A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1


As I  often seem to find myself doing, I will begin this post by justifying beginning so far back in the past, given that this is supposed to be a ‘contemporary’ history, and that what I am ultimately interested in exploring here is the Algerian Civil War of the 1990s and the growth and nature of the Islamist movement there. There is no way of understanding what went wrong in Algeria at this time, however, without understanding its bitter and traumatic struggle for independence from France, and there is no way of understanding that struggle without looking at what French rule actually meant in practice. It isn’t a huge leap from examining the conquest by France in 1830, to looking back at the period of Ottoman rule and the very beginnings of a concept of something called Algeria, as a distinct region in the central Maghreb. So, back to the sixteenth century it is, and the fallout of the Spanish conquest over the last Muslim stronghold in Iberia, Grenada, in 1492.

Emboldened by its expulsion of the Muslims from Iberia (at the same time their ships were landing in America for the first time) the Spanish invaded North Africa in the years that followed, and the fragmented dynasties that ruled small territories in the region appealed to the Ottomans (a major power at the time, having conquered Constantinople/Istanbul in 1453) for help. There followed a period in which the Spanish and Ottoman Turks vied for power in the region, some local dynasties siding with one of the other power, embroiled as they were in their own power struggles with each other. By 1529, a group of Ottoman adventurers had succeeded in establishing a unified state from these disparate territories with its capital at a small port town called Jaza’ir Bani Mazghana, or as it is today known, Algiers, which gave its name to this new state, the Eyalet or Regency of Algiers, a vassal state ruled immediately by figures (who held titles like Dey, Pasha, Agha) who were ultimately subordinate to the Sultan back in Turkey. The Ottomans survived a serious attempt to retake Algiers in 1541, led by the Habsburg emperor Charles V, and ruled the area for the following three centuries, during which the idea of a (sort of) cohesive territory known as ‘Algeria’ began to be distinguished from the surrounding area (modern-day Morocco to the west and Tunisia-Libya to the east).

As we want to get to the twentieth century as quickly as possible rather than get bogged down in the detail of Ottoman rule (although interesting in its own right) we are going to gloss over these centuries, noting a couple of points on the way: firstly, the regents who ruled Algeria on behalf of the Ottoman empire enjoyed a great deal of autonomy, especially after the advent of a class of rulers known as the dey in 1671, so much so that they often conducted their own foreign policy, having independent diplomatic relations with many European powers. In this sense, Algeria then might be considered what we now call an independent state, even while nominally a part of the Ottoman empire. This does not mean that it enjoyed self-determination, however. While they shared the same Islamic religion as their subjects, the Ottomans were foreign rulers, and they failed to cultivate an indigenous ruling class. The country was ruled by a Turkish military corps and privateering entrepreneurs, mostly outsiders, while the native population’s main contact with the administration was through judges and tax collectors whose role was to manipulate and control the local tribes and their leaders. A dichotomy in Algeria between the mountains and the plains (see map below) is important.


In the lowland areas, looking out over or at least in contact with the coast, lived a people who not only interacted with whatever foreign power happened to be running the country at the time, but interacted with the broader Mediterranean world as a whole.  The mountains, on the other hand, were beyond the control of the state and inhabited by independent peoples who were never under anything more than a loose, distant rule. They maintained their tradition of resistance to central authority, whether it be that of the Ottomans, the French, or later on the Algerian government itself. This divide can also be loosely seen in terms of the Arab plains and the Berber mountains. Although its ruling elite have sometimes forgotten it, Algeria is not an exclusively-Arab country. The Berbers lived here before the Arabs settled the area in the centuries after its conquest by the Muslim Caliphate in the seventh century, and to this day they constitute somewhere between 25-30% of the population, speaking their own language, Tamazight, and concentrated in the Kabylie region east of Algiers.

The name Berber has the same origins as the term ‘barbarian’, from the Greek word barbaroi, which they used to describe anyone who didn’t speak Greek. For some reason, it stuck as the ethnic identifier of the Berber people of North Africa, and also gave the name ‘Barbary coast’ to the area, as well as ‘Barbary pirates’ which was what this area of North Africa was primarily known for in Europe in the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, when pirates known as corsairs operated with the blessing of the Ottoman regents, kidnapping people and selling them into slavery, or making money by ransoming them back to their European rulers (the ones who were prepared to pay for them anyway). The heyday of the Barbary corsairs had passed by 1830, when the country was conquered by France, although there was a recrudescence of activity in the period of European instability accompanying the Napoleonic wars. It was in this context that the French invaded Algeria in the last days of the restored Bourbon monarchy.

Very very briefly, the French Revolution developed into the military dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte, who founded the first French empire. On its defeat by the Seventh Coalition at Waterloo in 1815, Napoleon was finally deposed for good and the Bourbon monarchy, which had been abolished by the original Revolution in 1792, was restored. By 1830, the highly-conservative Charles X was deeply unpopular at home and (classic example of a troubled regime trying to bolster its popularity by launching an unnecessary foreign war) took advantage of a diplomatic incident in which the Algerian dey hit the French consul with a fly whisk while demanding the French pay a very large, and very late loan. In response, the French king blockaded Algiers for three years and, when a French ship was bombarded, decided to launch an invasion in June 1830. The Ottoman (not very robust) defenses were subdued and Algiers taken on 7 July, although the Bourbon dynasty that had launched the war lasted less than a month after this, as the July Revolution of 26–29 saw Charles X deposed and replaced by the Orléanist Louis Philippe, who would rule for eighteen years until France once again became a republic (the second) in 1848.

The Ottoman’s attempt to retain their hold over Algeria may have been swatted aside relatively quickly by the French (who quickly found a new commander prepared to swear allegiance to the new king), but the Algerian’s resistance to the French invasion took decades to quell. This was led in the eastern half of the country by a religious-military leader called Emir Abdelkader, who succeeded in holding the French at bay in the east for over a decade, until forced to surrender in 1847, whereupon the French (who had promised to let him leave the country and settle abroad) imprisoned him in France. Abdelkader is a fascinating figure to whom I can’t do justice in the limited space here. Renowned for his relatively-enlightened views on human rights and his honourable treatment of enemy prisoners, he later gained even more admiration, even in the west, for his protection of Christians in Damascus, having been released by the French and allowed to settle there. He underwent a transformation in the French imagination, from rebellious fanatic to honourable enemy. They even built statues of him in the 1940s.

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Abdelkader photographed in 1865.

Having consolidated their hold over the country, the French were in for the long haul. What Algeria endured under French rule was far more thoroughgoing and invasive a conquest than that experienced by most other French colonies. As a writer who is primarily concerned with Irish history of the seventeenth century, I cannot help being struck by the many parallels between Algeria’s ordeal under French rule and Ireland’s with English. For one thing, Algeria became a settler colony just over the water and not merely one in which a distant government exploited a subject population for material gain. French people (often poorer people squeezed out of the home economy or those seeking cheap or practically free land) emigrated across the Mediterranean in large numbers and, at their peak in 1926, came to comprise 15% of the population. The French even denied Algeria was a colony (just as some continue to deny Ireland was) by legally integrating the country (the northern part at least) into France as three départements (Alger, Oran, and Constantine) after the 1848 revolution. This was something which the French settlers liked to imagine made them as French as Paris or Nice. Indeed the latter was only a part of France since 1860.

‘Our lovely colonies, French Algeria.’

The Pieds-Noirs (the name given to people of European descent who were born there and came to constitute the ruling class) actually ruled over the Arab-Berber Muslims as conquerors over a conquered people. The reality of life for this subject people belies the idea that it was ever ‘just another part of France’. Such a notion is patently nonsense, and again I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s equally-nonsensical statement that Northern Ireland (basically a war-zone at the time) was ‘as British as Finchley’. So let’s look at what made Algeria a colony in fact, if not on paper. It goes a lot of the way to explaining why most Algerians would come to emphatically reject French rule.

A caveat, and a revealing one at that, should be noted here: that not all Algerians explicitly rejected French rule from the word go, and for a long time some of them believed it might be turned to their favour. There are reasons for suspecting that many of these might have accepted it if they had actually been treated as equals and not subjected to the abuse and depredations of the Pieds-Noirs. Such an idea, that the modernisation and development of Algeria might take place under the aegis of French rule if only the natives were admitted to the same rights and privileges as the colonists, can be detected in the early thought of someone like Ferhat Abbas, who would later become a separatist but who in his earlier years had campaigned for equal rights for Muslims under French rule. It was only when the racist underpinnings of that rule became apparent did people like Abbas realise that this was never going to happen.

And this racism is crucial to recognise: the belief on the part of the Europeans that the native people were simply worth less and that the values that regulate human society in Europe did not operate there. This remained the case right up until the end of French rule and was in evidence from the very start, in the conduct of the war of conquest, where promises of respect for rights and the Algerians’ culture and religion were violated almost immediately, as people were summarily executed by an army completely without discipline and restraint, entire tribes were wiped out (the Ouffia, for example, who were all killed as punishment for the theft of some cattle) and one of Algiers’ main mosques confiscated and converted into a cathedral. As a commission of inquiry appointed by the French themselves put it:

We have sent to the gallows, on the merest suspicion and without trial, people whose guilt has remained more than doubtful, and whose heirs have since been despoiled of their goods; we have killed people carrying promises of safe-conduct, massacred on suspicion whole populations who were afterwards proven innocent [. . .] we have outdone in barbarism the barbarians whom we came to civilise and we complain of not having been able to succeed in civilising them.

Commission nominated by the king, 7 July 1833

Despite the enlightened sentiments here, note at the end the belief that the French had come to ‘civilise’ Algeria. Notwithstanding all the brutality and evidence to the contrary, those liberal Europeans (this is not a uniquely French thing) continued (and continue) to labour under the delusion that their colonial project was motivated by essentially noble intentions of spreading ‘liberty’ and ‘progress’ among ‘backward’ peoples, a cause betrayed by a few wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers. This idea would prove, in its way, more pernicious than the wayward generals and greedy landgrabbers, in that it has allowed France (and Britain) to tell itself a story of its empire completely at odds with the evidence: that the colonies were, in fact, an expression of the will of the aforementioned worst elements in their societies and were all about exploiting subject peoples overseas in the economic interest of the ‘mother country’. The liberal rhetoric was merely window-dressing, and not even window-dressing that was very prominent at the time. While toothless commissions may have condemned the conduct of the conquest and occupation, its commander spoke before the National Assembly in 1840 with refreshing candour:

Wherever there is fresh water and fertile land, there one must locate colonizers, without concerning oneself to whom these lands belong.

Thomas-Robert Bugeaud

And so it was. Algeria became known as a place where poor French people could come and get their hands on land for next to nothing. This land had to come from somewhere or, to be more specific, someone, and that someone was of course the native Algerians.

Some continue to claim that the transformation of the Algerian population to the point that they would become fully integrated into the French nation was a sincere (if long-term) goal of French rule. It bears taking a closer look, therefore, at some of the evidence that this was empty rhetoric, basing our assessment on the actual actions (as opposed to professed intentions) of those who ran Algeria: the settlers who, with the full backing of Paris, sought to keep the native population in subjugation. One hint that the integration of the Algerians into French society was not envisaged is that laws enacted in 1865 stipulated that Muslims were to be subject to Islamic law and Muslim judges (the cadis) as opposed to the French civil code, which sounds very tolerant and relativistic, but does give the lie to the idea that the French were interested in reforming the Muslims’ culture and legal system. Furthermore, it meant that, if a Muslim wanted to become a French citizen and enjoy all the attendant rights, they had to sign away their right to be governed by their own laws, essentially abandoning their religion. Given that religion is tied up with culture and values in such a complex way, it is not surprising that few Algerians made this choice. By 1936 only 2,500 had done this. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

As an ‘integral part of France’, Algeria sent six deputies to the Assemblée nationale in Paris. But only French citizens could vote, so this effectively disenfranchised almost all natives. The government elected by the Pieds-Noirs served their interests exclusively, and because they perceived their interests to be threatened by any concessions towards the Arab and Berbers, Algeria’s ‘representatives’ worked hard to defeat any measures that might be cooked up in Paris to make life easier for the Algerians. Discrimination was hardwired into the system. Three departmental councils were established in 1875, on which colonists were guaranteed four-fifths of the seats, despite constituting little more than a tenth of the population. The fifth of seats allocated to Muslims were, in any case, handpicked by the French authorities. At a local government level, the percentage of Muslim representatives could not exceed one quarter. In communes mixtes, places where there were basically no Europeans yet, all representatives were appointed by the French administration. While Muslims were subject to Islamic law in some cases, there was also a special set of French laws enacted in 1881, the Code de l’Indigénat, which imposed harsh penalties for ‘crimes’ such as being rude to a colonial official or making disrespectful remarks about the Third Republic. On a day-to-day basis the supposed racial superiority of the Pieds-Noirs was reinforced. Settlers addressed all Muslims by the familiar tu rather than the more respectful vous, by which they insisted the natives address them. Algerians were regularly referred to by racial slurs such as melon, raton and bougnoule (the equivalent of terms like ‘raghead’ or ‘wog’ in English) or addressed by settlers as if they were children, which is reminiscent of the way blacks in Apartheid South Africa or the antebellum south were often addressed as ‘boy’, even by young people addressing elderly men.

Another idea that should be addressed is the claim (which continues to be bandied about by apologists) that French rule, even if harsh, raised the material living standards of the natives and, as such, was somehow a blessing for all its flaws. The facts simply do not bear this out. Economically, the communes arranged their finances for the exclusive benefit of the French settlers and taxed the natives as they saw fit. Even an imperial fan-boy like Jules Ferry described the system as ‘daylight robbery’. (Ageron, 1991) The Warnier law of 1873 was particularly destructive in that destroyed indigenous, communally-owned landowning practices, allowing smaller parcels to be bought up by settlers. And boy did they buy land, in the following three decades acquiring almost one million hectares. (Evans and Phillips, 2007) As more and more land was taken from them, the natives were crammed into the cities or emigrated to France, that is to say, the native population were impoverished by colonisation, with the exception of a small elite of collaborators.

Their growing immiseration was accompanied by a rapid population growth in the century that followed the French conquest, tripling to reach 6.5 million by 1940. This growth was largely a result of French medical science reducing child mortality, which might be placed in the ‘progress’ column, but for the fact that this growth came during a period when Algerians were less and less able to feed all these new mouths. The results were predictably catastrophic. A famine in 1867 cost untold thousands of lives (I have read conservative estimates of 800,000: McDougall, 2017) while as late as 1937, a terrible famine (for which I can find no solid casualty figures) saw corpses litter the roadsides while the colonists suffered few shortages. Again, this was because during times of economic contraction (like the 1930s Depression), the Algerian government was wholly focused on protecting the settlers’ economic interests above all else. Some cheerleaders for French rule have argued that the number of casualties in these famines was a result of the backwardness of native agriculture, and actually spoke for the imperative of French agricultural ‘modernisation’. In fact, Algerian society had, through centuries-long experience of surviving in an environment that permitted only a marginal existence, developed their own techniques, such as storing a certain amount of food for times of hardship, to handle such crises. Life in such harsh environments has to be rigorously disciplined and organised to make the best of scarce resources and the people actually living there knew best how to do so. When the French came in with their land confiscations, the impoverishment of the rural population messed up this system, pushing them to the point where food scarcity resulted in starvation and death. (Evans and Phillips, 2007)

So much for progress.

In 1930, the French establishment celebrated a century of this misery with much aplomb and rhetoric about the benefits of their ‘civilising mission’. The following magazine cover gives you some idea of the vibe. The subtitle beneath the headline reads: ‘Since the capture of Algiers, a century has sufficed to transform the barbarian coast into rich and prosperous departments’.


The Algerians, it would become increasingly apparent in the following decades, did not feel the same way.

The turn of the twentieth century might be mistaken for a period of ‘peace’ in French Algeria, as overt organised resistance from the population subsided. This has more to do with the utter subjection of the people than their contentment, however, as James McDougall has described this gap up until the beginnings of the independence struggle in the 1950s:

…the ‘law and order’ that followed, and with which Algerians thereafter had to contend, remained [. . .] a life lived under conditions of continuous, low-intensity warfare’.

McDougall, A history of Algeria

Even the beginnings of political activity in the Algerians’ interest cannot be rightly considered a nationalist or separatist movement from the start. As indicated above, people like Ferhat Abbas (below) initially saw the struggle of the Algerian people in terms of winning rights under French rule, not outside it. He even denied, as late as 1936, the existence of any notion of Algeria as a nation. Remember, this was the same dude who would become the nation’s first president thirty years later. Other groups, such as the jeunes Algériens or ‘Young Algerians’ of the 1910s likewise presented their demands in terms of increased civil rights and assimilation for Arabs and Berbers within French society, not separation. Things began to change, however, in the period around World War Two, as Algerians’ calls for their rights grew louder, and it became more and more clear the French would never grant them.

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Ferhat Abbas

In 1936, a left-wing, anti-fascist government was elected in France, the Popular Front, which was relatively enlightened and progressive by the standards of its time and attempted to introduce some modest reforms which would have given citizenship to some Algerians. Seeing any conciliation towards the Muslims as the beginning of Armageddon, the Pieds-Noirs bitterly opposed these and they never got off the drawing board. Things might have been different if these reforms had succeeded, but after this failure, it became difficult to argue for anything other than complete independence on the Algerian side; indeed, the reforms were opposed by an emerging separatist movement led by Messali Hadj (below), often considered the grandfather of the independence movement.

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Messali Hadj

Of humble origins and a self-taught intellectual and scholar, Hadj was an electrifying public speaker who had spent time in France, influenced both by the Communists and, increasingly, a sense of Islamic nationalism which placed religion at the heart of Algeria’s struggle for separation from France and a recovery of its honour. From the 1920s onwards he spent long bouts in prison, even being deported to the Congo by the Fascist Vichy government during World War Two. The Vichy regime was of course brutally repressive, although popular with the Pieds-Noirs, and besides a campaign of zero tolerance towards the separatist movement that was emerging, they also revoked the citizenship of the Jews in Algeria, who would henceforth be treated as second-class citizens, just like the Muslims.

The Second World War, and the ‘liberation’ of Algeria from Vichy (although the applicability of the term ‘liberation’ must be questioned, given that it simply returned to the colonial fold of ‘Free’ France), was nevertheless a watershed for the independence movement. Although leaders like Churchill and De Gaulle tried to argue that the principles of self-determination, enshrined in the Atlantic and later the United Nations charters, only applied to European countries, Arabs, Vietnamese and other peoples saw no reason why they should not apply to them as well. Agitation for independence or at least autonomy had been brewing for some time, but the impulse was quickened by several factors and events. Firstly, there was no doubt the huge participation of Muslim soldiers in the French war effort. Just like many other colonies in both world wars, many indigenous people fought for their colonial masters in expectation that their sacrifice would be rewarded by being treated as equals within the empire. Muslims made up 90% of the ‘French’ force defending Algeria. In a desperately poor country, the army was a steady job and many young men were attracted to  what, under the circumstances, was a relatively secure income for themselves and, if they got killed, those family members they left behind. In this respect, Algeria was like Ireland during World War One, where many Irishmen volunteered for the British army and, despite attempts by some to claim that this suggests loyalty and affection for the ruling power, it is far more likely that there weren’t many other jobs available for men, who were left with little choice but to join the army.

The fact that such a large proportion of the army defending Algeria was Muslim begged the question: were they simply holding the fort until the colonial power was able to resume power? After the allies removed the Vichy regime from North Africa and returned the colony to De Gaulle’s government in 1942, there was hope among Algerian separatists that the defeat of German fascism might be linked with the fight against French fascism. An umbrella-organisation of most progressive Algerian parties, the Association des Amis du Manifeste et de la Liberté (AML) was founded and, at the end of the war, on VE Day itself (8 May 1945), demonstrations were organised throughout the country to remind the French that the end of the war did not mean a return to business as usual. Unfortunately, as far as the Pieds-Noirs were concerned, this was exactly what it meant. Most demos passed off peacefully, but at Sétif (see map for locations) in the east of the country, one group was attacked by the police, in retaliation for which the demonstrators began to indiscriminately attack the settler population, killing around 100 people. In counter-retaliation for this, the authorities launched brutal revenge attacks that left between 6,000 and 20,000 dead (yes, those figures are vague, because they are hotly debated, but in any case, it was a lot) and the violence spread to other areas, especially Guelma, where the army carried out mass executions and pretty much all Arab males were considered fair game.


This was a turning point. The AML and other organisations agitating for separatism were dissolved and banned. Even moderate leaders like Abbas were imprisoned and the army given a free hand to crush the movement by violence. Many of those responsible for this repression were the leaders of La Résistance, supposedly the more progressive elements of French political society such as the French Communist Party, who rather absurdly blamed Nazi Germany (who had just been defeated) for organising the protests. It was becoming clear to Algerians that even the left in France was indoctrinated to believe their rule was justified and would never take concrete action towards even modest reforms. This realisation created a new generation of separatists who would fight for nothing less than complete independence, and more radical parties and even armed cells began to form, especially in remote areas where they were harder to keep an eye on. Those reformists who sought to work within the parameters of French rule, meanwhile, became irrelevant, even as modest reforms were carried out, which to most Algerians were too little too late, and to most Pieds-Noir were a step too far.

The first manifestation of a new movement devoted to armed struggle was the Organisation Spéciale (OS), a secret guerilla group that was linked to Messali’s political movement. Several of the key figures in the Algerian War of Independence first made a name for themselves in the OS: Ahmed Ben Bella, Mohamed Boudiaf and Hocine Aït Ahmed, pictured here (left to right) under arrest together in 1956:

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The military activities of the OS simply provoked the French authorities to redouble the repression, and the movement was decimated by arrests and confiscation of their weapons in the years that followed. Ben Bella was arrested but escaped to Egypt, while other leaders had to go into hiding. The momentum seemed lost at that point, and in October 1954, the minister of the interior (later president from 1981-95) François Mitterrand toured the country (pictured on the right, below), sending out a clear message that, although his government had already lost the northern part of its Indochina colony to Hồ Chí Minh’s Viet Minh, and was in the process of conceding independence to neighbouring Morocco and Tuniaia, Algeria would remain French and that the settlers had the government’s full support.

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But unbeknownst to the French, a new body had been in existence for some months which would soon assume the name Front de libération nationale (FLN). This was another clandestine paramilitary organisation, to which most of the OS leaders became attached which, although ostensibly no better-prepared than the OS, launched a series of co-ordinated attacks against French targets only a fortnight after Mitterand’s visit. This date, 1 November, is generally regarded as the beginning of the FLN’s eight-year war against French rule which would win independence for their country. That this would be the eventual outcome was far from clear in the first years of the war, as the French turned the screw and the general uprising of the population against colonial rule which the FLN had hoped to spark off, failed to occur.

In fact, it is questionable whether some of the FLN’s more astute leaders even expected this to happen. Many of them were aware that their struggle, a few hundred poorly-armed men and women against the fourth-largest army in the world, had little prospect of military victory, but this was not the point. The strategy was instead to use armed struggle to achieve political ends by making Algeria ungovernable, by provoking the French into repressive measures that would fatally undermine the legitimacy of their rule both at home and abroad. In this, the FLN were extraordinarily successful, and the Algerian War of Independence is a classic example of an imperial power winning tactically, but failing strategically, winning the war but losing the peace. How exactly was this seemingly-impossible task achieved?

In its initial stages, FLN attacks were isolated and mainly concentrated in the countryside of central and eastern Algeria. Despite its aspirations, it did not enjoy the unequivocal support of the masses. While many no doubt shared the goal and broadly sympathised with its objectives, this does not mean they were willing to risk their lives or their families’ lives in order to help them or participate in the uprising. As ever, most people probably hedged their bets, reluctant to commit themselves to one or the other side until they saw who had the upper hand. This would be apparent in the closing months of the conflict, when it became clear the FLN had won and many so-called marsiens joined in order to gain some of the credit and show their loyalty to the new ruling party.

In the early days, however, when the French state still enjoyed overwhelming superiority, it might sound strange to say that some were obliged to hedge their bets, but this is because the FLN employed coercive methods of their own to drag an uncommitted population kicking and screaming (sometimes literally) into the revolution. As we will see in the civil war of the 1990s, neutrality or fence-sitting was simply not an option for most civilians. Non-committal to one side was considered siding with the enemy, and both the French and the FLN forced people to co-operate with them, often at gunpoint. Examples (often gruesome, such as throat-cutting) were made of those who betrayed the FLN to the authorities and refused to aid the insurgents.

A key dynamic here is that the French played their assigned role of dumb colonial oppressor to perfection. The summer of 1955 especially was a turning point, as the army enforced a policy of collective responsibility, punishing whole populations for the actions of the FLN. This backfired spectacularly, of course, and ensured the population identified with the FLN en masse in areas where they hadn’t before. In August, dozens of women and children were massacred alongside FLN fighters. As the bodies piled up, the situation became more polarised, and the idealistic rhetoric of those who sought to amend the status quo by reform became untenable. The FLN made sure this was made clear to rival political organisations by demanding their dissolution, and that they all come under their umbrella and fight together. One of the FLN’s most firmly-held tenets was the need for unity and an anxiety to avoid the factional infighting of the past. No more, they declared, would Algerian nationalists dissipate their energies by internecine quarreling. Somewhat ominously for the future of multi-party politics in Algeria, however, it is clear that they regarded multi-party politics itself as ‘internecine quarreling’ and a dissipation of vital revolutionary energy, but more of that in the next post.

Even longstanding campaigners for separatism such as Messali Hadj became branded traitors to the cause for refusing to toe the party line. The year the FLN launched their campaign, his followers formed a rival group, the Algerian National Movement (MNA: Mouvement national algérien) which became embroiled in a vicious civil war with the FLN in the following years, resulting in numerous atrocities. The MNA was particularly strong among emigré communities in France, and the two fought each other in what is often known as the ‘café wars’ in which as many as 5000 people lost their lives. While a hero to many with Alegrian nationalism, by September 1959 the FLN was attempting to assassinate Messali Hadj. Although he survived, many other prominent leaders did not, and by 1960, the MNA in Algeria was practically destroyed. While Ferhat Abbas attempted to maintain his stance as a ‘moderate’ conciliatory figure in the early stages of the war, its polarising logic led him to take a more pragmatic route, and he joined the FLN in 1956, being utilised as a diplomat and a representative on the world stage and, when the time came, a figure the French might see as someone they could negotiate with.

