The CIA poured billions into a jihad against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, creating a militant Islamist Abraham Lincoln Brigade believed to have been involved in bombings from Islamabad to New York. Is Bosnia next?
by Mary Anne Weaver
The Atlantic Monthly
One Friday evening, just after sunset prayers, Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman climbed into a camouflaged truck in Peshawar, Pakistan, and set off for his first trip inside Afghanistan. It was 1985, he told me later, and he had just spent three years in Egyptian prisons, where he had been severely tortured as he awaited trial on charges of issuing a fatwa resulting in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat; a military court later acquitted him of that, and of a related conspiracy charge. (Last January in New York the sheikh was sentenced to life imprisonment for seditious conspiracy to wage a "war of urban terrorism against the United States.") As he settled into the back seat of the U.S.-supplied truck, the sheikh, who was then forty-seven and had been blind since infancy, was helped into a flak jacket by the fundamentalist Afghan resistance leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.
At that time the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan, and the United States was supporting the Afghan resistance; Hekmatyar, though he was one of the most stridently anti-Western of the resistance leaders, was receiving roughly half the arms that the CIA was supplying. The sheikh had first met Hekmatyar in Saudi Arabia a number of years before, and they were friends. They had much in common: both were exceedingly charismatic religious populists; both had committed their lives to jihad, or Islamic holy war; both were fiery orators. They were both given to elliptical, colorful turns of phrase, and their shared message was clear: the imperative to overthrow a secular government -- whether in Afghanistan or Egypt -- and establish an Islamic state.
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Outside Peshawar the mountain passes came alive with men. The mujahideen were loading their caravans with AK-47s, mortars, grenades, and mines to return to Afghanistan. Mules and ponies strained under the weight of wooden crates strapped onto their backs. There were no identifying markings on the crates, nor were there any on the contents, but everything was pan of what would become Washington's largest covert-action program since Vietnam -- equipping fighters on the last battlefield of the Cold War. The truck in which Sheikh Omar was traveling joined a convoy of six or seven others and continued toward the Khyber Pass.
The mujahideen preferred to move the arms supplied by the CIA on moonless nights, Nawab Salim, one of Hekmatyar's aides, explained later when he recounted the trip to me. Salim accompanied the sheikh and Hekmatyar into Afghanistan that night; so did Muhammad Shawqi Islambouli, an Egyptian who was fighting in the war, and who was the elder brother of Lieutenant Khalid Islambouli, the assassin of Anwar Sadat. The sun was just beginning to rise when the convoy reached its destination, a battlefield headquarters in the province of Jalalabad, some fifty miles northeast of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Everything there seemed to be highly improvised, and the headquarters consisted merely of a string of battered and pockmarked buildings built into the side of a strategic hill.
For nearly two decades Sheikh Omar had preached his message of jihad throughout the Middle East. Now he was inside Afghanistan, where a jihad was actually taking place. "My strongest emotion was pride," he told me afterward. "I felt so proud of my religion, so proud of the power that Muslims had. And I knew that Allah would aid these people and this religion, and that Islam would be victorious in the end."
Guided by Hekmatyar and Islambouli, the sheikh walked to a sandbagged position on the crest of the hill. From below, in the valley, came the echo of crashing artillery shells. He stood there for perhaps five minutes. "He was weeping," Nawab Salim recalled. After a few moments Sheikh Omar turned toward Hekmatyar. "I have never asked Allah for anything," he said. "But I am under a great disadvantage now. If only Allah could give me eyes for a couple of years, or for a couple of hours, so I could fight in the jihad!"
LAST December 21, in a crowded market in Peshawar, the rugged Pakistani frontier town that had been the primary staging area for the jihad in Afghanistan, a car bomb exploded, killing thirty-six people and wounding about 120 more. Only a month earlier two similar car bombs -- one outside the Riyadh headquarters of a U.S. military training center for the Saudi National Guard, the other outside the Egyptian embassy in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad -- killed twenty-four people, including five Americans. The attack in Saudi Arabia was almost certainly aimed at the Saudi dynasty as well as at the United States. As for the car bombings in Pakistan, they followed threats from three militant Egyptian Islamist groups who demanded that the government of Pakistan stop extraditing those of their members -- all of them veterans of the jihad -- who had stayed on when the war came to an end and were using Peshawar as a base. The groups also demanded that the government of the United States, for its part, release Sheikh Omar.
