|Saudi academic recounts experiences from Afghan war|
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Text of part one of three of interview with Musa al-Qarni, Saudi academic and former "shari'ah theoretician" for Usamah Bin-Ladin, by Jamil al-Dhiyabi in Riyadh, date not given, published by London-based newspaper Al-Hayat on 8 March
Many people think that the "Afghan experience and its mujahidin" is gone forever and that it has left no mark on our present time. However, Saudi academic Musa al-Qarni, who once led the incitement to jihad in Saudi Arabia and travelled to Afghanistan in the early days of "jihad" against the Russians, believes otherwise.
Al-Qarni is an exciting character, not only because of the events he narrates about the "jihad" leaders, both dead and alive, and his testimonies about yesterday's "mujahidin" and today's "terrorists", but is also exciting because he has a calm personality that has enabled him to pass through contradictory stages and then with great cleverness to leave every one of his experiences behind him.
He was the friend of all factions. Among the takfiris [those who brand other Muslims, including their own governments, as infidels] he advocated respect for the Islamic governments. He defended those whom the mujahidin branded as "apostates", such as Ahmad Shah Masud. Indeed he was a personal friend of Usamah Bin-Ladin but an opponent of the Taleban regime. Al-Qarni is a fantastic character that lived in harmony both with the zeal of "jihad" and the quiet life of academia.
Al-Hayat met Al-Qarni and now publishes his interview in the following pages:
[Al-Dhiyabi] Tell us how you travelled to Pakistan, then Afghanistan and worked alongside the mujahidin in the 1980s.
[Al-Qarni] An academic course was being held in Peshawar, Pakistan. I was a lecturer in those days and I asked the university president to allow me to join the group that was attending the course in Peshawar. I also informed him that if I went there, I would try to learn about the mujahidin's conditions. I attended the course but found time to visit the battlefronts to learn about the life of the mujahidin. I made the acquaintance of Shaykh Abdallah Azzam and Shaykh Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. In those days Shaykh Sayyaf operated a university called the University of Call and Jihad in an area close to Peshawar that had been named the Village of Migration. It had been specifically established to house refugees from Afghanistan but most of the Arabs who had come to Pakistan with their families also lived there.
At that time Shaykh Sayyaf had been elected as president of the so-called Ittihad-e Islami, the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan. This group was formed after Muslim ulema and preachers made efforts to unite various mujahidin factions in one body, so they formed Ittihad-e Islami and elected Sayyaf as leader because he had studied at Al-Azhar and spoke Arabic well.
This encouraged the Arabs to go and settle there. Their destination was where Sayyaf resided because first of all he was the president of Ittihad-e Islami and this gave him legitimacy in their eyes and he was also proficient in Arabic. For this reason he had a guest house in the village. Indeed I was a guest there for a long time. This was the beginning.
Afterwards I wanted to stay with the mujahidin longer. Consultations were held on how I could spend a long time with the mujahidin. Since Shaykh Sayyaf had a university for call and jihad, he told me: I will petition to let you become a lecturer at my university.
He made an application to the state to allow him to invite lecturers to teach at the university. The application was referred to Medina's Islamic University, which responded by dispatching to him five instructors to teach at the University of Call and Jihad, and I was one of them. This went on for two years. Actually I played a role that was different from the four other lecturers whose tasks were confined to teaching.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Who were your colleagues at the University of Call and Jihad?
[Al-Qarni] They were Dr Hamdan Rajih al-Sharif, who is a retired professor now; Dr Ibrahim al-Murshid, who now teaches in Al-Qasim; Shaykh Rashid al-Ruhayli, a retired Islamic University professor who is over 80 now; and Professor Dakhilallah al-Ruhayli who continues to teach at the Islamic University. I was the fifth. As I said before, their role was confined to teaching at the university but my role, by virtue of my acquaintance with Shaykh Sayyaf and the mujahidin, combined teaching at the university with visits to the front to advocate the faith and give lessons in religion and Islamic shari'ah to the young mujahidin and also to take part in some operations.
