Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s Afghanistan Reminiscences

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.

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Sunday Africa Blog Roundup: UK Foreign Policy, Sudan Referendum, Liberian Diaspora

Here are some links I liked this week from Africa/foreign affairs blogs:

Owen Barder discusses how the new British government will conduct development, and Steve Coll recounts a meeting with William Hague, the new Foreign Secretary.

Jon Temin looks at the National Congress Party‘s decision-making process on the 2011 referendum on Southern Sudanese independence.

Analysis of Sudan often displays a common weakness, especially when it originates from outside the country: limited understanding of dynamics within the NCP. The party is, often justifiably, portrayed as the source of much of Sudan’s suffering. But it is also portrayed as a single-minded monolith, rather than a party that struggles with internal divisions and consensus building, as any political party does. One trait that distinguishes the NCP – especially compared to the SPLM of late – is how effectively it keeps those internal divisions from public view. But that shouldn’t be confused with an absence of internal divisions or uniform thinking on key issues.

Inevitably, factions within the NCP disagree on whether to proceed with the referendum. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in all likelihood there are NCP factions that are actively pro-secession, with the critical caveat that they support secession only if a favorable post-referendum wealth sharing agreement is reached (and agreed to prior to the referendum). For them, secession offers an opportunity to consolidate authority in the north and move towards the vision of the “Hamdi Triangle.” Surely there are also factions that are resolutely opposed to secession and refuse to let the NCP preside over the division of Sudan (though the recent elections, in which President Bashir received only approximately 10% of the vote in the south, suggest that a unity outcome of the referendum is a tall order), with some opposed to allowing the referendum to proceed at all. And, as in any debate, there are those who are undecided and are probably being courted by either side.

Two pieces, unrelated, on Liberia: Loomnie features Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf‘s reaction to the death of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua, and Texas in Africa discusses a Liberian town hall in Atlanta.

Music from Cameroon.

Louisa Lombard on efforts at transparency in the Central African Republic.

A few pieces on US policies in Africa: UN Dispatch on an anti-LRA law that passed Congress, and The Majlis’ Evan Hill on US aid to Egypt and the actions of the Mubarak regime.

And least but not least, I can’t resist: tell me what you think of this picture of Secretary Clinton and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Somalia and Afghanistan

Comparing Somalia and Afghanistan is commonplace. The BBC does it. The EU does it. Hell, I’ve done it.

What the comparison signifies depends on where the comparer sits. That came out starkly this week in two very different pieces – one by Richard Bennet, an American researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, and one by Hassan Naado, CEO of the Kenya Muslim Youth Alliance. A piece by Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute is similar to Bennet’s, but shorter.

Islamabad, Pakistan

Islamabad, Pakistan

Bennet and Naado’s perspectives differ in obvious ways. For Bennet and Kagan, Somalia is not the ultimate topic of discussion; the debate over escalation in Afghanistan is. Still, when they invoke Somalia as a rhetorical device, arguing that Somalia’s chaos proves the US must not limit its operations in Afghanistan, it’s worth noting how they pull Somalia out of its historical context. For Bennet, “the United States began its engagement in Somalia” with the UNOSOM mission in the early 1990s. (What about American military and financial support for Siad Barre during the Cold War?)

At least Bennet mentions the US-supported Ethiopian occupation of Somalia from December 2006 to January 2009. For Kagan, Bill Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia is directly responsible for the emergence of al Shabab. Without history, it’s easy to avoid the messiest aspects of the situation in Somalia. For example, it’s easier to argue that military force can reshape politics in Afghanistan when you gloss over the failure of the Ethiopian occupation to do the same in Somalia.

The idea of a Somalia without much history facilitates the comparison with Afghanistan. So does the idea of a Somalia without geography. But Bennet and Kagan forget that every Afghanistan must have its Pakistan – a metaphor Naado evokes vividly.

For Naado, the story of Afghanistan and Pakistan is different than the one Bennet and Kagan tell. Naado points to US support for Muslim fighters during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as a primary cause in entangling Pakistan and Afghanistan, as well as in making Afghanistan the battlefield it is today. Moreover, Naado argues that the presence, not the absence, of foreign forces makes Afghanistan “a most dangerous country” and that the long history of American military involvement in the region has destabilized Pakistan.

Armed with this perspective, Naado brings the comparison full circle: let not Kenya, he pleads, play Pakistan to Somalia’s Afghanistan. Naado worries that if reports of young Kenyan men being recruited to fight for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government are true, Kenya may face, down the road, a returning army of fighters that it cannot control.

