Afghan Arabs

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
For the Arab migration or invasion of Afghanistan prior to the Soviet-Afghan War, see History of Arabs in Afghanistan.

Afghan Arabs (also known as Arab-Afghans) were Arab and other Muslim Islamist mujahideen who came to Afghanistan during and following the Soviet-Afghan War to help fellow Muslims fight Soviets and pro-Soviet Afghans.[1] Observers and journalists covering the war have cast doubt on their significance as a fighting force, but within the Muslim Arab world they achieved near hero-status for their association with the defeat of the militant atheist, anti-religious Communist superpower that was the Soviet Union.

Many returned to their home countries to wage jihad against their governments. Their name notwithstanding, none were Afghans and some were not Arabs, but Turkic, Malay or from some other Muslim non-Arab ethnicity. The most famous among their ranks was Osama bin Laden.


Apart from the entering Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Arabs entered the area today known as Afghanistan in earlier centuries in two distinct waves. During the Islamic conquest of Afghanistan, many Arabs settled throughout the region, while another wave arrived during the Bolshevik Revolution. "Afghan Arabs" who entered Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War began arriving in the early 1980s.

Further information: History of Arabs in Afghanistan


One supporter of the Afghan Arabs, General Hameed Gul, the former head of the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence, explained the recruitment of Muslims to fight in Afghanistan this way: `We are fighting a jihad and this is the first Islamic international brigade in the modern era. The Communists have their international brigades, the West has NATO, why can't the Muslims unite and form a common front?` [2]

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam[edit]

Abdullah Yusuf Azzam (1941–1989) is often credited with creating enthusiasm for the Afghan mujahideen cause in the Arab Muslim and greater Muslim world. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Azzam issued a fatwa, Defense of the Muslim Lands, the First Obligation after Faith [3] declaring defense jihad in Afghanistan fard ayn (a personal obligation[4]) for all Muslims. "Whoever can, from among the Arabs, fight jihad in Palestine, then he must start there. And, if he is not capable, then he must set out for Afghanistan." While Jihad in Palestine was more important, for practical reasons, "it is our opinion that we should begin [Jihad] with Afghanistan before Palestine." [5] The edict was supported by other Sheikhs including Saudi Arabia's Grand Mufti (highest religious scholar), Abd al-Aziz Bin Bazz.

Sometime after 1980, Adullah Azzam established Maktab al-Khadamat (Services Office) to organize guest houses in Peshawar just across the Afghan border in Pakistan and paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan to prepare international recruits for the Afghan war front. Using financing of Saudi Arabia and a wealthy young Saudi recruit, Osama bin Laden, Maktab al-Khadamat paid for "air tickets and accommodation, dealt with paperwork with Pakistani authorities and provided other such services for the jihad fighters" from the Muslim world. During the 1980s, Azam had forged close links with two of the Afghan mujahideen faction-leaders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar the Pakistan favorite, and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamic scholar from Afghanistan whom the Saudis had "sent to Peshwar to promote Wahabbism."

Adullah Azzam toured not only the Muslim world but the United States, in search of funds and young Muslim recruits. He inspired young Muslims with stories of miraculous deeds, mujahideen who defeated vast columns of Soviet troops virtually single-handed, who had been run over by tanks but survived, who were shot, but unscathed by bullets. Angels were said ride into battle on horseback, and falling bombs were intercepted by birds, which raced ahead of the jets to form a protective canopy over the warriors.[6] Critics complain these stories proliferated because Sheikh Abdullah paid mujahideen to bring "him wonderful tales."[7]

It is estimated that approximately 20,000[8] to 35,000 Muslim volunteers[9] came from around the world came to fight in Afghanistan.[10][9]

Osama bin Laden

Later volunteers[edit]

By 1986 the Soviets were talking about withdrawing from Afghanistan.[11] As it became clear the Mujahideen's fight against the Soviets had been a success, it became more popular with Muslims worldwide, and drew more of them to volunteer in Afghanistan. Consequently most of the "Afghan" Arabs arrived to fight the Soviets when they were least needed. The late arrivals were reportedly twice the number who came for the war against the Soviet occupation.

