The book To the Mountains. My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan — authored by Abdullah Anas with Tam Hussein — tells a part of the life of Anas and his commitment in the jihad, focusing above all on the Afghan and Pakistani “mountains”, where those who struggled against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan trained, organized, and fought.
Algeria: His Origin and His Studies
Anas describes himself as a son of the Algerian revolution. The fight for Algerian independence, in the 1950s and ‘60s, touched his family as well as millions of Algerians who experienced the violence of French imperialism. According to Anas, whilst French settlers exploited the best opportunities, his father, like many other Algerian men, could only occasionally find work. This made it difficult to raise money to get married and support their families. For Anas and those who thought like him, the French colonial rule in Algeria, beginning in 1830, gave rise to men with a very limited horizon by placing the Algerians in a corner of the country, while the settlers monopolized the fertile farmland. This unequal distribution of resources was one affront, Anas writes, but there was a less material and no less serious offence against Islamic sensibilities that mobilised opposition to the French.
Anas’ parents married in 1957 in Merisha during the conflict between the FLN (Front de libération nationale) and French Paratroopers. In this place there were Algerian activists who felt the injustice of being considered an intrinsic part of metropolitan France without ever having been able to savour the fruits of French citizenship. Born into this environment, Anas life was marked by war and Islamist militancy from birth.
An important Algerian custom dictates that the father of the new-born must serve mutton to guests during the first week of his life in order to bring a blessing (baraka). The child is also named on that date. When Anas’s father — Bashir Bounoua — went to buy the necessary meat for the celebration, French Paras arrested him for conspiring with revolutionaries. Anas says that such arrests also happened to thousands of other innocents, who disappeared and never came back, though he admits that his father was quickly released, and soon afterwards Charles de Gaulle ordered the French to withdraw from Algeria.
After independence, Anas’ family moved back to his mother’s place of birth, Descartes, now called Ibn Badis. There, the Anas’ father decided to join the army, probably because he had imbibed the nationalistic fervour of post-independence Algeria. At the time, Algeria was experiencing a love affair with the radical regime of “Free Officers” in Egypt. Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had supported the FLN against the French, vocally on the international stage and covertly with military aid.
Post-independence Algeria was characterized by a policy of Arabization as the FLN sought to uproot the evidence of colonial rule — a mission in which they were notably unsuccessful. In the 1960s Algeria, socialism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism flourished whether on the promenade, in the army, the cafes or on the university campuses.
In the absence of his father, Anas’s mother enrolled him in a government school. After primary school he was enrolled into a madrassa, a religious seminary “on to the path to paradise” as his father thought.
At the age of twelve Anas began his religious schooling and continued with it for another eight years. Initially, Anas conducted his schooling in the madrassa just around the corner of his house and this first religious schooling had no impact in his daily life. He smoked cigarettes in the public square, played football, went to the cinema, sat in coffee shops. According to Anas, these behaviours were not his personal fault, but were mainly due to the horizons that too bordered the small country where Anas lived.
However, things changed when Anas set foot outside of his hometown. In the Islamic religious syllabus in Algeria requires that the student, Talib, goes to further his understanding of Islam in a bigger religious seminar. Additionally, according to Anas, travelling and searching for knowledge was also connected to the word jihad because searching for knowledge might widen your horizons. His three years study “abroad” began in 1977 in Turan, 90 km away from the Moroccan border. There, Anas met his first giant of a man Sheik Ben Rabih. During his studies, Anas came across two very important Islamic currents coursing through Algerian society. Particularly, he came across Tablighi Jamaat, taking part the group activities as Khurooj, whereby he went door knocking from area to area encouraging Muslims to come to the mosque. During this period Anas realized that Tablighi at its heart was missionary and apolitical in nature, unable to answer questions as: what about politics? How does one effect change at a societal level? According to Anas, the Tablighi believed that societal change would occur through regular mosque attendance, worship and the perfection of manners and there was no need for politics. It was precisely this apolitical sense and this methodology that Anas criticized, seeing it politically immature and unrealistic.
