Why Did It All Go So Wrong? An Arab Veteran of the Anti-Soviet Jihad Speaks
Abdullah Anas with Tam Hussein, To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad from Algeria to Afghanistan (Hurst, 2019).
As a youth in his native Algeria, Abdullah Anas used to reproach his father’s generation for fighting for independence from France and then failing to build a country that secured people’s freedom. Many years on, he has realized he did the same, only in his case he fought for the liberation of Afghanistan from Soviet occupation. Anas was one of the first Arabs to volunteer for the anti-Soviet “jihad” in Afghanistan. Now he is left wondering what went wrong. The apparent success of the “mujahideen” created a vacuum which condemned Afghanistan to years of civil war and laid the groundwork for the rise of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. “What had we achieved?” asks Anas. “We fought, we killed, we sacrificed and for what?”
His new book, To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan, is an attempt to grapple with that question. Co-written with the journalist Tam Hussein, the book is part memoir, part reflection. It is full of first-hand anecdotes about such key players as Abdullah Azzam — the Palestinian cleric whose work rallying Arabs to fight the Russians earned him the sobriquet of “father of global jihad” — and al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. It offers a rare insider’s perspective on the anti-Soviet jihad that is too often reduced to a stereotype as the cradle of transnational jihadism.
Anas still believes in defensive “jihad” in the sense of a morally just war. He is proud of his past as a mujahid fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He also defends Azzam — who would become his father-in-law — against conventional wisdom that his role as a mentor to bin Laden made him complicit in the creation of al-Qaeda. For Anas, the real problems started later, with the rise of al-Qaeda and its “ugly sisters,” including the Islamic State, which brought nothing but bloodshed to the world. But in his telling, these problems were not simply the product of the contingencies of the situation in Afghanistan, nor about personalities like bin Laden. Rather he points to a deeper underlying malaise in the Muslim world in building sustainable peace:
The Muslim world can easily find martyrs but what it urgently and desperately needs are statesmen, negotiators, advisors, scholars, and intellectuals who understand their times and peoples.
Hence the link between his own experiences and that of his father’s generation. The Algerians who fought for independence from France had been unable to create a properly free and lasting settlement — Algeria suffered a vicious civil war in the 1990s and remains a one-party state to this day. Three decades after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, the country is still at war, while the “Arab Spring” protests and uprisings that began in 2010 and spread across the Middle East have produced little but repression and bloodshed. Anas, who has since become a peace activist, appeals to Muslims to abandon the idea of offensive jihad and come up with new thinking adapted to the modern world rather than relying on guidelines set by medieval Islamic scholars for very different times. It is not a message that will go down well in such a polarized climate. However, that also makes the perspective of a one-time participant in jihad all the more timely.
From Algeria to Afghanistan
Anas was drawn into political Islam as a young man from a poor family in Algeria, building his Islamic scholarship and political experience. Then came the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and what seemed — at least initially to Anas — the heady inspiration of the Islamic Revolution in Iran the same year. When scholars including Azzam issued a fatwa declaring it an obligation on all Muslim males to fight the Soviet occupation, Anas left for Afghanistan in 1983. He traveled first to Pakistan where seven rival factions of Afghan mujahideen had set up their bases in the northwest city of Peshawar. It was there that Azzam founded the Arab Services Bureau (Maktabat al-Khadamat) to organize funding and recruits for the anti-Soviet jihad. Since the Arab volunteers were relatively few in number — around 100 inside Afghanistan at any one time with the rest in Peshawar according to Anas — they were spread out across Afghanistan to avoid taking sides with any one faction. Anas spent most of his time with Ahmad Shah Massoud, the powerful military commander who fought the Russians from his base in the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan.
In Anas’ telling, the early Arab volunteers were a far cry from the jihadis who morphed into al-Qaeda and other violent extremist groups including the Islamic State. They were young men seeking adventure and martyrdom, interested only in helping to free Afghanistan, inspired by Azzam and stories of miracles witnessed by fighters in the anti-Soviet jihad. They lived in a bubble, unaware of the bigger geopolitics at play – the anti-Soviet jihad was part of a broader Cold War struggle, funded by the United States and Saudi Arabia and run by Pakistan. “We were akin to naïve children,” he says. He also defends the Arab Services Bureau, of which he was one of the founding members, insisting its sole purpose was to help the Afghan mujahideen. The Arabs were respected because they spoke Arabic, the language of the Quran, and used this to try to reduce in-fighting between the different Afghan factions. The Arab Services Bureau was inclined towards the Muslim Brotherhood, but not under its command. “Our sole interest was in resolving the issue of Afghanistan, not in taking part in some fanciful global jihadist venture which some analysts have maintained,” he writes. They took money from bin Laden to fund the Arab volunteers, but did not share the ideology that came to dominate al-Qaeda.
The problems came after the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. As had happened with his father’s generation in Algeria, Anas would come to realize that it was easier to fight to remove an oppressive ruler than to rebuild a state. The mujahideen, encouraged by Pakistan, were determined to keep fighting rather than reach a settlement with the Russian-backed Afghan government under President Mohammad Najibullah. Surprising everyone, Najibullah managed to survive until 1992 when the collapse of the Soviet Union left him without supplies or funding. Afghan in-fighting then made it impossible to agree on a government to replace him or, for that matter, to reach a settlement with Najibullah’s supporters. Anas recounts a time shortly before the government collapsed when Najibullah’s foreign minister flew by helicopter to Massoud’s camp to discuss surrender terms. According to Anas, he offered a full surrender with the sole condition that the new government give political recognition to all parties, including the communists. Massoud rejected this on the grounds that the mujahideen had fought for an Islamic state. In hindsight, Anas argues, the mujahideen should not have deprived them of the opportunity to express themselves politically: “It would have prevented a lot of bloodshed in Afghanistan’s political future.”
