A Brush with Laden on the Jihad Front Line

Article excerpt

A week before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989, I traveled there to report on the final days of the decade-long Red Army occupation.

Trekking north of Jalalabad near the mountainous frontier regions with Pakistan, I encountered a group of Arab Wahhabi on the outskirts of an abandoned state-owned orange grove. These Muslim fundamentalists who had come to help the mujahideen - or holy warriors as Afghan guerrillas were known - to fight the anti-Soviet jihad (holy war). They were manning hillside trenches overlooking the Kabul-to-Pakistan highway. Overall, an estimated several thousand fundamentalists had arrived from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Algeria, Sudan, and other Middle East countries during the latter years of the Soviet-Afghan war.

The leader of this group - a young, arrogant Saudi - stepped forward demanding in fluent English to know who I was and what I was doing in Afghanistan. Wearing a military fatigue jacket and billowing trousers, he was flanked by 20 fellow Arabs from various countries armed with AK-74 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

It's crucial to retain face in Afghanistan. So for the benefit of my Afghan companions, I deliberately turned to my interpreter and spoke in English. Amused, my interpreter repeated my words - in English: "I am a guest in this country just as you are." It was important to show that, as a foreigner, this Arab had no business demanding to know who I was.

To this he retorted: "This is our jihad, not yours. Afghanistan does not want you. If I see you again, I'll kill you."

Throughout my years of reporting in Afghanistan, I'd been welcomed with extraordinary hospitality. Whether in comfort or under fire, I had shared tea, food, and water with numerous Afghan hosts, and even slept in mosques - strictly forbidden today under the Islamic extremism of Taliban rule - as guests of villagers struggling to survive in war-torn Afghanistan. For me, it was hard to imagine Afghans being any other way. So I was taken aback - as were the Afghan guerrillas accompanying me - with the behavior of this tall, bearded Arab.

As I later learned, he was a wealthy Saudi, a certain Osama bin Laden - the alleged terrorist behind the bombings of US embassies this month in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

I had little idea at the time that this man was a leading figure among the Arabs who had come to fight the jihad in Afghanistan. But I was aware that he and his men were in the process of constructing several mountain redoubts in Nangrahar, Kunar, and Khost provinces along the Pakistan border. They were also intent on imposing their own extremist form of Islam on the country. Both he and other Arabi, as these fundamentalists are called there, were using their abundant funds to buy the support of growing numbers of Afghan guerrilla commanders. It's a tactic Taliban forces used to help gain control over 80 percent of the country.

To some relief workers and journalists, Arabi-backed fighters were often referred to as the Gucci mujahideen because of their elaborate weapons, vehicles, and Banana-Republic-style photo vests.

In addition, the Arabi were involved in a number of incidents directed against Western journalists and relief workers, such as beatings, kidnappings, and attacks on passing vehicles.

Sneering disdain for non-believers

Ignoring Mr. Laden's sneering disdain for kafirs (non-believers) as he called me to my face, I pointed out that most Afghans seemed to welcome Western journalists and relief workers. This included French women doctors, many of whom had risked their lives to help Afghan victims of war. I couldn't help adding that we had also been working in Afghanistan long before the Arab brigades arrived.

"We'll leave if our Afghan friends no longer consider us their guests, just as I'm sure you'll leave if they no longer consider you their guests," I said. …