One of the groups that claimed credit for the bombing in Saudi Arabia -- and one that has warned that there will be further attacks -- had participated in the jihad in Afghanistan, as had all three of the groups believed to have been involved in the November bombing in Islamabad. The sheikh and the CIA (and Saudi Arabia) had been obsessed with driving out the Soviets. As a result the CIA helped to train and fund what eventually became an international network of highly disciplined and effective Islamic militants -- and a new breed of terrorist as well.
Speaking of the bombings, a former U.S. diplomat specializing in Saudi Arabia told me recently, "Whether the attacks were carried out by the same or allied Islamic militant groups is not the most important thing. What is far more troubling is that these attacks illustrate the changing nature of terrorism since the Cold War. There's been a marked decline in the fairly well funded, ideologically organized groups like the Red Brigades. More and more we're seeing a proliferation of amorphous underground Islamic groups that we've never heard of before." He added that larger numbers of people are prone to enter the new-style groups. "That, to me, is highly worrisome. Their operations are easy to do. They're basically low-tech. Sure, a certain amount of training is required -- and then you go to a feedstore and to a Radio Shack. The common element in all these attacks -- whether in Cairo or Riyadh, Isla or Algiers, Europe or New York -- is today's equivalent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: the 'Afghan Arabs,' the veterans of the Afghanistan war."
SIXTEEN years have passed since the CIA began providing weapons and funds -- eventually totaling more than $3 billion -- to a fratricidal alliance of seven Afghan resistance groups, none of whose leaders are by nature democratic, and all of which are fundamentalist in religion to some extent, autocratic in politics, and venomously anti-American. Washington's financial commitment to the jihad was exceeded only by Saudi Arabia's. At the time the jihad was getting under way there was no significant Islamist opposition movement in Saudi Arabia, and it apparently never occurred to the Saudi rulers, who feared the Soviets as much as Washington did, that the volunteers it sent might be converted by the jihad's ideology. Therein lies the greatest paradox of the bombing in Riyadh: it and the explosions in Peshawar and Islamabad could well prove to be part of the negative fallout -- or "blowback," in intelligence parlance -- of the U.S.- and Saudi-orchestrated Afghan jihad.
The bombings -- the first such terrorist attack in Saudi history, and among the worst in Pakistan's -- were the clearest warnings yet of an ominous escalation in the conflicts between the governments in Cairo and Riyadh and their Islamist foes. And the carnage in Islamabad -- the fourth attack against the Egyptian govrnment abroad in recent months (Mubarak narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Addis Ababa) -- indicated that Egypt's militant Islamic groups, facing an increasingly vengeful crackdown at home, were transferring their four-year-old war to the international front. U.S. policymakers were stunned. In less than a week the vulnerabilities of three of Washington's pivotal regional allies had become clear.
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan had all served U.S. interests during the jihad Afghanistan; none appears able to cope with its aftermath. Mubarak's anger was palpable when he told me, months before the bombings, that he laid the blame for Islamist terrorism squarely on Pakistan, for, in his words, failing to "clean up" Peshawar and its environs. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto's bewilderment after the bombings was evident, as she once again faulted the United States and the CIA, which she accused of continuing to finance Pakistan's radical Muslim clerics and fundamentalist groups. As for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, whose princes and foundations, ironically, remain the leading benefactors of many of the militant Islamic groups in a shortsighted attempt to placate the kingdom's expanding fundamentalist constituency, they seemed shaken out of their placidity. And government officials in all three capitals began to wonder, as they redoubled their efforts against terrorism, whether the Islamists could still be contained.
For more than a decade some 25,000 Islamic militants, from nearly thirty countries around the world, had streamed through Peshawar on their way to the jihad. They came, without passports and without names, from the Palestinian organization Hamas, from Egypt's AlGama'a al-Islamiya and Al-Jihad, from Algeria's Islamic Salvation Front, and from the Philippines' Moro Liberation Front. Five years after the jihad ended, a thousand or so remained, some in Peshawar itself, others encamped in the mountain passes of the ungovernable tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, planning and executing what investigators now believe were terrorist acts that have reached from Cairo to Algiers, Manila to Bangkok -- and to the streets of Islamabad. Riyadh, Peshawar, and New York.
"Even today you can sit at the Khyber Pass and see every color, every creed, every nationality, pass," a Western diplomat told me in Peshawar last spring. "These groups, in their wildest imagination, never would have met if there had been no jihad. For a Moro to get a Sting missile! To make contacts with Islamists from North Africa! The United States created a Moscow Central in Peshawar for these groups, and the consequences for all of us are astronomical."
