To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad from Algeria to Afghanistan (Hurst Publishers, 2019), a memoir by Abdullah Anas cowritten by investigative journalist Tam Hussein, lays waste to the historical revisionism being promoted from the halls of power in Riyadh.
The Algerian-born Anas, who spent a decade of his life fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, dedicated his 340-page memoir to none other than Jamal Khashoggi, “my dear friend … who remained true till the very end.”
Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by government operatives in October 2018, after provoking the ire of the court of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The gruesome killing took place one month before the memoir went to print, leaving no time for Anas to add details about Khashoggi.
But the veteran mujahid knew the slain Saudi intimately, and the book is a fitting tribute, carrying on Khashoggi’s efforts to peel back the veneer being painting by PR operatives over uncomfortable truths.
As a young man, Khashoggi traveled to Afghanistan to live among and report on the close-knit group of Arab mujahideen, including Anas. He sent back dispatches that were published by various Saudi outlets.
The kingdom, like the CIA, had blessed the anti-communist war effort, and Khashoggi conducted multiple interviews with Osama bin Laden over the years, while also developing a close relationship with the Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, who served in the role from 1979 to 2001.
A vintage photo from 1988 shows Khashoggi, then a correspondent for the Riyadh-based Arab News, smiling alongside his fellow Arabs and brandishing a rocket-propelled grenade. In the wake of Khashoggi’s murder, this image was held up by his detractors, including Donald Trump Jr, the son of the US president, as means to dismiss his writings – though if one were to look at a handful of Instagram photos of journalists reporting in Syria or Iraq in recent years, one might find a few similar shots.
But the real problem Khashoggi posed was that he had begun vocally countering a new Saudi narrative being promoted by the kingdom’s rising star, the 33-year-old heir to the throne Mohammed bin Salman.
In October 2017, the prince known as MBS held public court with global investors in Riyadh, touting a McKinsey-concocted vision for the post-oil era and pledging to return his kingdom to its “moderate” Islamic roots.
“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that is open to all religions. We want to live a normal life,” he told global business leaders.
Of course, there are no such roots, as Saudi Arabia since its founding in 1932 relied on a pact between the Saud clan and the father of Wahhabism, Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, to implement the preacher’s uncompromising vision of Islam on the Arabian Peninsula.
Journalist Jeffrey Goldberg pressed the young heir on this point in an April 2018 interview, asking him to reflect on the kingdom’s promotion of the Wahhabi ideology abroad.
“No one can define Wahhabism. There is no Wahhabism. We don’t believe we have Wahhabism,” Bin Salman retorted. In the same breath, he labeled Abdel Wahhab as one of the “great brains” who transformed the Arabian Peninsula into its modern state.
The profile did not make much of this incongruity, instead leading with the prince’s statement that the Jewish people had a right to “their own land” – viewed as implicit recognition of Israel from the man who could well rule the kingdom for the next two generations.
Khashoggi was by this time living in self-imposed exile amid the young crown prince’s jailing spree. The glowing profile and convenient narrative did not go unnoticed. The next morning, the Saudi insider published a damning reality check in the pages of the Washington Post.
“MBS would like to advance a new narrative for my country’s recent history, one that absolves the government of any complicity in the adoption of strict Wahhabi doctrine,” Khashoggi wrote. “That simply isn’t the case.”
Offering vignettes of an austere society from his youth in Medina, Khashoggi accused the crown prince (who would have been a toddler when the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan) of “peddling revisionist history” by blaming the kingdom’s ills on the events of 1979.
Five months after that biting column was published, Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by a team of 15 operatives flown in from the kingdom, including top aides of the crown prince.
Ascent of takfirism
Like Khashoggi, Anas is clearly allergic to revisionist history. His memoir offers rare, personal insight into the goals and failings of he and his cohort of Afghan Arabs and is a must-read for those seeking to grasp the roots of modern extremism.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and continuing through the Sri Lanka attacks in April, a common refrain is that support for the mujahideen, or foreign fighters in Afghanistan, was the original sin that birthed Al Qaeda.