The growing prestige of the FLN as the sole torch-bearer of the independence struggle followed a series of diplomatic successes in 1955. They were invited to the historic Bandung Conference of newly-independent ‘Third World’ nations, and recognised as the representatives of Algeria. They also got their situation discussed at the United Nations, which provoked a walk-out by the French in protest against interference in their ‘internal affairs’. While things may have been going well on the political front, however, on the military, they were being squeezed. The actual military wing of the FLN was officially known as the ALN (Armée de libération nationale) and comprised elements within Algeria fighting both a rural and urban war, but also armed forces outside the country in Morocco and Tunisia, who allowed them to operate within their territory when they became independent in 1956. At the end of 1959, this ‘frontier army’ was formally organised under the command of a twenty-seven year-old colonel, Houari Boumediène. Both this frontier army outside the borders of Algeria (for the moment) and Boumediène himself will become crucial figures in the story of post-independence Algeria.

ALN soldiers training in Tunisia

If there had been any inclination on the part of the French to compromise, this was now abandoned and they committed themselves to total victory over the FLN, although they refused to officially acknowledge it as a war (and, by extension, the FLN as a legitimate enemy) and maintained the legal fiction that the whole thing was merely a criminal problem. This renewed determination was perhaps not unrelated to the fact that they had recently discovered oil (they badly needed their own supply which they could pay for in Francs, so they were feverishly searching in the Sahara) at Hassi Messaoud in 1956. Later on, they would be so desperate to hang on to this that they offered the FLN an independent state that excluded the interior areas of desert where the oil was. For all the nationalistic bombast and talk of prestige and defending their colonists, this simple material exploitative relationship between the metropole and colony should always be remembered. Similarly, France used the Sahara to test its first nuclear devices in 1960, and continued to do so for several years after the country became independent.

Getting back to the war (oops, criminal problem), in early 1956, the French government voted ‘special powers’ to the Algerian settlers, and basically gave them a free hand to do whatever it took. Between March and July 1956 the number of French soldiers in the country doubled from around 200,000 to 400,000 (McDougall), and in October of that year Ben Bella, Boudiaf and Aït Ahmed were all abducted after they were kidnapped by the French authorities when en route between Morocco and Tunisia. In what must surely count as one of the world’s first acts of airline terrorism, the FLN leaders were scheduled to take a flight from meeting the sultan of Morocco to the Tunisian government. The airplane, which was Moroccan, was nevertheless registered in France and the pilot had a French license. While flying over Algeria, he was ordered by the military to land, whereupon Ben Bella and the others were arrested. It was a flagrantly illegal act which was initially celebrated by the French ruling elite, but only further undermined their legitimacy and made them look like a criminal gang.

The year that followed, up to around October 1957, is often described as the ‘Battle of Algiers’, as the army focused on crushing the FLN in the capital. They succeeded militarily, but the means they used to do so made a great contribution to the eventual strategic defeat of the French. By this stage, the army was more or less a law unto itself, acting outside all legal and moral norms. The paratroopers under the command of Jacques Massu (below) were particularly notorious, and a campaign of systematic torture and extra-judicial executions was carried out to break the urban guerrillas. Often this torture (which typically involved electrocution, simulated-drowning and rape) was not even to extract information, but merely to humiliate and demoralise the Algerians who, in many cases, were not even FLN activists, although you can imagine a lot of them ended up being after they were released. If they were released. Some prisoners were thrown to their death from the windows of prisons and police stations, others were brought into the forest, ostensibly to collect wood, where they were shot for ‘attempting to escape’. If the FLN member Louisette Ighilahriz is to be believed in an interview she gave in 2000 (and I don’t see why she would lie), General Massu was present at these tortures, and watched as she was raped and tortured repeatedly in 1957.


Massu, along with others like Marcel Bigeard, Raoul Salan and Maurice Challe (more of whom below) were the ones who presided over this carnage. Another well known name is that of Paul Aussaresses, who orchestrated much of the killing and torture under Massu. While others tried to play down or express mealy-mouthed regret for what happened, Aussaresses is one of those unrepentant imperialists that provide great material for a historian. Either too stupid or too racist to be ashamed of his and his colleagues’ actions, he wrote a bullish defense of French crimes, arguing that they were necessary, also revealing how these actions were not just those of a few ‘bad apples’, but sanctioned from the highest levels of government. Aussaresses could write with the assurance of knowing that De Gaulle passed an amnesty by presidential decree for all Algerian commanders in the 1960s, which meant they couldn’t be prosecuted for what they did. Even if it couldn’t form the basis for a trial, it is in any case a great source for the period. Another great source is The Battle of Algiers (1966), a fantastic film about the war, an absolute classic of the art form directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo based on the memoirs of FLN soldier Saadi Yacef.

It also contains one of my favourite bits of dialogue from a film ever, at 1:28:34, when the captured FLN leader, Ben M’Hidi, is attacked by a French journalist for using bombs in baskets to kill innocent civilians:

Isn’t it cowardly to use your women’s baskets to carry bombs, which have taken so many innocent lives?

To which Ben M’Hidi replies:

And doesn’t it seem to you even more cowardly to drop napalm bombs on unarmed villages, so that there are a thousand times more innocent victims? Of course, if we had your airplanes it would be a lot easier for us. Give us your bombers, and you can have our baskets.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi, incidentally, was one of the founders of the FLN who was captured in February 1957, tortured and hung by the army, who said he committed suicide. Aussaresses in 2000 finally admitted that his men murdered him in custody. Here is a picture of him with his captors. Everyone looks oddly cheerful:


It was in military defeat that the FLN and its cause found the path to victory. With the people now not merely alienated towards the French, but prepared to risk everything to end their rule, they declared a Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) in September 1958, in exile, first in Cairo, then moved to Tunis. Abbas was its first president, although this should not mislead us into thinking he was really a leading figure in the struggle now. The post was largely an honorary one, and he was appointed mainly because of the esteem in which he was held abroad and in diplomatic circles. The new president was very much being led by events now, as opposed to leading them. Just who was leading events is hard to say. Within the FLN certainly, the military was always the prime mover, and the political elements affirmed this over and over again. Militarily, however, the FLN was almost defeated by 1958. At this point, however, French political turmoil breathed new life into the Algerian liberation struggle.

As this is a post about Algerian history, I do not want to dwell at length on French internal politics. Briefly, the Algerian situation was one of several causes of mounting discontent with the series of ineffective governments of the Fourth Republic, which suffered from, among other defects, a weak executive, and was perceived as being too indecisive to hold on to the colonies. The crisis came to a head in 1958, as rumours were rife that the government (there had been twenty-one of them since the republic’s founding just twelve years earlier) were about to enter into negotiations with the FLN. The Algerian settlers, led by General Massu, campaigned to have the retired Charles de Gaulle returned to a new, more powerful, presidency, and the army threatened a military coup if the government refused to make it happen. In May, the Fourth Republic acquiesced, voting itself out of existence and making De Gaulle ruler of what would soon be the Fifth Republic.

The Pieds-Noirs and the army generals were, of course, delighted. They had got ‘their man’ installed in power now, and surely he would soon put the boot in and finish off the independence struggle once and for all. This is what they were under the impression he had promised when he declared from the balcony of the governor-general’s residence ‘Je vous ai compris’ (I have understood you). They were, however, in for a rude awakening. Although De Gaulle had made macho statements about keeping Algeria French forever, when it came to the crunch, he showed the pragmatism and shrewdness that had made him such an astute political survivor. Maybe he had understood something else about the Pieds-Noirs.

He first attempted to quell the drive for independence by promising to modernise Algeria and work towards integrating it into France by bestowing on it the benefits of that status: modern technology, development, education, health-care etc. These were all nice ideas, but in practice they involved forced relocation of people from rural zones in which they were no longer allowed to live in for security reasons; they involved disrupting social patterns of life that had existed for centuries in a misguided zeal for ‘progress’; in short, it was ‘development’ on France’s terms, many aspects of which Algerians didn’t want. In any case, it was too little, too late. As McDougall has put it:

The metropole was thus at last imposing a solution, but as ever, it was a solution to the problems of twenty years earlier.

Even offers of a paix des braves, a sort of amnesty to those who had taken up arms against the state, were largely ineffective, and under pressure from outside (the Americans especially) and the growing prestige of the FLN on the international stage, De Gaulle began to give way. The problem was that, as he put out feelers towards offering some kind of limited recognition or autonomy, the settlers reacted with intense fury and accusations of betrayal towards the man they had thought would save them. Settler paramilitary organisations had been around for some years already, manned by ‘ultras’ who had been responsible for numerous atrocities towards Algerian civilians. Now, their violence intensified and involved elements within the army who felt they were being sold out, and several attempts were made to kill De Gaulle when he visited in 1960. Early 1961 saw the foundation of the Organisation armée secrète (OAS), the ‘secret army organisation’, by right-wing former army officers exiled in fascist Spain, and began a campaign of violence in Algeria designed to keep Algeria French.

Thus, just as the army thought it had quelled the revolution, the country descended into a downward spiral of violence orchestrated by those who were determined to make sure that the French government offered no concessions that would alter their domination of the natives. This, of course, guaranteed that the crisis could not be defused and made independence inevitable. De Gaulle began to realise this and (probably even more importantly for him) that the Algerian problem threatened to stymie all his attempts to rectify the problems facing France itself in his new Fifth Republic. Another development also forced De Gaulle’s hand, which was in part a response to settler and OAS violence: namely, the mobilisation of the Algerian people. Whereas in the early days, the FLN had been a relatively small group of visionaries who often had to coerce the civilian population into co-operating with their strategy, by the end of 1960, tens of thousands of Algerians were demonstrating on the streets of Algiers, Oran and other towns, not just against the nature and abuses of French rule, but French rule in itself. French soldiers firing indiscriminately into the crowds and killing hundreds only hardened their.

Nor was the violence confined to Algeria. In France itself, where the Algerian émigré community (by 1964, there were almost half a million Algerians in France) was an important source of funding and support for the FLN, protest marches took place, one of which was attacked by the police on 17 October 1961, enthusiastically joined by métro workers, firemen and passers-by. At least 120 (but possibly as many as 300) of these peaceful protesters were beaten to death or thrown in the Seine to drown.

‘Here is where we drown the Algerians.’ Saint-Michel Bridge over the Seine, Paris, 1961.

Even after independence, a deeply-poisonous relationship between Algerians and the French occasionally erupted into violence. As late as 1973, the killing of a bus driver by a mentally-ill Algerian in Marseille sparked off a Summer of killing across the south in which thirty-two ‘Algerians’ (many of whom were French citizens of Algerian descent) were left dead, killed by French mobs, whipped up by a media which likened Algerians to a ‘vermin’ and ‘a plague’. Another aspect of this is the effect that large numbers of Pieds-Noir fleeing Algeria as independence became more likely had. There were about a million in 1960, of whom 800,000 more or less left immediately and another 150,000 in the years that followed, so that there were only about 50,000 of them by the end of the 1960s. These overwhelmingly settled in the south of France or Corsica, and many would go on to support the anti-establishment, far-right Front National of Jean-Marie Le Pen, which was founded in 1972 and support for which was strongest in precisely the areas where the Pieds-Noirs settled, disgruntled and resentful towards a French political establishment which had betrayed them, and likewise resentful towards the Arab emigrants in France, with whom they lived side by side, and whom they felt it was their birthright to lord over, which was now taken from them.

This was just another sense in which the poison of the Algerian war was seeping into the body politic of the ‘mother country’, and De Gaulle began to talk of the inevitability of ‘self-determination’ and an Algerian republic. A referendum was held in early 1961 which gave him permission to negotiate with the Algerian provisional government, and negotiations began shortly after. One result of this was an attempt by some of the more right-wing generals in Algeria to launch a coup, designed to remove De Gaulle and prevent the loss of Algeria. It had the opposite effect. De Gaulle went on television to appeal to the nation to stand by him, and in the end most of the army backed him. Having faced down this threat, serious talks with the FLN got underway near the Swiss border at Évian-les-Bains in May, and continued until March the following year, during what the violence of the OAS intensified, against both the FLN and French government targets.

One of the main sticking points preventing an agreement was the French demand, alluded to above, that they retain large areas of the Saharan interior, where oil had been found and nuclear weapons could be tested. The increasing brutality of the OAS (they blinded a four year-old child in an assassination attempt on a French minister in February 1962) undermined the efforts of the French to hold out in their demands, however, and in March a ceasefire was declared, with referendum called for April (in France) and July (in Algeria) to ratify the so-called Evian accords, granting independence to Algeria. The French agreed to hand over most of the territory, excepting small areas they could temporarily use for military bases and testing sites; they also secured preferential treatment when it came to trading for Algeria’s oil, as well as guarantees regarding both the rights of Algerian immigrants in France and those of the settlers in Algeria.

Celebrations in March 1962

Algeria became formally independent on the 5 July, 132 years to the day the French invaded the country. This did not mean an end to the tragedy, however, and in many ways the worst of the killing was still to come. It seems a theme of grudging imperial decline (cf: the Belgians sabotage of the Congo before they left, and the British hasty withdrawal from India that resulted in horrific communal riots and mass killings) that the departing ruler likes to leave as much of a mess as possible behind them, and Algeria was no exception. This could be seen in long term effects, such as the fact that the French took with them the blueprints for the drainage system and refused to share them, so that the Algerian authorities would have to dig up half the city every time they wanted to fix a burst pipe. The more dramatic short-term effect was the flight of the Pieds-Noirs, reprisals towards those who had collaborated with the French, and a campaign of senseless nihilistic violence by the OAS.

Many of the provisions of the Evian accords as they related to protecting the rights of those French left behind in an independent Algeria were rendered obsolete by the speed of events. As noted above, about a million Pieds-Noir fled to France, having no faith in the promises made regarding their lives and property. They can hardly be blamed for scepticism, since events like the Oran massacre, where hundreds of settlers were massacred by mobs after independence, and the FLN (or indeed the French police) didn’t lift a finger to help them, cannot have inspired confidence. Over the Spring and Summer, over 3000 settlers disappeared. You would think the OAS would have seen the writing on the wall in early 1962 and given up, but quite the opposite. They ratcheted up their campaign, exploding over a hundred bombs a day and launching attacks on French police and army. They also sought to prevent Pieds-Noirs from leaving, and had hoped to provoke the FLN into breaking their ceasefire and thus wrecking the prospects of peace, but the FLN kept their discipline and obeyed orders not to retaliate.

It was this discipline and organisation that probably sealed their victory, but as noted, this discipline did not extend to preventing vengeful mobs from massacring civilians, both Pieds-Noir and those who had sided with the French in the war, the so-called Harki (from the Arabic word for a ‘war party’). The fate of the Harki is, in many ways, saddest of all. While the Pieds-Noir were allowed to migrate to France for protection, the French authorities were far less generous towards those Algerians who had fought for them over the past decade, and De Gaulle issued orders that they be prevented from leaving along with the settlers. Although some escaped with the help of sympathetic police and army personnel, the Algerian population took a bitter revenge on the Harkis, killing perhaps 70,000 over the summer, often torturing them beforehand. Much of this was done by the above-mentioned marsiens, who joined the independence struggle late in the day and were now especially brutal in order to signal their loyalty and zeal to the new regime.

That the FLN condoned, even encouraged, this, did not bode well for the future of the independent state. In September, Boumediène’s ‘army of the frontier’ marched into Algiers, and a new round of blood-letting got underway, as the new state sought to consolidate its power and eliminate threats from within, both rival factions of the independence movement and the remnants of pro-colonialist sympathy. But nothing could be more misleading than to portray a united, harmonious FLN now taking the reins of power. As is often the case, when they had a single enemy and objective to rally around, factional struggles could be laid aside in order to focus on the task in hand. Now that was achieved, rivalries and conflicts-of-interest began to emerge as the victors squabbled over the spoils. I have not spent a great deal of time in this post looking closely at the personnel of the FLN and those who would become the leaders of an independent Algeria, because in the next post we will look at these power struggles, as the FLN established a one-party state and the heroic early years of Algeria as a torchbearer for Third World liberation gave way to the stagnation of the 1980s and devastating civil war in the 1990s.



Charles Robert Ageron, Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (London, 1991; first published in French 1964)

Martin Evans and John Phillips, Algeria : Anger of the Dispossessed (Yale University Press, 2007)

James McDougall, A history of Algeria (Cambridge University Press, 2017)



Featured image above: soldiers search women in Algiers during the war of independence.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 16: Algeria #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

bin laden

We have already looked in previous posts at the war in Afghanistan from its beginnings in 1979, beyond the Soviet pullout and into its civil war phase, up to the Taliban’s conquest over much of the country in 1996. This gives us, in a fair amount of detail, a good understanding of the heterogenous groups first fighting the Soviets in a loose coalition, and then each other, providing the background for the story we have to tell here, of another group which assisted in the jihad of the 1980s, those who volunteered from other countries throughout the Muslim world to help their Afghan brethren defeat the invaders. While these ‘Afghan Arabs’ (yes, the term belies the fact that these were not Afghans and sometimes not Arabs either, but it’s the term people use) were a small minority of those who fought the Soviet Union, and the importance of their contribution is debated (even bin Laden acknowledged that the war was won by ‘poor, barefoot Afghans’) their status and reputation was legendary among Muslims. There is another reason why they are a focus of interest, and that is in the widespread perception that Afghanistan provided the breeding/training ground for the internationalist strand of jihadism that would emerge in the 1990s, often (clumsily, I will argue) lumped together under the label of al-Qaeda.

This post will be an attempt to trace the participation of these non-Afghan fighters in the Afghan war, then look at their evolution as the war was winding down into something else, which will turn against the sole remaining superpower which had helped in the jihad against the Russians. Essentially, we will try and trace the roots of al-Qaeda, but it should be noted at the outset that looking into the genesis of al-Qaeda is a minefield. You quickly realise there are numerous different accounts of its early years, different opinions as to when it was ‘founded’ (if this word even has any real meaning here) and what we even mean when we use the term al-Qaeda (a word meaning, the ‘base’ or ‘foundation’ in Arabic). Rather than favour any single one of these accounts, I am going to try and synthesise what seem to me the more reputable of them, and by necessity keep things somewhat vague where there is absolutely no consensus on an issue.

So there is going to be a lot of ‘in the late 1980s’ and so forth in what follows, at least up until 1998, and the aftermath of the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, when something called al-Qaeda begins to emerge from the mists of obscurity in contemporary documents. I think it’s interesting, for a multinational organisation that some claim had existed from the late 1980s onwards, that I can find not a single reference to the name al-Qaeda in any of the major western newspapers until 1998, and the American president Clinton continued to use the term ‘bin Laden network’ for the group even after 1998. This is worth bearing in mind. If anyone out there has fluent Arabic and can do a text search of some database with all the major Arabic-language newspapers and journals, I would be very interested in seeing what the earliest reference to the ‘organisation’ they can find.

Before we get to al-Qaeda, however, it is important to remember that such an organisation did not exist during the war against the Soviet Union. The main organisation for funneling Muslim recruits and money into the country from outside was the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau. This was basically a guest house in Peshawar where Muslims from outside could stay on their way to the battlefield, receive training and indoctrination. It also acted as a publishing centre for theological works, primarily those written by the founder of the MAK, Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian-Palestinian scholar and jihadist who was the ideological driving force behind the development of an internationalist and militant Islamist movement towards the end of the war, anxious that the momentum should not be lost and the foreign fighters disbanded.

Although bin Laden is often represented as the mastermind behind these developments, in many ways this is anachronistic, a result of the prominent role bin Laden assumed in the 1990s. In fact, it was Azzam (below) who was bin-Laden’s elder mentor for much of the 1980s and some even credit him as coming up with the term al-qaeda al-sulbah (the solid base) in a magazine article he wrote, to refer to the revolutionary vanguard he argued was necessary to lead the Muslim world into rejuvenation and a resurrection of the Caliphate. While this might be an accurate explanation of the origin of the term al-Qaeda, this sounds a little bit too neat to me. Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said the name came about more or less by accident as a result of the term ‘base’ being used to refer to the Salafist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the name stuck. Either way, perhaps the best way to explain the evolution of this movement is to look a bit at the personal histories of the three figures so instrumental in its foundation and development: Azzam, bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom we have already met in part two of this blog.

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Abdullah Azzam was born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine, in 1941. The 1967 war forced him and his family to flee to Jordan when he was twenty-five years old. He secured a job as a teacher in Jordan (he had already begun his life-long study of Islamic jurisprudence) but abandoned what might have been a relatively-secure (given the circumstances) existence to join the Fedayeen fighters against Israel. While, as we have seen in previous posts, the Palestinian resistance to Israel, led by the PLO was overwhelmingly secular (Hamas would not be founded until 1987), Azzam was unusual in that he combined his attempts to liberate his homeland with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the same time developing militant ideas about reviving Islam that were at odds with the Brotherhood and had more in common with Salafist ideologies. Indeed Azzam found himself at odds with the PLO and was reportedly once brought before a tribunal, accused of insulting Che Guevara, to which he replied that Islam was his religion, and Che Guevara under his foot.

At this stage in the early 1970s, the left-wing umbrella-organisation, the PLO, was the only show on the road as regards resistance to Israel and, feeling such groups dishonoured Islam and neglected the broader cause of Islam in pursuit of Palestinian goals (although these should be central to a wider struggle), Azzam abandoned the fight and returned to his academic work in Egypt and Jordan. Having been fired for his continuing political activism in Jordan, he moved to a university position in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1981. It was not long before Azzam, who seems to have been a somewhat restless figure, began to feel disenchanted with those around him who, while they may have agreed on much ideologically, did little or nothing to put their ideas into action. The perfect opportunity was arising far to the east, however, where the war in Afghanistan was intensifying, and he perceived clearly that, while Palestine would always been the more important long-term goal for him, Afghanistan was the more immediate and pressing business at hand. He managed to get himself transferred to a university in Islamabad, Pakistan, from which he began to regularly visit Peshawar, the gateway for foreign jihadists into the Afghan war, a city he often referred to (here’s that term again) as al-qaeda al-sulbah.

He met Osama bin Laden (below) on one of his many return visits to Jeddah in 1984. Bin Laden’s family owned the guest house where Azzam would stay, preaching and raising money for the cause in Afghanistan and the younger bin Laden was profoundly influenced by Azzam. At this stage, the jihad had the full support of the Saudi state, and Azzam’s call for an influx of Muslim fighters into Afghanistan had been endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, effectively the seal of approval from the king himself.

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Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, one of over fifty children of the Yemeni construction magnate Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden who died in 1967 in an airplane crash. His mother was a Syrian of Yemeni descent, Hamida al-Attas, who divorced Mohammed soon after Osama’s birth. It is sometimes claimed that she belonged to the Alawite sect, and even that she wasn’t really married to Mohammed bin Laden, being merely his concubine or ‘slave wife’, but this seems to be a fairly crude attempt to denigrate Osama bin Laden himself, and there is no evidence he was treated as a ‘lesser’ member of the  extended family, which he surely would have been if this was the case.

Although there is no direct evidence for it, bin Laden’s first meeting with Azzam may have been in the late 1970s, as he attended the University of Jeddah to study business, and probably received religious instruction at the same time Azzam was working there. Most accounts of bin Laden in these years describe a hard-working, conscientious young man, modest almost to the point of shyness, and dedicated to his family, its construction business, and his religious faith. He worked for his father’s company, and not just in the token way the kids of rich people sometimes work, but actually worked on the sites, operating machinery, eating with the workers and earning a reputation for quiet generosity and for helping those less fortunate than himself while, although insanely wealthy, living a markedly austere lifestyle himself. There is no reason to doubt any of the many positive descriptions of bin Laden’s character that come down to us from those who knew him, especially those who have no ideological reason to eulogise him, and indeed have come under significant pressure to disparage and condemn him. There must, after all, be some reason for the tremendous personal loyalty he inspired in those around him, and we don’t need to buy into the simplistic image of an irredeemable monster that is peddled by the tabloid media. The overwhelming evidence is, unsurprisingly, that he had some admirable qualities, and this  does not imply sympathy for his ideas or actions.

Another notable aspect of bin Laden’s character was the synthesis of word and deed. Like Azzam, bin Laden knew his theology and, like Azzam,  knew that book learning alone was worthless unless acted upon. Conversely, he had tremendous respect for religious scholars, recognising that action without the wisdom to guide action alone was worthless too. If Azzam had been the kind of stay-at-home religious scholar that bin Laden would later criticise for not travelling to Afghanistan and joining the fight, their relationship would not have been as profound as it was, but his equal dedication to lecturing, writing and to fighting on the battlefield was one of the reasons the younger man admired him so much.

