During the holiday season of Ramadan 1425/October 2004, The Road to Kabul was one of the more popular television miniseries broadcast throughout the Arab world. The program traced recent Afghan history from one superpower invasion to another through a budding romance at Cambridge University between Tariq, a Palestinian pursuing a doctorate in international law, and Zaynab, an Afghan medical student. Zaynab’s brother Jalal shuttles between fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and religious schools in Pakistan, where he befriends the young, dogmatic and still-two-eyed Mullah Muhammad Omar, future leader of the Taliban. Meanwhile, Jalal’s mujahid friend Murad liaises with newly arrived bands of Arab fighters, including Tariq’s friend, compatriot and fellow student Tahir, who has abandoned Cambridge to seek jihad in the path of God — and who, coincidentally, is a spurned suitor of Zaynab. The world of The Road to Kabul is also populated by unctuous Pakistani secret policemen, a Soviet officer who “goes native,” and CIA agents who ooze evil glee as they plot drug schemes in remote offices decorated with bald eagle posters emblazoned with the slogan, “Proud to be an American.” The sprawling soap opera pulls together a variety of roles across continents and decades, through moments of both poignancy and camp.

But The Road to Kabul was suddenly cut off after only eight episodes. At the last moment, state-run Qatar TV, which had financed the series’ production, asked distributors not to broadcast it, citing “technical difficulties.” Director Muhammad ‘Aziziyya denied this claim and promotional materials for the show include ample footage from later installments. [1] Meanwhile, on the eve of the premiere, a previously unknown group calling itself the “Mujahidin Brigades of Iraq and Syria” reportedly posted an online communiqué threatening to kill anyone involved with the series if it was found to insult Islam or the Taliban. Some believed that US pressure was the culprit, recalling former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s famous “request” to Qatar that Al Jazeera censor its coverage of US foreign policy, as well as the international pressure brought to bear on the Egyptian government over the allegedly anti-Semitic miniseries Horseman Without a Horse during the previous Ramadan. Others speculated that the Saudis were behind the whole thing, hoping to avoid further deepening of their international image as an exporter of globetrotting fanatics. [2]

Jihadi thuggery, imperial arm twisting or technical snafu? The mystery over the cancellation of The Road to Kabul is a perfect parable for one of the series’ primary subjects, the “Afghan Arabs”: volunteers from the Arab world who came to fight against the Soviet Union and then, the conventional narrative goes, metamorphosed into al-Qaeda, turning their wrath upon the United States.

It is well known that during the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan war, the US and Saudi governments channeled billions of dollars to the Afghan mujahidin groups through the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate. In parallel, civil society groups and individuals throughout the Muslim world — especially in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf — raised funds and organized solidarity activities with varying degrees of state sponsorship and encouragement. From these efforts emerged several thousand individuals who would eventually fight in Afghanistan in the name of Islamic solidarity. In subsequent decades of war and instability, Afghanistan would host and re-export new generations of arriving Islamist activists pursuing various agendas.

Regarded from all directions as shadowy figures, the Afghan Arabs — as well as the broader category of Muslim “foreign fighters” in other conflicts, such as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kashmir and Chechnya — remain a kind of cipher, even ten years after the September 11, 2001 attacks. The armed transnational Islamist activists are alternately demonized as embodying the hydra-like jihadi threat; treated as mere US proxies gone awry; and ignored altogether.

The image of an unfinished road (to Kabul or anywhere else, for that matter) is helpful in understanding the foreign fighter phenomenon precisely because so much of what has been written on the subject is driven by a concern to reconstruct an account of the September 11 attacks, to the exclusion of all else. As the subtitle of one of the most widely read American books on the subject indicates, what is important is “the road to 9/11.” [3] Ironically, however, to understand the September 11 attacks it is necessary to abandon a teleological narrative. The road to September 11 was not a straight path, but a tangle of trajectories, each requiring serious study.

Three Missed Turns

The linear story that hordes of fanatical Arabs traveled to Afghanistan, helped eject the Soviets and then decided to attack the US perpetuates three flawed assumptions — three turns missed in the single-minded search for a road to the September 11 attacks — that have permeated not only public debate and state action, but much scholarship as well.