[Al-Dhiyabi] What form did the advocacy of the faith take in those days?
[Al-Qarni] Many Arab young men who had joined the jihad lacked a proper Islamic education. Indeed a large percentage of them had lived a dissolute life before. Some did not become upstanding human beings until they decided to join the jihad. They became honest persons and immediately left to join the jihad. I know some young mujahidin who were later killed in the fighting - I wish God may count them as martyrs - who had led dishonest lives before and indeed some had been really dissolute. But they were attracted to jihad.
This fact actually helped me in my work as advocate of the faith because I realized that many of those dissolute young men had something good inside them but never found the proper environment that would nurture them so they fell into an immoral mode of living. When they first came to us, some of them did not even know the rules of prayer or ritual cleansing prior to performing prayers. They had only come to fight. My field of expertise was shari'ah-related and I taught the rules of physical purity before performing prayers and the rules of worship. I instructed them in the rules governing jihad, invasion, war spoils and combat and when they should fight and when they should refrain from fighting. So they attended courses in these matters. At the same time they attended military courses and received instructions from military experts.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did you yourself attend military courses? What did these courses focus on?
[Al-Qarni] They focused primarily on developing the quality of endurance. As you know, Afghanistan has a mountainous terrain that has no paved roads for vehicles. So the trainees had to learn to tolerate hardship, to climb mountains and walk for 10-12 hours a day while carrying their personal effects, weapons and food for the trip. It was important to develop their power of endurance.
Secondly they were trained in the use of personal firearms. They were in a war. They had to carry their personal weapon, a Kalashnikov rifle, and know how to use it and how to use a pistol as well. Of course military training differed from one fighter to another according to personal aptitude and the role each was expected to play. Some confined themselves to learning how to use a Kalashnikov. Some trainees wanted to learn personal combat but others wanted to learn how to use antiaircraft guns and antitank guns. Others wanted to learn how to use mines, how to manufacture them and how to dismantle them, etc. The military courses differed in these details according to the type of trainee. Most combatants received training only in the use of personal firearms, Kalashnikovs and pistols.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did anyone receive training in suicide operations?
[Al-Qarni] No, there were no suicide operations at the time. The young men used to attack tanks and fighter aircraft with their personal weapons. The battle was open. The Russian bases with their tanks and planes were there. You had your weapons and you could go and fight them face to face.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Is it true that the university where you and your four colleagues worked turned into a station for the relay of intelligence data? Was the Village of Migration also a channel for intelligence operations?
[Al-Qarni] It is necessary to have intelligence work. This is a normal state of affairs. It was not possible for the combatants taking part in the jihad in Afghanistan not to be backed by an intelligence apparatus. It is simply impossible to operate without intelligence in any country, including Pakistan and the United States. Even the enemies, the Russians, had an intelligence apparatus and sometimes they had moles in the ranks of the Afghan mujahidin. It is normal. However, we never saw any of the intelligence work. The intelligence personnel did not interact directly with the mujahidin. They worked directly with the politicians.
[Al-Dhiyabi] The mujahidin killed a group of people who used to work with them, I mean they executed them saying that they discovered that they had been providing information to other parties.
[Al-Qarni] This took place in the later stages. In the early stages, the jihad was out in the open. Public operations do not provide an opportunity for concealment. I will give you an example. Sometimes certain countries would send intelligence operatives and indeed some of them might have been sympathetic to the communists. Indeed we know that some Arab countries were sympathetic to Russia. These countries used to send intelligence personnel. What happened to those people? At first they were received as guests and then invited to join the mujahidin in combat. What would such a person do? He would be forced to become a combatant or if he was an intelligence agent, he would remain in the rear among the migrants and civilians. He could not go to the front because he would either be killed in combat or have his cover blown. These people did not want to die especially when faced with the enemy. When you confront the enemy, you must be prepared to die.
[Al-Dhiyabi] How many stages did the Afghan jihad go through in the 1980s?