Although the precise date of his arrival in Afghanistan is debated, Osama bin Laden traveled to the war zone within months, perhaps weeks (some even say days but this is probably an exaggeration) of the war’s outbreak in December 1979. In these first few years. he acted mainly a conduit through which money passed from Saudi supporters to the Afghan Mujahideen. He recognised that his family’s financial resources, and those of other Saudis, were the greatest gift he could bestow on the cause at this juncture, and spent his time fundraising among his fellow Saudis and managing the disbursal of these resources back in Afghanistan-Pakistan. As time went on, however, he gradually assumed a more hands-on role as he developed a network of contacts, with the help of Azzam, and honed his military and organisational skills, taking a more and more prominent role in the operations of the MAK. For most of the 1980s, the Saudi government worked hand in glove with bin Laden and the Afghan fighters. Bin Laden’s main point of contact with the Saudi state was Turki al-Faisal, the son of King Faisal (see part 12), the head of its intelligence service, the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (General Intelligence Directorate) from 1979 to 2001. This is he in 2002 (for such an important dude, he seems to have been surprisingly camera-shy throughout the 1980s-1990s; I can find no images of him in that period whatsoever):

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Bin Laden’s deteriorating relationship with the Saudi state in the early 1990s will be key to understanding his evolution from a jihadist against the communist enemy in Afghanistan, to declaring war on those governments in Muslim countries who he saw as inimical to Islam, and their chief enabler: the United States. Throughout the 1980s, however, he and the Saudi regime were rock solid in their support of the Afghans. You might want to return and look at part ten to refresh your memory as to the various factions fighting the war. Most of the resources from bin Laden and the Saudis were funneled into the factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, that is, those with the most fundamentalist and intolerant vision of Islam (and that is saying something, given the competition they were up against). Sayyaf, who had the closest links of all with Saudi Arabia, was the main facilitator in bin Laden building his ‘Afghan Arab’ unit, an objective which indicates something of a rift growing between bin Laden and Azzam from around 1987 onwards, as the two men began to grow apart on these subtle ideological differences.

Azzam had always a champion of promoting unity among the Ummah (the community of all Muslims) and wanted to disperse the non-Afghan volunteers out among the various Afghan groups as a way of fostering this. Bin Laden, however, was keen to found a separate unit of foreign fighters, believing this would better prepare them to return to their own countries after the war and wage war against the secular authorities there. There was also a perception that the ‘Afghan Arabs’ were being used by Afghan commanders as cannon fodder, although I have conversely read in places that there was an opposite concern, that the Afghans were treating the foreign volunteers as guests and refusing to put them in danger, depriving them of valuable combat experience. There was also a concern among Afghan commanders that the foreign volunteers were overzealous in seeking martyrdom, disrupting Afghan units with their recklessness. While prepared to die for the cause if necessary, Afghans were fighting a war to liberate their country and trying not to get themselves killed.

Another potentially-more troublesome rift was that Azzam championed Massoud (whom he described as the best Mujahideen commander) and this led to tensions with bin Laden and his allies. Perhaps the word ‘allies’ is putting it a bit too strongly. We should not exaggerate the differences he had with Azzam. Both men were concerned with preserving the unity of the Afghan forces and tried to avoid taking sides. Bin Laden would continue this attempt during the collapse into inter-factional fighting that followed the defeat of the communists.  Azzam and bin Laden remained friends and comrades, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that bin Laden was involved in the conspiracies that grew up among Azzam’s enemies and eventually led to his assassination in November 1989, only months after the Soviet withdrawal, but before the Afghan communist regime had been defeated.

But before we get to Azzam’s death, however, there is one more faction among the ‘Afghan Arabs’ that we should examine, that led by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Screenshot from 2018-05-21 11:14:58
Zawahiri at some point in the mid 1990s.

We have already briefly examined the early career of al-Zawahiri way back in part two when he was among the hundreds of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) members rounded up and arrested in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Following this, he was imprisoned and tortured in Mubarak’s prisons for three years, leaving Egypt upon his release in 1984, first for Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had already worked as a relief worker prior to his arrest in Egypt. It was here that he met Azzam and bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was one of many members of EIJ who left Egypt during the years after Mubarak’s crackdown, as hopes for a religiously-inspired uprising of the people in their country were disappointed.

A potted history of EIJ might be in order here, seeing as they are going to be folded into the broader story of Salafi jihadism as it evolves in the 1990s. For the background to the Egypt of the 1970s in which EIJ had it roots, see part two. As we have seen, al-Zawahiri had already been involved in underground Islamist activity since the death of Sayyd Qutb in 1966. The individual who provided the catalyst for the formation of a jihadist organisation, however, was Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (below left), an engineer and university administrator who wrote a widely-read pamphlet entitled The Neglected Obligation (in English sometimes translated as the ‘The Neglected Duty’, the ‘Forgotten Duty’ or variations thereof), which argued that, not only did the defense of Islam justify the taking up of arms against unjust rulers who were hostile to it, but that this was in fact a duty of all true Muslims. It was a key text in the development of modern jihadism and Faraj further argued that the ‘near-enemy’ (that is, hostile secular regimes in their own countries) were the enemy to be prioritised. An engaging speaker, Faraj soon attracted a cadre of followers recruited from his sermons in mosques. They included al-Zawahiri and, as fate would have it, an army lieutenant named Khalid Islambouli (below right).

Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (left) and Khalid Islambouli (right), on trial for the killing of Sadat.

Islambouli told Faraj about a military parade planned for 6 October 1981 which President Anwar Sadat would be attending. Hated by the Islamists for the oppressive secular regime he ran, this hatred had intensified since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Islambouli and other sympathetic army officers attacked Sadat on the appointed day, killing the president but failing to kill vice-president Mubarak, who would go on to rule the country for three decades. The ensuing trial gave Faraj and Islambouli an opportunity to promote their ideology from the dock, following which they were executed, no doubt satisfying a desire for martyrdom in the process.

As previously mentioned, many members of EIJ were imprisoned and rounded up in the period following the assassination, al-Zawahiri among them, but EIJ was not the only jihadist organisation active in Egypt at the time. Another branch (no doubt there was some overlap) developed in the 1970s called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (‘the Islamic Group’) particularly among students. Such Islamic groups had initially been tolerated, even encouraged, by Sadat as a counterweight to his enemies on the left. When he perceived that he had let the religious genie out of the bottle and turned on them, they hated him all the more for it. Some (including al-Jama’a itself) have claimed that they were responsible for Sadat’s killing, and personally I cannot conclusively say who did it. Both EIJ and al-Jama’a were inspired by the teachings of a blind religious scholar, Omar Abdel-Rahman (below), who would become particularly associated with al-Jama’a, and was considered by many to be its leader, perhaps more of a spiritual leader after his arrest and imprisonment in the United States in 1993, implicated in a supporting role for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February of that year, but that is a story for another post.

Omar Abdel-Rahman in 1988

The 1980s were a decade of dispersal and defeat for the Egyptian jihadists. Bearing in mind this is something of a simplification, many in the EIJ went to Afghanistan while al-Jama’a, once it had regrouped, became more synonymous with the war at home against the Mubarak regime. Loosely organised in the towns and villages among the poorest sections of society, the al-Jama’a was extremely difficult for the Egyptian state to prosecute. Having spent some time in jail after Sadat’s killing, Omar Abdel-Rahman was released in the mid-1980s and provided a talisman for the movement, even after he left for the United States in 1990. They set in motion a cycle of violence in which they provoked the Egyptian state (always happy to oblige) into more and more repressive measures, thus acting (hopefully) as a recruiting tool for their movement. In the early 1990s, hundreds of those considered blasphemous or hostile to their project were assassinated, the most famous example being the writer and critic of armed jihad, Farag Foda in 1992.

al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya

The armed campaign within Egypt began to have counter-productive results, however. While repressive measures may have alienated some towards the government, on the whole al-Jama’a‘s actions merely alienated the population towards it. In 1993, a bomb attack blamed on them killed seven and wounded twenty in a poor suburb of Cairo, an area supposed to be their natural constituency. Attacks on tourists damaged the heavily tourist-dependent economy, the most notorious of which was the killing of sixty-two people (all but four of which were tourists) at Luxor, which may have been carried out  by a faction within al-Jama’a who wished to scupper attempts by others within the movement to declare a renunciation of violence.

The reason some within al-Jama’a were prepared to do this was because the movement had already been battered hard by the state, thousands of its members having been thrown in jail and the public mood turning against them. The Luxor massacre only intensified this revulsion, which in turn allowed the government to enact much harsher measures against them, which really went into overdrive following a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995. Responsibility for this attempts was also claimed by EIJ, and even bin Laden may have been involved. By this time, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden were in Sudan, and known to be funding and assisting EIJ members who had been exiled. What had happened in the interim to al-Zawahiri and his fellow Egyptians? According to Faraj’s creed, having killed Sadat, the people were supposed to rise up spontaneously and topple the existing order, replacing it with an Islamic state and the imposition of shari’a. When things didn’t pan out this way, and after having spent a few years in prison, many Islamists went to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri among them. Here, they linked up with the foreign fighters’ being organised by Azzam and bin Laden, al-Zawahiri becoming a sort of counter-influence with bin Laden and no doubt a factor in his shifting away from his mentor and taking his own initiatives.

The Egyptians, many of whom were well-educated (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) became known as the ‘brains’ of the operation and quickly rose to prominent positions in the non-Afghan units. As al-Zawahiri’s importance as an advisor to bin Laden grew, so the ideological fissures in the jihadist movement as a whole become more acute. Azzam had been a great proponent of Muslim unity, to the point that he disapproved of wars against other Muslims, even those regimes in Egypt and Algeria who had shown themselves hostile to Islamists. Azzam’s priority was the building of a new Islamic society based on Koranic models and the worldwide revival of Islam through defensive jihad. So, while in the long term they no doubt looked forward to a distant time when the whole world would convert to Islam, in practice they were not interested in aggressively spreading the religion, merely recovering to the fold of true Islam what they saw as areas that belonged rightly within it. It should be noted that although scholars call this ‘defensive’, it meant to people like Azzam and bin Laden, places like Andalucia in Spain and Mindanao in the Philippines.

In the question of who should constitute the enemy, the influence of Qutb was therefore far less marked in Azzam and, by extension, bin Laden, than in the case of al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians, who vied for influence over bin Laden (who was, after all, the one holding the purse strings) as the Afghan war grew to a close. This contest culminated in a series of bitter disputes in 1989, as the al-Zawahiri faction accused Azzam of various misdemeanours, ranging from the specific (misappropriating funds) to the outlandish (that he was working for the CIA). Resentment at his support for Massoud and his closeness to bin Laden no doubt played a role too. Warned that his life was in danger in Peshawar and that he should leave town, Azzam ignored this advice and was killed (along with his two sons) by a roadside bomb on the 24 November 1989. Although the context in which I place this event here might suggest al-Zawahiri’s faction had him snuffed out, really pretty much anyone could have done it: al-Zawahiri, Mossad, the Iranians, the Pakistani ISI, the Afghan or Jordanian secret secrvices, you name it, they’re all suspects, and I’m not in a position to determine which of these claims is the more credible. I really do want to try and avoid flirting with conspiracy theories on this blog, so I will leave it at that. He was killed. We don’t really know who did it because the Pakistani authorities didn’t release any of the forensic evidence.

With Azzam gone, you might imagine that the way would now be clear for al-Zawahiri and the Egyptians to exert more complete control over bin Laden and his money, but by now, the Saudi had matured and was very much his own man. Although he would show influences of the Egyptian doctor in his thinking over the coming years, in many respects he would keep alive the ideological legacy of Azzam, especially in concentrating his mind, long-term, on the ‘far enemy’ and the transnational jihad which would be necessary to confront it. The Egyptians, on the other hand, may have fled abroad, but that does not mean they had given up the struggle against the ‘near enemy’ at home. This would be evinced by the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad by EIJ, of which bin Laden reportedly disapproved. As already noted, there was the attempt to assassinate Mubarak in this year too, and in the early 1990s, an observer might be forgiven for thinking that the future of jihad lay in these localised national struggles in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya, Bosnia, etc. and the attempt to build an Islamic state piece by piece.

We will look at some of these struggles in subsequent posts, because they are absolutely vital (although few in the west appreciate how important they were) to shaping militant Islam in the last few decades. As a general observation, the psychological effect of victory against the Soviet Union should be grasped. Bin Laden’s generation of Muslims was one that had grown up in the shadow of multiple defeats to Israel, the gloss had gone off Nasser’s secular nationalism and the idea that the Muslim world might regenerate itself by adopting the technological innovations of the west and imitating its culture. The pessimism that replaced these hopes had been deep-seated, but the Mujahideen‘s victory in Afghanistan was transformational, seeming to affirm the belief of young men like bin Laden that, instead of trying to copy the west, the way to regenerate the Ummah was to return to the fundamentals of Islam and the example of the prophet Muhammad.

Fighters came home from the glory of victory with their defeatism dispelled and full of hope for the struggle back in their own countries, and the expectation that the oppressed masses (and make no mistake, they were oppressed) would rise up against their corrupt secular rulers. But, as we have seen, in Egypt and elsewhere, this didn’t happen, and disappointment led some to turn towards the ‘far enemy’ or turn towards the civilian population in their own countries in bitterness (we will see a textbook example of this with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria). As popular Islamist uprisings failed to occur, and resurgent secular states turned the screw on the jihadists, it began to appear that Azzam and bin Laden had been right after all: transnational jihad against the ‘far enemy’, the sponsor of their repressive regimes, was the real solution, to confront the real threat to Islam at its source: the United States.

Whether al-Zawahiri and his allies were really thinking along these lines is debatable, however. It was likely pragmatic concerns as much as anything else that dictated they bend to bin Laden’s will as the 1990s went by. Desperately lacking funds, and in the aftermath of increasingly-successful repression by Mubarak’s regime, EIJ deemed it politic to hitch a ride on bin Laden’s project of building up a base for transnational jihad instead of everyone fighting their own individual battles against their respective secular enemies. In 1992, both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were in Sudan, where they had been given sanctuary by the regime of Omar al-Bashir and the influential Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi, who was responsible for inviting bin Laden and many other jihadists into the country, both for ideological reasons, and in the hope that some of the wealthier Arabs, mostly Saudis, would invest in the country, which was relatively poor (this was before the discovery of significant qualtities of oil in the late 1990s). We will discuss Sudan in a separate post, but just to note here that many regard al-Turabi as having been not entirely honourable in his dealings with bin Laden (Michael Scheuer, for example, who is very knowledgeable about bin Laden, although I would not always concur with his interpretations), accusing him of draining the Saudi’s bank account and then allowing him to be expelled from the country under pressure from the Americans, having spent a great deal of money to little or no purpose in the country.

What al-Zawahiri was running away from in Sudan is obvious. Not only was Egypt no longer safe for EIJ members, but Mubarak’s security services had their tentacles in all sorts of other countries too, and were getting increasingly effective help from the CIA now that the Americans no longer needed the jihadists to fight the communists on their behalf. Al-Zawahiri’s movements in the early 1990s are a bit mysterious. He traveled around a lot on forged passports. At one point he was arrested in Russia in 1996 and held in prison for six months, but they didn’t know who he really was and released him. Bin Laden’s whereabouts between the end of the Afghan war and Sudan are less mysterious. He had returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, his legend only being burnished by an injury he received at the Battle of Jalalabad in March 1989. He still enjoyed the stamp of approval from the regime and, for his part, appears to have been still been a loyal Saudi subject at this stage.

Bin Laden’s passport photograph from this period

Tensions soon emerged with the Saudi regime in several areas. First of all, there was their meddling among the Islamist factions in Afghanistan. While bin Laden had tried to use his prestigious position to bring the various groups together in order to prevent a civil war (which would happen anyway) between Rabbani-Massoud on the one hand and Hekmatyar-Sayyaf etc. on the other. Turki al-Faisal, however, strove on behalf of the latter alone, thus perpetuating divisions and hastening the slide to war. Then there was South Yemen where, as we saw in the last posts, the Islamists were emerging as a force to be reckoned with, fighting against the attempts of the southern Marxists to reassert their independence. Bin Laden and other jihadists in Saudi Arabia saw this as a more-or-less identical cause to the one they had fought in Afghanistan: atheistic communists, and camped in the Arabian peninsula of all places. They therefore threw themselves wholeheartedly into fighting them, participating in numerous attacks and assassinations of socialist leaders in the 1990-94 period. To the horror of bin Laden and his followers, however, their own government supported the Yemeni socialists, because they were seeking to undermine Yemeni unity and weaken the northern regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the first time, bin Laden came up against the realpolitick of the Saudi regime when they asked him to stop fighting the socialists in South Yemen. Appalled by this failure to fulfill their religious duty to expel the infidel, he carried on regardless.

But worse was to come, far worse.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. There followed a six-month long standoff in which the United States and its allies (among them Saudi Arabia) demanded that Iraq withdraw or face an international coalition, which would indeed expel the Iraqis from Kuwait in January. The Iraqis let it be known that they would attack Saudi Arabia if they were attacked (which they eventually did) and the kingdom was on high alert, aware that its existing defense forces would be no match for Iraq’s. This was before Iraq was destroyed by two wars and a decade of sanctions; at this time, Saddam Hussein had built its army into a formidable military power, regionally at least. Bin Laden had been warning, both in letters and public talks, about the threat posed by Hussein (whom he regarded as a monstrous secularist) and these warnings had gone largely unheeded. His continuing loyalty to the House of Saud is evinced by his offers to use his family’s resources to construct defensive fortifications and raise a force of veteran jihadists from the Afghan war to man it.

The Saudi government rejected his proposal and, most shocking of all, requested the United States send a force to help defend the kingdom. This is an absolutely crucial moment in understanding the rest of Osama bin Laden’s life and career. Here was the Saudi rulers bringing infidels, armed ones at that, into the land of the holiest sites in Islam, which were supposed to be defended by faithful Muslims alone. Among the Saudi king’s titles is ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. This was an egregious violation of everything bin Laden and his fellow fundamentalists held dear, and a shocking betrayal by those whose duty he saw it to uphold the strict Wahhabist conception of Islam he believed in. On top of all this, King Fahd secured theological justification for his decision from the Grand Mufti (the same one who had blessed the foreign fighter’s intervention in Afghanistan), Abdul Aziz bin Baz (below) for the move.

Screenshot from 2018-05-30 11:06:02.png

Up to this point, bin Laden had always deferred to religious scholars, even when their dictates seemed to be guided by the interests of preserving the House of Saud rather than the sanctity of Islam. This critique was implicit in the Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) movement, which bin Laden supported when he returned to Saudi Arabia. This was a peaceful activist group which sought to bring the regime into full compliance with Islamic law and curb its more excessive material excesses. To even suggest that the monarchy isn’t already in complete compliance with Islamic law is, however, deeply subversive in Saudi Arabia, and the movement was met by a mobilisation of theologians and scholars by the state. The establishment of American troops in the kingdom was the straw that broke the donkey’s back as far as bin Laden and his companions were concerned, but it should be remembered that it was only with the utmost reluctance that he ‘went rogue’. Henceforth, he publicly denounced these state-sponsored scholars as corrupt propagandists and his farm was raided by the security services, who disarmed his followers.

Bin Laden became an increasingly dissident figure in Saudi society, dangerous from the point of view of the state because of the respect he enjoyed from his leadership in Afghanistan. It would certainly have been tremendously destabilising to have imprisoned or executed him. It is sometimes claimed that they banished bin Laden in 1991, or even that they let him go on condition that he not direct his activities against them. The most plausible story seems to me, however, is that he escaped. Having had his passport taken from him, he managed to get one of his brothers to acquire a ‘one-time’ passport for him to wrap up some business in Pakistan, after which he promised to return. He never did. In 1994, he would be stripped of his citizenship and disowned by his family. After a brief period in Pakistan, he moved to Sudan where, as noted above, by the time he was finished he had lost a fortune in unprofitable business ventures and payments to the regime in exchange for the sanctuary he gave them.

By 1996, the only country to which he could turn for refuge was Afghanistan, by now coming under the rule of the Taliban (see part eleven), who were soon busy forcing women to stay home, banning music, blowing up Buddhist statues and generally cutting the country off from the outside world. The idea that the Taliban and bin Laden and his movement shared the same goals and ideology, however, is very mistaken (although seems to be widespread). While they gave bin Laden and his followers refuge, for reasons which we will examine in a future post on Afghanistan after their takeover, the Taliban had little interest in transnational jihad and were in fact concerned about the kind of trouble bin Laden’s activities might bring upon them. Rightly so, as it would turn out.

In 1996, Afghanistan seemed the only country where the dream of an Islam, assertive in the face of what it saw as an expansionist and hostile west, could be kept alive, but it was only barely kept alive. This is important when we come to the late 1990s and the beginnings of al-Qaeda and its attacks on the United States: the jihadists were in crisis, weakened and harried, their project having run out of steam after the failure to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. It is all-too-often forgotten in the wake of 9-11 and the blowing up of the al-Qaeda threat out of all proportion, that what was still being referred to as the ‘bin Laden’ network was in pretty desperate straits, hiding out in the wilds of Afghanistan in one of the few places were it might still have a chance of hiding from the U.S. war machine. Of course, this is not to say that they could not inflict damage on property and life. As the 1998 embassy bombings and 9-11 indicate, they certainly had the financial means, the manpower and the will to do this, but none of this mitigates the fact that militant political Islam, that sought to establish regimes based on shari’a, as a movement, was largely a spent force.

Bin Laden, photographed by Robert Fisk in Afghanistan, 1996.

Knowing this, men like bin Laden and Zawahiri knew that only by somehow provoking the west into some serious atrocities against the Muslim civilian population could they breath some life back into their failed project. The only way to do this was to commit some atrocity of their own, big enough to get the American’s attention and ignite the kind of apocalyptic ‘Clash of Civilisations’ that they (in common with American neo-Conservatives) were hoping for. It is round about here that we have to start giving consideration to the ‘organisation’ we now call al-Qaeda which would attempt to ignite such a conflict. I place the word ‘organisation’ between inverted commas because some accounts give the impression that a group of that name, with an explicit and definable hierarchical structure, was founded around 1988 when Azzam was still alive, along with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and straightaway began to prepare the Afghan veterans for a coming battle with the United States. Things are far from being that straightforward.

Certainly, as we have already seen, Azzam was talking about something called al-Qaeda or ‘the base/foundation’ in the years prior to his death. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this was an organisation though, at least not from this early stage. You will sometimes see numbered amongst bin Laden’s early attacks on the United States, the bombing of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, where American soldiers were staying on their way to Somalia. There is, however, very little evidence for his involvement. It is likewise with the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, in which his role was at most limited to a distant and tangential financial support for some of those involved, possibly. In the early 1990s, there is nothing resembling a structured international network of jihadists directed from a centralised leadership. That does not mean that the idea of creating such an organisation did not exist. It seems overwhelmingly likely that it did, and that the term al-Qaeda was meant to suggest this aspiration, the base, foundation or basis on which a real movement which could realistically take on the west might one day emerge. The name can be seen as a recognition that this was more of an aspiration or long-term project.

Exactly how long term is difficult to say. Fawaz Gerges, for example, argues that al-Qaeda in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant only a series of maxims, not an actual organisation. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but there is very little evidence it amounted to much more than that. One of the best assessments is that of Jason Burke, who I think has done the most authoritative work (in English at least) on this. By the late 1990s, he argues that:

…bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups…


…they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm—providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

So, basically, rather than resembling a limited company with a board of directors and a CEO, by the late 1990s al-Qaeda was more like a franchise, McDonalds or KFC, with a certain amount of financial and logistic support given to those jihadists who wanted to perform a deed regarded as faithful to their cause. At times, indeed, it would seem as if certain groups and individuals were acting independently and simply using the name al-Qaeda (and the same is true more recently of ISIS) to lend gravity to what are basically  lone-wolf actions. In this sense, al-Qaeda and ISIS have borne more similarity to the Animal Liberation Front than any conventional paramilitary group, in that anyone can carry out an action (there is no leadership) in the name of the ALF as long as they follow some basic guidelines, among which it must be mentioned to their credit is that no-one should be harmed, and indeed the ALF have never killed anyone.

As I suggested at the start of this post, I am sceptical of claims that al-Qaeda existed in any meaningful sense before, at very least, the late 1990s. The bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 is a crucial turning point in this respect. It is only after these that the security services and the media start talking about something called al-Qaeda. This doesn’t even mean that the people who carried out the bombings thought of themselves as members of an organisation of that name, even at this stage. One of the bombers, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, denied having even heard of anything  called al-Qaeda. The most plausible explanation for al-Qaeda‘s sudden emergence (it seems pretty weird, after all, that you go from nobody talking about them to them being this international network of highly-competent militants, practically overnight) is given once again by Burke:

It was the FBI, during investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in East Africa, which dubbed the loosely-linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

That is, in order to have any realistic chance of indicting and convicting bin Laden and other instigators of these acts, the FBI needed to work within existing laws regarding criminal conspiracy. These necessitated the prosecutors providing evidence of the existence of an organization, in order to prosecute its leader, even if that person could not be linked directly to the ‘crime’. Of course, they needed witnesses for this, to testify that bin Laden was indeed the one pulling the strings from his hideout in Afghanistan. Enter an obscure figure called Jamal al-Fadl. He is so obscure that this is the best picture I could find of him:


This is a court picture from the trial which began in February 2001 of those who had carried out the embassy bombings, and (in absentia) bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others who had financed them. Al-Fadl was a Sudanese jihadist who had joined bin Laden’s network in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He was apparently a senior member of the ‘organisation’ in the following years but grew resentful of receiving a smaller salary than others and embezzled around $110,000 from them. Having been caught, he then went around to various security agencies hoping to be given refuge and a reward for offering them information. Finally the American embassy in Eritrea took him up on his offer and he went to the United States in 1996. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time for al-Fadl. When, two years later, the FBI badly needed someone who could join the dots for them and help construct a picture of al-Qaeda as a complex and tightly-structured organisation, al-Fadl was ready and waiting to do the job for them.

He gave them exactly what they wanted, because he had every reason to exaggerate the complexity and scope of al-Qaeda. The same was true of L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan who was involved in the embassy bombings and gave detailed evidence of the ‘organisation’ in return for immunity from prosecution and witness protection. This is pretty much ‘the evidence’ for the existence of an international terrorist organisation called ‘al-Qaeda’ having existed since the late 1980s, and it is deeply flawed. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings, and even more so after 9 September 2001, the exigency of building a prosecution against bin Laden and co. had become a more important priority than the actual truth of what al-Qaeda was and how long it had been around. The problem is that the flimsiness of the evidence it was based on was forgotten and subsequent accounts have reported the findings of the trial as if it was solid primary evidence.