By the time he was doing military service he knew the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). He was attracted by the ideas of Hassan al-Banna because he merged the spirituality of Sufism and its organizational capability with practical steps to transform society. Particularly, the ideas of Mahfoudh Nahnah, who joined the MB, were an awakening and answers to many of the questions he had with Tablighi. Then, he came across the ideas of Algerians such as Abbas Madani the founder of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front), Mustafa Siba’i in Syria, Abu’l Hasan Nadwi, Abu Ala Mawdudi on the Subcontinent, and many others, including Egyptian leaders such as Muhammed Ghazzali and Syed Qutb. So, he was a fully-fledged member of the MB. Anas described himself as an Islamist that understood that in Western popular culture an Islamist was seen as an extremist who wanted to impose Islam on the rest of society. He tries to ameliorate this perception by adding that “some [Islamists] could be violent, some could be authoritarian, others could be benign”.
Subsequently, Nahnah, Anas and other friends established a local branch of the MB in the West of the country. Anas was an activist until his departure for Afghanistan in 1983. However, up to that point even though the conflict in Afghanistan had started in 1979, he did not know about Abdullah Azzam nor did he know about his call for jihad against the Soviets, much less he did not expect to become his son-in-law one day.
He had never heard of Azzam until he came across him quit by chance in the year before his departure in Medina. He had done the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage in Mecca and had made his way to Medina during the month of Ramadan in 1981. Casually after finishing the Tarawih prayer in the mosque of the Prophet, Sheikh Azzam had just started to publicise the Afghan-Soviet conflict all over the world. It was only later when he read his article in a magazine on the Afghan Jihad that he realized who he was.
According to Anas jihad has shaped who he is today. In 1983 he did not have a clue about what Afghanistan was or even where it was located geographically. His horizons had expanded with his political activities. At the time he wanted to help his fellow Muslims in Afghanistan who where fighting against the Soviet Union. One day, in Bel Abbas, he picked up the Arab word’s equivalent of the National Geographic, Majalla al-Mujtama. In it was a ruling, fatwa, by a group of scholars including Abd al-Aziz bin Baaz, Yusuf al-Qardawi and Abdullah Azzam. By that time, he had familiarized himself with Sheikh Abdullah Azzam after meeting in Mecca. According to Anas, “in essence the ruling argued that it was a religious obligation on all Muslim males to go to fight jihad in Afghanistan and repel Soviet aggression; avoiding this duty could amount to sin”. He wanted to go to jihad because he viewed it as one of his duties to protect the weak and oppressed.
According to Anas, at the Holy Sanctuary of Mecca, Anas met Azzam for the second time seeing this second meeting the fruit of the Divine providence. Anas said to Azzam that his ruling convinced him and that he did not know how to participate in the Afghan jihad. Surprisingly, Azzam gave to Anas his phone number, telling him to call him after he reached Pakistan and that he would introduce him to the Afghan leaders in Peshawar.
Passing by Lahore, Anas went to Karachi by plane and then he went to Islamabad. There, he called the sheikh and then he reached him at his home. Following the Prophetic custom of hospitality, the sheikh hosted him for three days. On the day of their departure the sheikh introduced him to Osama bin Laden, also meeting the Azzam’s son-in-law, Abu Hassan al-Maqdisi, engineer Abu Mu’ad Saa’di and another friend of his.
Together went to Peshawar by plane and in a small airport they met the driver Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the leader of the mujahideen parties. According to Anas, “whilst the Afghan mujahideen were united against the common enemy they were also split between seven parties, and at the head of these factions was Sayyaf”. Sayyaf and his two companions Sheikh Fayyad and Muhammed Yasir received them in his guesthouse. In that occasion Anas discovered that at the time the Arab presence in Afghanistan was minuscule. According to Anas “none of the famous figures who become proponents of Global jihad such as Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, Abu Hamza al-Masri, Ayman al-Zawahiri and indeed Abu Qatada were in Afghanistan fighting the Soviets”.