The first is that global Muslim support for the Afghan jihad was primarily military in nature. In reality, Arabs — like their European and American counterparts — came to Afghanistan and Pakistan for a variety of reasons: to feed and clothe the poor, to heal the sick and wounded, to gather stories, to reform and to preach, as well as to fight. The discourse in the Arab world emphasized aid work, medical relief, rallying diplomatic support, media and propaganda activities, education and religious reformism as much as it did participation in combat. The Arab community in Peshawar, the Pakistani border city that was a hub for Afghan war efforts, expanded from a relatively small group of mostly students to include aid workers, journalists, teachers and political activists in addition to fighters, along with many of their wives and families. [4]

Writers on the Afghan Arabs often treat non-military activity as a mere appendage of or pretext for armed jihad, but that characterization is incorrect, if only because fighting was openly celebrated and did not require concealment. Moreover, many of the activists understood their work as a form of political and religious solidarity and hence did not subscribe to a rigid distinction in principle between armed and unarmed activity. Some, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, who declared himself al-Qaeda’s leader after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, came as aid workers and went on to become fighters. Other careers moved in the opposite direction. Instead of implausibly claiming that Arab activists were either overwhelmingly pacifist or, conversely, engaged in a vast militant conspiracy for which other activities were merely a “cover,” it is more helpful to recognize that people with varying motivations and interests worked in support of a common political project through very different means.

The second missed turn is the conflation of fighting in Afghanistan with joining al-Qaeda. Available evidence suggests that only a minority of those who fought in Afghanistan later allied themselves with bin Laden. This finding is unsurprising: Participating in combat alongside a people facing foreign occupation is logically distinct from al-Qaeda’s project of directly attacking the external patron of regimes it was trying to overthrow. [5] Many, if not most, of the foreigners who took up arms against the Soviets in Afghanistan subsequently fought in similarly circumscribed territories (Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kashmir, Chechnya); returned home to engage in armed or unarmed political activism (Egypt, Algeria, Yemen); or simply resumed largely apolitical lives as ordinary citizens. Even as late as the September 11 attacks, the Taliban regime hosted a diverse array of foreign Islamist actors on its soil training for various conflicts abroad, of which al-Qaeda was only one (though the most prominent in the latter half of the 1990s).

None of the above is to suggest that one sort of jihad is more or less justifiable than the other, that these projects are mutually exclusive, or that any of these activists were not deeply critical of the United States and the West. It is simply to point out that, normatively, the various types of transnational Islamist activism need to be evaluated as distinct, if related projects and that one cannot responsibly draw a direct line of causality from the anti-Soviet jihad to the 2001 attacks in New York and Washington. Intervening events, especially the expanded US military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf and the covert war between the Egyptian state and the Gama‘a Islamiyya and Islamic Jihad in the 1990s, were crucial to the evolution of a subset of these veterans into the organization later known as al-Qaeda.

These two assumptions — treating Arab activists as potential foreign fighters and conflating foreign fighters with al-Qaeda — have long held sway in the public rhetoric and mindset of the US national security state. They have informed a worldwide campaign by the US and its allies and client states to monitor, deport, imprison and torture members of transnational Muslim populations worldwide. [6] As one briefing document used to train interrogators at Guantánamo (and later Wiki-leaked) put it: “Travel to Afghanistan for charity reasons or to teach or study Islam is a known Al-Qaida/extremist cover story without credence.” Mubarak-era Egypt, Morocco and Jordan have been key US partners in this effort, recognizing the role that their own dissidents have played in these transnational movements.

The third assumption is one prevalent even among critics of the US-led “war on terror,” namely that the Afghan Arabs were CIA-trained or -controlled. This opinion is based on the confusion of extensive US support for the Afghan armed groups opposing the Soviet-backed Kabul regime with the far smaller number of Arab and other foreign volunteers who joined them (to say nothing of the other common error of lumping the Afghan mujahidin of the 1980s together with the Taliban). It is undeniable, of course, that the US and the transnational Islamist fighters in that era shared common cause: Arab activists were allowed, for example, to visit the US and raise funds from Muslim organizations. But the notion that the latter were mere tools or inventions of the former remains unsupported. No credible evidence has yet emerged that the US government directly supported or trained Arab volunteers in Afghanistan, nor is it clear what they would have gained from doing so, as the Afghan mujahidin were hardly short on manpower.

More plausible is the possibility that some Arab volunteers benefited from the ISI’s broader training of Afghan mujahidin, as well as its grooming of proxy forces to be used against India. [7] Similarly, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf regimes may have sponsored some of these volunteers in their own interests, although primarily as a public relations exercise to help interest their citizens in donating to support the Afghan cause. While this undoubtedly dovetailed with US interests, reducing the volunteers to pawns of any particular state denies them their proper historical agency.