[Al-Qarni] I would say the first stage lasted from the beginning of jihad until the collapse of Kabul's communist regime and the mujahidin's capture of the city. The second stage was the stage of internal conflict among the mujahidin factions, the infighting. During this period, we isolated ourselves from them. After the mujahidin entered Kabul, I returned to Saudi Arabia and refused to participate in any actions after that.
[Al-Dhiyabi] When exactly did you return?
[Al-Qarni] The problem is that I do not remember dates well.
[Al-Dhiyabi] In the early 1990s?
[Al-Dhiyabi] Prior to the Taleban era?
[Al-Qarni] Yes, before the Taleban. When Ahmad Shah Masud entered Kabul and Najibullah's regime fell, I left. I believe this happened in the 1990s. I and many other brothers who had gone to the jihad in Afghanistan returned home.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did Usamah Bin-Ladin return with you?
[Al-Qarni] He returned to the country, but went back to Afghanistan later.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Do you remember the date?
[Al-Qarni] Frankly, I cannot remember dates at all.
[Al-Dhiyabi] I have heard that the mujahidin used to refuse to memorize Western calendar dates.
[Al-Qarni] No, I am not like that. First of all most of those who joined the Afghan jihad were not known by their real names but used aliases such as Abu-this and Abu-that. I used my real name everywhere I moved in Pakistan.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Was Bin-Ladin's moniker Abu-Abdallah then, the same as today?
[Al-Qarni] Yes, Bin-Ladin was always called Abu-Abdallah from the time he went there until today. He is well known. Everyone knows Bin-Ladin.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Sulayman Abu-Ghayth was with you in those days. Do you know him personally?
[Al-Qarni] I do not know him.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did you know Abu-Sulayman al-Makki, that is Khalid al-Harbi?
[Al-Qarni] Yes, we were acquainted with him at that time. He was one of the first mujahidin. He later went to Chechnya.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Let us talk more about your stay there.
[Al-Qarni] I stayed there for the first two years. Then the two years of my appointment as lecturer on loan ended. I had earned a sabbatical year by that time from my original university. I took that year because I wanted to return to Pakistan on another appointment on loan. Our original university decided that two years were enough and terminated the loan programme. However, I spent my sabbatical there. This means that I spent three years in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Later on I returned to Afghanistan for another two years, which means I spent a total of five years there.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Who took care of your family during those years?
[Al-Qarni] I still had my salary from the university and my wife's brothers lived close to her. Every six months I would go back and spend two weeks with my family. This happened during the school year. During the summer vacation I would take my family to stay with me there. I had a house in the Village of Migration. I built a house there. I stayed there for three consecutive years but I continued to visit that university in later years during the summer vacations.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Is that university still operating?
[Al-Qarni] No, it is closed now.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did you encourage extremism in those days?
[Al-Qarni] It was not called an extremist attitude at that time. Fighting the communists was the prevailing idea. Today it is called extremism. In those days it was called jihad. A Saudi architect was the one who founded the college of architecture at that university. He was a well-known brother who played a significant role in supporting jihad. He was a professor at King Sa'ud University and had an architect's office in Medina. His name was Dr Ahmad Farid Mustafa.
[Al-Dhiyabi] How did the university operate?
[Al-Qarni] Part of the curriculum of the Call and Jihad University was to instruct and train students in jihad. They were sent into Afghanistan. It was a two-hour walk between the Village of Migration and the Afghan border from the direction of Jalalabad. During the Thursday-Friday weekend groups of university students would go to the front and help the mujahidin.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Who used to train them, intelligence personnel?
[Al-Qarni] No, they had instructors. The Arab camps had Arab instructors, some of whom were retired military officers with good experience. The Afghans had their own instructors. The Pakistani army also provided material and moral support.
[Al-Dhiyabi] At that stage Bin-Ladin operated under Abdallah Azzam's command, right?
[Al-Dhiyabi] Did Bin-Ladin express his opinion on military matters?
