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Afghan Conflict Gave Lift to Radical Wing of Islam

Theology: Zealots found 'vindication' in fight to oust Soviets. Thousands of militants embraced 'holy war.'

August 07, 1996|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG and ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ZAGREB, Croatia — At 2:15 p.m. on Sept. 14, aboard the Croatian Airways flight from Amsterdam, a stout, round-faced man with a bushy beard and dreams of Islamic holy war in his head touched down in this Balkan city.

In his 39 years, Talaat Fouad Kassem's extraordinary life had taken him from the poor south of his native Egypt to the anti-Communist struggle in Afghanistan, then to Europe. From the Croatian capital, where a trade fair was underway, he intended to journey overland to Bosnia-Herzegovina, there to link up with fellow Muslims fighting the Bosnian Serbs.

But something happened to Kassem on the way. "He made one trip too many," a key U.S. official said.

After arriving in Zagreb, Kassem disappeared. Croatian officials claim to have no idea where he went. But U.S. sources say Kassem was spirited back to Egypt, where, as a founder of the radical Gamaa al Islamiya, or Islamic Group, he had been sentenced to hang in 1992 for trying to topple the regime and replace it with an Islamic state.

One of the four most wanted men in his homeland, Kassem is, or was, a leading Muslim zealot and revolutionary. He preached the violent overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government, characterizing it as a neocolonial stooge of the United States. Over the years, his most effective weapons were his words and his ability to justify violence and terror in the name of Islam.

"The first and greatest enemy is America, the second is capitalism," followers in Denmark--where Kassem sought and obtained political asylum after being sentenced to hang in his home country--remember him saying. One Muslim resident of Copenhagen called him "a preacher . . . a great man."

Vicars of Holy War

Such agitators, strategists and thinkers--vicars of Islamic holy war--were the necessary complement to the thousands of Muslims who set off in the early 1980s intending to fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and to those who followed later, seeking military knowledge they could use elsewhere.

For the ideologues from Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and other countries, the Afghan conflict yielded, simultaneously, valuable experience in the arts of war and propaganda, a base to work from, useful contacts in Islamic communities throughout the world and an illustration of their violent credo at work.

"Practically, militarily, in intelligence gathering and in the spread of our message, we learned a lot" in Afghanistan, Kassem told Hisham Mubarak in an interview to be published in a forthcoming book, "Political Islam: Essays From Middle East Report."

Afghanistan was also a welcome sanctuary for Muslim radicals from Egypt under threat of persecution or death at home, and it also met their "need for military training," Kassem said. He was already on a radical path when he arrived at the Afghan resistance's headquarters-in-exile in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1989. "Intellectually, there was no influence [on me]," he told Mubarak.

But it was different for other Muslims. The firsthand experience of this holy war, fought against the Soviet occupiers in 1979-89, had a profound, lasting effect on them.

"The Afghan jihad was a kind of personal vindication for us as Muslims, a kind of self-discovery, that they could be one, as one Muslim people, and that they could replicate . . . their past achievements," said Tarik Jan, senior research fellow at the Islamabad-based Institute of Policy Studies, which is affiliated with Pakistan's largest fundamentalist party.

In Afghanistan, Jan said, "people tasted jihad, and internalized it."

For Muslims in other countries fighting what they held to be imperialism or oppression, the Afghan conflict showed the enormous power of religion as a motivator and mobilizer of the masses.

'Faith Gives Rise to Morale'

Even Chechen independence leader Dzhokar M. Dudayev, a former Soviet bomber pilot and a product of decades of Marxist-Leninist atheist indoctrination, admitted to being persuaded by the Afghan example to make his cause as much a religious as a national one.

"Finally, I have arrived at a conclusion: It was the spirit, the morale of the Afghan people that made them strong. And it is faith that gives rise to high morale," Dudayev said in an interview before his death at the hands of Russian troops this spring. "It is on the fundamental principles of Islam that the faith has been born that is capable of resisting any military might."

In the '80s, young people throughout the Islamic world were galvanized by the spectacle of the Afghan moujahedeen--or "holy warriors"--taking on a superpower. In Algeria, men came home from the haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, filled with the longing to fight in Afghanistan. Arabs from all countries were recruited for the conflict while visiting the holy places.

Myths spread among the believers of miracles on the battlefield in Afghanistan--of clouds of birds suddenly appearing to drive away strafing Soviet MIGs.

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