; instead, thousands died and the government lasted until 1992, outlasting even the Soviet Union. The mujahideen fought on in Jalalabad, but bin Laden withdrew his fighters, first from the battle and then, in 1992, from Afghanistan altogether. It was immediately after Jalalabad that the Arab-Afghan jihad gave rise to a school of thought that was orientated far more towards violence and dominated by takfiris, whose religious ideology was driven by a need to declare other Muslims as apostates. Even in the early days of the jihad, tensions had surfaced between Arab volunteers – particularly rich Saudi Salafis who wanted to fight and die – and the Afghans, who were more concerned with winning the war. The Arabs often looked down on Afghans who followed Sufi and Hanafi Islam, but they were tolerated because of their money. The failure at Jalalabad discredited even the Arab leadership, including bin Laden. The situation was worsened when Abdullah Azzam, who ran the Maktab al Khadamat, was assassinated in 1989. Lacking leadership and direction, many Arab fighters drifted into what the authors call the “Jalalabad School,” a label that more properly describes the mindset of the men who set up camps in Afghanistan independently of both the Maktab al Khadamat and al Qaeda. New recruits continued to arrive after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, some of whom stayed on in Afghanistan when bin Laden and his dwindling band of followers left for Sudan.

Disparaged by Hamid as the “Teenagers’ School of Jihad”, the adherents of the “Jalalabad School” were cut off from their own countries and the needs of ordinary people. Unlike their predecessors, this included the Afghans. With no grounding in politics or social justice, they had no political or strategic vision. Their leaders were very young, most of them in their twenties, and took what Farrall calls an “anything goes” approach to combat. They were also cut off enough from the religious traditions of their own people that it became easier to accept takfiri thinking. They could get away with it because there were enough private financiers in the Gulf ready to fund them. “The jihad project has become privatized,” writes Hamid. “Jihad is no longer an activity carried out by the ummah; it is jihad led by the rich.” The original reason for the jihad disappeared with the withdrawal of the Soviet Union in 1989 and the collapse of the Kabul government in 1992. The trend after that was towards a kind of “Blackwatering” of jihad, where groups such as al Qaeda became like security contracting companies; they had no ties to the land or the local people, or respect for their elders.

Internal Fissures and External Influences

When bin Laden returned to Afghanistan in 1996, after a four-year sojourn in Sudan, he was far from being the towering figure often imagined. Rather, bin Laden was still only one of several Arab leaders in the fractured community of “Arab-Afghans.” Under pressure from the Americans, the Sudanese authorities expelled him to Afghanistan, but he continued to look for a base elsewhere. In the version provided by Hamid, it was this, rather than al Qaeda’s global ambitions, that created the conditions that led to bombings of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998. Conventional wisdom – based in part on bin Laden’s own public rhetoric – holds that by then, bin Laden was developing a global political worldview in which he would use his Afghan base to attack the “Far Enemy,” the United States, in order to weaken its influence on Arab countries. Hamid’s version, which portrays bin Laden as a far less powerful leader, lacking political vision and any real authority over the Arab-Afghans in Afghanistan, suggests a more random process. In this version, he says that bin Laden sent men to Africa to scout out possibilities for a new base. Still motivated by Yemen, bin Laden also saw Somalia – just across the Gulf of Aden – as a possible source of weapons. Bin Laden told his scouts that if they had an opportunity to attack Americans while they were in Africa, they should do so. However, he was not involved in choosing the targets, and, according to Hamid, the American embassy bombings came as a surprise to al Qaeda in Afghanistan. It is not possible to tell from the book whether Hamid’s version is more reliable than others who have described a more coherent plan by bin Laden and al Qaeda. What it does suggest, however, is that the progress of global jihad from Afghanistan into Africa might have been more accidental and chaotic than those who look for coherent explanations would care to admit.

What is clear is that bin Laden benefitted from the American reaction. The cruise missile strikes ordered by President Bill Clinton on camps in Afghanistan helped the flagging al Qaeda cause and provided bin Laden with a fresh influx of Arab volunteers.

Even after the U.S. air strikes, however, bin Laden was still struggling to assert his influence over the fractured Arab-Afghans. Outside circumstances intervened when the Khaldan camp, then part of the Jalalabad School of thought, was forced to close, driving its fighters and potential recruits into the arms of al Qaeda. Among them were some of the September 11th hijackers. As has already been widely documented, the suggestion for the September 11th attacks originated outside al Qaeda with Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. What is new is the book’s suggestion that the impetus for the attacks came from the Jalalabad School; it was here that both the revolutionary zeal and the networks used had been kept alive even through bin Laden’s sojourn in Sudan. Indeed, according to Hamid, with much of the planning, manpower and networks coming from them, “9/11 can be considered as the infiltration of the Jalalabad School into al Qaeda.” With the exception of bin Laden, and the newly joined Ayman al Zawahiri, all the older members of al Qaeda disagreed with the attacks, but their objections were swept away by a fervent younger generation keen for action.