[Al-Qarni] He certainly did and his views were respected but he could not dictate his views. They had something that operated like a council and it was this body that debated the mujahidin's affairs.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Describe the relations between Ahmad Shah Masud on the one hand and Abdallah Azzam and Bin-Ladin on the other.
[Al-Qarni] Shaykh Abdallah Azzam believed that no-one among the mujahidin had Masud's stature. He used to call him the hero of the north. I remember that I once asked him about his opinion of this man. Now the Arabs did not like Ahmad Shah Masud - this is something that needs to become known. The Arabs hated him for several reasons. First of all most of them were influenced by Hekmatyar and lived as his guests in his camps. It was well known throughout the jihad years that Hekmatyar was Masud's greatest enemy. The Arabs were influenced by this enmity and became hostile to Masud on these grounds. Indeed some Arabs hated Masud more than Hekmatyar himself.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Am I to understand that Hekmatyar welcomed the Arabs as his guests and incited them against Masud?
[Al-Qarni] Yes, this is a point that should become known. Masud lived in northern Afghanistan, nearer to the Russian positions. He was not close to Pakistan. It took people 20 days to reach Masud's positions from the Pakistani border. As a result Masud did not have an office in Peshawar, nor an information representative. He was stationed in the north directly on the combat lines with the Russians. In contrast, Hekmatyar and Sayyaf had camps and operated on fronts that were very close to Pakistan in the Pashtun region. Most of the Arabs who came to Pakistan and Afghanistan were on the side of Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. You could say that 95 per cent of the Arabs who joined the jihad divided themselves between Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. A small percentage joined Yunus Khalis and Jaluleddin Haqqani.
Very few Arabs joined Ahmad Shah Masud. There few of them and we knew every one. This was the first factor that made the Arabs hate Masud, namely, Hekmatyar's enmity towards him.
The second reason why the Arabs hated Masud, may he rest in peace, was that he was a methodical, strategic thinker. Combat is an organized affair, not a chaotic operation. The Arabs, many of them or actually most of them who came to carry out jihad, were not fond of military discipline. They were disorganized. Some came and stayed for one week only. They would join an operation, fire their weapons, storm a position and then return. Some stayed for a month or two and so on. For this reason the fronts on which Sayyaf and Hekmatyar operated were wide open places where people came and went.
[Al-Dhiyabi] Are you telling me that Hekmatyar's and Sayyaf's guest houses were like open coffee shops?
[Al-Qarni] I mean that they did not impose a strict regimen or force the mujahidin who joined them to stay for a particular period. This is what I mean. Masud was the opposite. He did not accept anyone who came unless he was prepared to stay on and operate under his command. He did not allow anyone to go and carry out operations except when he expressly ordered him to do so. The Arabs operating on the fronts of Hekmatyar and Sayyaf were independent. They could carry out their own operations. They did whatever they wanted without supervision. There was no-one to hold them accountable.
A group of Arabs joined Masud in the early days of jihad. They went there with the same mindset with which they dealt with Sayyaf and Hekmatyar. After they joined Masud, they planned and carried out an operation all by themselves without his knowledge. They attacked Muslim, not Russian, convoys. When Masud learned of this, he put them in jail and they were only released after a lot of pleading and intercession by certain quarters. So those who were imprisoned by Masud returned to Hekmatyar in Peshawar and they had developed an unbelievable level of hostility towards Masud because he had jailed them and disapproved of their behaviour.
Shaykh Abdallah Azzam visited Masud after a lot of negative talk was heard about him in Peshawar. Some accused Masud of being an agent of the West. They said this because his father had been a general in the Afghan army and the children of generals were sent to Western schools. Because he had studied in such schools, they accused him of being an agent of the West. This was one thing. He was also accused of immoral actions. Some people actually levelled accusations of immorality against him. The Arabs spread a lot of negative propaganda about him in Peshawar. This reached the point where they were discussing whether it was proper or not from an Islamic viewpoint to support him with money.
[Al-Dhiyabi] It has been said that Masud is a Shi'i.
