How the Afghan jihad went global

Many young Arab men who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets later joined a campaign of violence against the West

Anti-Soviet fighters fought out of the mountains in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

“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. 

‘Good spiritual atmosphere’

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 2003
Al 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.

‘Our number-one enemy’

In his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright recounts Azzam’s difficulty in persuading bin Laden to steer young fighters departing from the dwindling conflict in Afghanistan against the Soviets toward other fronts like Israel. Azzam wanted the mujahedeen to continue to fight non-Muslims. He issued a fatwa barring money meant for the Afghan resistance from being used for training those planning to attack civilians abroad, Wright says, adding that Azzam had preached that the intentional killing of civilians, especially women and children, was against Islam. His main rival for influence over bin Laden, Egyptian doctor Zawahiri, was more interested “in stirring revolution within Islamic countries, especially Egypt,” according to Wright.

The basis and justification for this line of attack for Zawahiri and other hard-line disciples was “takfir,” or excommunication. It was the blanket permit that claimed to give cause for Muslims to kill other Muslims. Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian whose writings in jail under President Gamal Abdel Nasser served as inspiration for Zawahiri, accused secular Muslims of embracing Western values at the cost of Muslim ideals. His radicalized view of American attitudes toward race fed his anger.

“The white man in Europe or America is our number-one enemy,” Qutb wrote. “The white man crushes us underfoot while we teach our children about his civilization, his universal principles and noble objectives.” His concerns about modernity convinced Qutb that Muslims enamored of the West and its values couldn’t be true to Islam. He became a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose vision he propagated: an Islamic government ruling Egypt with Sharia at its core.

Qutb was hanged in 1966 for his role in a plot to overthrow the Egyptian government and assassinate its leaders. Before his execution, he reportedly told one of his followers, “Although, I am not intending my own destruction, but we must intend firmness in our stance, knowing that the firmness in stance can bring about destruction.”

Most critically, Qutb’s justification for targeting other Muslims who opposed his extremist position enabled others to adopt the same reasoning. Muslims who didn’t agree with them were considered apostates and infidels and therefore no different from non-Muslims and permissible to kill. It was part of the reasoning that justified the Afghan civil war, where Muslim fought Muslim. 

Qutb’s words resounded with Zawahiri, whose influence over bin Laden steadily grew. As the Taliban cemented its hold in Afghanistan and slowly began implementing Islamic rule, the mujahedeen needed a new war. Bin Laden and Zawahiri chose to turn their gaze outward, toward the West.

Azzam was cut out of bin Laden’s inner circle by late 1988, opposed by both the Egyptians and the Saudis, who wanted their own agendas to dominate any new project that bin Laden would fund. Azzam threw his lot in with the Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud, who held off the Soviets and later the Taliban from his province in northern Afghanistan. Azzam was eventually assassinated along with two of his sons in a bombing in Peshawar in 1989. Massoud was also later assassinated, most likely by Al-Qaeda, two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. In his diaries, Abu Zubaydah writes, “the brothers in al-Qaeda organization decided to get rid of this traitor,” described elsewhere in the diary as “a thorn right in the throat” of the Taliban and its leader, Mullah Omar.

“So two of the best brothers were sent as journalists,” to pretend to interview Massoud, Abu Zubaydah writes, “and blew themselves up … so thank God.” 

Anti-Soviet warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud.
AFP/Getty Images

“Far jihad” — fighting advocated by bin Laden and Zawahiri’s in countries like the United States — diverged wildly from “near jihad,” fighting where Muslims are under attack in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Chechnya and the Palestinian territories. Where to place their emphasis remains an ongoing issue of debate among jihadi groups, says Mary Anne Weaver, author of “Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan.” Today’s movements are “basically the grandchildren of the jihad,” says Weaver. “They’re much more sophisticated, educated, multinational young men.” She says many come from socially prominent families, have been educated in the West and “blend into the society.” 

Some of those Al-Qaeda militants who trained in Afghanistan returned to Libya and were later part of the uprising that ousted dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi. Those groups continue to launch violent attacks, including the Sept. 11, 2012, assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

The movement today is very different from the first rush of militants who crossed into Afghanistan in the 1980s and ’90s. Central Asians, Turks, Chechens, Uzbeks and Chinese Uighurs are filling ranks in training camps. British-born Pakistanis and North Africans with French passports are traveling across regions, given their ability to cross international borders with Western papers. There are reportedly 500 Europeans and 200 Australians fighting in Syria. “It’s much more diverse. It’s more diffuse,” says Weaver. “Not like the central command prior to (the attacks of) 9/11. I don’t think that makes the groups any less deadly or less of a threat.”

The promise of the Iraq War and the opportunity to face American and other Western troops after the Soviet retreat lured many fighters to launch new organizations in Iraq — for example, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi before he was killed. That movement coalesced with radicals fighting in Syria to become the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.

Osama bin Laden in 1998.
AFP/Getty Images

The Arab Spring created space for new fronts in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb was recently discovered to have plans to establish an Islamic state in Mali. Abu Sayaf fighters in the Philippines continue to focus on local and foreign targets in bombings, kidnappings and beheadings, with the aim of establishing an Islamic state in western Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. Al-Shabab, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, controls large parts of southern Somalia, where it has imposed a strict version of Sharia. Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which in August was suspected of backing a plot that led to the closure of more than two dozen U.S. diplomatic facilities across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, has emerged as the most dangerous of all Al-Qaeda affiliates, according to a recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Analysts rate the Yemen-based group as the most lethal Qaeda franchise, carrying out a domestic insurgency while maintaining its sights on striking Western targets,” the report notes. “As the ranks of so-called ‘al-Qaeda central’ in Pakistan have thinned, the umbrella organization’s core may shift to Yemen.”

After bin Laden was killed in a raid on a safe house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011, President Barack Obama declared Al-Qaeda was “on the path to defeat,” its leaders more concerned with their survival, with the immediate conflicts before them and with hitting “soft targets.” The Al-Qaeda of bin Laden in the 1990s and early 2000s may have dissolved, but in its place has emerged a more diverse and diffuse, yet equally dangerous international movement.

In a diary entry dated Jan. 1, 2002, when Al-Qaeda militants had fled the U.S. military bombing of its camps and coalition forces on the offensive in Afghanistan, Abu Zubaydah writes, “No one is left around Sheik Abu Abdullah (bin Laden), except for a few individuals in the mountain, even if millions are around him in the outside.” Bin Laden was able to escape the bombardment in the mountains of Tora Bora, eventually making his way to Pakistan, where he remained in hiding for nearly 10 years.

“I would not say that his group is finished, for they still have their strength and complete organization,” Abu Zubaydah writes. “They are all well in a very safe location, thank God. The rest (of the officials) are spread around the world in an organized manner, which makes them more dangerous to their enemies. Thank God.” 

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Al Qaeda, Islam
Abu Zubaydah

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Abu Zubaydah

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