Commentators have seen it as convenient to lump together the core group of Arabs who traveled to battle the Soviets in the 1980s directly to the rise of Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda. The narrative is a clean one, suggesting that if only the West had not backed the mujahideen, this radical trend may not have gained steam and the “blowback” of 9/11 could have been averted.
This memoir tells a different story, one of distinct stages of an increasingly relevant period in the Muslim world, from the early days of the Arab Services Bureau – through which Anas demanded that all newly-arrived Arabs submit to the command of their Afghan hosts, including the fiercely nationalist Ahmad Shah Massoud – to the dissipation of euphoria over the Soviet pullout, when it became immediately clear that a new cast of warlords were already vying for power.
It was then, the author writes, as the Red Army left their tanks behind, that Bin Laden became a key player – courted for his vast wealth by Massoud’s cunning rivals seeking to carve out their piece of the new Afghanistan.
The scion of Saudi Arabia’s powerful construction dynasty, Anas writes, was a minor participant in the anti-Soviet campaign, dabbling in the conflict sporadically and flying home first class on Saudi Arabian Airlines when he saw fit.
Anas describes Bin Laden after their first 1983 meeting summoning him to hajj in Mecca, where he found himself in an air-conditioned house on the pilgrimage route while the masses of pilgrims sweltered in the heat.
Bin Laden insisted on a retreat to his Arabian horse ranch outside Jeddah, one Anas was loath to take after becoming accustomed to the harsh life in the mountains of Mazar Sharif, but to which he could not say no. When it was time to leave, Bin Laden decided to join him on the trip to Islamabad, pulling Anas into the first class cabin as the plane landed to avert issues over his expired visa.
The men parted ways, Bin Laden going to network with the mujahideen leaders in Peshawar, Anas returning to the mountains. By the mid-1980s, he would find the wealthy Saudi had begun to take on a contingent of Islamic Jihad members from Egypt.
On a courtesy visit to Bin Laden’s residence while on a trip Sudan in 1990, Anas was turned away from Bin Laden’s residence by his guards and labeled a heretic. He later confronted the wealthy Saudi about the men he was surrounding himself with, to which Bin Laden had no answer.
After the Soviet pullout of 1989, Afghans were looking to pick up the pieces and get the country on track. The 1992 Peshawar Accord called for the mujahideen factions to put their efforts into a new interim government.
The intellectual leaders of the Afghanistan jihad, namely the Palestinian preacher Abdullah Azzam – who became Anas’ father-in-law – believed it was their mission to help build this newly declared Islamic State of Afghanistan.
As for Anas, he went to work in the service of his wartime commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. One of the most respected guerrilla warriors of the conflict, he became the country’s first defense minister after spending years outwitting the Soviets from the mountains.
Bin Laden, on the other hand, was recruiting and sheltering a coterie of radicals from a stream of new arrivals, namely from Islamic Jihad, who – inexplicably to Anas – had the nerve to call themselves mujahideen, despite having never seen a day of conflict with the Red Army.
Despite the protests of Anas and other veterans, Bin Laden refused to tame his disciples as they smeared their jihad predecessors, and embraced his new princely position as their leader.
With his worldly wealth known, Bin Laden was the prized patron for Afghan warlords seeking to cement their power centers in the new Afghanistan. He funded their men and, in turn, they stoked his ego.
While veterans like Massoud and Anas were attempting to build their vision of a new Islamic nation, the acolytes of Bin Laden saw Afghanistan as a base for their global ambitions. Al Qaeda, “the base,” was formed in 1988.
And yet, as late as 1990, Anas writes, Bin Laden “flitted from being a legitimate businessman to a political or militant leader. He was at the crossroads. But he was also surrounded by [Al Qaeda leader Ayman] Zawahiri’s takfiris.”