An attempt to set up a government in Kabul that shared power between the different mujahideen factions failed. Massoud occupied Kabul, but ended up fighting a brutal battle for control of the city with the warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who was favored by Pakistan. Thousands of Afghans were killed as the country descended into civil war, followed by harsh Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Fairly or unfairly, Anas puts some of the blame for the civil war on Afghan leaders themselves for allowing rivalries and personality clashes to get in the way of peaceful political compromise. “It was the Afghan leadership who destroyed the future of their country,” he says. They had unity of purpose only during the Soviet occupation. “Now the Afghan leaders all believed, as do the Taliban today, that only their group represented the ‘state’; they could not accept multi-party politics.”
It was in the fractious environment of Afghanistan’s civil war that an extreme form of Islamism – including the takfiri ideology that thrives on declaring other Muslims apostates – took root. New Arab volunteers arrived in Peshawar who had nothing to do with the original anti-Soviet jihad. Both older and newer arrivals took sides in the Afghan factionalism, ignoring advice from Azzam that they should refuse to be sucked into Afghan in-fighting. Among these was bin Laden. According to Anas, bin Laden had initially come across as “an energetic, dynamic man with exquisite manners and refinement.” Anas had started out liking him for being a rich Saudi who chose not to indulge in the life of a playboy. But somewhere along the line, bin Laden had been overtaken by hubris. Despite having played a minor role in the anti-Soviet jihad, he started to believe he was the solution not just to the Afghan conflict but to the problems of the Muslim community, or ummah, worldwide. This would later be the same hubris that led him to underestimate the intensity of the U.S. reaction after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. According to Anas, he also “had no judgment,” ignored Azzam’s advice, and took sides with Hekmatyar.
Making matters worse, some of the Arabs – from Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Jordan – feared that returning home would lead to their arrest. Stranded in Afghanistan and Pakistan, it was all the easier for them to become sucked into in-fighting and extremism. Major problems had already begun with the arrival of Egyptian Islamists in 1987, among them the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, who would go on to become bin Laden’s deputy in al-Qaeda. These men more than anyone spread takfiri ideology and poisoned the atmosphere. In Anas’ telling, rather than being inspired to global jihadism by Azzam, bin Laden’s thinking was led by men like Zawahiri. Overly ambitious and lacking political maturity, bin Laden allowed his head to be turned. Anas also argues that by 1987, bin Laden had more or less split with the Arab Services Bureau to run his own operation. He joined Zawahiri and others in turning against Azzam.
Azzam was assassinated in 1989 – possibly by an extreme Islamist faction – removing, according to Anas, an authoritative leader who might have been able to keep the takfiris at bay. His death marked the end of any semblance of unity between different factions, both Afghan and Arab. “He was like a great spiritual dam holding things together between the various factions,” writes Anas. “With his passing, it signalled the beginning of the madness.”
After a decade in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Anas left in 1993. The jihad that he had so passionately espoused was by then mutating into something he no longer recognized – virulent and spreading around the world. Even Algeria was not spared from the now transnational jihad. In the 1990s, it descended into a civil war made all the more violent by the participation of fighters linked to al-Qaeda returning from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Unable to go home, Anas became a political exile in London. Massoud, with whom Anas had worked so closely during the anti-Soviet jihad, was assassinated by two North African Arabs sent by al-Qaeda just two days before the Sept. 11 attacks.
A treasure trove for scholars and historians, Anas’ account complements an earlier book by Mustafa Hamid — another Arab volunteer in the anti-Soviet jihad — and Leah Farrall, The Arabs at War in Afghanistan. To the Mountains is both a fascinating and frustrating book, asking important questions about what went wrong but falling short in finding coherent answers. That is partly because the book skirts around broader geopolitics and context. Thus, for example, it does not try to weigh the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia in effectively industrializing the anti-Soviet jihad with an influx of weapons and money. Pakistan’s role remains largely unexamined. Pakistan had backed Islamist factions in Afghanistan long before the Soviet invasion, in part to counter ethnic Afghan nationalists with a claim on Pakistani territory. It also picks favorites — from Hekmatyar to the Taliban — to maintain its sway over Afghanistan and limit Indian influence there, thereby contributing to the in-fighting between Afghan factions. To the Mountains also fails to engage critically with Azzam’s writings, even while defending his role in bringing Arab volunteers to join the anti-Soviet jihad. The book furthermore would have benefited from further examination of different schools of Islamist thinking, of different approaches to jihad, and indeed of the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist Islam.
But in Anas’ defense much of that background has been covered at length elsewhere. This book instead is sui generis. Its approach of part memoir, part reflection, part unanswered questions gives it a thinking-out-loud quality which, while somewhat unsatisfying, also renders it original. To his credit Anas is no polemicist, instead trying to convey the nuances of what happened based on his own personal experiences. Given its appeal for an end to offensive jihad, it is perhaps best directed at Muslim readers. It also provides fresh food for thought for all those, Muslim or non-Muslim, trying to understand how to build enduring peace settlements in Muslim-majority countries.
Myra MacDonald is a South Asian specialist and author of two books on India and Pakistan, including Defeat is an Orphan: How Pakistan Lost the Great South Asian War.
Image: Wikimedia Commons