Once again, none of this is to deny the fact that some kind of a network clearly existed prior to 1998 (and likely for some years) that had as its aim the extension of the war to the United States. Bin Laden made this clear in a public declaration of war on the United States in August 1996, published in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, making clear that he had shifted his focus on corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia, to their main sponsor. There was also the well-attested creation of the ‘World Islamic Front’ in February 1998, a union of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian faction of EIJ and bin Laden’s network (whether we wish to refer to it as al-Qaeda at this stage or not) along with a few smaller jihadist groups. The fatwa in question contained sentences like: ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…’ You get the drift: the kind of thing you would imagine a formidable anti-American jihadist organisation to declare.

Six months before the embassy bombings, however, these grand declarations were greeted in the west with the semi-indifference they probably deserved at the time. Even afterwards, in 2000, Fawaz Gerges, an expert in this field was writing:

Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin [. . .] his organization, Al-Qa‘ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin, has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa, not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.

Fawaz Gerges, ‘The end of the Islamist insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and prospects’, in The Middle East Journal, 54:4 (2000) 597-8.

Writing a year before 9-11, Gerges would appear to have been spectacularly wrong. But if you think about it a little more, it seems to me that he was essentially correct in all but one (dramatically important) respect. He failed to note that even a relatively small and battered group like this could still carry out an attack like 9-11, and rely on the reaction of the United States to spark off a decades-long war. The terrifying fact of the matter is that any dedicated small group with a pile of cash could have carried out 9-11: the ALF, ETA, the IRA, any of these paramilitary groups could, if they put their minds to it and weren’t bothered by mass civilian casualties. This was certainly true at that time, before the stricter security protocols that 9-11 brought about were introduced.

Nothing about 9-11 changed the fundamental geopolitical situation, but so traumatic was the event to Americans that they felt the need to believe that it ‘changed everything’. This compounded the tragedy. The American government’s response made sure it ‘changed everything’, not the attack itself, and this is exactly what bin Laden and his allies had been hoping for. Ironically, by declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against an amorphous network of desperadoes as if it was a coherent ‘army’, sophisticated and hierarchical, there is a good argument to be made that the United States brought such an organisation closer to actually existing. After 9-11, many jihadist groups started calling themselves ‘al-Qaeda in the something or other’. A glance through some of the names of these groups claiming to be branches of al-Qaeda (below) suggests they are actually more-or-less independent organisations seeking to claim some of the street cred which bin-Laden’s group acquired among jihadists from the exaggerated threat they were presented as after 9-11. Again, bin Laden was only to happy to be blamed, and presented as some kind of omnipotent and mercurial Bond villain.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (2004)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007)
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (2009)
Al-Qaeda in Somalia (2010)
Al-Qaeda in the Levant (2012)
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (2014)

If al-Qaeda was a franchise, the American state department drummed up some great business for them.

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It might be asked why they did this? To analyse the American military-industrial complex is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s pretty obvious to any impartial observer that the military, security services and large swathes of the political classes have a vested interest in keeping the public in a heightened state of fear from an external threat. Adam Curtis’ fantastic series The Power of Nightmares suggests that, with the apparent failure of ideology and dreams of a better future to inspire people politically, politicians have found a useable replacement in fear of a vague, implacable and irrational enemy, who ‘hate us for our freedoms‘. It should also be noted that the threat from Islam and Muslims begins to come to the fore just as the communist bloc is collapsing and they could no longer use that particular bogeyman.

Besides, this there is the extremely lucrative arms industry, which would collapse without a good war to keep it going (even better, one with a vaguely-defined and shifting enemy and no obvious objectives, just like the ‘War on Terror’, which can be extended indefinitely). This is worth $1.69 trillion a year (2016), a quarter of which ends up in the Middle East or North Africa. The US, the UK and France are responsible for around 70% of all exports of major conventional weapons to the Middle East. You can read more fun facts here. There are literally armies of people whose very livelihoods depend on the existence of something like al-Qaeda or ISIS. This included not only actual military or law-enforcement personnel, but a legion of academics (whose numbers have swelled since 9-11) who follow the money when it comes to the many postgraduates programmes and postdoctural fellowships which abound in the subject of terrorism and security. These, the very people we look to for authoritative answers about this subject, are institutionally disinclined to offer an alternative narrative to the one we were stuck with, even though it is highly dubious. They are no more likely to question it than a member of the theology department is likely to question the value of studying the bible, or someone in a business school is likely to critique capitalism.

Given all this, if we ask ourselves whether the world’s most powerful intelligence-gathering agencies misunderstood the nature of al-Qaeda or whether they deliberately distorted the picture to create an organisation where one hardly existed, the ‘exaggeration’ thesis seems more plausible than the idea that they got it wrong. This is not to say that there was no threat (clearly there was) or that these intelligence agencies knew about 9-11 beforehand or anything. Simply that the nature of the threat was manipulated in order to justify attacks on entire countries that had little or nothing to do with the atrocities bin Laden sponsored. Where, you might ask, does exaggeration shade into outright lying? Round about here:


Rather than go into the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 1993 and 2001, or the embassy bombings of 1998, I will examine them in some detail in a future post. Before we do that, however, we have to look at some of the conflicts that have been alluded to in this post, where the fight was taken up by jihadists in the 1990s to the ‘near enemy’ in Algeria, Chechnya and Bosnia, discrete national stories that have been forgotten in the haste to paint a picture of all-encompassing global conflict between ‘the west’ and ‘the Muslims’, but which, if anything, are more significant.


Featured image above: Eyes of Osama Bin Laden.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2


This second part of our focus on Yemen will cover the period from the emergence of two independent states in the 1960s (not without a fight) to the end of the 1990s, when a formally-united country was anything but united if you cared to scratch beneath the surface. As we saw last time, North Yemen emerged in 1962 as a republic which had to fight for its existence against the monarchy which had controlled the country for decades. Having secured its existence through some compromises with the royalist faction, the civil war was over by 1970 and the foreign armies who had intervened in the northern war (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, British-backed mercenaries) gone. In the south, an insurgency based around the British-controlled port of Aden had emerged victorious in 1967, but the newly-independent People’s Republic of South Yemen did not avoid some teething troubles of its own. These revolved around the clash between different branches of the ruling party, some more left wing than others. A tension had already been present during the fight with the British, as the more centrist FLOSY (who had held off joining the fight for a long time in the expectation that the British would negotiate) and the more left-wing NLF fought for control over the newly-independent state, a fight won decisively by the NLF pretty rapidly. Once in power, the NLF set to work fighting with each other over the direction the new state would take, a struggle in which the more radical left-wing members won in 1969 when they ousted president al-Shaabi (see previous part) in what was known as the ‘corrective move’ and set the country on a more explicitly Marxist path, renaming it the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.


The new government looked eagerly to the Soviet Union for economic and military support and the Soviets for their part found one of the world’s greatest natural harbours fall right into its sphere of influence without even having to fight for it. The new government sought to build a Marxist state out of distinctly unpromising raw material (although I guess you could have said about Russia in 1917 as well). It is not just that southern Yemen bore no resemblance to the kind of industrialised society with a proletariat that doctrinaire Marxists might claim is necessary to build a successful communist society. It was also South Yemen’s specific circumstances: it was much smaller in population than North Yemen, but much larger in area, only 1% of which was arable. The south had no significant natural resources to speak of and, perhaps worst of all, its greatest asset, Aden, was a far-less significant port after the 1967 war closed the Suez Canal until 1975.

The government did not help matters by locking up or expelling a large proportion of the small proportion of its population that had an education, distrusting them as subversives and a threat to the tightly-controlled authoritiarian state they felt was necessary to keep the fragile country together. This control was facilitated by a secret police trained by the East German Stasi itself. The external threat represented by the rival Yemen to their north and west was also a drain on resources; spending on the army was gobbling up half the state budget by 1971. Credit where credit’s due though: like many socialist states, great advances were made in education and healthcare and to some extent in the status of women. Attempts were made to curtail the influence of religious leaders and tribalism, but of course corruption and tribalism remained, and would play a role in South Yemen’s demise. Its three main leaders stand side by side in this picture, taken in 1977 (from left to right): Salim Rubai Ali, Abdul Fattah Ismail and Ali Nasir Muhammad.


Rubai Ali became president of South Yemen at the time of al-Shaabi’s removal in 1969, but we are not taking about an centralised, autocratic ruler; power was really distributed throughout a number of top posts within the administration, awkwardly as it would turn out. Rubai Ali was more Maoist and oriented towards China, and found himself in conflict with Abdul Fattah Ismail, who was closer to the Soviets and an eager promoter of international left-wing armed groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the German Red Army Faction, and gave a South Yemen passport to Carlos the Jackal. When in power in South Yemen, he also secured backing for the insurgents in neighbouring Oman during the Dhofar rebellion in south-western Oman (which we will no doubt get to in this blog someday). Ismail was more of an idealistic doctrinaire Marxist and internationalist than the others, and occupied the important position of General Secretary of the Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP) which he played a leading role in creating in 1978 as the party of consensus among South Yemen’s political classes, in order to occupy the position of ‘one party’ in the one-party state they were designing.

The third of these pals, Ali Nasir Muhammad, was less ideologically-committed to the ruling socialist ideology and, his enemies would claim, more committed to his political career and using his position to serve himself and his clients. Because he had less principled obstacles in the way of his politics, Ali Nasir Muhammad was in a much better position to compromise with South Yemen’s enemies, and was viewed by North Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Oman as the much more preferable of the alternatives, whereas Ismail sponsored liberation movements and encouraged the oppressed masses to rise up there. Most of South Yemen’s fairly short existence would be characterised by these three guys plotting against each other. Rubai Ali was the first skittle to fall. He was also more amenable to improved relations with Yemen’s non-socialist neighbours, and Abdul Fattah Ismail’s faction distrusted his attempts to do so. Someone (although it remains unclear precisely who) put a bomb in a briefcase which killed the president of North Yemen, Ahmad al-Ghashmi (we’ll get to him below). The recriminations down south, with both Rubai Ali and Ismail’s factions blaming each other, led to a short, sharp contest of arms in which Rubai Ali lost, was tried and executed in 1978.

But if Abdul Fattah Ismail thought he had won, it was no more than a pyrrhic victory; the alienation of many that followed the removal of Rubai Ali, and growing impatience at Ismail’s dogmatism (even the Soviets found him too inflexible) led to his removal as party leader in 1980 and his removal to Moscow ‘for health reasons’. Ali Nasir Muhammad now appeared to be undisputed leader, and a period of loosening-up, of improved foreign relations with South Yemen’s erstwhile enemies followed. While the Soviets were only too happy to see this (they had no wish to see South Yemen drag them into some kind of costly unnecessary war in Arabia) the pragmatic Ali Nasir began to stray too far from the path of socialism for everyone’s comfort, inviting private enterprise and investment, oil prospecting, foreign companies, building hotels and living it up in the lap of luxury with the other top brass in the YSP.

But not everyone, because Ismail back in Moscow still had his supporters and he returned in late 1984 and attempted to carry out another ‘corrective move’. The two leaders’ forces sought to secure support for themselves within the army, and people tended to take sides along tribal lines. Ali Nasir got the South Yemen Civil War rolling, (colloquially referred to as The Events of 1986) on the 13 January when he sent one of his bodyguards into a politburo meeting with a machine gun and attempted to have all of his opponents shot. While some were killed, Ismail escaped, only to be killed in the shelling of a tank later that day (probably; his body was incinerated and never found), this incident sparked off an eleven-day orgy of killing by both sides of the YSP in which over 5,000 people were killed. While Ali Nasir might have initially seemed to have the upper hand, the division of the army with the tanks went over to the Ismail faction and that basically decided things. Ali Nasir fled to North Yemen, with whom he already had cosy relations (although not cosy enough to help when he begged them to send troops to help keep him in power), and power was taken by the Ismail-allied Ali Salem al Beidh (below), who had been in the meeting-room when the bodyguard opened fire but threw himself on the floor and pretended to be dead, which pretty much sums up what it took to get ahead in South Yemen politics.


The country limped on for a few more years, fatally undermined by the bloodletting that had taken place, not to mention its chronic economic problems. The death-blow came with the collapse of the eastern bloc and the withdrawal of Soviet support. By 1990, unification with the north was suddenly a welcome prospect for the al-Beidh regime, but what kind of country were they going to be unifying with?

Unlike the south, North Yemen didn’t fit easily into the Cold War jigsaw puzzle. The great controlling influence was the oil-rich Saudi state to the north, and by extension that would place them in the American camp in the east-west dichotomy. Except for the fact that they received Soviet arms as well, and as a general rule, North Yemen diplomacy was characterised by making deals with whoever gave the most and asked for least in return. As we noted last week, the northern civil war had ended with a kind of deal by which the republicans kept their republic, shed its more left-wing elements and replaced its military rule with a civilian president, Abdul Rahman  (1967-1974) (below). In return, the royal family agreed to stay out of politics but some of the royalist camp were given a role in the new regime. Furthermore, a great deal of power was still accessible by the northern tribes, who were guaranteed posts in the administration and lucrative stipends as a part of the peace deal that ended the war. This was storing up trouble for the future, as it constituted a great check on the ability of the state to expend resources on development and constrained the independence of the president and other political leaders to serve the countries best interests as a whole.


An example of this institutional weakness was the outbreak of war between the two Yemens in 1972, little more than a series of border skirmishes, which took place largely against the will of the political leadership and at the behest of the military, goaded by the Saudis, who were fiercely hostile to South Yemen, who in turn seemed to seriously entertain the prospect of conquering the north by force, as unlikely as that sounds. Seeing the forces arrayed against him, and the growing Saudi displeasure towards his soft approach towards the south, al-Iryani, while abroad in Syria in 1974 decided to stay away. North Yemen’s first (and only) civilian leader died in exile in Damascus twenty-four years later. The country was then ruled by military leaders for the best part of a decade. Initially, this was not as bad as it sounds. The first of these, Ibrahim al-Hamdi (1974-77) is generally well-remembered as a constructive, conciliatory figure who made attempts to deal with corruption and ease tensions with the south. He ruled during a period of economic growth for the country as many young Yemenis from the north went to work in Saudi Arabia (basically, the oil crisis was a bonanza for those in oil while the rest of the world’s economy went down the toilet) and sent home remittances. North Yemen also managed to secure for itself a great deal of aid from western governments anxious to lure them securely into its camp in the Cold War.

Al-Hamdi’s talk of tackling corruption made him enemies among the powerful northern sheikhs whose privileges he threatened by carrying out a rationalisation of the state apparatus. The Saudis were likewise not happy with his talk of building bridges with the south because they feared nothing more than a united Yemen. They may have been involved in his assassination, although evidence is inconclusive. The main suspect was his successor, Ahmad al-Ghashmi who, as we noted above, was assassinated by southern agents only eight months later. Hopes can not have been high that his successor, a lieutenant-Colonel named Ali Abdullah Saleh (below right), would last much longer, but Saleh enjoyed family connections among the powerful northern tribes and the support of the leader of the powerful Hashid tribal confederation, Abdullah al-Ahmar (the dude standing to his left below). Saleh was to prove himself adept at balancing, and ultimately mastering, the numerous forces that vied for power in the country. Far from being assassinated after a few months, he would reign as president of first the north, and from 1990 on, a united Yemen, for an astonishing thirty-four years.


One of Saleh’s first challenges was another war with the south in 1979, fallout from the assassinations of both countries’ presidents. With troops massed on the border and South Yemen arming insurgents in the north, it was harder not to have a war than have one. These insurgents, the National Democratic Front (NDF), were basically those elements of the left in North Yemen who had been shunted off the political stage as a result of the compromises inherent in ending the civil war. Denied a role in public life, they took up arms after the series of assassinations of presidents, seeing the increasingly consolidation of a conservative political elite in the country through strong-arm tactics. The war did not appear to be going well for the north. While the south was smaller in population and resources, it was given resolute military backing by other communist states. The real possibility of the north’s defeat spurred the Arab League into diplomatic action and the crisis passed as peace was mediated with these and the support of the superpowers; basically, things were tense enough in the world without the US and USSR going to war over Yemen.

The peaceful resolution of the conflict, and accompanying declarations of the intention to somehow unify the two states someday, also meant Saleh was able to confront his opponents within the country more effectively. The NDF insurgency fizzled out with a lessening of southern aggression, especially after Ali Nasir Muhammad took over there. An early sign that Saleh really meant business was his purging of elements in the army hostile to him and his execution of thirty officers who were accused of plotting to overthrow him. In the years that followed, he built up a system in North Yemen that buttressed his power by compromising with the powerful tribal leaders, offering them the spoils of power, while still strengthening the state apparatus and maintaining his popularity with the army, who were also generously funded. In many ways, Saleh used his power to not only keep them at bay, but to control the sheikhs through the granting or withholding of largesse and lucrative contracts at his pleasure. It might be argued that much of this took place at the expense of the average Yemeni citizen, but this was deemed a minor inconvenience. It is not for nothing that the country was described at this time by Robert Burrowes as ‘a kleptocracy, government of, by and for the thieves’.

The increased opportunities for investment in North Yemen, not to mention the discovery of commercial quantities of oil in 1984, brought about a certain degree of economic growth (or at least the appearance of it). Certainly the north began to pull ahead of its southern neighbour to some extent, especially as Soviet aid to the latter became more parsimonious. This is reflected in Sana’a’s overtaking of Aden as the largest city in the country(ies). In the immediate aftermath of the crazy events of 1986 in the south, relations were not particularly good between the two Yemens. More border skirmishes took place in 1988 and yet within two years, the two countries were unified. What happened? Well, behind a lot of the sudden enthusiasm for unification was the fact that oil was found in the border region, and in order to extract as much as possible, co-operation made far more sense than fighting. Indeed, the last round of border fighting had led to the creation of a demilitarised zone in order to assist oil extraction.

Both the Saleh and Beidh regimes saw advantages in joining with the other. South Yemen had been cut loose now that the USSR was collapsing, and Saleh had his own problems in North Yemen, where the growing prospects of oil wealth also created the problems of tribes feuding over access to it. He also came under pressure to pursue unity from Saddam Hussein, who was at the height of his influence and power in the Arab world at this time, and who saw a united Yemen as a potential ally in a showdown he wanted to engineer with Saudi Arabia. The leadership of the south were initially less enthusiastic of merging their much smaller (demographically) country with the north, but were won over by promises of disproportionate influence within the ministries of the new country and the illusion that the YSP would win subsequent elections. A certain personal chemistry between the two presidents seems to have played a part, and al-Beidh in particular became a decisive advocate of unity. By no means were all convinced, as one member of the southern government threatened to have everyone else shot if they agreed to the plan.

Friends forever! Beidh (left) and Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification

But agree they did, with what some might describe as undue haste, likely in order to forestall their opponents’ attempts to rally opposition, and on 22 May 1990 the new Republic of Yemen was declared. If you look closely at the picture above, where unity was declared, you can divine more about what lies ahead from the expression on the soldier’s face in the background than either of the politicians.

This was never going to be a union of equals any more than England and Scotland will ever be a union of equals (let’s not kid ourselves!), and it didn’t take long before this became apparent. Flowery rhetoric about taking the best of each country’s systems and amalgamating them into one improved state were not followed through by practice. Instead, ministries were not really integrated in anything more than a superficial sense and officials continued to think of themselves as northerners and southerners. Oil was found in the south later that year, fueling regret among some in the south that they had agreed to the union so hastily, now that they had to share the profits. Timing wasn’t great either. Only two months after unity, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait (yes, this blog is well overdue a post on Iraq) and Saleh was placed in an awkward predicament. It has already been seen how he enjoyed fairly close relations with Hussein (although they look like they’re squaring up for a fight in the image below) and he probably would have preferred to avoid taking Iraq’s side against the entire western hemisphere at this juncture. Popular revulsion at Saudi Arabia’s welcoming American troops into the land of Islam’s holy sites, however, pushed him to side with Iraq, the only other Arab state to do so.


Yemen’s refusal to get on board with the First Gulf War cost them dearly in economic terms; the Saudis kicked out the almost one million Yemenis working there, who had been keeping the economy afloat with remittances. When they came home, unemployment skyrocketed. The Americans were livid that their Secretary of State, James Baker, had been publicly defied by Saleh when he visited the country in late 1990 to basically order the Yemenis to toe the line. In retaliation, the U.S. withdrew $70 billion dollars of aid to the country.

All of this boded ill for the country and for prospects of a successful union, but oddly enough it did not bode particularly ill for Saleh’s regime in itself. New oil finds meant new wealth to distribute to his supporters, the first unity elections held in 1993 were a triumph for his General People’s Congress (GPC) who won 123 seats in parliament, and a massive disappointment for the YSP who had expected to do so well but ended up with only 56. They were even surpassed by a moderate Islamist party called al-Islah (reform) led by the above-mentioned sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar, which is a sign of the growing sympathy for political Islam in the early 1990s, as we will see in subsequent posts. Southerners’ frustration at being dominated instead of treated as equals grew and Beidh retreated to Aden, fearing for his life in Sana’a. One of the many institutions which had been no more than superficially amalgamated was the army, and brigades from north and south respectively began to mass along what had been the border in early 1994.

Fighting had already started by the time Beidh announced the rebirth of South Yemen in May, but this ephemeral state hardly existed outside Aden and Mukalla, notwithstanding the fact that Saudi Arabia now, ironically, supported the ‘godless Marxists’ because they were espousing the breakup of Yemen. Perhaps surprisingly, the United States did not back up the Saudis for once and, forgiving his lack of support against Iraq, backed Saleh. Islamists within the country also sided with the North Yemen president, who made deft use of this combined appeal to religion and national unity to garner popular support to his side. It was all over within six weeks, northern forces rolling into Aden while Beidh and his supporters fled by boat to Yemen. The army proceeded to loot the city as conquerors, and from here on in unification comes to resemble conquest of the south by the north more and more. It’s telling that Beidh and other YSP leaders were airbrushed out of pictures celebrating unification, leaving Saleh along, unchallenged as ‘the leader’ of a united (whether it wanted to be or not) country. This was reflected in the results of the first presidential election, held in 1999, in which Saleh won with 96.2% of the vote. Popular guy eh?

But for all his supposed popularity, Saleh was about to be challenged not by a rival from the conventional political spectrum, but by a force he had helped unleash in Yemen. Among the soldiers from the north who sacked Aden in 1994 were many jihadist veterans who had fought with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, whose support Saleh had been happy to harness for the cause of defeating the south. They also often came from families who had their roots in the south, but had been expelled by the Marxists back in the 1960s and lived in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since, and saw themselves as taking back what was rightfully theirs. Of course Islam was not new to Yemeni politics, but the context in which it was appearing now was innovatory. Unlike earlier brands of moderate reformist Islamists, more akin to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or Syria, many of these younger activists embodied a more combative, crusading mission; there were reports, for example, of them destroying alcohol and trying to impose sharia in Aden when they took part in the assault.

These were uncompromising zealots who would not be co-opted or bought off by the president but who, on the contrary, would push him aside if he did not share their vision. As Saleh came to enjoy warmer relations with the United States, it became increasingly clear that he did not share their vision, but few in the United States could even find Yemen on a map, let alone have any idea it was becoming a hub of Islamism and anti-American sentiment towards the end of the 1990s. In Aden harbour six years after the civil war, they signaled even more dramatically their intentions of taking jihad to the infidel by detonating 300kg of explosives in a small boat against the hull of the USS Cole docked there, briefly grabbing the Americans’ attention before it (transient at the best of times) was diverted to Afghanistan and Iraq in the aftermath of 9-11. But something was stirring in Yemen, a movement that would see Islamic-inspired insurgents challenge the state’s authority from north to south. It would be in the north among the Zaydi that one of the most successful of these organisations, Ansar Allah (the supporters of Allah) would emerge. Colloquially known as the Houthis, after their leader Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi (below), they would go from being a relatively apolitical religious revival movement to being forced into confrontation with the government on their home ground in 2004, to become a formidable military force that had taken the capital San’a itself in 2014. But the manner in which they achieved this really merits another post.

Hussein Badreddin al-Houthi



Featured image above: Ali Salem al Beidh (left) and Ali Abdullah Saleh (right) at the announcement of unification.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 14: Yemen #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

nasserfaisalAfter the previous posts on the Afghan war, my intention was originally to examine the participation of foreign fighters in that war and their subsequent attempts to launch jihad in various other countries in the 1990s. I will defer this story for another post, however, as I wish first to backtrack somewhat to where we were after part two of this series, that is, back in the Arab world, and back in the 1960s, looking at the demise of the secularist Arab nationalist movement, personified by Egypt’s president Gamel Abdel Nasser. What left the story somewhat incomplete at that stage was the existence of an opposing movement in the Arab world at the same time that Nasser and his allies were espousing a modern, technologically-driven rebirth of society that would stand up against western imperialism. This was a conservative, theocratic vision centered around the traditional monarchies of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s would become the standard-bearer and chief rival of Nasser’s Egypt in what scholar Malcolm Kerr termed the ‘Arab Cold War’.

I wouldn’t push this analogy between the US-Soviet Union Cold War and the Egypt-Saudi Arabia one too far. It certainly isn’t universally accepted and differs in profound ways. One similarity is that it did not develop into direct military confrontation, but involved proxy conflicts fought between the two regional powers in other countries, namely Yemen, which sadly is back in the news (although not enough in the news) on account of outside interference. In any case, this rivalry, and the wider battle for the soul of the Muslim world, between conservative Islam and secular nationalism, is crucial for understanding what lies ahead. The notion of an Arab Cold War is also a useful framework within which to prepare the ground for future posts I want to write on Iraq, Libya and Yemen, although a lot will be said about Yemen in this post as well. In part two, I took a fairly detailed look at what was happening in Egypt up to the assassination of Sadat. In part one, I also covered the beginnings of Saudi power in Arabia, and its emergence as a power after world war two, when it positioned itself as a firm partisan of (and oil supplier to) the United States in the Cold War.