The diplomat went on to say that many veterans of the Afghan jihad have set up an informal network of small, loosely organized underground cells, with support centers scattered around the world: in the United States, the Persian Gulf countries, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The days of mule trains like the one Sheikh Omar joined en route to Afghanistan are long gone; now E-mail and faxes drive the jihad.
PEOPLE in the Peshawar bazaars and in the overcrowded refugee camps still remember Sheikh Omar from the war years. A short, rotund man, dressed in long gray clerical robes and a red fezlike cap with a wide white band, he was easily distinguishable by his blindness and by his full gray-white beard, which rested on his chest. It was in Peshawar that Sheikh Omar became involved with the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence officials who were orchestrating the war. The sixty or so CIA and Special Forces officers based there considered him a "valuable asset," according to one of them, and overlooked his anti-Western message and incitement to holy war because they wanted him to help unify the mujahideen groups.
Unifying the groups, which had been fighting among themselves for years, proved impossible even for Sheikh Omar. but he did succeed in coordinating some of their activities. As he did so, he favored the two most anti-Western and fundamentalist of them -- one led by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, the other by Professor Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, who, like the sheikh, held a Ph.D. from the University of al-Azhar, in Cairo. A swashbuckling figure, often draped in blankets of homespun cloth, Sayyaf had taught at Kabul University, but his power base inside Afghanistan was limited. Nevertheless, largely because he was an adherent of the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam (the dominant school in Saudi Arabia), Riyadh funded him lavishly.
But Sheikh Omar's closest friend in Peshawar was a highly respected Palestinian, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, a man of erudition, refinement, and eloquence, who also had a Ph.D. from Al-Azhar but was everything the blustering Sayyaf was not. Like Sheikh Omar, he had been a professor of shari'a law (at the University of Jordan) before joining the jihad. Azzam became the pivotal figure in the Arab world in popularizing the cause. What was called the Service Office, which he led until November of 1989, when he was killed by a still-unidentified assassin, was the largest recruitment center in Peshawar, perhaps in the world, for Arab volunteers. It became, in a sense, the nexus for the pan-Islamic effort both inside and -- after the Soviet occupation ended, in 1989 -- outside Afghanistan.
Money flowed into the Service Office from the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Sheikh Azzam belonged. But the heaviest funding, which may have totaled hundreds of millions of dollars, came from Saudi Arabia -- some directly from the Saudi government, some from official mosques, and some from Saudi princes and members of the kingdom's financial and business elite. Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz, the governor of Riyadh, who headed a support committee that funded the Arab mujahideen, was a heavy contributor, as was the Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Baz, who chairs the immensely powerful Muslim World League, the main conduit for Saudi government funds to Islamic causes worldwide. As was and is true of much of Saudi Arabia's clandestine funding abroad, the league's funds were often distributed somewhat indiscriminately. The Service Office set up branches in Europe and the United States as the war progressed. East Coast efforts in the United States centered on the Alkifah Refugee Center, on Brooklyn's Atlantic Avenue. More than 200 Arabs and Arab-Americans were recruited and sent to the jihad.
As Sheikh Azzam recruited, Sheikh Omar preached. Generally flying first-class, he carried his message of jihad from Pakistani refugee camps to the towns of upper Egypt, into Saudi Arabian mosques, and to Islamic centers in Germany, England, Turkey, and the United States. During his travels, over nearly five years, Sheikh Omar's stature continued to grow, as he shored up old friendships and made new ones along the way. He always kept in mind his ultimate goal: the establishment in Egypt of an Islamic state. Planning ahead, he cultivated men whose assistance would eventually lead to the formation of an international support network for his activities -- an axis that would link Europe and the United States with Sudan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The sheikh met frequently during those years, in London and Khartoum, with Hassan al-Turabi, the erudite Islamist who today effectively controls the rigid Islamic government in Sudan (whence U.S. diplomats were withdrawn in February because of fears of terrorist attacks). He wooed Pakistani generals, many of whom were, and are, committed Islamists, and all of whom were charmed by Sheikh Omar's extraordinary knowledge of the Koran. And he returned to Saudi Arabia, where he had previously lived, there proving adept at exploiting political divisions within the ruling establishment.