After having visited the training camp called Mukhayim al-Badr, where Anas took part in military training and continued as Imam to the handful of Arabs there, Azzam gave him the nom de guerre Abdallah Anas and a few months later, he gave him his task and his mission telling him, “I want you to spread out inside Afghanistan. I want you to go into these provinces and really understand what is going on there”. Accepting the mission, Anas volunteered to travel to the North.
Whilst preparing to make his first trip to the interior, he was told that the various factions were disunited and that it was crucial that the Arabs remained neutral. And so from then on, his focus was not just on fighting the Soviets but also fostering unity and resolving conflict. According to Anas, “diplomacy was just as important as the Kalashnikov in this fractured political environment”.
Thus, Anas travelled through the Afghan mountains for years in order to bring messages and to speak with the leaders of the different factions, bearing in mind that the most important mission was unifying the leaders in order to combat the Soviets.
Ahmed Shah Massoud, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Extremists
According to Anas the Osama bin Laden’s victory against the Soviets at the battle of Jaji in 1987 was nothing to compared to Massoud’s campaigns against the Russians. Massoud, also known as the Lion of Panshir, repulsed nine Russian campaigns against him over a period of ten years. Anas was a boon companion of Massoud from 1982-92.
As well as other commanders like Zabibullah, Massoud had abandoned sophisticated communication technology reliant on radio waves and satellites liable to interception, and relied instead on the guide’s keen memory, heart and courage to convey secret military messages to each other.
When Anas met Massoud after many days walking through the mountains, he was the only Arab amongst them. Anas stayed with Massoud for many months and even though they became friends, Anas remained neutral and did not take his parts as Azzam strategy claimed.
On the other hand, according to Anas, Hekmatyar had immense charisma like Massoud. He was a gripping orator and immensely fearless. Additionally, their rivalry was not personal, but Massoud talked of Hekmatyar in far more respectful terms than Hekmatyar did of Massoud. Anas stressed that neither side declared the other an apostate, unlike nowadays, when this is common, moreover, he never saw ethnic differences being an issue, since both parties were multi-ethnic.
Meanwhile Azzam insisted that the Arabs remain neutral and stay out of Afghan infighting, but this could not be maintained forever in the volatile political climate where the Afghan Arabs were young and politically immature. The Arabs were gradually swallowed up by the factional vortex, which made them side with Hekmatyar. Osama bin Laden was the foremost example of this, so close were his ties to Hekmatyar that was even unwilling to enter Kabul when it fell.
Anas stressed that trying to get Arabs to stay neutral and being facilitator of peace became near impossible. In the mid-1980s there was a trickle of Egyptian extremists and radicals coming into Peshawar as Cairo cracked down on Islamism after the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981. The political intrigues of the group behind that conspiracy, Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ), began to indoctrinate the men in Afghanistan against Massoud, Azzam, and others and further poisoned the atmosphere
When Anas returned to Peshawar in late 1988 after nine months with Massoud, the climate was dramatically changed. The Arab Service Bureau (MAK) was no longer the main organization in charge of the Arab mujahideen. At the time, Arab guesthouse like Bayt al-Ansar had proliferated, takfiri ideas had begun to diffuse into the rank and the Arab foreign fighters were pushed into the arms of extremists.
It was this febrile climate that also led to Azzam’s death. Azzam was killed in November 1989, and that is about all that is certain about the event. Who killed Azzam, and why, remains a mystery three decades later. According to Anas, everyone attended the funeral except Hekmatyar and Osama.
