Blowback

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?

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.
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.

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