Two of his most abiding friendships, however, turned out to be with his traveling companions on that 1985 trip. Gulbaddin Hekmatyar was named Prime Minister of Afghanistan in 1992, when the puppet Communist government in Kabul finally fell. The fighting continued, now in the form of a fratricidal civil war in which Hekmatyar unleashed a deadly offensive against other factions of the mujahideen, using a formidable arsenal of arms -- all of them supplied by the United States and Saudi Arabia. (Ironically, Hekmatyar and the present leaders of the Afghan government, who among them have stockpiled some 500 "missing" Stinger anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the CIA, are now being challenged by a new and extremely fundamentalist Afghan student militia known as the Taliban, which grew out of the chaos left by the CIA's war. With the strong backing of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has managed to wrest control of nearly half of the country -- and several Stingers -- from the leaders of the jihad.)
Muhammad Islambouli, who at one time was a student of Sheikh Omar's at the Upper Egyptian University of Asyut, has since that trip in 1985 become a leading figure in Egypt's militant Islamic Group, or Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, the first organization to claim responsibility for the Islamabad bomb. The group's spiritual mentor is Sheikh Omar. Like hundreds of other Egyptians who fought in the jihad, Islambouli now divides his time among Europe and Peshawar and the battlefields of Afghanistan, all of which serve as organizational centers or training grounds for Egypt's militant Islamic groups.
WHEN Sheikh Omar entered the United States, in July of 1990, via Saudi Arabia, Peshawar, and Sudan on a much-disputed tourist visa issued by an undercover agent of the CIA, his primary purpose was to set up a U.S. infrastructure, a funding mechanism, and an organizational base for Egypt's militant Islamic groups -- an undertaking that he had largely accomplished by the time of his arrest in 1993.
Many of his followers remained in Peshawar, however, and continued their work. Some teamed up with other militant Islamist groups, including a cadre of demolitions and weapons experts from the Saudi Islamic Movement for Change, which claimed responsibility for the Riyadh car bomb. Others were instructors or trainees in the dozen or so military training camps that hugged the Pakistani-Afghan border on both sides. Still others went off in search of new jihads, in Tajikistan or Kashmir, or joined some 3,000 veterans of the jihad who went as volunteers to Bosnia, where, easily distinguishable by their dark beards, they fought alongside the predominantly Muslim Bosnian army for two years. Last October the Afghan veterans vowed to kill five British soldiers in the United Nations force in retaliation for the death of a Bosnian fundamentalist who had pointed a gun at a British soldier and was shot by him. They are also suspected of having murdered an American employee of the UN. Now there is concern that the jihad veterans will engage in acts against U.S. troops -- a concern that turned to alarm in February, when militant Islamist groups vowed to strike back at U.S. targets in retaliation for the sentencing of Sheikh Omar.
AS they sifted through the rubble of the former Egyptian embassy in Islamabad, investigators, including agents from the FBI (which also has agents in Riyadh), attempted to determine what, if any, links exist between the two attacks, each of which involved more than a thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil -- the same highly combustible mixture used in the World Trade Center bombing in New York.
"The bomb in Riyadh is of far greater interest to me," the former U.S. diplomat specializing in Saudi Arabia told me. "The one in Islamabad was more comprehensible, and highly predictable. Riyadh was not. Never before has the Saudi Islamic opposition been so emboldened. In a sense they ripped off the veil."
About a thousand Saudis had fought in the jihad. Largely funded and supported by their government, they came from good and wealthy families. I asked the diplomat what, in his view, made the Saudis different from other Islamists who came to the jihad.
"Their government sent them," he responded. "It was the patriotic thing to do. But when these guys got there, they met others and began to network; they found a whole new world out there. And despite their wealth, they were underemployed, frustrated, an accident waiting to happen -- and it did. Also, unlike the others who went to Afghanistan as members of Islamic groups -- Gama'a, Al-Jihad, Hamas, and the like -- there were no organized Saudi groups. That's what makes these guys very different: they set up the networks when they came home."
Other U.S. officials agree, and warn that despite the Saudi government's efforts to blame the usual regional suspects -- Iran, Iraq, and Sudan -- for the car bombing, the Islamist discontent in Saudi Arabia is real, and the movement is basically homegrown.
One of its most charismatic and powerful champions is Osama bin Laden, the billionaire scion of a leading Saudi family. Fervent and devout, he was described to me by one U.S. intelligence official as "a religious fanatic with enormous wealth -- a man with a vision, who knows precisely how he wants to convert that vision into reality." Bin Laden worked closely with Saudi intelligence and with Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh, in funding the jihad, and eventually came to Peshawar as a mujahid himself. There he befriended Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and Sheikh Omar, and fought with the forces of Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf. He now divides his time between Khartoum and London, where he owns opulent estates, and he places his formidable wealth at the disposal of militant Islamic groups around the world. Muhammad Jamal Khalifa, Bin Laden's brother-in-law and a Saudi financier, was a prime conduit for funding militant Islamic groups in the Philippines, Filipino officials assert; and, according to U.S. investigators, there is evidence that during the mid-1990s, when Khalifa was the head of the Islamic Relief Agency -- a quasi-government Saudi charity -- in the Philippines, he had contact with Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, alleged to be the mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing in New York.