To comprehend the weirdness of Saudi Arabia, it really has to be understood how rapid was the transformation from a feudal (probably a clumsy use of that word, sorry) society, tribal in structure and desperately poor, to a modern petro-state, one of the richest in the world with the military capacity of the world’s preeminent superpower at its disposal, and yet underpinned by a conservative religious ideology that sought to reinstate an imagined ‘purer’ Islam, using tremendously-enhanced resources, acquired by linking its economic fate inextricably with the modern world, while at the same time trying to keep that world at bay. Contradictions such as this about in Saudi Arabia. While a bastion of traditionalism, there is nothing traditional about the kingdom. It is a thoroughly modern creation, dating as we saw in part one, to the 1920s-30s. The name literally means the country conquered and ruled over by the Saud dynasty. I can’t think of any other country whose name reflects its rulers in this way; it’s as if ‘Putin’s Russia’ or ‘Elizabeth’s England’ were the actual official title of those respective countries.

We have already seen, in brief outline, how Ibn Saud came to power by warring on his rivals in the decades prior to ‘independence’ in 1932. What we haven’t really examined, however, is how the kingdom he established came to be a functioning coherent state, as opposed to a loosely-allied group of warlords under the umbrella of one uber-warlord. And this is where the American oil companies came in, for it was they who initially built the infrastructure which would tie together the new state and lay the foundations of its power. At the time of independence, little of this existed. Ibn Saud consolidated his power by personal alliances, marriages, suppressing possible rivals (especially within his own huge dynasty) and lavish hospitality. All this left him with huge debts, which the Standard Oil company of California, SOCAL (a predecessor of today’s Chevron Corporation) offered to help him with if he would let them prospect for oil in his territory.


It is interesting to note that Ibn Saud took the trouble to consult the religious authorities, the ulema, on the wisdom of consorting with infidels in this matter, not so much because they said it was acceptable, but because the were hardly likely to say otherwise. The fact is that the Saudi king had already co-opted them to a large extent, consulting them publicly on the compatibility with Islam of other innovations such as the car and telephone, to none of which they offered any serious challenge. It was a formality, but nonetheless it is notable that he felt the need to keep up the pretense. This was because, despite the acquiescence of the religious establishment in his project, Ibn Saud still faced opposition from Islamic traditionalists in other corners of Saudi society. At the time the first foreigners were arriving to look for oil, anecdotes tell of the imam of the mosque in Riyadh giving a sermon to a congregation of which Ibn Saud was a part about the sinfulness of co-operating with infidels. The king is said to have interrupted angrily and countered with another sura from the Qur’an, suggesting such co-operation was permitted. This tension, between the Saudi government-sanctioned form of the faith, and those who felt the integrity of Wahhabist doctrine had been compromised, will be a constant underlying theme throughout the whole of Saudi history, and once we’ve had a look at the kind of state Ibn Saud and his sons created, we will backtrack a bit and examine the various undercurrents of dissent that existed in the country and how they were dealt with (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).

Oil was of course found, in large quantities, in 1938 at Damman on the Persian Gulf in the east of the country and things moved quickly from there. Although the disruptions caused by Second World War in some ways slowed early development, the post-war reconstruction and alliance with the United States no doubt made up for this. A subsidiary of SOCAL, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, took care of business in Saudi Arabia, and in 1944 its name was changed to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). It might be argued that ARAMCO is as important a factor in the story of Saudi Arabia as the Saud family itself. In these first decades after the war, ARAMCO basically performed the functions of a state which the Saud family didn’t initially have the resources to: building infrastructure (much of it in the early years at least, primarily for the use of the royal family) such as roads, railroads, a communications network, schools, hospitals, you name it: ARAMCO took care of it, for a hefty fee of course.

Screenshot from 2018-04-11 11:23:31
Still from Aramco publicity film, 1950

Riyadh’s population exploded in these years, from around 50,000 at the end of the war to 150,000 in 1960 and over 500,000 in 1970. The capital was connected by railway (built of course by ARAMCO) to Damman in 1951. The country was basically a construction site, much of this work (not to mention the drilling) supervised by infidels the conservative elements in Saudi society had been so reluctant to allow in-mostly Americans but also some Dutch, British, Italians, etc. While the years after oil-extraction commenced saw an explosion in the numbers of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia (before this, they had probably numbered fewer than fifty), this does not mean that they wandered around the country at will, freely interacting with the locals. On the contrary, ARAMCO’s workers lived in a weird, cloistered world shut off from Saudi society in vast compounds in which they attempted to recreate as much as possible the conditions of suburban America which they had left behind. At the Dhahran compound near Damman, a regime of racial segregation was imposed in which the foreign workers lived in luxurious, air-conditioned quarters surrounded by barbed wire fences, while their Arab colleagues lived right next door in an unfenced compound that, in the early days, lacked basic services such as electricity, water and plumbing.

Images from Aramco compound, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1950s

The Saudi workers in these oil-fields were people who, for the most part, had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, living a sedentary or nomadic life within the desert that had changed little in centuries. This world was suddenly turned upside down, exposed to the influence, not only of the westerners which both ARAMCO and the Saudi government attempted (but never completely managed) to confine within the compounds, but also of Arabs who came from other parts of the middle east to work in the industry. Palestinians, for example, came and told their fellow Arabs of their travails and the Nakba; ideas of pan-Arab nationalism begin to foment within Saudi Arabia, even secularism; workers came under the influence of socialist ideas and attempted to organise. Another potentially destabilising factor was the fact that in the early years, most of the functioning oil wells were in the eastern province of the country where most of the country’s Shia live, a minority (about 10%) with which the Saudi rulers have not always enjoyed smooth relations, especially after the revolution of 1979 in nearby Iran. In the mid-1950s, about 60% of ARAMCO’s native workforce were Shia.

This propaganda video gives an idea of the kind of hybrid world being built in the desert in the 1950s:

These revolutionary social developments began to see political consequences in the 1950s, for all the government’s (and the Americans’) efforts to maintain the status quo. The deplorable conditions in workers’ camps led to strikes among the ARAMCO workforce in 1953 and 1956 that obtained some improvement of conditions. The authorities’ tactic seems to have been to take the edge off this dissent by making material concessions, but conceding nothing in the way of political rights, and certainly not allowing the labour movement any opportunity to organise itself into anything resembling an opposition. The most prominent of these opposition figures was Nasir al-Sa’id, a worker from Ha’il in the northern interior of the country. While offering improved wages and camp conditions, people like al-Sa’id were imprisoned. When released, he left the country and led a kind of opposition in exile from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. While not regarded as a huge threat by the Saudis for most of the 1960s-1970s, in the period following the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in late 1979, which he claimed was part of a people’s revolution, al-Sa’id was kidnapped from his home in Beirut and never seen again, the widespread suspicion (never confirmed) being that the Saudis got hold of him.

What happened to al-Sa’id—exile, possibly execution, attempts to excise him from public memory (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page as far as I can tell, nor can I find a picture of him anywhere) is typical of those who have stood up to the Saudi regime, which has this strange double face: on the one hand presiding over dramatic changes in the social and material fabric of the country, while simultaneously trying (largely successfully) to maintain an unchanging political hegemony. Just as all these dramatic changes were taking off, the country’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud died in 1953, and power passed to the first in a series of sons which, to this day, have ruled the kingdom in succession. Saud (one of forty-five sons) came to the throne at the age of 51. He had been groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom from an early age, after the death of his older brother of flu in 1919. Here he is, posing with two of his favourite  butlers in 1957:


Saud was a dud, which became clear over the following decade. He spent lavishly on palaces and stuff for himself and his dynasty while the country’s debt spiraled out of control. While the oil business was booming, but it wasn’t that booming, and huge debts (much of which he had inherited from his father) meant that cuts had to come somewhere, given the refusal of ARAMCO banks to extend. Under Saud, these cuts generally came from public works projects. Given that the ‘public sphere’ in Saudi Arabia was more or less limited to the royal family, opposition to Saud coalesced around two focal points: his brother Faysal, with whom he had been vying for power since before their father died, and a much younger brother, Talal. But Faysal first:

Faysal, king from 1964 to 1975

Both Saud and Faysal had received extensive training in expectation that they would succeed to positions of power in the kingdom. This training seems to have impressed itself upon the mind of Faysal more profoundly than Saud. He had been minister for foreign affairs since 1930 and prime minister since the time of Saud’s accession, when the post had been created, along with a Council of Ministers, as a gesture on Saud’s part towards sharing power with his relatives. This council would instead become a battleground, as Saud used it to promote his adherents and immediate family members. Government ministries became pawns controlled by the king as he sought to scheme against what he (rightly) suspected was his brother’s scheming against him and filled posts with allies, some from the royal family, others from less-prominent collateral branches or people he trusted. This alienated those in the family who felt shut out, who rallied around Faysal. One of the most important of these was the ‘Sudairi Seven’, so called because they were all sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud with Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, and two of whom have succeeded as king. Instead of getting bogged down with all their names for the moment, just to note that these were a powerful ally for Faysal as the Saud regime’s financial situation deteriorated and the king’s incompetence more and more apparent to those in the know.

Relations began to deteriorate between the two brothers in the early sixties and Saud was less successful than Faysal in maintaining a power-base. Saud’s assumed for himself the powers of prime minister in 1960 and at this point his rival was merely waiting for his opportunity to act. This came in 1962 when Saud went abroad for medical treatment. Forming a cabinet in his brother’s absence, Faysal, with the support of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ and other allies, announced a program of reforms that included the creation of a basic law, the abolition of slavery (yep, they still had that) and the establishment of a judicial council. Having secured the support of the ulema (Islamic religious scholars), it was a done deal by the time Saud came home. Although there was a short period in which he was allowed to remain as a figurehead, it wasn’t long before Faysal had him removed from this capacity as well, and Saud left the country, dying in Greece in 1969.

And yet in many ways, his predecessor was the least of Faysal’s worries. Saud was yesterday’s man. The threats facing the Saudi regime going forward came from other sources, some within, some without. As we have already seen, politics in Saudi Arabia was essentially something practices only by the extended family of the king. Everyone else was a bystander, if they were even observing public events. Among those in the inner circle were younger sons of Ibn Saud, especially Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (below) whose mother was Armenian, and who Ibn Saud had doted over in his old age. Talal and some other younger brothers formed a faction that oscillated in their loyalty between Saud and Faysal, and when Saud failed to listen to their proposals for some modest liberalisations of the autocratic regime, Talal and some of his allies moved abroad in 1961, forming an opposition in exile in Lebanon and Egypt and heavily influenced by the vibe behind Gamal Abdel Nasser, hence the moniker they gave themselves: the ‘Free princes’ (cf. the ‘Free Officers Movement’ in Egypt).


Although influenced by Nasser, the Free Princes did not go as far as proposing the deposition of the king, merely its transformation into a constitutional monarchy. Although their movement was clothed in the revolutionary-sounding language of nationalism and socialism, in reality it was liberal and rather modest in its vision for Saudi Arabia. It basically envisaged the Saudi kingdom making the leap that France had made in the 1790s. Notwithstanding these ideological differences (although Nasser’s ideology is somewhat opaque also), the Free Princes Movement became closely associated with the charismatic Egyptian leader, who enjoyed a god-like status in the Arab world in the early 1960s. Nasser had not always been at loggerheads with the Saudis. Initially, they had been allied in common enmity towards the Hashemite regimes (see part one) of Jordan and Iraq. Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and was greeted with popular enthusiasm, something worrying to the Saudi authorities. Don’t forget this was an era when monarchies were being overthrown all over the place (Egypt: 1952, Iraq: 1958, Yemen: 1962 and Libya: 1969). The image of solidarity was shattered when it emerged in 1958 (following the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) that Saud had hired a hitman to assassinate Nasser.

By the time the Free Princes Movement emerged, therefore, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had soured, and this rivalry for leadership in the Arab world is what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’, a rivalry between two states that were merely emblematic of a deeper rivalry between two visions for the future of the Arab world: one secular, modernising, left-leaning and the other monarchical, conservative, informed by a three-centuries-old religious orthodoxy. When Faysal came to power in 1964, he defined more sharply Saudi Arabia’s role as a counterweight to secular nationalist regimes like Egypt and Syria. You would probably think, standing at the vantage-point of 1964, that a contest between these two visions would inevitably lead to the triumph of the modernising, forward-looking vision. You’d be wrong.

The ‘Free Princes’ were reconciled with the Saudi regime when Faysal came to power. It might be asked why. They achieved none of their aims really. Their return to the fold had less to do with improved relations with the dynasty back home than a worsening of relations with Nasser, and this had a lot to do with the ‘Cold War’ between Egypt and Saudi Arabia which had become distinctly hot. This actual war took place in one of those corners of the Earth where ‘great powers’ like to wage their proxy wars: Yemen.

Rather than treating Yemen as an aside in another story (which is the way it often gets treated) I want to go into it in a more detailed post of its own) so let’s not dwell here on the circumstances surrounding the civil war that started in 1962 when republicans took power from the king and imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had only been in power a week. This transformed the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (what is today the western part of Yemen, often confusingly referred to as ‘North Yemen’) into the Yemen Arab Republic. The king fled north and got help from the Saudis, the republicans got help from Egypt. This set the scene for a proxy war between the two Arab heavyweights on Yemeni soil (sound familiar?), the Saudis being freaked out by the sudden presence of 20,000 Egyptian soldiers on their southern borders, not to mention the first republican government on the Arabian peninsula.

A quick Yemen gif

While Nasser’s commitment to the republicans in Yemen was wholehearted, Saudi support for the royalists was less spectacular, reflecting the fact that, while the country was an economic powerhouse, politically, militarily, Saudi Arabia remained a fairly minor player in the Middle East. To change this was one of Faysal’s main objectives. The Yemen war, however, was something of a shambles; some Saudi pilots even flew their planes off to Egypt to defect. Saudi Arabia got some half-hearted help from the Americans, but under Kennedy, they themselves were going through a period of attempting to win Nasser over from the Communist side, so they weren’t going to do too much to help; indeed, the United States recognised the Yemen republic in late 1962 to the dismay of the Saudis. Saudi and Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war would come to an end in 1967. They had already agreed behind the scenes that it was mutually destructive and in any case they had bigger fish to fry in dealing with Israel in the Six Day War. Incidentally, the Yemenis themselves worked out a compromise that ended the civil war in 1970, but more of that in a separate Yemen post.

While the Saudis did not achieve their objective of restoring the king in Yemen, it could not be said that Egypt emerged from the war with the spoils of victory. Yemen is sometimes referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’ and, in the years that followed, Faysal would implement a series of administrative and fiscal reforms, coupled with a series of diplomatic manoeuvres which would place Saudi Arabia in a more commanding position within the Arab world. Crucially important was Arab defeat in the Six Day War, which damaged the reputation of Nasser, and after which the Saudis pledged a great deal of petrol-dollars to the Palestinians’ struggle. Perhaps even more important were the events which followed the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. At the same time, Faysal brought the country into greater alignment with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In order to flex its muscles more effectively in the world at large, Faysal took advantage of the only asset Saudi Arabia had: oil.

After the outbreak of another war with Israel in 1973, the Saudis will lead an attempt to punish Israel’s western allies, especially the United States, for its steadfast support for the occupation of Palestine. This oil embargo on a select group of countries is epoch-making, not so much for the impact it had on the Israel-Palestine conflict (very little as it happens) but as heralding in a new era of Saudi power and the increased centrality of oil to geopolitics, not to mention contributing greatly to  a severe recession which would have huge knock-on effects, both political and social, which we arguably live with to this day. It is worth backtracking a bit to look at the evolution of Saudi oil policy and the creation of OPEC, the organisation through which this embargo was effected.

Handing over the exploitation of your oil to someone else, in return for a cut of the profits, makes some sense when you don’t have the expertise or resources to get it out of the ground, refine it and transport it around the world. What happens over time, though, is usually that the resources derived from oil-wealth are partly spent on developing indigenous resources and infrastructure, educating and training indigenous technicians and administrators, until the day comes when the reasons for handing over your resources to the oil companies no longer apply. The original disadvantageous agreement comes to be seen as an unfair constraint on the country with the natural resources, and the desire to reassert control over them becomes irresistible. We have already seen what happened in Iran when Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil and take it back from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP to you and me). In Saudi Arabia, taking over control of the oil did not have such destabilising consequences. ARAMCO remained an American-owned company until the 1970s, when the Saudi state began to buy it out, a process complete by 1980.

From the 1960s on, one of the most important figures in Saudi politics was the head of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. The first of these was Abdullah Tariki (below), who had gained an education abroad patronage of the state in geology and was made first minister for oil in 1960. That year, he was instrumental in founding OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with his Venezuelan counterpart. They did this (Iran, Iraq and Kuwait also joined) in the hope of exerting more control over the price and volume of oil produced, which at that time was controlled by the a cartel of multinational oil companies with little regard for the countries from whom they had obtained concessions. Particularly resented was the oil companies attempts to keep prices low as new sources of oil glutted the market in the post-war decades.


In its early years, OPEC wasn’t hugely successful in its objectives. Much of the oil was still in the hands of western multinationals, not the states in question, but as states like Saudi Arabia acquired more and more control over its own resources (another long-term strategic goal of OPEC) their leverage gradually increased, as did the prospect of them using oil prices to exert influence over politics, especially as they concerned Israel-Palestine. To those in the west who are happy to guzzle petrol like there is no tomorrow, but pay little attention to where it comes from (i.e. most people) the measures taken by the Arab OPEC countries in response to the west’s support for Israel in the 1973 war came as a big shock. It shouldn’t have (OPEC had, only months before the war, raised the price of oil by nearly 12%) but it did, and I think if we are honest, there has always been a sense among many in the west that the petroleum under the ground in foreign lands, even if they are no longer colonies in a formal sense, is somehow the birthright of white people living in Europe and America.

In October 1973 then, OPEC cut production by at least 5% (and some countries like Saudi Arabia by more) and increased prices by an initial 17% (in the following months, this would result in a 70% increase in the price of oil internationally), but most spectacularly of all, announced a complete oil embargo against Israel’s main western allies: the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Tariki had been replaced by this stage by Ahmed Zaki Yamani (below), who in many ways was the face of this effort to deter the west’s support for Israel.


To show the long-term effects of the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s is beyond the scope of this post. Just one observation: it can be seen as a crucial nail in the coffin of the post-war economic boom and the social-stability afforded by the accommodation between business and organised labour, resulting in rising living standards, the welfare state, etc. All of this entered a period of crisis in the 1970s, which was taken advantage of by neoliberals like Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the decade.

But for Saudi Arabia, the results of this period were more mixed. Israel emerged triumphant from the Yom Kippur War and the embargo was lifted in March 1974 having failed to achieve its political objectives. The increase in oil prices that following during the series of oil shocks of the 1970s brought a huge increase in revenue to Saudi Arabia, from about 22.5 billion SR (Saudi Riyals) in 1970 to 163.6 billion SR in 1975, to 546.6 billion in 1980, an astonishing increase of 2329% in just a decade. An image in the west of underhand practices, of oil being used as a kind of blackmail, and underhand manipulation of the oil markets became widespread in the west at this time, which is kind of hypocritical when you consider that multinational oil companies had been doing this for decades. Their cartel had been informally known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ and while there isn’t space to go into it here, this Al Jazeera series on the subject is well worth a watch:


This is the time when an image of the ‘greedy sheikh’ emerges in the west, and a growth in anti-Arab feeling in some quarters, a resentment towards the Arabs for using their oil-wealth which follows logically from the idea that this is really the property of western nations. The 1970s can be pinpointed as the beginnings of what will become a widespread Islamophobia in the west. It is worth reflecting that it emerges at the same time that the oil-producing nations began to assert control over their own natural resources. Just a thought.

Faysal was able to use these huge financial resources to invest in infrastructure, to both improve living conditions for Saudi citizens and consolidate his control over them, not to mention purchasing ARAMCO from the Americans. His stance in at least offering symbolic support for the Palestinians bolstered his country’s standing in the Arab world, at least temporarily, and in flexing its economic muscles and provoking conflict with the United States, Saudi Arabia actual found itself in a more favourable relationship in the aftermath, having demonstrated how indispensable they were as an ally. Faysal was not to enjoy the fruits of all this for long though, as he was assassinated in March 1975 by one of his nephews, ostensibly as an act of private revenge for the killing of the assassin’s brother ten years earlier (although conspiracy theories abound).

Faysal’s trusted oil minister Yamani was standing next to him when he was shot and, in December (he had a hell of a year) he and several other oil ministers were taken hostage at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna by a team led by Carlos the Jackal who hoped to promote the Palestinian cause. The plan was to ransom all the oil ministers with the exception of Yamani and his Iranian counterpart, Jamshid Amuzegar. A plane was provided which brought the kidnappers to Algeria, where they had hoped to fly on to South Yemen. In the event, pressure from the Algerian government, which was revolutionary but not that revolutionary, secured the release of the oil ministers, although they did allow Carlos and his associates to walk free.

When all this smoke had cleared, the tensions between Saudi and American interests appeared to have been resolved. The old deal stood firm: Saudi Arabia would supply cheap oil to the United States and Europe and in return, the United States guarantee Saudi Arabia’s  (or rather the Saudi dynasty’s) security, both internal and external. But there was always (and still is) a glaring paradox to both parties allegiance to the other: Saudi Arabia’s closest ally just happened to be the main sponsor of Israel; later on, when American claims to be combating Islamic fundamentalism will be starkly contradicted by their close alliance with the Saudis. Another problem was that the explosion in oil-wealth had produced a materialism in Saudi society, as well as a growing reliance on American military technology, which was frowned upon by the hardline Wahhabists and others who questioned the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be the legitimate interpreters of what constituted the ‘true’ path.

It is interesting to reflect that the Saudi monarchy has always tried to legitimise itself by stressing its religious credentials and its adherence to the Wahhabist doctrine of returning to a ‘purer’ Islam and shedding it of idolatrous and erroneous practices that it has allegedly accumulated over the centuries. At the same time, the measures that it has taken to maintain its grip on power and accumulate its massive wealth have involved what many would argue have taken the country in the opposite direction. While always careful to get the establishment ullema onside, not everyone has been convinced, and it hasn’t always been easy for the Saudi monarchy to put the genie of religious fundamentalism back in the bottle once out. An early and dramatic example of this came in November 1979 (only months after the revolution in Iran) when the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Masjid al-Hara, was seized by al-Ikhwan, armed followers of a religious figure they claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who many Muslims believe will appear shortly before the end days and rid the world of evil. Many of those who participated in the seizure of the Masjid al-Hara were indoctrinated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Nasser’s repression and been offered sanctuary by Faysal in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their military leader was Juhayman al-Otaybi (below), who was the son of one of the original Ikhwan, who had fought for Ibn Saud in his conquest of the country in the 1920s. When Saud won independence and recognition from the British, and began to collaborate with westerners to consolidate his rule, the Ikhwan, who had been told that all foreigners were infidels and wanted to keep fighting, revolted against Saudi rule in 1928 and were brutally suppressed in the following years.


The complaints of the 1979 Ikhwan bear certain resemblances to their forefathers’ criticisms of the Saudi regime (by now, Khalid was king: 1975-1982), that they had betrayed Islam by their pursuit of profit and adoption of western decadence; also subject to criticism were the ulema for rubber-stamping all this. Al-Otaybi railed against any concessions to a public role for women, immodest dress, television, and currency with an image of the King on it. The mosque seizure lasted two weeks and was ended when Saudi troops, with Pakistani and French assistance, stormed the area and captured most of the Ikhwan, beheading al-Otaybi and sixty-two others the following month at eight locations around the country.

But this, as you no doubt know, was far from the end of Salafist militancy in Saudi Arabia. Much of its energies would be channeled into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a cause the Saudi government heartily supported, providing them with funds and training and packing them off on their merry way. The cause of the Mujahideen Afghanistan was also helped by private donors, the more ardent of which even traveled to the country itself to see what could be done on the ground. Among these was the seventeenth son of fifty-two children born to a construction magnate named Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who had come from Yemen with practically nothing and become one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men by founding a construction company which undertook a large number of infrastructure projects for the monarchy. Mohammed, a close associate of Faysal in particular, was also deeply religious and before his death in a plane crash in 1967, imbued in his children a deep respect for the austerity and orthodoxy of Wahhabite traditions, despite the temptations offered by their enormous wealth. Here are some of his kids on a visit to Falun, Sweden in 1971, while one of the brothers conducted business with Volvo. See if you can spot the most famous child, Osama, aged sixteen.


But this story will be the subject of a future post on foreign fighters in the Afghan war and the development of the Salafist movement generally in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether this will be the next post or the one after that I am not sure yet. I would like to set things up for a proper assessment of political Islam as it becomes a major geopolitical factor in the nineties. This involves taking a close look at places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, not to mention giving Yemen some detailed attention. In summary to this post though, we have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, the eclipse of the left-leaning, Nasserite vision in the Arab world by a conservative Islamic monarchist one, American-allied and fiercely anti-communist. Even in Egypt, as we saw in part two, the regime after Nasser’s death will begin to move away from the Soviet sphere of influence and towards the Americans, flirting with political Islam as it did so, although Sadat would pay dearly from his drawing back from this alliance when he perceived that it was a force that he might have trouble controlling.

If there was a winner of the ‘Arab Cold War’, it was the religious conservative establishment, personified by the Saudi monarchy, a triumph that seemed to be consolidated as the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc tottered and fell in the 1980s. But although they used religion to legitimise their rule, and the Americans were happy to see Islamic fundamentalism as a stick to beat the Russians with, they had opened up a Pandora’s box and unleashed a political ideology they would lose control of in the very moment when the ‘end of history‘ seemed to have arrived. Of course, it might also be argued that the west simply needed a new bogeyman once the communist one had been vanquished, and the Islamists fit the bill perfectly.


Featured image above: Nasser and Faisal of Saudi Arabia, 1960s.



