By Isaac Kfir
Review of The Arabs at War in Afghanistan by Mustafa Hamid and Leah Farrall in conversation (London: Hurst & Company, 2015).
(Re-published from the Journal of Islamic Studies, 27:3 (September 2016)) Unquestionably The Arabs at War in Afghanistan should become required reading for anyone interested in the development of the global jihadi movement. The book is unique, structured as a series of conversations between Farrall and Hamid known by the nom de guerre of Abu Walid Al Masri, an Egyptian-born, former journalist and close friend of Mullah Omar, Jalaluddin Haqqani and many others of those present at the creation of the strand of Islamism that was to produce such devastation and horror in the world.
“The book is filled with such wonderful little insights, including the interesting revelation in respect of Bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of Jihad against the United States, which Hamid opposed.”
The principal aim of The Arabs at War in Afghanistan is to address a tremendous gap in the literature about what transpired in Afghanistan during the war against the Soviets and how the war impacted the development of the jihadi movement. Hamid, one of the few Arabs to have taken the oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar provides an absorbing behind-the-scenes perspective on how the war against the Soviet Union evolved in Afghanistan, the role of the Arab fighters and events such as the Battle of Jaji (there is a fascinating critique of Abu Abdullah, a.k.a. Osama bin Laden’s faith in the trenches), the Battle of Jalalabad and its implication for the Arab Afghan movement. Hamid goes to great length about the Jalalabad School (School of Youth/School of Jihad), the internal competition between the various Arab and Afghan actors including a review of the determination of the Ikhwan leadership in Peshawar in 1989 and 1990 to ensure that Bin Laden did not become ‘the leader of the Ummah’ (p. 163).
The book is filled with such wonderful little insights, including the interesting revelation in respect of Bin Laden’s 1996 Declaration of Jihad against the United States, which Hamid opposed. Hamid intimates that the Declaration was not about Bin Laden seeking to gain control over a heterogeneous jihadi movement, but about internal Saudi politics. That is, Bin Laden issued the Declaration as a way to get Saudis angry at what was taking place inside of the Kingdom to shift attention beyond Saudi Arabia. His doing so, at least according to Hamid, ensured that Saudi Arabia did not follow the civil war that plagued Algeria, which in part was fueled by returning jihadists (pp. 212–14).
Hamid, who spent over twenty-years years in Afghanistan and another ten under house arrest in Iran makes it clear that one of the worst legacies of the Afghan jihad was the Jalalabad School – established according to him to ‘weaken al-Qaeda and break the dominance of Abu Abdullah [Bin Laden]’ (p. 316). The Jalalabad School, Hamid emphasizes, instilled in the youth a ‘desire for martyrdom’ as opposed to a commitment to liberate Afghanistan and ensure that it was governed according to Shariʿa law. These, at least for Hamid, placed the Islamist liberation movement on the wrong path not only because in its current manifestation it claims countless lives (whether of the mujahidin who engage in needless sacrifices or civilians) but because its real purpose seems to be ‘bragging’ (p. 315). With this in mind, it is rather unsurprising that Hamid is highly critical of Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and even Salafism, holding each element responsible for the high level of violence impacting the Muslim and non-Muslim world, which undermines the liberation of the umma.
Notably, Hamid provides his version of history and of events. He paints Bin Laden as someone whom the Taliban never really welcomed nor wanted, because they were concerned with his incessant threats vis-à-vis the West and particularly the United States. This was something that the Taliban, particularly Mullah Omar, felt would create tensions between the movement and Washington and therefore undermine the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Clearly, in his narrative Hamid disproved of some, if not most, of Bin Laden’s actions, views and behaviour. For instance he describes how angry he was with the East Africa bombing as it took place a few weeks after Bin Laden met Mullah Omar, and even though the operation was evolving, Bin Laden chose not tell the Taliban leader of the impending attack.
Hamid sees such behaviour first as rude and second as Bin Laden putting the Taliban at great risk, as he would have anticipated an American response (pp. 232–5). Another example of how badly Bin Laden treated Mullah Omar was the former’s refusal to let his daughter marry Omar, claiming that she was too young, only to marry her ‘to one of the Saudi boys’—this, Hamid claims, meant that Bin Laden ‘refused to give her to Mullah Omar’ (p. 225). Yet, the Taliban allowed Bin Laden to stay because he was rich, respected by his followers and, most importantly, because Mullah Omar could not turn Bin Laden over to the Americans or even the Saudis as Islamic and tribal customs prohibited it and to countenance such a measure would bring shame to Omar (p. 243).
Evidently, the focus of the book is with Hamid and the Arab Afghans, but attention and credit has to be given to Farrall as she navigates this unique project so deftly, engaging in a conversation with Hamid, allowing him to trust the former senior Counter Terrorism Intelligence Analyst with the Australian Federal Police …
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Isaac Kfir, Associate Professor of International Relations and the Middle East at Tokyo International University, is an INSCT Research and Practice Associate.