Three years ago, at U.S. urging, the Saudi government stripped Bin Laden of his citizenship because of his "irresponsible behavior ... and his refusal to obey instructions issued to him." When I asked a U.S. counterterrorism expert what this meant, he replied, "Osama was warned by Saudi intelligence: Do nothing against us and we'll leave you alone." Bin Laden ignored the warnings, and the Saudis began running intelligence operations against him and his entourage in Khartoum; at the time of the Bush Administration -- presumably with U.S. knowledge -- they had secretly dispatched hit teams with a contract on his life. When the U.S. military headquarters in Saudi Arabia was blown apart, the expert said, "Osama bin Laden was the first guy who came up on the radar screen in Riyadh."
Some months earlier, when I asked Hosni Mubarak about Bin Laden, he winced. "He wants to take over the world," he said. "He's a megalomaniac." Mubarak then expressed both annoyance and concern about what he saw as the passive attitude of Western governments, particularly those of Britain, Germany, and the United States, in permitting militant Egyptian Islamic groups to operate freely from their soil. But he voiced his greatest concern -- rage, really -- about Peshawar and the veterans of the jihad.
He told me about a meeting he had had in Bonn, in April of 1993, with Benazir Bhutto's predecessor, Nawaz Sharif. "It was a tough meeting," he said. "And I couldn't believe my ears: this man was the leader of Pakistan and he told me, quite frankly, 'We cannot control Peshawar. We cannot prevent these people from running loose.' I asked him then if he wanted me to send the Egyptian armed forces to Peshawar to clean up the mess."
Mubarak may finally be getting his wish. Within a week of the Islamabad bombing Pakistani security forces fanned out across Pakistan and arrested more than 300 people, including numerous militant Pakistani clerics and fundamentalists, some sixty Afghans, and two dozen or so Arabs, some from Peshawar, others from Islamabad. (One, a Saudi national who had arrived in Pakistan during the jihad, was deported in February to Saudi Arabia in connection with his alleged involvement in the car bombing in Riyadh.) The security forces also made arrests at the capital's Intemational Islamic University, which Pakistan's Interior Minister called a "haven for Islamic terrorists." Ramzi Ahmed Yousef spent a considerable amount of time at the university before his extradition to the United States, in February of last year; Sheikh Omar lectured there; and Sheikh Azzam was once a tenured professor there. The university's primary benefactors have been the Saudis, who, according to Pakistani officials, used the university as a cover during the jihad for the funneling of fighters, money, and arms.
In the last days of December, Sheikh Omar confounded prison officials by refusing to take his medications for diabetes, high blood pressure, and a heart condition, and thus became a prisoner of great concern to the U.S. government. When I saw him last year, I asked how he felt now that, having worked along side the governments of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United States in Afghanistan, he was facing charges in the United States that could imprison him for life. Many of his followers in Egypt and Saudi Arabia who had fought in the jihad were being tried and imprisoned, and a number had been hanged in Egypt, solely for participating in that war.
"We have an expression in Arabic," he replied. "'Everybody sings for those whom he loves.' In effect, it means that everyone is singing for something different. And that is exactly what happened in Afghanistan. Do you think we were naive enough to believe that the United States government was helping the Afghans because it believed in their cause -- to raise the flag of jihad for Islam? That they were helping a people, a country, to free themselves? Absolutely not. The Americans were there to punish the Soviet Union, and when they were sure that the Soviet Union had suffered and was about to collapse, they stopped everything -- all the aid, all the equipment -- just like that." He snapped his fingers, and his voice began to rise. "They didn't care that there was still a Communist government in power in Afghanistan. They simply turned their backs and walked away. And the Saudis, oh, the Saudis, and the Egyptians -- they did precisely the same. It took three more years for the mujahideen to oust the Najibullah regime. Thousands of lives were lost; crops and livelihoods were destroyed. But not one life mattered to the Saudis, the Egyptians, or the United States."
Mary Anne Weaver is a writer on South Asia and the Middle East for The New Yorker. An expanded version of this article will appear in her forthcoming book, A Portrait of Egypt: A Journey Through the World of Militant Islam, which is due out in the fall of 1998.
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