Anti-Soviet fighters fought out of the mountains in Afghanistan during the 1980s.AFP
“Yesterday, and only yesterday, I decided to go to Afghanistan. I have decided to visit the place, receive training and come back to conclude my education.” — the diaries of Abu Zubaydah, Jan. 6, 1991
When Zain Abidin Mohammed Husain Abu Zubaydah wrote of his intent to travel to Afghanistan to “train in jihad for Allah’s cause,” the Soviet army had already retreated. He arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, alongside thousands of other Arabs still seeking to rout the communist enemy and the central government in Kabul that it had sponsored. His destination in Afghanistan was Khaldan, one of many training camps for mujahedeen who were fighting the Afghan regime of President Mohammed Najibullah.
In his diaries, Abu Zubaydah frequently describes battle scenes, injuries to fighters and commanders of various nationalities. His writings provide insight into the situation on the ground in Afghanistan, including the factions that formed after the Soviet withdrawal, and the direction the fighters would take in the years that followed.
The question of what to do in the post-Soviet world was paramount among the fighters still in Afghanistan. One important line of thought came from the writings of Palestinian scholar and mujahid Abdullah Azzam, who in April 1988 wrote of the need for a “pioneering vanguard” of Muslim warriors who would form the base, or “qaeda,” of an Islamic society spanning the reaches of the long-lost Islamic empire that once stretched from the Philippines to Somalia, Eritrea and Spain.
A mentor to Osama bin Laden, Azzam was also a founder of the armed Palestinian group Hamas and the Pakistani organization Lashkar-e-Taiba. His vision of 'holy warriors' was a precursor to the groups declaring loyalty to Al-Qaeda or bearing its moniker now roaming everywhere from the plains of western Africa to the jungles of Malaysia.
The movement, which in Afghanistan was led by warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Mohammad Yunus Khalis, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Azzam, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri — all of whom are identified in Zubaydah’s diaries — has spread beyond a fight to free Muslims. Today, attacks on targets ranging from marathon runners in Boston to shoppers in a mall in Nairobi are routinely linked by analysts with the Al-Qaeda idea.
In his diaries, Abu Zubaydah discusses meeting like-minded men in Peshawar guesthouses which served as transit points for the aspiring mujahedeen moving on to war in Afghanistan.
At the House of Martyrs, a place that, he writes in his diaries, he eventually ends up running, Abu Zubaydah finds “the spiritual atmosphere here is good. The youth and the elderly have given their souls to almighty God, they traded off life and everything in it for jihad.”
Some, he writes in 1991, arrive to train for a short period and go back to their homes “just to be prepared,” while others “are here for jihad and until God decides for something to be done.”
The mujahedeen are an international group. Abu Zubaydah arrives in Peshawar with four other Palestinians. They’re joined by six men from Somalia and six from the Comoros. At Khaldan, the first camp he trains in, he meets Algerian, Egyptian, Tunisian, Sudanese, Yemeni and Sri Lankan fighters. Similarly, militants in Syria today come from around the world.
Before long, Zubaydah meets his first American, whom he calls Asadallah, or Abdel al-Rahman Abd al-Sur, who has a younger brother named Sayfullah.
“He is a man in his thirties who came here … from their homeland in order to perform jihad for Allah’s cause,” Abu Zubaydah writes in one volume.
“One time, I was talking to him about martyrdom for Allah’s cause he said: ‘I don’t want to become a martyr here in Afghanistan.’ He said it in English. I told him surprisingly: ‘Why?’ He said calmly and in Arabic: ‘In Palestine, my brother. In Jerusalem.’ He continued in English: ‘Martyrdom there is considered twice.’ ”
For the most part, Abu Zubaydah is firm in his beliefs about the nature of the enemy that the mujahedeen are facing. After Kabul and the Najibullah government fell in 1992 and the Taliban took over in 1996, more Afghans arrived in the training camps. While most of them are “fit to be a soldier or a warrior,” he finds them still in the anti-communist mind-set and not embracing the outward-facing position he at this point has assumed.
“Most of them … know their enemy to be the communists, but they do not know the enmity of the brother, which is America, or the idea of democracy,” Abu Zubaydah writes. “Some of them love America as a symbol of freedom, and this is the most awful thing.”
There is also fighting among the warlords, he describes. In one entry he says Hekmatyar has “allied himself with (Afghan general Abdul Rashid) Dostum, commander of the Uzbek militia, working with Hikmatyar became an advantage, not (a) shameful deed.”
In 1992 he talks about traveling to the Farouk camp for an explosives training session. Established in 1989 by bin Laden and Zawahiri near Khost in Afghanistan, Farouk was devoted to training young men who were zealous, fit and healthy and dedicated to “shouldering together the duty of jihad.”
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in 2003Al Jazeera/AFP/Getty Images
Later he expresses his unhappiness that his Khaldan camp was shut down, along with all the other training camps, because of bin Laden. “Abu Abdullah bin Laden re-submitted this offer of unity to us and the brothers inside (the camp) requested me to deliberate the issue.”
In 1998, under the banner of the World Islamic Front, bin Laden and Zawahiri issued a statement with heads of likeminded movements, assailing the United States for its “eagerness to destroy Iraq, the strongest neighboring state (to Israel), and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Sudan … and through their disunion and weakness to guarantee Israel’s survival and the continuation of the brutal crusade occupation of the (Arabian) Peninsula.
Their "fatwa" called on all Muslims to kill Americans and their allies — civilian and military. “This is in accordance with the words of Almighty Allah, ‘and fight the pagans all together as they fight you all together … and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.’”
Martyrdom, the fatwa said, was the reward.