P.S. Osama bin Laden is second from the right.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2


Before our detour to Pakistan last time, Afghanistan had just been invaded at the invitation of Babrak Karmal, its new pro-Soviet president after the removal of Amin. It was December 1979. The Soviets envisaged a short campaign to bolster the government and stabilise the country, after which they would depart and leave it in the hands of a regime favourable to themselves. The task facing them appeared fairly straightforward. They were one of the world’s two superpowers and Afghanistan was one of the world’s least economically and technologically developed countries. They were, however, to remain mired in the ‘bear trap’ for almost a decade and lose almost 14,000 soldiers in that time. The story of the Afghan war in the 1980s is often seen in terms of ‘what went wrong’ for the Soviet army, forming as it does part of a broader story of decline that would lead to the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. But it is more than a story of Soviet failure, because the Islamists victory was also a victory, if largely clandestine, for the Soviet Union’s enemies: the United States and their local proxy, Pakistan, not to mention the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Nor should the role of the Afghan guerrilla fighters, the Mujahideen, be played down. Whatever we may think of Islamists and their ideology, they displayed tremendous personal bravery and tenacity in facing down the Soviet Goliath and ultimately forcing their withdrawal.

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion, such an eventuality was unthinkable. Shrewd observers, however, saw the warning signs that things were not going to be straightforward from the very start. It had been hoped that the replacement of Amin with Karmal (these two rulers represented rival leftist factions, the Khalqis and the Parchamis: see part 8) would begin to rehabilitate the regime in the population’s eyes. Amin had pushed through reforms with reckless disregard to popular resistance and had imprisoned and tortured thousands of individuals he perceived as standing in his way. It was this that had spurred the initial armed insurrection. This is important to state, as many seem to be under the impression that the Soviet invasion provoked it; it didn’t, it merely intensified the resistance and dragged in other outside forces. The animus to any Marxist regime had gone so far, however, for the Karmal regime to be acceptable. Its deep unpopularity was apparent to anyone who took even a casual glance behind the veil of propaganda to view the country as it really was, especially outside the urban areas, which were the only areas where the government had anything resembling popular support. Here is Karmal and some of his soldiers, pretending everything is great:


Karmal made efforts to undo some of the damage done to the state’s credibility by the Amin regime. The notorious Pul-e-Charkhi, where political prisoners had been kept, was opened and its victims disgorged to their waiting relatives with blood-curdling stories of the torture and extrajudicial executions that went on within its walls. The new president attempted to slow or tone down the more provocative reforms to win back some love. In an attempt to assuage the religious sentiment of the country, he also set up a Department of Islamic Affairs, thus making the Islamic clerics the employees of a communist government. But, if we remember from last time, the Islamist movement which led the jihad against the government and their Soviet backers were (mostly, though not exclusively, as we will see) not representatives of the traditional religious establishment. This was a modern, revolutionary movement, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and Maududi’s Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan (see the previous post), and in many respects a reaction to the conservative religious hierarchy of the countryside which it saw as corrupt, entrenched and insufficiently fervent. The Mujahideen and their allies saw Karmal’s attempts to co-opt religion in the state’s interests as, at best, interference and at worst, blasphemous.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this unpopularity was the Allah-u-Akbar (God is great) campaign launched against Karmal’s regime after only a few months. People would gather on rooftops at night and sing the call to prayer as a symbol of non-violent resistance. This was accompanied by plenty of violent resistance as well, much of it unpredictable guerrilla-style warfare which was almost impossible to confront head-on, which demoralised government forces no end. After the Soviet invasion, instead of bolstering the Afghan state’s army, morale sank to a new low. Within a year, through desertions and defection to the Mujahideen, the army was only a third of its former size. Many Afghan soldiers, both proud of their independence from traditional enemies like the Russians, and deeply religious, saw the Soviet forces as an offense on both counts and wanted nothing to do with them. On top of this, Amin’s removal did not end the infighting within the PDPA. Despite Soviet attempts to promote unity (or at least the show of it), Karmal’s enemies within the party (the Khalqis) sowed dissent. A big row broke out over (of all things) the design of the new national flag. These rivals began to express unease about the Soviet presence in the country which, it was becoming clear, was not going to be just a short-term thing. Karmal could not even trust his own minister of the interior, and broke off responsibility for intelligence to another organisation, the KHAD (Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati or State Intelligence Agency) handing it to one of his loyalists, Mohammad Najibullah (below), a suitably ruthless and efficient character who ran this notorious institution, which began to arrest Karmal’s left-wing opponents as well as Islamists, and fill the prisons he had emptied when he came to power up again. Najibullah will become important later on, so remember that name.

Mohammad Najibullah

The rival Khalqis had their own factional militia within the army, called Sarandoy (Defenders of the Revolution), who frequently clashed with the KHAD and sabotaged each other’s operations. So, it is no surprise they were losing the war.

But if the government forces were disunited and working at cross purposes, this is nothing to the factionalism among the Mujahideen. The complexity of the various sides fighting the war against the Soviets (and later each other) is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks for outsiders trying to understand Afghanistan’s wars. For the purposes of administering their aid, the Pakistani authorities set up an umbrella organisation for the insurgents (the Sunni ones anyway) which became known as the Peshawar Seven, because there were seven member groups and Peshawar, near the Afghan border in Pakistan (see the map in last post) was where these groups were based. They were co-ordinated and assisted by Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, led by Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan (below), who answered directly to Zia and whose covert operations, funded by the US, Saudis and others, were a secret even to other parts of the Pakistani state apparatus.

Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan

Here is a brief summary of each of these groups.

We have already encountered in part 8 the leading figures in the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society), Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, its leading political and military figures respectively (left and right below).


The Jamiat was led by Rabbani and influenced by the ideas of Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala Maududi, discussed in the previous post. An affiliated group, the Shura-e Nazar (Supervisory Council of the North), was an extremely effective alliance of over 100 commanders in the north of the country under the command of Massoud, whose resistance to the Soviets became legendary. Both Massoud and Rabbani were Tajik and although this was the dominant ethnic group in their movement, Massoud in particular made strenuous efforts to create a pan-ethnic alliance that would one day embrace the whole of Afghan society and form the nucleus of a state to run the country when the Communists fell from power. Their ideology, while seeking to run the country on Islamic lines, saw persuasion and the assumption of power through ground-roots activism, as opposed to the violent takeover and imposition of their religious beliefs on others, which was a hallmark of the Hekmatyar and Khalis groups (see below). The Jamiat were also seen as more willing to work with non-Islamists to achieve their goals.

Massoud, ensconced in the Panjshir valley north-east of Kabul, proved such a tough nut to crack for the Soviets that they called a truce with his forces in 1983. When this period ended and the Soviet army attacked again, they found that Massoud had cleverly used the truce period to consolidate, reorganise and move his army to more defensible locations, and he proved essentially invincible for the remainder of the war. He was also less inclined to follow Pakistani direction and able to operate more independently from them on account of the further geographic distance from the border. The down-side of this was that the ISI, mistrusting him, provided him with much less material support than the other, more fundamentalist, groups. While Hekmatyar was content to see the areas under his control denuded of their population so he could have a clear field for fighting the Soviets, Massoud sought to create in his enclave a functioning alternative state with a settled population and institutions integrated into his military administration. Many believe that if Massoud had been given more support by the west, a great deal of the tragedy that was to follow in Afghanistan might have been avoided.

Two groups describing themselves as the Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) existed, one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other by Maulawi Khalis. Like Massoud, Hekmatyar had emerged from the associations of radical Muslim students in the early 1970s, having flirted with the left and been in jail for his political activities in the early part of the decade. While originally part of the same movement as Rabbani and Massoud, Hekmatyar founded Hezb-e Islami as a split-off group in 1975. The basic difference is that Hekmatyar foresaw the Islamic revolution as being orchestrated by an elite vanguard of activists using violence to seize the state institutions and harness them to their ends, unlike Rabbani’s followers, who wanted change to come through a mass movement creating pressure for change from the bottom up. I am wary of analogies, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split that characterised the Russian communists in their early years. Except Hekmatyar was no Lenin…


As Afghanistan came under control of the PDPA and its Soviet allies, Hezb-e Islami began to receive more and more aid from the Pakistani-American-Saudi cabal. In fact, it became by far the largest recipient of such aid, and represented the kind of theocratic fundamentalist strain of Islam which the Saudis and Pakistanis wanted to see emerge in the event of communist collapse. The Americans, it appears, didn’t care-so long as they were fighting reds. These were people who went around throwing acid in women’s faces for not wearing the veil. They were received in Washington and London as the vanguard of the freedom fighters. Hekmatyar received a personal invitation to meet Thatcher in Downing Street.

While lacking the mass support of Jamiat, the fact that Hezb-e was the best-equipped and funded group active in the resistance had major consequences. The weight of this support did not necessarily translate into success on the battlefield, however. The lack of any significant base among the population meant that Hekmatyar was almost entirely dependant, and controlled by, Pakistan’s ISI. By common consent, he was a far less effective commander than Massoud, and spent an inordinate amount of time fighting other Mujahideen groups, apparently more concerned with strengthening his position in post-Soviet Afghanistan than actually helping defeat them. There was also a split within his own ranks, as more conservative, traditionalist elements associated with the rural clergy, the ulema, broke off and founded their own Hezb-e Islami in 1979 under the leadership of Maulawi Khalis. While there were some ideological differences between the two factions, in all of this we should bear in mind that rival groups were often based more on the personal rivalries of powerful warlords linked to specific geographic areas and/or ethnic groups. Ideology often played little or no role.

Maulawi Khalis and his Hezb-e had their power base in the province of Nangarhar and the city of Jalalabad, more or less halfway between Kabul and Peshawar, a pretty vital spot to occupy. Here is Khalis on a visit to Washington to meet Reagan in 1987. He’s the one on the right with the beard:


Also representing a more traditionalist strain was the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement) led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (below), which had its power-base in the southern half of the country, with Mohammadi coming from Logar province, just south of Kabul. Mohammadi was one of the earliest religious clerics active in parliament and had, since the early 1960s been preaching against encroaching modernisation and secularism, especially in its Marxist form. He was one of the few Islamists elected to parliament during Zahir Shah’s experiments with elections in the 1960s, but things got progressively less comfortable for men like him in the 1970s (his brother was killed) as the left manoeuvered itself into power. When the PDPA took over in 1978 he escaped to Pakistan, where he hooked up with other leaders like Rabbani and Hekmatyar and tried to foster unity between different groups. Unable to convince the latter to agree to anything, a separate faction, the Harakat, was formed, attracting many from the south whose motivations leaned closer to religious than political. Mohammadi, as close to a conciliatory, unifying figure as you might get among the Mujahideen leaders, was elected as its head.

Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi

Two groups were connected to the Sufi religious orders. The first of these, Mahaz-i-Milli Islami ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan) was led by Ahmed Gailani, a leader of the Qadiriyyah Sufi order. They were royalists originally (for this, they were particularly favoured by British secret services-yes, they had a finger in the pie too) and advocated a fairly liberal and open society compared to the other Islamist groups, with which they were nonetheless united in their anti-communism. While they enjoyed popular support, especially among refugee groups, they were less lavishly funded by the ISI and therefore less of a military power than they could have been. Their vision is the one that will be promoted by western powers seeking to remodel the country after the fall of the Taliban. It is fitting, therefore, that a young Hamid Karzai, who will later become president, is seated on the right of Gailani in this picture from the early 1990s.


Another religious scholar who became active in politics was Sibghatullah Mojaddedi (below) of the Sufi order or Naqshbandiyah. Mojaddedi had been around long enough to have been accused of plotting to assassinate Nikita Khrushchev back in the mid-1960s. He spent some time in prison and then escaped abroad during the 1970s. As war loomed, he founded the Jebhe-ye Nejat Milli (Afghan National Liberation Front) which, again, was not funded as generously by the ISI as groups like Hezb-e Islami. While consequently not as militarily dominant, Mojaddedi and his movement were nevertheless seen as bridge-builders and honest brokers. They will, therefore, play an important role when peace agreements are being mooted.

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Mojaddedi in 1993

One character who has definitely not been seen in neutral terms is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (below), who headed the Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan).  Sayyaf is one of the most interesting and resilient characters to emerge from the Afghan war(s). Sayyaf is another of those whose thought was forged in the crucible of Kabul university in the 1960s. He also received a masters in Cairo and had strong associations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Of all the Mujahideen commanders he had the strongest links with the Arab world, being a fluent Arabic-speaker and enjoying close ideological ties with Saudi Arabia and the Wahabbi school of Islam. This is another aspect to note: Afghanistan is most well-known as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union; less recognised is that it was also a field for the rivalry which had arisen since the Iranian revolution between their Shi’ite state and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Sayyaf was one of the  most virulently anti-Shia elements within the movement, and his group (in black on the maps below) found itself involved in intense fighting with Hazara Shia groups in central Afghanistan.

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Sayyaf in 1984

By virtue of his Arab links, Sayyaf also happened to be a major connection to the foreign fighters in Afghanistan, which we often hear about, and who will become an important of the story in the 1990s when Salafist Islamism, having faced down the Soviet threat, finds itself in conflict with America and ‘the west’. I am going to explore these groups and their involvement in Afghanistan in more detail in another post, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, Sayyaf was one of the Afghans closest to Osama Bin Laden, with whom he established a training camp in the Jalalabad area during the war. He is also said to have been instrumental in negotiating his flight from Sudan back to Afghanistan in 1996, but we’ll get to that another time. The non-Afghan fighters recruited by the Maktab al-Khidamat (usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau) in Mosques around the world will have a fairly minimal influence on the war in terms of numbers of soldiers, but their financial support and the longer-term ideological significance of their involvement will become one of the defining stories of our age.

As noted above, all of the above groups who received help from Pakistan and the US were Sunni. Revolutionary Iran was, throughout the Afghan war, not disinterested in what was happening on its eastern borders. Although distracted by both internal turmoil as the Khomeini regime sought to quell domestic opponents, as well as the devastating war with Iraq, Iran was solicitous to assist the Shia minority (about 10%) in the country, the Persian-speaking Hazara, who are most-densely concentrated in the central uplands. These people had been, since the 19th century, an embattled and neglected group in Afghan society, suffering discrimination and poverty, which led to many of them moving to Kabul, or abroad, working in poorly-paid jobs under difficult conditions. When radical movements, both left-wing and Islamist, began to emerge in the 1960s, they were one of the groups most attracted to messages of social liberation and equality. Led by Shi’ite clerics trained in the holy cities of Qum (Iran) or Najaf (Iraq), they were one of the first to rise against communist rule and kept their region (the green bit on the maps below) largely free of outside interference throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately, the various Shia groups spent a great deal of time fighting each other and, while space doesn’t permit going into these internecine conflicts, by 1989, Iran had finally convinced them to form an alliance for the mutual defense of the Hazara community. This group was called the Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami (the Islamic Unity Party) and its first leader was Abdul Ali Mazari.


These are the major players on the anti-communist side. The pattern of the war was, in these early years, fairly predictable. The Soviet army controlled the cities, the insurgents controlled the rural 80% of the country. The Soviets attempted to use their air superiority to strike terror into the civilian population by bombing villages in the hope that they would refuse to help the Mujahideen. Did this work? Have a guess. The major effort was focused on the east of the country close to Pakistan, where the Mujahideen were coming in. Beyond this, however, the Soviets appeared to have no overall strategy to take control of the rural areas controlled by the Mujahideen. Even when they did cow an area into submission, as soon as they turned their backs, the insurgents slipped back into control. It was all eerily familiar to the difficulties the Americans had experienced trying to fight a guerilla war in Vietnam.

The Soviet forces were trained and equipped to fight a war against a conventional army in Central Europe, not a guerilla war against an enemy who could strike at them and disappear in the blink of an eye. The tide began to turn when outside aid started reaching the Mujahideen in serious quantities. In 1984, the Americans authorised the passing of Stinger missiles to the insurgents. This clip gives some indication of the profound impact this had on the balance of power. I have no idea where it’s from; in many ways it’s like an advert for Stinger missiles:

The fact that the Afghans (until then virtually powerless to do anything about the Soviet’s ability to hit them from the air whenever and wherever they wanted) could now shoot them down out of the sky, was a real game-changer. The Soviets were looking at an interminable war which neither side could conclusively win, and they knew it. But where, exactly, was all the money for this coming from? If you know anything about the Afghan war and America’s covert role in it, you will probably have heard of these characters: Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring (below):


Wilson, as a Democratic member of congress, and Herring, the socialite wife of a real-estate millionaire, were  rather unlikely allies of the Jihadists in Afghanistan in one way. In another, it made perfect sense. Both saw the Mujahideen’s struggle as part of a broader struggle against communism, and apparently gave little thought to the forces they might be unleashing by placing advanced weaponry in the hands of religious fundamentalists. Herring was herself deeply religious and virulently anti-communist. Essentially, she saw any enemy of the Soviet Union as a friend and it was through her close personal connection to General Zia that Herring opened the doors to an exponential increase of funding for the insurgents. By 1985, this aid had bloated to almost $300 million. The Saudis promised to match dollar for dollar the Americans’ contribution. Arms dealers were of course attracted like flies on shit. To cover their tracks, the Americans and Pakistanis procured Warsaw Pact weapons, for example, stockpiles of old Soviet weapons from Egypt. Israel helped out, as did China. There were even factories in America producing copies of Soviet weapons for the Mujahideen to fire at the Soviets. It wasn’t just weapons; there was a huge training camp outside Rawalpindi in Pakistan, which churned out thousands of skilled jihadists every year.

There is, by the way, a film about Wilson and Herring called Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, which I watched out of curiosity while writing this. Few things stand monument to the unshakeable hubris and pig-headed unwillingness of Americans to learn from the past, or even acknowledge their mistakes. It’s rare a movie is so bad as to actually make my jaw drop at the sheer stupidity of it, especially given that it was made after 9/11, and the so-called ‘war on terror’ and after everything we (should) know about the folly and short-sightedness of ploughing money and arms into Afghanistan. There is a sort of coda at the end where they recognise that the United States completely lost interest in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union left, and that maybe if they had built some schools and infrastructure, maybe the Taliban, al-Qaeda and all the rest of it could have been avoided. Maybe. Anyway, I watched it, so you don’t have to. With mass-media like this, it is really no surprise the Americans appear to learn nothing from their mistakes.

Anyway, back to the show. The initial Soviet belief that it could quickly reassert control over the country and get out began to fade. It became obvious that this was not going to happen, and that other political strategies would have to be explored. The most obvious one was to get rid of Karmal. Who better than Najibullah to take his place? Here’s how it went down. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he let it be known that the Soviets wanted out of Afghanistan, but that they would make sure they established a viable and friendly government there before they  left-easier said than done. By 1986, they had decided to replace Karmal, who went to Moscow for what he thought was a routine visit. The Russians told him he had to resign on grounds of ill-health, although one of their doctors confusingly told him he was fit as a fiddle (this is curiously reminiscent of their attempt to poison Amin, after which one of their own doctors resuscitated him). Karmal resigned and was kept around for another few months to make the whole thing look less like a coup. After he used his time plotting and trying to undermine Najibullah, however, they had him moved to Moscow where he was given an apartment and told to keep out of Afghan business from now on.

Najibullah knew that some attempt would have to be made at reconciliation with the Mujahideen groups. Offers were made to give the Islamists freedom to operate politically and to participate in running the country. A new constitution of 1987 established Islam as the state religion and offered the prospect of parliamentary democracy. All of these overtures were rejected by the Peshawar Seven, who were by this stage scenting outright victory. The bickering and infighting among them, however, did not bode well for prospects of them sharing power when the Soviets did finally leave their country. The Geneva Accords were signed in 1988 by the Afghan and Pakistan governments, with the US and USSR as guarantors. These did not take seriously into account those actually fighting the war-the Afghans themselves. Mujahideen groups were not invited to the talks, so they didn’t accept the agreement. These negotiations saw the Afghan war in terms of a proxy Cold War conflict, but to the Afghans it was a war of national liberation and religion. The fact is the Afghans didn’t care about the Americans’ war against the Soviet Union, and the Americans didn’t care about the Afghans’ war either. Nevertheless, a timetable was laid out for Soviet withdrawal. They would all be gone by 15 February 1989. Here is the last tank and the last soldier walking across the ironically-named Friendship bridge between the two countries:

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Gorbachev’s attempts at both saving face and leaving behind some semblance of stability were, however, wrecked by the Americans and Pakistan. Not to suggest that the Soviet Union were anything less than a brutal army of occupation and ruthless in their conduct of the war, but the fact remains that if honest efforts had been made by the US to support a government of reconciliation between the government and the more tractable of the Islamists, there is every reason to believe that Afghanistan might have found something resembling peace after the Soviet withdrawal. Gailani’s Mahaz-i-Milli, based around Kandahar and in the east, put feelers out for a peaceful transfer of power and the return of the king, Zahir Shah, who had been exiled since 1973 (see part 8). His movement enjoyed popularity among the Afghan people and refugees, but this popularity was not translated into power because the US-Pakistan favoured instead groups like Hakmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. Hardliners in the Reagan and Zia regimes chose to stymie efforts at reconciliation and instead push for total victory and humiliation of the USSR.

In the short term, ordinary Afghans paid the price; in the longer term, the west would also have cause to regret this. The Americans had originally committed themselves to cease arming the Mujahideen when the Soviets withdrew, but after withdrawal they went back on this promise and instead raised the bar for their compliance, demanding the Soviets cease sending any aid to the Najibullah regime. The Pakistan foreign minister described the Geneva Accords, which his own government had signed, as ‘an inconvenient episode that interrupted play’. Arms continued to flow in, and instead of going to factions who were prepared to compromise to put an end to the bloodshed, the money raised by Wilson and Herring went to those groups who sought nothing less than to impose a theocratic autocracy on the country. It is here the seeds of Afghanistan’s tragedy in the 1990s were sown.

Here is a map of how things stood when the Soviet Union pulled out:


Basically, Najibullah’s government controlled little more than the big cities and roads, the bits in red. His regime was expected to fall to the Mujahideen within weeks or months. In fact, it lasted far longer than many experts expected it would without outside help. They had had time to prepare a defensive war against the Islamists, who were nowhere near as effective fighting an offensive, conventional-type war that took on armies in the field and  actually had to take territory instead of just frustrating and wearing down another army. The difficulty became apparent when they attempted to take Jalalabad in March 1989. The plan, heavily urged on the Mujahideen by the US and Pakistan, was to capture the city, which was to become the capital of a government-in-waiting, led by Hekmatyar as Prime Minister and Sayyaf as Foreign Minister, which would then use it as a base to extend its rule over the whole country.

I should mention at this moment that by this point Zia and Rahman Khan were dead, having been killed in 1988, in a mysterious plane crash/explosion in which the US ambassador and several high-ranking generals were also killed. The identity of the perpetrators was never established. Pakistan was now led by Benazir Bhutto (below), and I really can’t pass this by without some tangent explaining how, after years of Islamic rule and conservatism under Zia’s military rule, this came to be the case.

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The closer Zia’s Pakistan allied to the U.S., the more he came under pressure to cloak his regime in at least the appearance of legitimacy. His first nod to this expedient was to hold, in 1984, a referendum on his measures to Islamise the administration. His proposals were approved with 98.5% of the electorate voting yes, which tends to happen in cases like this. He held elections the next year which took place under such strict constraints (parties were forbidden and everyone had to run as an independent) that boycotts were called from many of the big political groupings. A technocratic government was nevertheless formed and martial rule officially ended, although not before Zia passed a series of laws making it impossible for anyone to prosecute him for anything he had done while he was dictator. Notwithstanding this, Zia became unhappy with the resulting government anyway, which he denounced as corrupt three years later, promising to hold new elections, with similar limitations.

But Pakistani politics had gotten a lot more interesting since the 1985 elections, with the return to the country of Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali discussed in the last post. Benazir was as charismatic as her father and, along with her brothers, was repeatedly arrested and held in dreadful conditions in years following Zulfikar Ali’s hanging. Such were the effects on her health of being kept in solitary confinement in the desert, Zia bowed to outside pressure and allowed her to leave the country in 1984. From London, she led the PPP in exile, helping to orchestrate the pressure that prompted Zia’s holding of the referendum and elections. Bhutto called for a boycott of the new elections Zia planned to hold in 1988, but when Zia was killed that August, only two months before said elections, they suddenly became far more meaningful. Bhutto led the PPP to victory that November, becoming the Muslim world’s first female leader.

Hopes were high that Benazir Bhutto’s term as prime minister would usher in a new more enlightened era in Pakistani politics, and while this isn’t the place to go into its domestic consequences, in relation to the Afghan war, little changed. Despite her hatred of Zia and the ISI who had tormented her family for more than a decade, she retained his advisers and did not radically alter his policy towards the war. So, by the time the Mujahideen assaulted Jalalabad in March 1989, on the Pakistani side, nothing had changed, while everything appeared to have changed. The Mujahideen offensive was a failure and the government forces there held firm, putting up much fiercer resistance than expected. Unlike earlier in the war, mass defections did not take place. No doubt the defenders realised there would be no quarter given them if they lost. Having seen how the insurgents treated surrendered soldiers, they probably figured they might as well fight to the death. Khalis’ group, for example, had killed 70 army officers after capturing nearby Samarkhel.

Najibullah’s plan now was to dig in and appeal to more moderate elements among the Mujahideen to form a government of reconciliation, hoping that he would eventually wear them down. In a sense the tables were now turned. The government could appeal to Afghan nationalism and the claims of loyalty to the qawm, arguing that they were defending the country from forces who were being orchestrated by a foreign sponsor. Their forces showed more fight in these years, especially those led in the north of the country by Abdul Rashid Dostum (below), whose militia was drawn mainly from the Uzbek community and initially was chiefly responsible for defending the oilfields in the province of Jowzjan. As time went by, Dostum capabilities and the swelling ranks of his militia by disaffected from other groups (including Mujahideen), made this the most effective force at the government’s disposal and the only one really capable of moving around the country to plug holes in its defenses. With the departure of the Soviets, it took up much of the slack.