Of course Bin Laden would eventually go completely rogue, breaking with the Saudi monarchy and worldly comforts and ordering the 9/11 attacks. But this full embrace of the war path came only after what Anas saw as the rightful jihad was over.
To the Mountains
Bin Laden’s clique was equally ruthless to his former comrades. Abdullah Azzam was killed by a bomb detonated under his car in 1989. Then on September 9, 2001, just two days before 9/11, two members of an Al Qaeda-linked Tunisian faction assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud.
“My world was shattered,” wrote Anas, adding “It was said that Osama had ordered his killing.”
His grief would turn to stunned silence when, two days later, the Twin Towers came down. In the aftermath of the attacks, Anas was horrified by the killing of innocents and what he knew would be a terrible price paid by the people of Afghanistan. But as a marked man in Algeria, living in exile in London, and expecting to be hauled off to Guantanamo, he remained silent.
It was only when the firebrands of Al Qaeda took to Al Jazeera Arabic to claim they were acting in the tradition of his late father-in-law that Anas broke his silence, condemning the “clash of civilizations” sought by the radical group. Offensive jihad, he writes, is no longer valid.
The veteran’s nuance initially earned him the disdain of a new generation of jihadists. But many came to see the wisdom of his positions.
“I later met men who had spent time in Seydnayya prison, Syria, who became leaders of [the Salafi-jihadi group] Ahrar al-Sham who told me that they watched my broadcasts then and harbored dislike for me. But afterwards, when they had experienced war they realized that I was right and they apologized.” (p. 252)
In his memoir, Anas stresses what he says was a pivotal role played by the Arab Services Bureau (Maktabat al-Khadamat – the collective of hostels where foreign fighters were debriefed and sent off to training for the Afghan jihad).
“The MAK was set up to keep the Arabs independent and neutral so they were not dragged into the often fluctuating politics of the various factions in Afghanistan and indeed Peshawar,” he wrote.
That unity and deference, Anas says, was a key component to the success of the war effort against the Soviets.
“Just consider what a negative impact foreign fighters have had in Syria and Iraq. Instead of helping the Syrians rid themselves of a tyrant they have gotten involved in the bloody politics of the region and have contributed to the problem.” (p. 146-7)
But by the late 1980s, the MAK had competition.
“After 1987 other guest-houses sprang up with the arrival of Islamic Jihad … These men were takfiris, that is they declared you an apostate if you did not have the same creed as them … All the ideas that you see currently from the killing of police officers in Algeria and Afghanistan to the indiscriminate massacre of innocent civilians in Brussels and Baghdad – all have precedence in Islamic Jihad. At the MAK we never advocated such things. In fact, these ideas came to a head eventually in Peshawar, when Osama bin Laden left the MAK and entered the orbit of al-Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad.” (p 150-151)
In Syria, Anas writes, impressionable foreign fighters made the mistake of embracing this intolerance and fell into the same chaotic scramble for power that had occurred in Afghanistan two decades before, making life worse for the very people they had professed to help.
In 2006, Anas began dedicating himself to a new cause, returning to the mountains once again, but this time to facilitate dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The goal of peace, he says, is nominally backed by Pakistan, the Gulf capitals, and the Europeans. And yet, the country remains in turmoil. “What they do not understand,” he wrote, “is that now looms a new threat on the horizon, which will affect all of them. ISIS, that takfiri group that seem to revel in blowing up innocent civilians are here, and they are gaining serious ground in Afghanistan.”
Anas’ abhorrence of intolerance is a position that has only become more concrete over time. Perhaps the most telling reflection in the book is the moment when the Soviet-backed Afghan government submits itself to the victorious mujahideen, asking only that other political parties be allowed in the new Afghanistan, including the Communists. His commander, Massoud, brushes off the request.
At the time, Anas says, he believed this was correct. But with time and reflection, and in light of everything that has transpired in the Muslim world since, he now views that intolerance as a critical error – one that continues to be made to the present day.