Mokhtar Belmokhtar (b. 1972) is an Algerian jihadist sub-commander within al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. He may or may not be dead. As part of a research project, I recently re-read an Arabic-language interview with him from 2006; the original link, which was hosted at the jihadist website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad, is defunct, but the interview has been reproduced here. One passage stood out to me from the interview. In it, the interviewer asks Belmokhtar to reminisce about his time in Afghanistan. Belmokhtar was there for a year and half from 1991-1992, after the withdrawal of Soviet forces but during the final push to topple the government of Muhammad Najibullah.
Here is the exchange:
Interviewer: Are there are any beautiful memories, images, or events that have stuck in your mind from lofty Afghanistan?
Belmokhtar: […] The first story is the story of an old man who was our neighbor at one of the fronts. He loved the Arab mujahidin. God decreed that I was struck in my eye with a fragment of a shell. After my return from the hospital, when I had been away from him for a period of time, he saw on my eye the mark of the blow and he embraced me. He wept so intensely that we were concerned about him, and he was saying in his Afghan language, ‘What was the sin of this boy, who came from distant Arab lands to help us, and this has been done to him.’ He called me to accept [it]. That was how the Ansar [Muslims in Medina] were toward the Muhajirin [Muslim emigrants to Medina from Mecca] in the time of the Prophet, may God bless him and grant him peace.
The second story: I remember one day we were close to one of the valleys at the battle lines of Gardez. The battles were on the verge of starting. A car stopped close to us and an old man got out, walking slowly, wearing a white garment, and carrying an English rifle. He came near to us for the sake of doing his prayer. After the prayer we invited him to our post. We sat and talked with him in his Pashtun language. We asked him about his age. He said, ‘My age is about one hundred and one.’ When one of the brothers asked him why he had come to the front, even though he was an old man, he said, ‘I’m a warrior, and I can’t stay in my home hearing about fighting at the front, and not want to do some fighting myself.’
The two stories give us a view of Belmokhtar at an impressionable age, a view that contrasts with later versions of him as a hardened desert fighter-slash-criminal. They provide insight into the emotional aspects of fighting in Afghanistan, and the sense of camaraderie that some jihadists find in their lifestyle. This is a camaraderie that many of the “Afghan Arabs” have been chasing ever since, I suspect – often, I also suspect, without finding it in the same degree as they found it in Afghanistan.
The experience of fighting in Afghanistan left such a deep mark on many “Arab Afghans” that I do not believe contemporary jihadism can be properly understood without some analysis of those experiences. When I contributed some research for a report on “Milestones to Militancy” about a year ago, I was struck by the recurring presence of Afghanistan as a key moment in many jihadists’ life trajectories. Someone (not me) should write a book or a dissertation about what people such as Belmokhtar experienced there, and how it shaped their subsequent actions.