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While the government was able to hang on in Kabul until 1992, however, Najibullah’s strategy was doomed for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Americans and Pakistan had no intention of allowing some kind of negotiated peace to put an end to the war; they wanted total victory; secondly, Najibullah faced plotting and conspiracies among his own party, and in 1990 was almost overthrown in an attempted coup by the rival Khalqis (yep-that is still going on); thirdly, while the Afghan government continued to receive aid from the Soviet Union even after the latter’s troops pulled out, as we all know, the period from 1989 to 1991 saw the collapse, breathtaking in its rapidity really, of first the eastern European satellite states and then the USSR itself. All assistance to the government, therefore, came to an end at this point. All he could do was sit in Kabul and wait for the Mujahideen to come rolling into town. The final nail in the coffin was the defection of Dostum’s militia, now known as the Junbish-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), as the insurgents closed in on Kabul in March 1992. This was less for ideological than pragmatic reasons. The writing was already on the wall, and the loyalty of the various local militias was very much linked to whether or not the government could supply them with enough arms to maintain their power in their area. Leaders like Dostum were effectively turning into local warlords, a signs of things to come for Afghanistan in the years ahead, where keeping power was an end in itself as any kind of centralised state collapsed and was replaced by a series of de facto independent fiefdoms.

Junbish therefore, became one of the factions now moving in to fill the power vacuum as the government collapsed, working initially with Massoud’s forces, who were also among the first to reach Kabul. Najibullah resigned on March 18 (he was prevented from escaping by Junbish and forced to seek refuge in the UN compound) and the few government forces remaining capitulated in the weeks that followed, setting up an interim authority to hand over power to Massoud’s forces, who were approaching from the north. Massoud, however, was reluctant to enter the city without reaching a power-sharing deal with the other factions beforehand. He hesitated, therefore, and put out feelers to the other groups. Here is the situation in the country as a whole around the time the various factions were closing in on Kabul in April 1992 (most of the groups also had forces around the capital):


Massoud’s overtures resulted in an agreement to form an interim power-sharing agreement with the various groups. It would be nice to report that everyone got together and buried their differences in the interests of national salvation, and that the story ends there. As you probably already know, this isn’t what happened. Hekmatyar, urged on by Pakistan, refused to accept the post of prime minister and instead, dug in on the southern outskirts of the city with heavy artillery and urged his Hezb-e Islami on to outright victory. This should really come as no surprise. Massoud and Hekmatyar’s forces had effectively been at war for several years already, frequently attacking each other, and Pakistan were not keen to see Massoud and his followers assume positions of power in a postwar Afghanistan. He had all along acted largely independently of the ISI and frequently disparaged their strategic choices, being a vociferous critic of the Jalalabad offensive for example. I will leave it to another post to relate what happened next. I wrote something a while back about trying to make my posts shorter from now on; yet this one is already over 6000 words and, it will come as no surprise to hear, this story is far from over.

Featured image above: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar attend talks outside Kabul in 1992 to end fighting between the Mujahideen factions.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 9: Pakistan to 1979


While the last post took the story up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, before continuing that story, I thought it would be useful to examine the history of Afghanistan’s near-neighbour, Pakistan, since it achieved independence in 1947. This is because Pakistan will play such a central role in the Afghan war which rages to this day, even if they were never formally a party to the conflict. Pakistan is also important in its own right. Its conflict with India over Kashmir, and a complicated relationship with the United States, which has acted as its patron and largely bankrolled its highly-militarised regime, is a  vitally important dynamic in the west’s relationship with the Islamic world as a whole in the last century.

Pakistan is a modern creation (the name means ‘land of the pure’), an idea created in the twilight years of British rule in India, when the sub-continent’s 80 million Muslims feared domination by the Hindu majority that would inevitably emerge when the country gained independence. To understand why this fear existed, we would have to go back and look at the history of the sub-continent since the Mughal invasions of the sixteenth century. Space does not permit such a detailed examination here. Suffice to say, the history of Muslim rule over large parts of India had been punctuated by episodes of violence and oppression, and it would be misleading to claim that animosity between the two communities was purely a product of the period of British rule. The British ‘Raj’ had its beginnings in the 18th-century rule of the British East India Company over parts of Bengal, to gradually spread over the whole sub-continent, reaching its greatest extent in the years after the state took over control from the company following the 1857 uprising of Indian soldiers against their British officers.

While it would be simplistic to claim that both religions co-existed without any tension whatsoever before the arrival of the British, it would be equally simplistic to posit an unbroken tradition of enmity between the two stretching back centuries. A highly-syncretic civilisation had emerged in India in which Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, adapting elements of each others’ faiths; ethnic boundaries were fluid and there is little evidence to suggest that the two communities thought of themselves as different nations until the tensions leading up to independence in the twentieth century. What happened, then? There are many indications that Hindu-Muslim tension was deliberately stoked by the British, especially in the decades when it was losing its grip on the colony, in a classic imperialist strategy of divide and rule. Attempting to play the Muslims off the Hindu majority, the  British increasingly favoured Muslims in an attempt to siphon away support for the independence movement, the Indian National Congress party, led by Gandhi and Nehru.

To some extent, this policy paid off, for a time. While both communities had supported Britain in World War One, the Second World War was a different matter. Congress, exasperated by what it saw as broken promises and the lack of consultation when bringing India into the war, refused to support the British and demanded independence. Other groups, such as the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, actively worked with the Axis powers to drive the British out. The one group who wholeheartedly supported the Allied war-effort was the All India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (below). This represented the interests of the Muslims of India (although there were many Muslim members in Congress and indeed Jinnah had once been a member), although it had not always had as its explicit object an independent Muslim state. Some in fact argue that the idea of Pakistan started out as a position taken by the All-India Muslim League to secure better conditions within India, that they did not necessarily intend to achieve a separate state but that it came to be expected by their followers. This is why so little preparation seems to have been done to rule this new state.


After the war, it became clear that a financially hollowed-out Britain would have to grant India independence. Some such as Gandhi, argued for a united independent India encompassing ethnic and religious differences, but the momentum had swung the way of those advocating partition. The British, grateful for the Muslims’ loyalty in the war, were predisposed to give them their wish. In June 1947, the last British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, shocked all parties to the negotiations by unilaterally announcing that power would be transferred to an independent India and Pakistan by August 15, 1947, that is: he gave them less than three months to sort out the fate of millions of people on either side of the new border. This clumsy British withdrawal, chiefly designed to serve their own interests in the region, should sound familiar: look back at post 2 and recall the effects of their hasty withdrawal from Mandate Palestine, leaving the Arabs and Jews to fight it out for territory. The British left India then, with barely a shot fired in anger, after ruling it for 300 years and causing untold millions of casualties. But if anyone believed partition was going to occur painlessly, they were tragically mistaken.

When the country was divided in August, the border left millions of Muslims ‘stranded’ in India and millions of Hindus in Pakistan. This is not to mention the fact that the new border cut right across the Punjab, dividing that land in two and leaving millions of Sikhs on either side, most of whom fled to India. The carnage was unbelievable, as people left areas in which they had been settled, often for centuries, and scrambled over to the ‘right’ side of the border. Inter-communal rioting occurred which ultimately left 1-2 million people dead, 15 million displaced, and saw the rape of perhaps 75,000 women. Those who claimed Hindus and Muslims were intractable enemies used these events (which they had done much to orchestrate) as evidence that their warnings had been prescient. In fact, none of this was inevitable and the tragedy of partition is that it was a specifically modern, 20th century, creation, and not the result of some age-old animosity. If anything, it was the inevitable consequence of applying a concept of European-style ‘nationalities’ living in ethnically-homogenous territorial ‘nations’ which was really a totally inappropriate model for the sub-continent.

India emerged as a multi-ethnic nation with a loosely-defined national identity, while Pakistan defined itself by its religion. In fact, both ‘nations’ shared a great deal in common with each other while at the same time being internally very diverse. Islam has not always been enough to pull together Pakistan’s disparate ethnic groups. The issue of language is telling: Hindu and Urdu, which became the standardised ‘national languages’ of India and Pakistan, are basically dialects of the same language with different alphabets which, like Serbian and Croatian, are regarded as separate languages for political reasons. Urdu, while a lingua franca throughout the country, is actually only the first language of about 8% of Pakistan’s population, most of whose people speak either Punjabi (44%), Pashtun (15%), Sindhi (14%), Saraiki (10%), Urdu (8%) or Balochi (3%). At independence, of course, these figures looked very different. Pakistan consisted of two parts, separated by thousands of miles, like this:


Taking the eastern part into account (the eastern half of what had been the Indian province of Bengal) Bengali was the largest language in the country, spoken by 54% of the population, but Urdu was made national language. Given that other unifying factors were somewhat lacking, therefore, a kind of national identity based on religion was very important in giving Pakistan some sense of cohesion. This is somewhat ironic, given that Jinnah and many of his colleagues were secularists, and resented the way Gandhi had brought religion into politics. Jinnah himself was a non-observant Muslim who drank alcohol and reputedly ate pork. As noted above, he had not always been an advocate of a separate Muslim state, and only gradually became convinced, likely through the influence of the poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (below), with whom he held a lengthy correspondence, and who is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan.


Iqba, whose poetry in both Urdu and Persian is famous throughout the Muslim world, had been educated in Europe and knighted by the British. While studying law in England, he had become a member of the Muslim league, and became convinced that the rights of Muslims in India could not be secured without their own state. He developed in tandem with his political ideas an interpretation of Islam as a force for social renewal and liberation, anti-imperialist and critical of capitalism, somewhat anticipating the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sh’ia revolutionaries in 1970s Iran. His vision of Islam, however, was more attuned to a conception of the Ummah or community of all Muslims throughout the world rather than a narrow nationalistic focus on the nascent Pakistan, nor did it advocate fundamentalism or a return to some imagined ‘purity’ of the past.

In this, Iqbal differed from another of Pakistan’s spiritual precursors, and one of the founding intellects of political Islam in the twentieth century, Abul A’la Maududi:


There would always be a tension in Pakistan, to this day, between those who want religion to play a greater role in the political life of the country, and those who don’t. Maududi very much represents the former camp, and would linger on the margins of Pakistani politics until late in his life, when his ideas’ time finally came in the late 1970s. While the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s largest conservative, Islamist political parties, Maududi does not fit neatly the definition of ‘politician’, being rather a theological scholar active in politics. He initially opposed the idea of a state for Muslims as envisaged by Jinnah, who had declared before the newly-constituted assembly in 1948:
‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State’.
Maududi and his followers, on the other hand, believed that such a state should only be founded if it was ruled according to the precepts of the Qur’an. They did not, initially at least, get their way. Pakistan, for the first few decades of its existence, was dominated by a secular ruling class and, while ostensibly Muslim in character, could certainly not be described as theocratic in any way. If any caste could be said to have ruled the country, it wasn’t the clerics, or even the capitalists, but the military. It took almost a decade for the Pakistani ruling elite to agree to a constitution, which was promulgated in 1956. This gave some concessions to the Islamists, that no laws would be made contrary to sharia, for example. This constitution would, however, be scrapped when the head of the army, Ayub Khan, seized power two year later, and replaced it with a more secular one which was in effect throughout the military dictatorship which followed. In fact, in the 70 years since it achieved independence, Pakistan has been under military rule for almost half that period (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2008). It might reasonably be asked, given that neighbouring India developed fairly robust civil institutions and maintained civilian rule for most of its history, how did the Pakistani army grow so strong? The origins of this dominance can be summed up to a large extent in one word: Kashmir.
Kashmir is the area in grey on the above map, and is shown in more detail below, which shows the areas under the control of the respective actors in this conflict at the present day. The enmity with India has been, along with religion, the other great unifier for Pakistanis, and while not the only source of conflict, disagreement over to whom belongs Kashmir has been at the heart of their rivalry.


This conflict began as partition was being thrashed out in the 1940s. The territory over which the British ruled in India consisted in many cases of what were known as ‘princely states’, areas ruled over by nominally-independent local sovereigns, known as Maharaja or Raj (often used for Hindu rulers) or Nizam or Nawab (for Muslims). The British called them all ‘princes’ to emphasise their inferiority to their own king or queen, and they were ruled by the British, but more indirectly than the other areas provinces. In the years before independence, these princely states (there were almost 600 of them, covering about 40% of modern India’s territory) were pressurised into integrating into a more closely-knit Indian federation, which most of them agreed to, if reluctantly. One ruler who held out the longest was the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh (below). A Hindu, Singh ruled a predominantly Muslim state, but resisted pressure to join his territory to either India or Pakistan even as those nations became independent, hoping to play both off one another and maintain his own independence.

Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.

His hand was forced by an invasion of Pashtun militia from eastern Pakistan, widely-believed to be backed by the new Pakistani state. This, along with an uprising by Muslims in Kashmir who were demanding that the Maharaja recognise the religious allegiances of the majority and accede to Pakistan, pushed Singh into the Indian camp, despite his dislike of the Congress party. In return for Indian military assistance, he signed the Instrument of Accession in October 1947, Jammu and Kashmir became (on paper) a part of India, and the Indian army invaded Kashmir. In response, the Pakistani army piled in too and the first Indo-Pakistan war (1947-8) occurred, with inconclusive results. The ceasefire line agreed to at the end of the war followed roughly the ‘line of control’ which divides the two armies in Kashmir to this day, although there would be a further three wars, besides constant tension, to follow, and that is only so far. We can’t go into the ins and outs of the Kashmir conflict here. Suffice to say it has been devastating for the region. What is germane here is the effect this overwhelming obsession with the threat from India had on Pakistani society.

Pakistan survived barely ten years after independence under civilian rule. A huge vacuum was left after Jinnah’s untimely death in 1948. Few of his peers were able to fill his shoes such was his charisma and stature. The prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan (below), provided a measure of continuity, having been a close associate of Jinnah and first foreign minister as well, attempting to lead Pakistan in a non-aligned direction, although finding himself compelled to lean towards the United States and the west instead of the Soviet Union (this was during the Cold War, when it was pretty difficult for a country in Pakistan’s position to sit on the fence), which had been advocated by leftists in the country, who attempted to seize power in a failed coup (the first of many) in 1951. Later that year, Khan was assassinated at a rally and his assassin killed, the motive and backers of this assassination remaining somewhat mysterious to this day. The assassin was an Afghan Pashtun, leading some to suggest that it was a part of the Pashtun struggle for an independent state carved out of Afghanistan and Pakistan (see the previous post); others, meanwhile, have speculated that the Americans had Khan killed because he refused to allow the CIA to establish bases in the country or help with American efforts to secure control of Iran’s oil-fields.


This complicated (and frankly unhealthy) relationship with the United States will dominate Pakistan’s history for the next seventy years. While Liaquat Ali Khan had been hesitant about committing Pakistan to the American side, his successors became less and less so, binding their country in dependency to the Americans and attempting to exact as much as possible from the relationship, while at the same time seeking to commit as little as possible to the Cold War conflict, so as to maintain the focus on what really concerned them: fighting India. The Kashmir conflict, as well as worries over Pashtun, Bengali and  Baloch separatists, allowed the state to justify retaining a ridiculously large army. 75% of the budget was going to the military in the first year of its existence and they only became more powerful, especially as the Americans, who were holding the purse strings, came to favour military figures over civilian ones as time went on, the former generally being more fervently anti-Communist.

The Americans became such domineering benefactors of Pakistan somewhat by default. Immediately after independence, they had attempted to woo India (the world’s second-most populous country after all) into their sphere of influence, but the Indians under Nehru were committed to a policy of non-alignment and were reluctant to take sides in the Cold War. This irritated the Americans no end. Pakistan became more important under Eisenhower’s regime, and especially under the secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who was convinced that Nehru’s India was under Soviet influence. Dulles’ ignorance of the region is attested by the fact that he thought the Gurkhas (a Nepalese, mostly-Hindu people) were Muslims from Pakistan. This ignorance helped the Pakistanis convince the Americans they were far more committed to the anti-Communist cause than they really were. They were almost too successful in this: when Nixon came to visit as vice-president in 1953, they were so convincing that he concluded they would never go communist, even if they were left without American support.

In 1954 a mutual defense agreement was signed, which displeased Islamists, who wanted closer ties to the Muslim world, and those on the left who did not want such close alignment with west and were worried that militarisation was being pursued at the expense of development at home. Pro-western elements in Pakistan in turn used the threat of these elements taking over to get the Americans to send more money. The more American money was sent, the stronger the army became at the expense of the rest of the country. By the late 1950s, even the American ambassador was expressing concern at this trend. By then, any pretense of civilian government was abandoned. As mentioned above, a military coup in 1958 deposed the president, an office instituted by the new constitution two years earlier. The new ruler, Ayub Khan (below), had been commander-in-chief of the army since 1951, leading a faction who sought an end to what they saw as the instability of party politics and believed the army were better placed to manage relations with the United States.

Mohammed Ayub Khan

The Ayub Khan years saw a deepening of dependency on the Americans. At the same time, military rule (Khan had himself legitimised by some plebiscites but lets not kid ourselves) did little to stabilise the country or improve the lot of the population. During Kennedy’s presidency, the Pakistanis were perturbed by the Americans’ attempts to improve relations with India, seeing this as a threat to their own interests. What they never really grasped was that the Americans were never interested in their conflict and saw nothing mutually exclusive about alliance with either India or Pakistan. War over Kashmir erupted once again in 1965, after Ayub Khan sent in infiltrators to the area to foment an insurgency. India responded with overwhelming force and are generally agreed to have had the upper hand when a United Nations ceasefire was mandated after a few weeks of fighting. While claiming victory, his obvious failure undermined Ayub Khan in a number of ways. Seeing the Tashkent agreement which ended the war as a climbdown, Ayub Khan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,who had been a chief architect of the war, resigned and publicly opposed the president, forming an important new locus of power in the country. That name, Bhutto, is one to remember.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

The government had also encouraged a wave of jihadist enthusiasm to boost morale for the war. Not for the last time, a ruler who was not particularly interested in religion, but used it for cynical opportunistic reasons, found himself unable to control the forces he had unleashed once the genie was out of the bottle. The war also intensified unrest in East Pakistan, which had been left undefended, and where the Bengalis had long been resentful of the western part of the country’s domination. This was evident from the very start, when, as noted, above, Urdu was made the country’s national language despite the fact that Bengalis were a majority. Disaffected Bengalis’ organised themselves into the Awami League, which initially led a campaign to secure greater rights for Bengalis within Pakistan but, when these were met with intransigence by the regime, found itself spearheading an independence movement. Along with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which had been founded by Bhutto, now a fierce critic of Ayub Khan’s regime, they led protests against his rule which eventually led to his resignation in 1969, to be replaced by another military leader, Yahya Khan.

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The Bengali struggle for independence becomes crucial here. Since independence, a concentration of power in the western part of Pakistan went deeper than simply language rights. East Pakistan received proportionally less investment, and partition had affected its economy particularly severely. This area, after all, constituted the eastern part of what had been one province of Bengal under British rule. The rapid deterioration of relations with India cut off many Bengali traders from their traditional markets across the border. A devastating famine in the middle of World War Two killed approximately 3 million people. The British no doubt exacerbated this by refusing to take measures to check inflation of food prices and provide aid to meet the shortfall, choosing instead to prioritise the war effort and ship food to their troops. The attitude of British prime minister Winston Churchill towards the victims can be imagined, given that he told the Secretary of State for India: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for “breeding like rabbits.”

By the 1960s, the British were long gone but the Bengalis in East Pakistan had a mounting list of grievances that found voice in the Six point movement, led by the Awami league and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (below). The growing power of the Bengal national movement, as well as its cultural wing, advocating a sense of Bengali national identity that overrode any common Islamic identity with the western half of the country, became an important part (along with Bhutto’s PPP) of the growing calls for a return to civilian rule and representative democracy. The incompetent response of the government to the 1970 cyclone which hit Bengal, killing 3-500,000 people, also fueled the flames and the military rulers were forced to concede elections in 1970, the first, incidentally, to be held in Pakistan since independence over 20 years earlier.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

In these elections, the Awami league won 167 of the 169 seats in the east and a majority of the seats in parliament overall. The PPP was the second-largest party and Bhutto refused to accept Rahman’s right to form a government, being steadfastly opposed to the Six Points and any move towards greater autonomy for the Bengalis. An agreement was reached whereby the two would share power, but the army concluded the Bengalis had already set their stall out for independence and launched an operation (named ‘Searchlight’) in March 1971  to smother the secessionist movement. Having secured control of all the cities and towns, transport and communications infrastructure, the Pakistan army proceeded to carry out a series of atrocities which resulted in the deaths of millions (figures are hotly-disputed), as well as the systematic rape of women on a huge scale. Bengali intellectuals were deliberately targeted, but in general, being an able-bodied Bengali male was enough to get you killed. The atrocities provoked an international outcry, although the Nixon government declined to criticise their allies in West Pakistan. Despite the somewhat bizarre belief that all of this would somehow help Pakistan stay united, the possibility of a negotiated maintenance of Pakistan’s unity was now gone. The independence of Bangladesh was declared and, by December 1971, with millions of refugees having fled into their country, India finally decided to intervene, defeating Pakistani forces in only 13 days.

Bangladesh liberation flag

 This humiliating defeat not only led to the splitting off of East Pakistan as the new nation of Bangladesh; it also sounded the death-knell of Yahya Khan’s rule. While Bhutto had been opposed to the breakaway of Bangladesh and supported military intervention, he distanced himself from Khan as things went wrong and criticised his government for mishandling the war. By the time Khan resigned in December, with the Pakistani army facing defeat, Bhutto was ready to assume the role of president and for the first time Pakistan had a left-leaning, elected civilian leader. He was actually in New York at the time, where he was busy making this rabble-rousing speech at the UN security council:

Despite reasons for optimism among the masses at his promises to engineer social justice and reform, Bhutto inherited a Pakistan which was in a dire position, both diplomatically and psychologically. Perceiving itself as having been abandoned by its American (and Chinese) allies, the country saw itself facing an existential threat from India, and other independence movements in the country who took heart from the Bengalis’ achievements. A paranoia (not entirely new and not entirely unjustified, it must be added) took hold, which accelerated Pakistan’s drive to obtain nuclear weapon capability, of which Bhutto was the most enthusiastic proponent. The perceived necessity of this only became more acute in May 1974, when India tested its first atomic bomb in the deserts of Rajasthan, just south of the Pakistan border. Pakistan would not successfully detonate its first nuclear device until 1998, but much of the groundwork was laid in the Bhutto years. Having secured a new constitution in 1973, Bhutto shifted from president to prime minister in that year and led a series of land reforms and campaigns against corruption, seeking to create a robust parliamentary democracy and introduce widespread nationalisation of key industries.

Bhutto’s programme for transforming Pakistan into a modern socialist state was, with hindsight, probably too ambitious and not shared by sufficient numbers of the ruling elite to be carried out effectively. Despite attempts to root it out, corruption remained endemic, the nationalisations were successful in some sectors but ruined many small businessmen, efforts to reform the army provoked an attempted coup which, although it was suppressed, merely postponed the problem rather than dealt with it. As time went by, Bhutto was also seen by many of his socialist allies as having compromised on key points of principle and abandoned by them. By the next elections in 1977, he faced stiff opposition from an alliance of conservatives and leftists, as well as Islamists, and attempted to have many of these tried on charges of treason (always a sign of desperation). While the opposition failed to achieve an outright majority in the election, Bhutto was widely believed to have rigged the results. In the face of protests, negotiations took place with the opposition to arrange new elections, but before this could be done he was arrested and deposed on the orders of one of his favourite generals, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who we have already come across in the previous post. Here’s another picture of the dude, because he is so darn handsome:


This was July 1977. Although General Zia said he would hold elections within a few months, he did not (surprise, surprise). Bhutto was released from captivity after a period but began canvassing up and down the country for his political comeback. He was arrested on charges of having a political opponent murdered in September and this time, the military government were determined to nail him. The trial and appeals were widely condemned by those present as a kangaroo court, and leaders around the world pleaded with Zia for clemency, but to no avail. Bhutto was hanged in Rawalpindi in April 1979. This is not the last, incidentally, we will hear of the Bhutto family.

One country conspicuously absent from the list of Bhutto’s mourners was the United States, and it is widely suspected that they engineered his deposition and judicial murder in order to see a more anti-Communist regime in Pakistan. They got this in Zia, who initiated a series of reforms aimed at the Islamisation of the country, specifically, applying sharia law. This could mean cool stuff, like preventing banks from charging interest and making everyone give 2.5% of their income to charity, but also less cool stuff like new blasphemy laws and whipping, amputation, and stoning to death as punishment. All this, remember once again, took place with the blessing the good old US of A, just as they bankrolled similar fundamentalist Islamic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. But there has always been, even back then, an ambiguity in America’s alliance with Islamists. Even while supporting them in Pakistan, there was (and still is) an undercurrent of anti-American rhetoric on the ground in Pakistan. The American embassy was burnt down by Islamists in 1979 just at the time they were funding the jihad in Afghanistan.

Zia took power just in time to become a crucial player in the mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union, which brings us neatly back to the point at which the last post ended, at the start of that war. For years, Pakistan had tried to convince the United States of its position on the front line of the Cold War in the hope of securing financial aid, not entirely successfully. With the communist takeover in Afghanistan, this boast suddenly became a reality, and with the Americans unwilling to openly aid the Islamists there, but eager to help them secretly, they would rely on Pakistan, and its shadowy ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence) intelligence agency, to execute (something approximating) its wishes on the ground in Afghanistan. The interplay between the forces at work there will have profound consequences for the relation between political Islam and the west for decades to come.

Featured image above: Muhammad Ali Jinnah towards the end of his life.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 9: Pakistan to 1979

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1



With this first post on Afghanistan’s troubled recent history, I am slightly concerned that this blog is going into a bit too much detail. I mean, if it took three lengthy posts to get through the Lebanese civil war, how long is it going to take to explain the almost forty years of war that have ravaged this central-Asian nation? I started this blog as a kind of primer for newcomers, to the historical background of present conflicts in the Muslim world, not as a comprehensive history in any sense. On the other hand, my objective has also been to get past the kind of superficial understanding most people in the west have of these conflicts, and put names and faces to many of the events and individuals which are so often vaguely alluded-to but rarely understood. With that in mind, I will press forward and try to strike a balance between brevity and coherence, encompassing enough facts to make an interesting narrative without drowning that narrative in so much detail that we lose sight of the wood for the trees.