Nairobi, Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya

Like Bennet, Naado blurs history; in his case, he conflates the mujahideen with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Still, despite hasty and ahistorical comparisons on both sides, these different views are worth examining, especially for one feature they share – the lack of a serious proposal for solving the conflict in Somalia.

Naado is more concerned to argue for Kenyan neutrality than for a certain outcome across the border, so perhaps his unspoken suggestion is that everyone should wait and see what happens. Bennet and Kagan, quick to say that limited counterterrorism efforts in Somalia have failed, nonetheless also seem to want to wait and see. As Bennet puts it, “We currently live with the chaos in Somalia.”

I’ve written about Afghanistan elsewhere; my anti-escalation views are no secret. The point here, however, as it relates to the Horn of Africa, is that the US will not – I suspect, cannot – determine political outcomes in Somalia through force of will or arms. If we cannot, if there is no solution, no way to “get Somalia right,” no magic policy or special personality that could suddenly solve the crisis, then that says something significant about US power, not just in Africa but also, if we continue to accept the comparison, in South Asia. Perhaps, then, it’s worth treading carefully as we try to control various Afghanistans, to make sure we don’t leave a trail of Pakistans behind us.

Boko Haram’s Afghanistan Connection?

The BBC reports that a member of Boko Haram named Abdulrasheed Abubakar has confessed to receiving military training in Afghanistan. I have to admit his story sounds vague to me.

[Abubakar] said he was paid $500 to do the training and promised $35,000 (£22,000) on his return[…]

The BBC’s Bilkisu Babangida said Mr Abubakar appeared confident and not at all nervous in front of the journalists.

He explained that he had converted to Islam seven months ago and decided to join the sect after buying the teachings of Boko Haram leader Mohammed Yusuf on cassette.

“It was the mood of Mohammed Yusuf’s teaching – the energy that helped me to join him,” he told the BBC.

He met Yusuf two weeks after finding the sect in Maiduguri and was asked by the Boko Haram leader to go to Afghanistan, he said.

“I spent three months in Afghanistan. I was trained as a bomb specialist.”

Mr Abubakar said he was supposed to train five people on his return, but when he did not receive his money he escaped.

He said that during the uprising in July, when Boko Haram militants, armed mainly with machetes, launched the simultaneous attacks on police stations in different parts of the north, he was in jail in Yola.

AP adds details:

Rasheed’s account, which could not be immediately verified, would be the first to tie the group to Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan.

Police commissioner Ibrahim Abdu said Rasheed was arrested Tuesday with bomb-making materials, arms and ammunition while attempting to flee the country.

Rasheed said he was a Christian before he was convinced by the sect leader he called Uztazh Mohammed Yusuf to change his name and convert.

“He appointed me to become a bomb expert that will be fully trained in bomb making in Afghanistan,” Rasheed said.

Boko Haram — translated as “Western education is sacrilege” — seeks the imposition of strict Islamic Shariah law in Nigeria, a multi-religious country that is a major oil producer and Africa’s most populous nation.

“I was given $500 cash by our leader to go to Afghanistan and train in bomb-making. After the training to become an expert in bomb-making, a check of $5.5 million was also issued to me, but I did not cash it,” Rasheed said.

However, when asked if he could produce the check, Rasheed said, “The check is with my other documents in Yola before I was arrested by the police with our leader’s SUV vehicle.”

Abdu said Rasheed was arrested in Yola, the Adamawa state capital, following a tip from local residents and surveillance by the police.

He said other arms and bomb-making equipment were found on the suspect, including seven rocket-propelled grenades, 20 homemade pistols, and knives.

This Day has even more:

He said he took off from Nigeria to Afghanistan through South Africa, claiming that all the travelling documents were retrieved from him as soon as he came back from the trip in late July. He did not name the airline which he boarded from Nigeria to South Africa before connecting to Afghanistan.

Narrating his journey, Abubakar said: “Mohammed Yusuf gave the two of us who went for the training some telephone numbers of our trainers and we called them as soon as we arrived Afghanistan. I can’t recollect the town or place where the training took place because they covered our faces and led us to a house where we spent about three months,” he explained.

So far, I would say this doesn’t add up. It could be true, but the lack of details about travel and other logistics, combined with the wild and varying amounts of money cited, make the story a little suspect in my eyes. But perhaps further reports will give the lie to my suspicions. If there is a connection, that will be very worrying. The BBC recently concluded that Al Qaeda is not operative in Nigeria, but that conclusion could change as events progress.