From Destinations to Journeys

Over the past decade, it has become clear that the so-called foreign fighter phenomenon was simultaneously broader than al-Qaeda as an organization and yet only a narrow subset of the transnational solidarity activities that emerged around the Soviet-Afghan war and other conflicts. But moving beyond these basic empirical reorientations to a richer understanding of Afghan Arabs has been difficult — and not simply because of shoddy scholarship or questionable “terrorism expertise.” Even the more discerning studies have tended toward the small-bore approaches of studying either individual biographies or organizational dynamics without shedding light on larger questions of history, politics or culture.

To understand armed transnational groups requires attaining a transnational perspective, but that is easier said than done. Existing studies remain largely confined within the horizons of the nation-state. Some focus on “source” countries in the Arab world such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Algeria: In these narratives, domestic Islamist activists disappear to foreign war zones and then return, more “radicalized” than before and equipped with deadly new skills. [8] Other studies are grounded in conflict-ridden destinations such as Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Kashmir: Here, the foreign — usually Arab — fighters arrive already as fanatics, imposing their own puritanical brands of Islam on more moderate local Muslim populations. [9] In both perspectives, “radicalization” tends to happen elsewhere, off-stage, and is made self-evident by the very act of traveling to fight in someone else’s war. Such an act seems so strange — whether pathologically or heroically so — that it defies historical expectation and is in itself the mark of “radicalization.”

Instead of focusing on where the road leads, one might look at the journey and study the experience of mobility in itself for insights. This shift in perspective has at least three advantages for understanding the Afghan Arab phenomenon in ways that engage broader empirical contexts and conceptual horizons.

First, a transnational perspective requires looking back in time and situating today’s networks (armed and otherwise) in the history of overlapping ties of trade, kinship, pilgrimage, study and war. These ties are not the causes of armed transnational mobilizations, but they provide crucial antecedents that others adapted and improvised upon.

In the case of the Afghan jihad, the dense networks of Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean commerce and the flow of labor from South Asia to the Gulf shaped the contours of transnational activism. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, self-declared mastermind of the September 11 attacks, is a Pakistani national who hails from the Baluch diaspora in Kuwait. As Engseng Ho has argued, bin Laden’s ancestral region of Hadhramawt in Yemen has for centuries produced diasporic figures who have used transnational family ties and the authority of religious education to raise the banner of jihad against Western expansionism throughout the Indian Ocean world. [10] Feeding into the South Asia-Gulf nexus were other networks, most obviously the hajj (major pilgrimage to Mecca), which served as a means (sometimes accidental) of getting to Afghanistan. [11] In my research on the Bosnian jihad, I found that a significant bulk of the Arab fighters in that conflict were not veterans of Afghanistan, but migrant workers arriving from Italy, heirs to a Mediterranean history. Others, including those who played the crucial role of interpreters and liaisons with Bosnian Muslims, were students who came to Yugoslavia from Arab countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. When thus placed into history, the shows of wartime solidarity by Afghan Arabs no longer look unique or even so unusual.

The second consequence of studying the foreign fighters as a properly transnational phenomenon is the recognition of the importance of inter-cultural encounters. Everywhere Muslim foreign fighters traveled in the name of a shared Islamic identity, they found that Muslims practiced and understood Islam in different ways. The conventional narrative juxtaposes “hardline” salafi travelers attempting to impose puritanical Islam on “moderate” local Muslims, but the reality is far more complicated.

One memoir by an Egyptian fighter recalls how Afghan mujahidin insisted on praying in “their” style over the body of a Yemeni martyr who would presumably have rejected such ministrations. The Egyptian elected to pray along with the Afghans, while the other Arabs abstained. [12] Perhaps the most important — and least well-studied — aspect of the inter-cultural encounter has been marriage. In Afghanistan and other arenas of jihad, mujahidin have wed local women, tying together diverse kinship networks and creating new transnational families.

In the end, neither Arabs nor their local counterparts were by any means monolithic. In Afghanistan, diverse Arab factions paired off with different Afghan ones, with allegiances shifting over time. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, foreign fighters seeking to avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan took the unusual step of incorporating themselves in a unit under the aegis of the state army, while maintaining their own distinct structure and practices. Although tensions persisted and some foreign fighters did much to alienate local Muslims, the unit ultimately respected the Bosnian government’s wishes by disbanding at war’s end. These types of negotiation have largely been left out of a one-sided narrative that assumes Arab “intolerance.”

