Tall and thin, there stood the Saudi mujahid in the same room
September 28, 2008 – The headquarters and international nerve centre of what was to become the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization was a tiny storefront in a dilapidated, two-storey building in the teeming bazaar of Peshawar, Pakistan.
Known as the Mujahedin Service Bureau, I was told by my Pakistani hosts, with more than a touch of sarcasm, it was the official voice of the Afghan resistance, or mujahedin, charged with telling the outside world of the then little-known struggle being waged against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
The year was 1986.
At one end of the crowded room was a flimsy desk, behind which sat a small, scholarly-looking middle-aged man in a tattered sweater. He rose as I came in, introduced himself as Abdullah Azzam — one of the leading advocates of unrelenting jihad to liberate the Muslim world.
Azzam had assigned himself two daunting missions: To tell an uncaring, heedless world the story of the bloody struggle to liberate Afghanistan, and to keep track of the growing numbers of men coming to Peshawar from the four corners of the Muslim world who were seeking to go north and fight the Soviets in the Great Jihad.
Azzam also ran a dingy little rooming house next to his office for Muslim mujahedin headed for Afghanistan that came to be known as “the base” or “the centre,” and in Arabic, “al-Qaida.” Rarely in history has an international revolutionary movement sprung from such modest origins.
I vividly recall the moment when Azzam stood, paused, took a deep breath, pointed at a large school map on the office wall, and then said slowly, and with the deepest certitude, “We the mujahedin are going to defeat the godless Soviet Communists and their Afghan Communist dogs.”
His next statement stunned me. “When we have finished driving the Soviet imperialists from Afghanistan, we mujahedin will then go and drive the American imperialists from Arabia, and then liberate Palestine.”
Such epic ambitions from a little man armed only with some ballpoint pens and mimeographed pamphlets seemed preposterous. At the end of the Afghan war, Abdullah Azzam was killed near Peshawar by a car bomb. Azzam’s quixotic cause appeared to have been buried with him.
But no. Among the tens of thousands of young men of the Muslim International Brigades who came to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan — the Communists branded them Islamic terrorists — was a young engineer from one of Saudi Arabia’s wealthiest families, the bin Ladens.
Unlike his youthful contemporaries who went off to Europe to drink, whore, and squander their princely allowances, Osama bin Laden, who had always been a serious, intense young man, went to wage the Great Jihad in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden joined the mujahedin in their fight against the Soviets and puppet Afghan Communist army. Bin Laden was wounded six times in combat, earning wide renown and deep admiration in Afghanistan and Pakistan for his courage, tenacity, and Islamic modesty. It was during this period of combat that bin Laden developed what was to become one of his hallmarks, emulation of the ansar.
The tall, thin Saudi multimillionaire earned respect for his virtuous, ascetic lifestyle that included subsisting on beans and bread, sleeping on the ground or in insect-infested caves, and deporting himself with genuine modesty, self-restraint, and respect for his companions.
Bin Laden spent much of his personal fortune importing bulldozers and Arab engineers into Afghanistan. His men and machines dug deep caves for the mujahedin and their supplies that sheltered them from incessant Soviet air strikes. Bin Laden’s “cave war” played an important role in the final Islamic victory. The young Saudi’s renown soared as a sort of new Arab, the antithesis of the image of the timid, debauched, lazy Saudis whom Bin Laden and his men sneeringly dismissed as “fat women.”
In the late 1980s, bin Laden fell under Abdullah Azzam’s spell, and became one of his most ardent disciples. It was from Sheik Abdullah that Osama bin Laden adopted his strategy and world view of a trans-national jihad to drive American and British influence from the Muslim world. The dreamer and the engineer joined forces, turning a rundown guesthouse into an organization that would come to profoundly challenge the might of the United States and its allies.
I crossed paths once with bin Laden. It was during fighting outside Jalalabad, the Afghan city that commands the route from Peshawar to Kabul. I had been in battle with mujahedin against Afghan Communist troops, backed by armour and artillery. As is the Afghan custom, the battle ended before dusk and all sides repaired to their homes or camps. I was taken to the sprawling, mud-walled compound of my host, local warlord Hadji Abdul Qadeer, who later became vice-president of U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and was assassinated in Kabul in 2002.
AFTER THE BATTLE
We were about 20 men in a long, rectangular room covered in colourful Persian and Afghan carpets, reclining on round bolsters set against the wall. After about 30 minutes of smoking, drinking tea, and chatting, we all rose and prepared to go our various ways. I later recalled one man from the group because he was much taller than the others, remarkably thin, even gaunt, and did not look Afghan. He exuded an aura of profound calm and dignity, as well as an almost religious solemnity. The warrior smiled at me gently. He offered me traditional greetings in Arabic and I replied in the same tongue.
I asked one of my companions who he was.
“Ah, Mr. Eric, he is a Saudi mujahid who has come from far away to perform his jihad with us, Allah be praised.” At the time, I took no further notice of him and soon left the group.
Why should I have? He was then only one of tens of thousands of foreign mujahedin who had come to fight the Communists.
At that time, these Islamic militants were hailed by the Reagan administration and the western media as freedom fighters. It was only when Osama bin Laden and other veteran mujahedin freedom fighters undertook Sheik Abdullah Azzam’s goal of liberating Arabia, Palestine, and North Africa from western domination that they came to be reviled by the West as terrorists.
Eric Margolis writes for the Toronto Sun. His new book, American Raj, is available in book stores today: http://www.amazon.com/American-Raj-Liberation-Domination-Resolving/dp/1554700876