With that invocation to the spirit of brevity, let’s look at the background to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by going back to the 18th century. This is when the first political entity which can be regarded as the forerunner of Afghanistan was founded by a Pashtun soldier, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who became emir in 1747 after the death of the Persian shah whom he had served. The empire carved out by Durrani and his followers would come to stretch over an area covering not only modern-day Afghanistan but parts of northeastern Iran, eastern Turkmenistan, as well as much of Pakistan and northwestern India. Here is a map of the region, with the borders as they stand in 2016:


Bear in mind that in 1979, all those countries (in pink) to the north of Afghanistan were part of the Soviet Union, and if we go further back in time to the 19th century, the Russian empire. Not only did the Afghans have an empire to their north, they also had British India to their south, where Pakistan is today. With Persia to their west and China to their east, Afghanistan has never been short of powerful neighbours and potential invaders. In the 19th century the British (rather absurdly for a tiny island nation on the other side of the world) felt their ‘interests’ threatened by the burgeoning power of Tsarist Russia. If the Russians succeeded in imposing some kind of domination over Afghanistan, it was argued, they would have a vassal state right on the northern borders of India, British control over which was believed to be the key to the vitality of their empire and status as the world’s greatest superpower. With this in mind, the British sought to replace the Afghan emir, Dost Mohammad (below), who they believed was susceptible to Russian influence, with a puppet ruler of their own choosing.


The British invaded in December 1838 and by the Autumn of the following year they had taken Kabul and enthroned their appointee, Shuja Shah, who was incidentally a descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, mentioned above, whose dynasty had been replaced by the Barakzai dynasty to which Dost Mohammad belonged. Although the British had had little trouble conquering and occupying Afghanistan, they (and they would not be the last) found the task of consolidating control over the country altogether more difficult. The Afghans did not accept Shuja Shah as a legitimate ruler and saw him as a puppet of foreign occupiers. While the British withdrew some of their forces, their soldiers stationed in Kabul brought in their wives and children, giving the impression they were settling down for a permanent occupation. Not only that, but many of the soldiers clearly regarded the whole campaign as an extended holiday against a foe they had no respect for from a military standpoint. Anecdotal evidence tells of soldiers arriving with camel trains loaded with food, fine wines and silver dinner sets, not to mention fox hounds for hunting.

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They were rudely awakened from this delusion by the hostile reception they received from the Afghans. Dost Mohammad led an insurgency against the occupiers, and although he was captured and exiled to India in late 1840, his son Wazir Akbar Khan carried on the struggle. By late 18141, the British position in Kabul had become practically indefensible, and they were looking for a negotiated way of extracting themselves from the country without sacrificing all of the gains of their initial conquest. Even this effort collapsed when the negotiators were killed by Akbar Khan and discipline began to break down amongst the soldiers and their camp followers in Kabul. The British general Elphinstone managed to secure the agreement of the Afghans to allow the British to evacuate Kabul and make their way towards the garrison at Jalalabad, about 100 kilometres to the east. This retreat was a disaster for the British. The party of 16,500 struggled through the snowbound passes and were massacred by the Pashtun warriors until only a single survivor made it alive to Jalalabad.


The First Anglo-Afghan war is chiefly remembered for this debacle in English-language sources. It is often presented in the folklore of empire as a humanitarian tragedy in which the British were victims of a cruel and barbaric enemy. The fact that the British were the invaders of a country halfway around the world and were, by any definition of the term, the aggressors in this conflict, is ignored in most accounts. This regional rivalry between the British and Russians was known by the British as the ‘Great Game’, although it was hardly a game for the Afghans caught in between. For the First Anglo-Afghan war, practically no mention is given to Afghan casualties. Indeed, if you a do a search for such a figure you are confronted at every turn by discussion of British casualties. It seems, just like general Tommy Franks in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, the Afghans were not deemed worthy of a body count in the 1840s either. It seems to me that this re-framing of the war in which the British were passive victims, ‘defending’ ‘their’ India from Afghan aggression, is a perfect example of history (and this is why history is important) as indoctrination, as laying out a narrative into which current and future events can be made to fit. Thus the attempt to conquer, or at least impose vassalage upon, a poverty-stricken nation half a world away, is somehow made to appear defensive in nature. Does this sound familiar? It should.

An unfortunate consequence of such distortions is that we don’t learn our lesson from events. Afghanistan is the place where western empires go to not learn their lessons. The Victorians in Afghanistan were really good at this, although the opposite appeared to be the case in the immediate aftermath of the war. While the British sent their troops back into Afghanistan to exact revenge (as I say, it’s almost impossible to know how many they killed) and retook Kabul in September 1842, they did realise that occupation of the country was more hassle than it was worth and agreed to the return of Dost Mohammad as an ally instead of enemy. They had their buffer state. This policy was indeed successful enough in the next few decades that the Afghan emir did not intervene in 1857, despite pleas for help from the Indians, when the Indian rebellion against the British took place. Lessons, if learnt, however, were soon forgotten. In 1878, the son of Dost Mohammad, Sher Ali Khan (below left), reluctantly accepted a Russian diplomatic mission (he was left with little choice, they just turned up on his doorstep) and when the British insisted on sending their own, the emir warned them not to, and that they would be forcibly expelled if they tried to enter the country without permission.


The British ignored his warnings and invaded the country, once again overrunning large swathes of territory with little difficulty. When the emir died the following year, his son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan (above right) attempted to negotiate an agreement allowing a British presence in the country, territorial concessions, and British control over Afghanistan’s foreign relations. While this kept the British satisfied for a while, an uprising in Kabul brought the army back in again and a more destructive series of battles finally led to another agreement between the emir and the British similar to the last. Although the diplomatic mission withdrew from Kabul, and Afghanistan would essentially be in control of its own internal affairs, the British would take responsibility for its external relations. It would be almost 40 years between the end of this war (1880) and the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, when the Afghans used British disarray after the first world war to wrest back control of their foreign affairs and become a truly independent nation. One major concession the British did win, however, was the Afghan emir’s acceptance of the Durand line as the border between Afghanistan and British India.

It is worth considering the Durand line for a minute. It was agreed in the 1890s by the emir and a British civil servant called Durand. It represented the furthest possible limit which the British could practically expect to establish their authority without getting bogged down in the kind of interminable conflict which we have seen above. The fact that the border bore no relation whatsoever to ethnic, linguistic or political realities on the ground seems to have had zero bearing on their calculations. This is not just a piece of historical trivia; it will have very real and dangerous consequences for the future. The border in fact cut right through an area in which the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan live, the Pashtun, leaving half the Pashtun community in Afghanistan and the other half in what would in 1947 become Pakistan. To this day, this border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is little more than a line on a map in many places and people pass back and forth freely as if it didn’t exist. This will become a huge factor in facilitating the resistance to Soviet and later American occupation. The fact that the Pastuns were divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Pastun’s dream of an independent homeland carved out of the two countries, would also lead to tension between the two countries. This ‘Pashtunistan’ would continue to exercise a hold over some politicians until at least the 1970s, although in recent years it has receded in importance as a bone of contention.

While we are on the subject of Pashtuns, it should be noted that these were only one of many ethnic groups in the country, the other major ones being the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmens, and Baluchis. As will be seen, however, most Afghans loyalties operated on a much more local level than national identity would suggest. These ethnic groups do not, therefore, equate with politically cohesive nationalities. Hence, despite all its troubles in the last 40 years, there has never really been a serious threat of the Afghan state breaking up along ethnic lines as happened, for example, in Yugoslavia. Despite all their disagreements on other matters, Afghans seem broadly comfortable with and accepting of a multi-ethnic state. These ethnic identities nevertheless did at times provide the lines along which alliances were made and rivalries forged, and sometimes it seems that the Afghans embraced jihad so fervently because they had so little else to unite them against foreign aggressors. What we see in Afghanistan is really multiple lines of division intersecting and overlapping. One major one which will emerge is the gulf between rural and urban Afghanistan. Indeed, the longer I write this blog, I more I find the great opposition emerging in all these stories is not between Islam and the west, or communism versus capitalism, or good versus evil, but rural versus urban-the modernised and wealthy against the left-behind.

Afghanistan faced the future after its third war with Britain as a forward-looking, modernising kingdom (the emir became a king after 1926), or at least its leaders did, and this distinction is important to make, because the efforts of Amanullah Khan (below left), who had led the Afghans to (a kind of) victory against the British in 1919, to modernise his country along western lines is a forerunner of the kind of narrative that will be played out again as the country descends into violence near the end of the century.


Amanullah Khan was influenced by an intellectual named Mahmud Tarzi (above right) who in turn sought to emulate in Afghanistan the transformation of society which Kemal Ataturk had carried out in Turkey, where a traditional Islamic society had self-consciously adopted all that it thought advantageous in western society (e.g. technology, dress-codes) while seeking to retain its Islamic character. Amanullah Khan visited Europe often, loved European culture and fast cars, and (most shockingly) allowed his queen Soraya, who was Tarzi’s daughter, to go around without a veil.


Soraya was made minister of education and encouraged girls to get an education and to dispense with the veil themselves. A campaign of westernisation was pushed on all fronts that was really only welcomed by a small elite in Kabul and perhaps some of the other cities. The vast majority of Afghans’ reality was quite different. For starters, most people lived in rural areas, which in a country as mountainous and (in many places) geographically inhospitable as Afghanistan, meant isolated rural communities, villages or fortified settlements, little touched by centralised state rule of any form and ruled over by the twin powers of the malik, or chief, who were chosen generally by consensus, and the mullah, who were religious leaders and advisers, although once again these figures usually emerged from their own areas as a result of local patronage or theological knowledge. The political unit which really mattered for most people in Afghanistan was the qawm which has been defined by Angelo Rasanayagam as:

‘. . . an autonomous and somewhat elusive network of relationships, in the eyes of which the state was an intrusion. This vast rural space is Afghanistan proper, and could be described as a community of interests, local and traditional, which, along with the multi-ethnic composition of the population, inhibited the development of a modern nation-state. The interaction of the competing forces of the state, symbolized by Kabul and its bureaucracy, and the qawm would constitute the political history of twentieth-century Afghanistan.’

The conservative Afghanistan of the rural qawm chafed under the king’s attempts to drag their society into a future they were far from sure they wanted. Amanullah promulgated a constitution (in itself a radical act) discouraging the veil, guaranteeing freedom of worship and education for girls; torture and slavery were abolished, all of which is great, but then you have more peculiar preoccupations making their way into the prescribed new order: men with beards would not be allowed to work for the government, for example, and would have to dress in a western-style suit and tie. The reforms were a particular threat to the influence and livelihood of the mullahs and, after the king visited Europe in 1927, photographs made their way back home of Queen Soraya without her veil, fraternising with European men. All sorts of wild rumours about the king drinking alcohol and abandoning Islam began to spread among the population and by 1928 large parts of the country were in armed revolt against the king. Some authors, such as Tamim Ansary, whose suspicions have been alerted to the presence of T.E.Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) in Peshawar, have surmised that the British deliberately facilitated distribution of such pictures, and helped fund the Islamic fundamentalist movement which overthrew Amanullah in 1929. It would certainly not be the last time a western power backed the most reactionary, conservative forces in Afghan society to combat more progressive elements.


The new king was the above character, Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik bandit who just happened to find himself in the right place at the right time, leading the forces that took Kabul at the time the king fled the country. He must go down as one of history’s unlikeliest kings, completely illiterate and the son of a water-carrier, his Tajik ethnicity, however, was the biggest drawback in the eyes of the country’s Pastun majority, and his reign lasted only nine months, a period marked by policies the opposite of Amanullah but just as intolerant, forcing men to wear beards, women to wear the veil, and abolishing education for girls. Kalakani was dethroned as king by Mohammed Nadir Shah, a descendant of Dost Mohammad, who had quite cleverly ridden out the last turbulent years of Amanullah’s reign by keeping a low profile, disassociating himself from the king whom he served as ambassador in faraway France, and all the while reminding the British of his readiness to step in and replace the king. Nadir Shah took the country by force after the short reign of Kalakani, although was assassinated four years later in what appears to have been revenge for the killing of a supporter of Amanullah.

His son, who succeeded him, Mohammed Zahir Shah (below), was to reign for forty years.This was to be a period of almost unprecedented peace and development of sorts. The king and his prime minister from 1953-63,  Mohammed Daoud Khan (below right), were adept at playing the two Cold War rivals against each other, securing funding for development projects such as dams and schools, from both the United States and the Soviet Union, who both courted Afghanistan as an ally.

zahir shah.JPG

Daoud, who was both related to the king by blood and married to his sister, caused tensions with Pakistan and the non-Pastun groups in Afghanistan by pushing the Pashtunistan issue too much and seeking to strengthen the Pastuns at the expense of other minorities. The king removed him from power in 1963, and proceeded to introduce a series of reforms introducing elections and womens rights in the following years. While a step in the right direction, these reforms disguised a lack of real material progress in the Afghanistan where most people lived. Once again, we see an urban elite thriving and dictating to the ‘backward’ rural masses and once again, for all their progressive good intentions, the masses resented this. These years are nevertheless looked back upon as a golden era, which is not surprising when you consider what followed.

Daoud, who cultivated links with Marxists within the country and the Soviet Union, plotted a takeover and in 1973, when the king was abroad on holiday, took control with the help of the army, who was coming increasingly under the influence of Soviet advisers and Marxist intellectuals. Instead of declaring himself king as all previous usurpers had done, Daoud abolished the monarchy and made himself president of a new Afghan republic. Instead of placating the more progressive elements of Afghan society, however, these developments merely emboldened those on the left to push ahead with an agenda which (considering how far Afghanistan was from meeting the conditions traditionally identified by Marxists as making a country ready for communism) can only be described as revolutionary. The years that followed were marked by unrest and jockeying for position among the various left-wing factions in Kabul and other urban areas. Many young men and women who had been trained in the Soviet Union were returning home, impatient to put their revolutionary ideals of a better society into practice. At the same time, opportunities for these educated young people were diminishing due to rising unemployment  and corruption within the state. The late 1960s had already seen student and workers strikes and the corresponding rise of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), who helped Daoud seize power.

Emblem of the PDPA

Actually, it was only one PDPA that assisted Daoud, because since 1967 there had been two rival parties using the same. A time-honoured tradition of the left, the bitter factional rivalry, had developed between two groups: one called the Parchamis (banner) and another called the Khalqis (the masses). The Parchamis, led by Babrak Karmal (below, far right) had helped Daoud. Recognising that Afghanistan was far from ready for Soviet-style communism, Karmal and his faction argued for a more gradualist approach, building mass support for a revolution from below. Hence their pragmatic support for Daoud, who was far from being a communist. The Khalqis on the other hand, who were led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin (below far left and middle respectively), argued for a Leninist-style takeover, orchestrated by a small but tightly-disciplined vanguard.

Left to right: Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal.

The Parchami’s support for Daoud’s government was downplayed by Karmal and his allies, who saw it as potentially damaging to their socialist credentials. They were already being denounced as sellouts by the Khalqis. The honeymoon between the government and its socialist supporters didn’t last long in any case. Resenting Soviet high-handedness, and pursuing his own policy towards Pakistan in relation to Pashtunistan, Daoud began to attempt to steer his regime away from Soviet dependency. The United States, Iran and other oil-producing nations were courted in an effort to fill in the potential gaps in foreign aid (on which Afghanistan was heavily dependent). By 1975, many Pachamis had been removed from the government and Soviet advisers dismissed. The seeds of a takeover of power by the PDPA with Soviet backing were sown. All they had to do was stop bickering amongst themselves.

They managed this for long enough to remove Daoud from power with the help of the army, although they had a few lucky breaks along the way. The Saur (the month of the Persian calendar in which it took place) revolution of 1978 was precipitated by the government’s extrajudicial killing of a PDPA notable. His funeral was the scene of an impressive demonstration of numbers by the left. Daoud next had Taraki and Karmal arrested but not Amin. This was the first of a series of cock-ups by the Daoud security forces without which the coup may not have succeeded at all. Amin was able to hide plans for the revolution (which the PDPA had been planning, but for later in the year) under a mattress in his kids’ room. Kept under house arrest, the police allowed one of his accomplices to come and visit  him thinking it was his brother, and Amin was thus able to issue instructions to his allies in the army. As if this was not bad enough, the government issued orders to the army to arrange dancing for all the soldiers in order to celebrate the arrest of the communist leaders.

The next day saw the Daoud regime crumble. The depth of support for the PDPA in the army, as well as official incompetence, swept the communists to power, with Taraki as new leader of the country. Daoud was killed when he drew a revolver at the soldiers who had come to arrest him. Despite what was widely believed in the west at the time, the Soviets seemed to have been surprised as anyone else at this turn of events, but welcomed their new ally to the south with cautious optimism. Once again, however, it is crucial to remember that this ‘revolution’ bore little relation to the everyday reality of the vast majority of Afghans, whose lives the state had hardly touched up to now, or who were left out of the grandiose plans of urban intellectuals. Politics in the 20th century had been marked by intermittent plans and idealistic constitutions. You can write all the idealistic constitutions you want, however, but they are not worth the paper they’re written on if you can’t create institutions to put them into execution. The following video is just a series of images with some nice music that gives some idea of the atmosphere in Kabul after the revolution. Most people just seem to be standing around nonplussed, probably wondering what is going to happen next and hoping the politicians will just stick to killing each other and leave them alone.

Unfortunately for everyone, the politicians will not restrict themselves to  just killing each other in the coming years. The reality was that the communists did not have widespread support outside the army, and a small group of urban intellectuals and workers. They had made their revolution by infiltrating the army, in fact ‘revolution’ is a misleading word; it was really little more than a coup. Once they had power, the PDPA was intent on making their vision for a better future more than merely idealistic sentiments written on a page. They began sending their cadres out into the countryside to put their blueprint for progress into action. This involved education for all (including women), unveiling, banning child marriage, and introducing land reform, canceling the mortgages that held much of the rural poor in debt slavery, and giving equal status to the ethnic minorities…all of which, once again, sounds great, and all of which, once again, was resented deeply, especially by the traditional landlord and clerical class whose power was threatened by these measures.

The manner in which these reforms were executed did not help. As Robespierre said (although I’m not sure he took his own advice) ‘No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.’ This is also the case, it might be added, even when intentions are good. Those sent out of transform Afghan society were often young and inexperienced, if idealistic, and treated the locals in a high-handed manner, riding roughshod over centuries-old traditions. History tends tends to record the backlash against this treatment, and I have no doubt there were many who welcomed these reformers, but the influence of the mullahs and maliks was decisive in co-ordinating resistance. Nor did this resistance take place in an ideological vacuum, because the left were not the only movement to have been emboldened by the tumult of the 1960s and 70s. There were also the Islamists. Again, it has to be borne in mind that we are talking here about a modern political movement and not the religion of Islam.

Political Islam had its beginnings in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, when a group of academics in Kabul founded the Jamiat i-Islami (Society of Islam). It is important to note that this movement had little connection with the rural clerics, but saw itself as a modern force of renewal through the introduction of Islam into political life. It had more in common with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria which has already been discussed in previous posts, in that its ideology was fired by the notion that Muslims must adapt the material advances of the west in order to strengthen Islamic society. We must therefore be cautious about using the term ‘fundamentalist’ here, in the way we might use it about the Taliban later on. Unlike the Taliban (who wanted to ‘return’ Afghanistan to how they imagined the world was in the time of Muhammad), these Islamists had no problem with modernisation and technology; in fact, they saw it as essential if Islam was to compete with the west. They were cautious, however, of repeating the past mistakes of Amanullah and Ataturk, of neglecting the Islamic principles of society.

Initially, the Islamists had little direct impact of politics. It was a movement that grew within the university of Kabul, and was opposed to both the burgeoning left as it seized control over the state, and the traditional religious hierarchy of the countryside. There were fissures within Islamism in Afghanistan, just as we have seen elsewhere, from the very beginning. Some, such as the theologian Burhannudin Rabbani and his young follower, Ahmad Shah Massoud (both Tajiks) favoured a more long-term strategy for the Islamification of the state, whereas other more radical Islamists like the Pashtun, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, favoured an immediate overthrow of the corrupt order. Rivalries within the ranks were as much ethnic as ideological, with followers tending to gravitate towards leaders of their own ethnic group; this, incidentally, could also be said of the rivalries within PDPA. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar were engineering students and members of Muslim student groups which were organising opposition to the growing Soviet influence in their country. Finding the Islamists of the Jamiat too inclined to compromise, Hekmatyar in 1976 founded the  Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic party). Here are the dudes in question:

Left to right: Rabbani, Massoud and Hekmatyar.

In the aftermath of the Saur revolution of 1978, in any case, the only question seemed to be which faction of the left would control the country. The Islamists seemed a politically-insignificant throwback to the past, and few expected them to play any important role in the country’s future.

A number of things happened in 1978-9, however, to escalate the situation rapidly. Firstly, the government responded to resistance against its reforms by pressing ahead with an even more radical agenda and imprisoning/torturing/executing those who opposed them. It doesn’t take a genius to predict (although it is amazing how often this mistake is made) that this did not have the desired effect of cowing the population but instead provoked more stubborn reaction, pushing many who might not have sympathised with them into siding with the hardcore Islamists, whose campaign against the government began to take the form of armed struggle. Many refugees from the government’s reforms fled across the border to Pakistan, where they were welcomed by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (below), a general who had taken power in a coup in 1977, and was virulently anti-communist. The Pakistans gave the Afghans a stipend, set up training camps to turn them into insurgents, and sent them back into the country to fight the government. Pakistan is going to play a key role in the Afghan war and I will go into more detail about the situation there in a subsequent post.


The first months of 1979 saw the Islamists under Hekmatyar sieze an important military post in the area bordering Pakistan. On the other side of the country, the province of Herat bordering Iran (at that time undergoing its own revolution, see posts 3 and 4 of this blog) was rocked by an insurrection of Shia, a religious minority in the country and destined to suffer much in the decades that followed. Most worrying for the Afghan government was the collapse and demoralisation of its own troops, who showed little stomach for fighting their own people, and in some cases went over to the insurgents. Indeed, some of the army commanders who abandoned the PDPA government would later become leaders of the mujahideen.

It should be remembered that the Islamist insurgency was provoked by the pace of reforms imposed by the PDPA and not the Soviet invasion itself, as is often portrayed. The Soviet leadership were in fact acutely concerned at this stage that the Afghan regime was being reckless in the speed with which it was attempting to ‘modernise’ the country, and warned their protegés to slow things down, to win over the population with economic and political measures instead of simply imposing them by force. This concern in Moscow, and the fact that the Afghan government ignored them, attests to how little control the Soviet Union had over developments at this stage. Western propaganda at the time encouraged the belief that the Russians were pulling all the strings and that Taraki and co. were merely their puppets. In fact, the Soviets were very reluctant to get involved initially, knowing full well the fate that awaited those who attempted to interfere in Afghan politics. They could not help being concerned, however, that the coup in Kabul was largely outside their control and that its leaders, who saw them as re-enacting the legendary heroics of Lenin and Trotsky, seemed oblivious to their warnings.

The Soviet government became even more concerned in September 1979 when Amin had the more pro-Soviet Taraki removed from power and killed. Seeking to follow a course more independent of Moscow, Amin sent out feelers to Pakistan for a deal which would end their support for the mujahideen, and even made overtures to the Americans. In the meantime, the repression within the country was ratcheted up a notch, as enemies (real or imagined) of Amin were locked up in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul, where many thousands would be tortured and executed. It is in this period that the Soviets appear to have moved towards the decision to intervene militarily. Despite an awareness of the risks involved and the international condemnation that would meet such a move, the imperative not to ‘lose’ Afghanistan had come, in the groupthink at the politburo, to override all other considerations. A cornerstone of this plan would be the removal of Amin and his replacement by a more Soviet-friendly alternative.

Babrak Karmal’s parchami faction were perfectly placed to fulfill this role. They had been ousted by Amin and Taraki shortly after the Saur revolution and their plans for a counter-coup exposed. Karmal, who had already been gotten out of the way by being sent to Czechoslovakia as ambassador, refused to return and instead plotted against his rivals. His moment had come in the winter of 1979 as the Soviets sought for a compliant alternative to Amin. On the 27 December, the KGB went into action. At first they sent in a cook to Amin’s residence at the Tajbeg palace, where he was hosting a banquet, to put poison in the food. While Amin (and apparently many of his guests) were slipping into comas, Soviet doctors who were not aware of the plan to kill him, helped pump his stomach and revive him. At this point the building was stormed by troops who killed Amin with a grenade. Up to the very end, he reportedly believed the Soviets were on their way to help him, rather than the ones carrying out his assassination. The next morning, Babrak Karmal was announced as the new president of Afghanistan and a formal request for Soviet military assistance made. At the same moment, 80,000 troops were making their way into the country by land and air.

It should be noted that the United States already had a covert program to assist the Islamist forces before the Soviet invasion. Accounts differ, but key figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates openly admit that the purpose of such aid was to provoke Soviet intervention and to lure the Russians into their own version of Vietnam. If this was the case, they were to be successful beyond their wildest dreams. After the Soviets fell for this ‘bear trap’, American aid, channelled via Pakistan, was increased by several orders of magnitude. It is hard to ignore the irony that, just at the time when the United States was at loggerheads with an Islamist regime in Iran, often portrayed as part of some ‘clash of civilisations’, they were financing the same fundamentalists with whom they will claim to be mortal enemies within twenty years. Just to outline the point, here is footage of Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser at the time, meeting the mujahideen on the Pakistani border and telling them: ‘your cause is right and God is on your side’.



I couldn’t resist adding this:


Featured image above: Mujahideen stand atop a downed Soviet helicopter, 1980s Afghanistan.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1