Third, and finally, the figure of the foreign fighter embodies a critique of a Western-dominated “international community” whose interventions in conflicts are widely seen as disturbingly selective when not openly harmful. “What good is jihad anyway, since the UN yells at oppressors in such undeniable style?” one Saudi poet asked mockingly while writing in support of the Bosnian jihad. [13] My own interviews with Arab mujahidin consistently drew out frustration with the UN arms embargo that prevented Bosnian Muslims from defending themselves, coupled with a sense of both Islamic and humanitarian obligation. One Egyptian ex-fighter described the distraught Bosnian refugees he met in Italy during the war and added, “As a human being you feel a duty to help. So that’s where the idea started to go to Bosnia. It was a human duty, a religious duty.”

Of course, invoking a broken international system or a shared humanity does not by itself render the motives of foreign fighters pure, nor does it make transnational jihad some kind of virtuous utopian alternative. But it is a discourse that nevertheless resonates widely, and not merely with “extremists.” All interventions — whether under the banner of Islam or the flag of the United Nations — are exercises of power across boundaries that implicate serious questions of responsibility and difference, and carry the possibility of exploitation and coercion. The Afghan Arabs are merely one reminder of the need to address lopsided global arrangements in which some forms of suffering are recognized while a great many more are not. In that sense, it may be that the most important lessons of September 11 lie not on the road leading to that event, but on other paths not taken.


[1] The video is available at: http://youtu.be/cU69YvvMDIM.
[2] ‘Adnan al-Katib, “Li-madha tawaqqafa bathth al-Tariq ila Kabul?” Sayyidati (November 2004); Hani Mustafa, “The Political Fix,” al-Ahram Weekly, October 22-28, 2004; Deutsche Presse-Agentur, October 24, 2004.
[3] Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (New York: Knopf, 2006).
[4] For more on the Arab community that sprang up in Peshawar during the war and its diverse activities, see Muhammad Amir Rana and Mubasher Bukhari, Arabs in Afghan Jihad (Lahore: Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, 2007), pp. 79-108; Misbah Allah ‘Abd al-Baqi, Haqiqat al-Ghazw al-Amriki li-Afghanistan (Cairo: Dar al-Tawzi‘ wal-Nashr al-Islamiyya, 2005), pp. 78-84; and Ahmad Zaidan, The “Afghan Arabs” Media at Jihad (Islamabad: The Pakistan Futuristics Foundation and Institute, 1999), pp. 9-14.
[5] Precious few scholars of “terrorism” have noted this obvious distinction. Two who have are Fawaz Gerges, The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 80-84; and Thomas Hegghammer, Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism Since 1979 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 7-8.
[6] Darryl Li, “A Universal Enemy? ‘Foreign Fighters’ and Legal Regimes of Exclusion and Exemption Under the ‘Global War on Terror,’” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 41/2 (Winter 2010).
[7] Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (New York: Penguin, 2004), p. 144.
[8] Notable in this regard are Hegghammer, op. cit.; Bernard Rougier, Everyday Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam Among Palestinians in Lebanon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007); and Muhammad Salah, Waqa’i‘ sanawat al-jihad: rihlat al-Afghan al-‘Arab (Cairo: Khulud lil-Nashr, 2001).
[9] See, for instance, David Edwards, Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 266-271; and Barnett Rubin, “Arab Islamists in Afghanistan” in John Esposito, ed., Political Islam: Revolution, Radicalism or Reform? (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1997), pp. 179-206.
[10] Engseng Ho, “Empire Through Diasporic Eyes: A View from the Other Boat,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 46/2 (April 2004).
[11] ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, a Palestinian jurist who was the best-known Arab supporter of the Afghan jihad, claimed that he was first introduced to the Afghan cause when attending a lecture while on hajj. ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam, Ayat al-Rahman fi Jihad al-Afghan (Amman: Maktabat al-Risala al-Haditha, 1986), pp. 20-22. Similarly, his future son-in-law, the Algerian ‘Abdallah Anas, says he went on pilgrimage with the intent to travel onward to Afghanistan. ‘Abdallah Anas, Wiladat al-Afghan al-‘Arab: Sirat ‘Abdallah Anas bayna Mas‘ud wa ‘Abdallah ‘Azzam (Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 2002), p. 15.
[12] Ayman Sabri Faraj, Dhikrayat ‘Arabi Afghani: Abu Ja‘far al-Misri al-Qandahari (Cairo: Dar al-Shuruq, 2002), p. 27.
[13] Quoted in Hajid al-Shaddadi, Al-Shi‘r al-Sa‘udi fi qadiyat al-Busna wal-Harsak (Cairo: Hibat al-Nil al-‘Arabiyya lil-Nashr wal-Tawzi‘, 2003), p. 86.

How to cite this article:

Darryl Li "“Afghan Arabs,” Real and Imagined," Middle East Report 260 (Fall 2011).

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