Many of the later volunteers were different than the early "Afghan" Arab volunteers inspired by Sheikh Azzam's tours, and have been criticized for being less serious,

Some Saudi tourists came to earn their jihad credentials. Their tour was organized so that they could step inside Afghanistan, get photographed discharging a gun, and promptly return home as a hero of Afghanistan.[12]

or more sectarian and undisciplined in their violence. Violence escalated in Peshwar Pakistan, the mujahideen staging area and center of Afghan Arab activity.[13]

Sheikh Azzam's removal[edit]

Sometime after August 1988, Sheikh Azzam was replaced as the leader of the Arab Afghans in Peshwar by Osama bin Laden.

Sheikh Azzam himself was assassinated there in November 1989 by roadside bomb that some think was the work of the radical jihadi Egyptian Islamic Jihad and his opponent Ayman al-Zawahiri.

(see: Abdullah Yusuf Azzam#Assassination)

These later expatriate volunteers included many sectarian Salafi and Wahhabi who alienated their hosts with their aloof manner and disdain for the Sufi Islam practiced by most Afghans. While the first Arab Afghans were "for the most part" welcomed by native Afghan mujahideen, by the end of the Soviet-Afghan war, there was a great deal of mutual antagonism between the two groups. The Afghan mujahideen resented "being told they were not good Muslims" and called the expatriate volunteers "Ikhwanis" or "Wahhabis".[12]

This hostility may have played an important role in the relatively easy manner in which the U.S. overthrew the Taliban in 2001 when Afghans turned against these foreigners.[12]

After the war with the Soviets[edit]

However minimal the impact of the "Afghan" Arabs on the war against the Soviets, the return of the volunteers to their home countries was not a "sideshow." In Foreign Affairs Peter Bergen writes:

The foreign volunteers in Afghanistan saw the Soviet defeat as a victory for Islam against a superpower that had invaded a Muslim country. Estimates of the number of foreign fighters who fought in Afghanistan begin in the low thousands; some spent years in combat, while others came only for what amounted to a jihad vacation. The jihadists gained legitimacy and prestige from their triumph both within the militant community and among ordinary Muslims, as well as the confidence to carry their jihad to other countries where they believed Muslims required assistance. When veterans of the guerrilla campaign returned home with their experience, ideology, and weapons, they destabilized once-tranquil countries and inflamed already unstable ones.[14]

After the war, many foreign mujahideen stayed in Afghanistan and took Afghan wives. The Afghan Arabs served as the essential core of the foot soldiers of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda, bin Laden being seen, according to journalist Lawrence Wright, as "the undisputed leader of the Arab Afghans" by fall of 1989.[15]

Others returned "with their experience, ideology, and weapons," to their home (or other Muslim) countries, often proceeding to fight jihad against the government there.[16] Many of them went to Bosnia to fight against Bosnian Serbs and Croats. The most extreme case of ex-mujahideen involvement was Algeria where jihadis fought the government in a bloody civil war that cost 150,000-200,000 lives.

Taliban era[edit]

In the mid- and late-1990s, the Afghan Arabs, in the form of the Wahhabi-oriented Al-Qaeda, became more influential in Afghanistan helping and influencing the Taliban. Several hundred Arab-Afghans participated in the 1997 and 1998 Taliban offensives in the north and helped the Taliban carry out the massacres of the Shia Hazaras there. Several hundred more Arab-Afghans, based in the Rishkor army garrison outside Kabul, fought on the Kabul front against General Ahmed Shah Massoud. At the same time the Taliban's ideology changed. Until the "Taliban's contact with the Arab-Afghans and their [the Taliban's] pan-Islamic ideology was non-existent." [17]

By 1996 and 1998, al Qaeda felt comfortable enough in the sanctuary given them to issue a declaration of war against Americans and later a fatwa to kill Americans and their allies. "The Arab-Afghans had come full circle. From being mere appendages of the Afghan jihad and the Cold War in the 1980s they had taken centre stage for the Afghans, neighbouring countries and the west in the 1990s." [18] This was followed by al Qaeda 1998 American embassy bombings in African and the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, America invaded Afghanistan, deposing the Taliban, ending the heyday of the Afghan Arabs.