Azzam’s death removed the final barrier that had been restraining some Afghan Arabs from taking sides among the Mujahideen commanders. There was a steady slide towards partisanship and extremism among the Arabs after this. The ideological vacuum left by Azzam’s death opened space, above all in Peshawar, for ever-more-narrow and radical ideas, not unlike those seen in Syria and Iraq but on far greater scale.
The Defeat of the Soviets and the Beginning of Worse
Kabul fell on 25 April 1992. Sibghatullah Mojaddedi entered the capital and on 28 April declared Afghanistan an Islamic state. But, according to Anas, the Mujahideen commanders did not realise that the fall of the Communist government was the beginning of real battle, not its end. And as Anas stressed: “It is easy to destroy and expel an enemy but building your country, creating stability, healing souls — that was greater challenge, that was the greater Jihad”.
Anas in Kabul took a room at the Intelligence Ministry where Massoud, who became defence minister, had decided to establish himself. At the time, according to Anas, Hekmatyar fought Massoud and claimed Mojaddedi’s government was un-Islamic and so in order to rectify the jihad he decided to launch a corrective jihad.
As Anas stressed, after the Soviet left, there were instances that were so curious that the mind boggles. There were slogans and concepts that were bandied around Peshawar that were far removed from realities of the conflict. A concept known as al-wala wal bara (loyalty and disavowal) required Muslims to adhere to one-another and the practices of the faith, while distancing themselves from non-Muslims. Obscure points of religious creed from Ibn Taymiyyah were believed to be the key to solving all of Afghanistan’s problems. In particular, it was believed that the only man who was able to teach this creed in Peshawar was Abu Qatada, who had gathered around him a small coterie of followers from North Africa.
By 1995, Osama’s increasing closeness to Zawahiri and his return to Afghanistan in May 1996 meant that his mind had been more or less made up. Osama was now a militant leader. He formed an uneasy partnership with the Taliban. This relationship was mutually beneficial. The Taliban used Osama’s zealots as foot soldiers against Massoud’s men and in return they were allowed to run autonomous camps in and around Jalalabad and Kandahar.
With Osama’s return, the growth of his camps with its pool of fanatical al-Qaeda fighters meant that things took a turn for the worse for Massoud. It was in those camps, according to Anas, that Osama and his men plotted the assassination of Massoud, who was struck down by two North African Arabs sent by Al-Qaeda to meet Massoud, on the pretext of interviewing him, just two days before 9/11, eliminating a crucial pillar of power in Afghanistan who could have worked alongside the coalition to defeat terrorism in the country.
To the Mountains tells us a part of the Anas’ life. It skirts around broader geopolitics and context. It does not try to explain the real influence in the Afghan conflict of the US, Saudi Arabia, and the Pakistan’s role. Furthermore, the book would have benefited if it more deeply explored the rivalry between the Muslim Brotherhood and those who adhere to Salafist Islam — the different approaches to jihad, defensive and offensive, especially with Al-Qaeda’s evolving views on whether the supreme interest was in dar al-Islam, the Muslim world, or in the West.
Moreover, Azzam’s writings are not criticized and he is defended by the author very strongly, painting him as the only character who could quell the internal conflict through his strategy of neutrality among the Afghan Arabs.
The book is useful to understand how takfirism took hold in Afghanistan with Al-Qaeda and also in Algeria with GIA, and how that ideology and related concepts — probably the same concepts that nowadays the Islamic State and affiliates use — were used to manipulate young volunteers in order to combat non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
The book concludes with an appeal for an end to offensive jihad known as jihad al-Talab, which is, according to Anas, no longer valid compared to the defensive jihad, which will always be valid as long as there is oppression and occupation. It is perhaps best directed at Muslim readers, but is interesting for researchers.
Lastly, the book highlights how difficult it is to build enduring peace settlements in Muslim-majority countries, where divisions are rife, despite the widespread belief in the umma (global Muslim community). The book can give interesting clues about how to proceed, most immediately in Afghanistan itself, as the US tries to reach a peace accord with the Taliban.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.