[Al-Qarni] No, he is Sunni. I remember that when there was too much talk about him in Peshawar, a session was held to try him in absentia. Two people acted as his defence and 21 acted as his accusers. The two who defended him were Algerian nationals: Abdallah Uns, who now lives in Britain and is Shaykh Abdallah Azzam's son-in-law, and a man called Qari Abdelrahim. They had lived with Masud and knew him well. On the other side 21 people including Algerians, Egyptians and Yemenis acted as accusers. There were no Saudis among them. They accused Masud of offences amounting to apostasy. The trial was held and among those present were Abdallah Azzam, Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani and Usamah Bin-Ladin.
[Al-Dhiyabi] How long did the trial last?
[Al-Qarni] It lasted a whole week. Of course they asked me to give testimony but I refused to get involved. Nevertheless I followed what was happening. I received my information from Shaykh Abdallah Azzam, Shaykh Al-Zindani, Bin-Ladin, Abdallah Uns and Qari Abdelrahim. A curious thing was that a brother of Qari Abdelrahim, who was called Qari Said, was one of Masud's bitterest enemies. I ask God to forgive Qari and have mercy on his soul. After he returned to Algeria from Afghanistan, he joined the armed groups there and was killed. The 21 accusers failed to prove Masud's guilt on any of the charges they levelled against him. When the presiding committee announced its verdict, its members declared that they would not say anything either in praise or vilification of Masud.
[Al-Dhiyabi] What do you think of this verdict?
[Al-Qarni] I think it was unfair. You should either prove a person's guilt or exonerate him but the committee ruled this way because Usamah Bin-Ladin and Shaykh Abd-al-Majid al-Zindani were more inclined to support Hekmatyar than Masud. Additionally they did not want to go against the wishes of the Arabs who were in Peshawar, saying to themselves: All the Arabs in the city are against Masud, so how could we praise him?
The only exception was Shaykh Abdallah Azzam, may he rest in peace. He said: As for me, I will praise Masud until I go to my Maker, God Almighty. He left that trial session and began implementing a plan to praise Masud. He wrote a book about him called "The Titans of the North". He could not get it printed, however, because almost all of Peshawar was semi-owned by Hekmatyar and Sayyaf. Masud had no influence there. So the book was not printed.
I once asked Shaykh Abdallah Azzam, may he rest in peace: Shaykh Abdallah, do you still believe that Masud is the hero of Afghanistan?
Azzam replied: Indeed he is the hero of Islam.
After this I told myself that I should pay a visit to Masud and get to know him from up close. Brother Abdallah Uns used to talk to me about Masud. I used to see his jihad as a different form of jihad. The mujahidin in southern Afghanistan conducted a form of guerrilla warfare. This means you cannot destroy your enemy but you can continue fighting forever. It was a form of hit-and-run warfare without a clear strategy. This is why Sayyaf, Hekmatyar, Haqqani, Yunus Khalis and all the other factions in Peshawar could not capture any of the major cities. They lived in the mountains, valleys and small villages, conducting a hit-and-run form of combat. They would carry out an attack, seize war spoils, but then the communists would come and expel them from the positions they had occupied, and so on. Masud, on the other hand, conducted a form of regular warfare. He had a regular army and a clear strategy.
- Dr Musa Bin-Muhammad Bin-Yahya al-Qarni
- Born in 1954 (1374 of the Hegira) in the town of Bish in the Jazan province
- Married with six sons and six daughters
- Obtained a doctoral degree in the principles of Islamic jurisprudence from Umm al-Qura University
- Former associate professor of Islamic jurisprudence at the Islamic University
- Former dean of students' affairs at the Islamic University
- Former head of the Department of Islamic jurisprudence at the Islamic University
- Former member of the Religious Scholarship Committee at the Islamic University
- Former president of the Islamic University in Peshawar
- Founding member of the Global Islamic Relief Organization
- Former member of the board of directors of the Global Islamic Relief Organization
- Founding member of the Global Islamic Education Organization
- Now retired, he works as a lawyer and shari'ah counsellor.