During the American campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001, many coherent units of Arab fighters were destroyed by JDAMs. Some Arab fighters have been held by Afghan tribesman for ransom paid by Americans.[19]


Helpfulness to the Afghan mujahideen[edit]

Perhaps the major contribution of the more serious Afghan Arab volunteers was humanitarian aid —- the setting up of hospitals around Peshawar and Quetta and providing funds for supply caravans to travel to the interior of the country. The effectiveness of the Afghan Arabs in Afghanistan as a fighting force has been scoffed at, called a "curious sideshow to the real fighting,"[20] Estimates are there were about 2000 Arab Afghans fighting "at any one time", compared with about a 250,000 Afghan fighters and 125,000 Soviet troops.[21]

Marc Sageman, a Foreign Service Officer who was based in Islamabad from 1987-1989, and worked closely with Afghanistan's Mujahideen, says

Contemporaneous accounts of the war do not even mention [the Afghan Arabs]. Many were not serious about the war. ... Very few were involved in actual fighting. For most of the war, they were scattered among the Afghan groups associated with the four Afghan fundamentalist parties.[12]

One instance where the foreign volunteers did participate in the fighting is reported to have backfired disastrously, hurting the Afghan resistance by prolonging the war against the Afghan Marxist government following the Soviet withdrawal.

The March 1989 battle for Jalalabad, was to be beginning of the collapse of the Afghan Communist government forces, with those forces began negotiation of surrender to the native Afghan mujahideen. Unfortunately, radical non-Afghan salafists became involved, executing some 60 surrendering Communists, cutting their corpses into small pieces, and sending the remains back to the besieged city in a truck with the message that this would be the fate awaiting the infidels.[22] Despite apologies and assurances of safety from Afghan resistance leaders, the Communists ended their negotiations of surrender, spurred them on to break the siege of Jalalabad and to win the first major government victory in years. "This success reversed the government's demoralization from the withdrawal of Soviet forces, renewed its determination to fight on, and allowed it to survive three more years." [23]


According to one source, some "35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East," fought for the Afghan Mujahideen. Tens of thousand more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassas in Pakistan and along the Afghan border, that the Pakistan government funded. Eventually "more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan and be influenced by the jihad." [24]

The Mujahideen of Afghanistan were divided into several factions and the Afghan Arabs helped some factions much more than others. Factions led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are described as having had good relations with Afghan Arabs. The faction led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, did not.[25]

Interest in martyrdom[edit]

Afghan Arabs have been described as strongly motivated by hopes for martyrdom. Rahimullah Yusufzai, the Peshawar bureau chief for the Pakistani daily News, remarked on his amazement that one camp of Arab Afghans pitched white tents on the front lines, where they were easy marks for Soviet bombers, then attacking the camp. When he asked the Arabs "Why?" they replied: `We want them to bomb us! We Want to die!` Bin Laden himself has said: `I wish I could raid and be slain, and then raid and be slain, and then raid and be slain,` [26]

Attitude to the West[edit]

The United States spent several billion dollars aiding the mujahideen[27] who "had been considerably romanticized in the American press and had made tours through American churches, where they were lauded for their spiritual courage in the common fight against Marxism and godlessness".[28] Some of the Afghan Arabs jihadis who flocked to Afghanistan, however, saw themselves as opponents of the West every bit as much as of Communism.

French writer Olivier Roy, who spent some years in Afghanistan, and served with the United Nations Office for Coordinating Relief in Afghanistan (UNOCA), has written that the jihadis "did not become anti-Western after 1991 -- they had always been so."