The development of al Qaeda attacks is just one of many pieces of conventional wisdom challenged by the authors. The Arabs at War in Afghanistan takes the form of a dialogue so the two author’s viewpoints remain separate. Hamid and Farrall meet in what they call a “no man’s land,” however, that allows them to describe the underlying dynamics of the Afghan jihad unfiltered by ideology or policy prescriptions. Whether or not one accepts the version of events given in the book – specialists will find plenty to pick over – it raises questions even on basic details about the dates when al Qaeda and the Taliban were founded. Ultimately, one finds a narrative that is marshalled by Farrall to remind us how little we know about the internal workings of transnational jihad.

Lessons from the Inside

What we can say, for a start, is that competition and corruption, in turn molded by the influence of external aid, was critical in Afghanistan. This encouraged splintering as reformists broke away to seek a less corrupt form of jihad, though only those with money could fund the projects needed to attract new recruits. In Afghanistan three decades ago, and in Iraq and Syria today, new volunteers often appear driven not so much by ideology but towards leaders who offer the best opportunity to fight. How the availability of funds interacts with the emotional pull of jihad has yet to be fully understood. “Many Arabs thought the mission of jihad was martyrdom and to go to paradise, not to defend the land or even to win,” says Hamid. They would be attracted by propaganda, though of a less brutal kind than that used nowadays by the Islamic State. “I remember during the jihad against the Soviets, the youth would come back to Peshawar angrily shouting ‘Where are the miracles?’” he writes. “They had read about miracles in the magazines that were being published about the jihad and then when they got to the fronts they did not see any miracles.”

The Afghan history has shown us that such groups tended to fracture easily – something Hamid partly ascribes to the individualistic nature of Salafism, along with the private pursuit of martyrdom over a political cause. Evidence of easy fracturing nowadays comes from the very public split in Syria between al Qaeda and the Islamic State. But like many organizations, the fractured Arab-Afghan groups were soldered by attack from the outside – as happened when the United States drove fighters towards al Qaeda by attacking the Afghan camps in 1998. As Hamid remarks, the use of force can bring weakness for the user of power – a warning that the United States and its allies would do well to heed when considering how to address the challenge from the Islamic State.

In recent history, jihad has followed a pattern in which younger fighters push back against restrictions imposed from above. By the time of the anti-Soviet jihad, some Arab fighters had already begun rebelling against restrictions from the Muslim Brotherhood. This continued in Peshawar, where the Brotherhood was unwilling to allow Arab fighters too prominent a role in Afghanistan for fear of running into trouble with dictatorships at home. Bin Laden rejected that by going to the front himself. Over time, younger fighters rebelled against al Qaeda – ironically it would come to be seen as the more conservative organization in Syria compared to the Islamic State. In each rebellion, a younger, more radical and uncontrollable current has emerged, driven by religion but divorced from religious traditions, rapidly mutating in the absence of any anchoring among ordinary people.

What is striking is the speed of change in a movement that, by its very nature, is untethered from the international state system. A dizzying number of factors influence this change. The Arabs at War in Afghanistan should therefore be essential reading for specialists trying to understand the Islamic State, and serve as a warning against any attempt to provide static descriptions of Salafi jihadism rather than seeing it as a continually evolving process. The Islamic State, with its clear territorial claims and declaration of the caliphate may be an attempt to reintroduce politics into jihad. But it will be bucking a trend in which jihad has within it the seeds of its own destruction – albeit at tremendous cost to local populations. “The Islamic state in their conception is one that must fight the infidel influence and the most important enemies of the Wahhabis, which are the Sufi and the Shia, and to fight them permanently,” writes Hamid of those jihadis whose mindset follows the Jalalabad School. These are people who “easily veer into battles that punish the people of the land and bring down a great disaster upon them.”


Myra MacDonald is a former Reuters journalist who has reported on Pakistan and India since 2000. She is the author of “Heights of Madness”, a book on the Siachen War fought in the mountains beyond Kashmir on the world’s highest battlefield. She is now working on a book about how the relationship between India and Pakistan was changed by their nuclear tests in 1998. She lives in Scotland and can be found on Twitter @myraemacdonald.


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