All westerners, like me, who encountered the so-called `Arabs` inside Afghanistan during the war of resistance were struck (sometimes physically) by their hostility. The Arabs constantly asked the Afghan mujahideen commanders to get rid of the `infidels` and to choose only good Muslims as supporters, and called for the expulsion of Western NGOs ... in many areas the mujahideen had to intervene to prevent physical assaults on westerners. [29]

Author Gilles Kepel writes that in Peshwar Pakistan, some Afghan Arabs attacked "Europe and American humanitarian agencies ... trying to help the Afghan refugees." [30]

In contrast according to former British Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, late Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto told him said Osama bin Laden was initially pro-American.[31] According to Prince Bandar bin Sultan of Saudi Arabia, on the one occasion he met and talked to Osama bin Laden, bin Laden thanked him for his "efforts to bring the Americans, our friends, to help us against the atheists, he said the communists."[32]

Connection with the CIA[edit]

Seal of the CIA

The Afghan Arabs are sometimes reputed to be a creation of the American government and the Central Intelligence Agency in particular.

Robin Cook, former leader of the British House of Commons and Foreign Secretary from 1997-2001, wrote in The Guardian on Friday, July 8, 2005,

Bin Laden was, though, a product of a monumental miscalculation by western security agencies. Throughout the 80s he was armed by the CIA and funded by the Saudis to wage jihad against the Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, literally "the database", was originally the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA to defeat the Russians.[33]

However the notion that the CIA had any contact with non-Afghan mujahideen and specifically bin Laden is disputed by a number of sources. According to Peter Bergen of CNN the story

that the CIA funded bin Laden or trained bin Laden—is simply a folk myth. There's no evidence of this. In fact, there are very few things that bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and the U.S. government agree on. They all agree that they didn't have a relationship in the 1980s. And they wouldn't have needed to. Bin Laden had his own money, he was anti-American and he was operating secretly and independently.

The real story here is the CIA didn't really have a clue about who this guy was until 1996 when they set up a unit to really start tracking him.[34]

Bergen quotes Pakistani Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf, who ran ISI's Afghan operation between 1983 and 1987:

It was always galling to the Americans, and I can understand their point of view, that although they paid the piper they could not call the tune. The CIA supported the mujahideen by spending the taxpayers' money, billions of dollars of it over the years, on buying arms, ammunition, and equipment. It was their secret arms procurement branch that was kept busy. It was, however, a cardinal rule of Pakistan's policy that no Americans ever become involved with the distribution of funds or arms once they arrived in the country. No Americans ever trained or had direct contact with the mujahideen, and no American official ever went inside Afghanistan.[35]

According to Peter Beinart,

Vincent Cannistraro, who led the Reagan administration's Afghan Working Group from 1985 to 1987, puts it, "The CIA was very reluctant to be involved at all. They thought it would end up with them being blamed, like in Guatemala." So the Agency tried to avoid direct involvement in the war, ... the skittish CIA, Cannistraro estimates, had less than ten operatives acting as America's eyes and ears in the region. Milton Bearden, the Agency's chief field operative in the war effort, has insisted that "[T]he CIA had nothing to do with" bin Laden. Cannistraro says that when he coordinated Afghan policy from Washington, he never once heard bin Laden's name.[36]

According to Olivier Roy, "the CIA was not in charge (accusing Bin Laden of having been a CIA agent is nonsense) of the program" to enlist Muslim volunteers to fight Soviets in Afghanistan, "but it did not oppose the scheme or worry about it negative consequences."

The US attitude had more to do with benign neglect than Machiavellian strategy. Eagerness to claim absolute victory in Afghanistan, bureaucratic inertia, lack of concern and expertise, overconfidence in the Saudi and Pakistani security services ... all explain why nobody in Washington cared.[37]

See also[edit]


Yugoslav wars:


  1. ^ Mohammed M. Hafez (March 2008). "Jihad After Iraq: Lessons from the Arab Afghans Phenomenon" (PDF) 1 (4). CTC Sentinel. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-02-03. 
  2. ^ Rashid, Taliban (2000), p.129
  3. ^ Defence of the Muslim Lands; The First Obligation After Iman, by Sheikh Abdullah Azzam (Shaheed), English translation work done by Brothers in Ribatt
  4. ^ rather than a less important collective obligation known as fard al-kifāya
  5. ^ The Ruling of Fighting in Palestine and Afghanistan
  6. ^ examples can be found in "The Signs of ar-Rahmaan in the Jihad of the Afghan,` accessed 2006 and Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, "Abul-Mundhir ash-Shareef," accessed 2006
  7. ^ Mohammed Loay Baizid in interview, from Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, NY, Knopf, 2006, p.106
  8. ^ Temple-Raston, Dina. "Western Fighters Answer Mideast Extremists' Clarion Call". NPR. Retrieved 5 October 2014. The last great call to arms for Muslim fighters was in the 1980s, after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. About 20,000 foreign fighters traveled there, most of them from the Gulf states. 
  9. ^ a b Commins, David (2006). The Wahhabi Mission and Saudi Arabia. London: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd. p. 174. In all, perhaps 35,000 Muslim fighters went to Afghanistan between 1982 and 1992, while untold thousands more attended frontier schools teeming with former and future fighters. 
  10. ^ Rashid, Ahmed, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, 2000), p. 129.
  11. ^ "Pakistani Says Soviet Offered A 4-Year Afghan Withdrawal" By ELAINE SCIOLINO, The New York Times. July 18, 1986. p. D17 (1 page)
  12. ^ a b c d Sageman, Marc, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p.57-58
  13. ^ Ismail Khan, `Crackdown Against Arabs in Peshawar,` Islamabad the News`, April 7, 1993
  14. ^ name=ForeignAffairsNovember2005> Peter Bergen, Alec Reynolds (November–December 2005). "Blowback Revisited". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  15. ^ Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, NY, Knopf, 2006, p.145
  16. ^ Kepel, Jihad, (2002), p.218
  17. ^ Rashid, Taliban (2000), p.139
  18. ^ Rashid, Taliban (2000), p.140
  19. ^ Thoughts of an Arab Afghan Veteran
  20. ^ Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, NY, Knopf, 2006, p.107
  21. ^ interview with Arab Afghan fighter Abullah Anas and Afghan CIA station chief Milt Berden. Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower, Knopf, 2006, p.105
  22. ^ Akram, Assen, Histoire de la Guerre d'Afghanistan, Paris Editions Balland, 1996: p.227-277
  23. ^ Sageman, Marc, Understanding Terror Networks, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004, p.58-59
  24. ^ Rashid, Taliban (2000), p.130
  25. ^ Rashid, Taliban (2000), p.132-3
  26. ^ Wright, Lawrence, Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, by Lawrence Wright, NY, Knopf, 2006, p.107-8
  27. ^ estimated between $6 and $20 billion"How the CIA created Osama bin Laden". Green Left Weekly. 2001-09-19. Retrieved 2007-01-09. 
  28. ^ Wright, Looming Towers, (2006), p.171
  29. ^ (p.293) Globalized Islam : the Search for a New Ummah, by Olivier Roy, Columbia University Press, 2004
  30. ^ Kepel, Gilles, Jihad, Belknap, (2002), p.218
  31. ^ Benazir Bhutto, "Dinner with Portillo", BBC Four.
  32. ^ America's New War: Responding to Terrorism CNN Larry King Live. October 1, 2001.
  33. ^ Cook, Robin (2005-07-08). "The struggle against terrorism cannot be won by military means". London: Guardian Unlimited. Retrieved 2005-07-08. 
  34. ^ Bergen, Peter. "Bergen: Bin Laden, CIA links hogwash". CNN. Retrieved 2006-08-15. 
  35. ^ Holy War Inc. by Peter Bergen, New York: Free Press, c2001., p.66,
  36. ^ New republic, "TRB FROM WASHINGTON, Back to Front" by Peter Beinart, Post date 09.26.01 | Issue date 10.08.01
  37. ^ Globalized Islam : the Search for a New Ummah by Olivier Roy, Columbia University Press, 2004 (p.291-2)

External links[edit]