Dr Farhan Zahid
Ph D, Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
Afghan War (1979-89), apart from massive covert operations and intelligence activities, is also known for paving the way for the rise of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their activities in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda's predecessor organization Maktabatul Khidmat Mujahedeen-e-Arabia (MKM) - or Services Bureau for Arab Holy Warriors - was indeed an NGO, established to cater the needs of Arab volunteers coming to participate in ‘holy war' against the ‘infidel, Godless' Soviets. The MKM started operating in Peshawar in 1984 and was headed by Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian cleric, who had earlier taught at Saudi University.
The MKM's main purpose was to provide basic services for Arabs radical youth coming from many different Middle Eastern countries. The services provided by MKM were mostly related to boarding and lodging, air tickets, and sending those Arabs mujahedeen to the war front via tribal areas of Pakistan. Supported by the Saudi government, the MKM was networked through its affiliated NGOs such as Al-Harmain Foundation, Saudi Red Cross, Kuwaiti Red Crescent, Rabita al Alami, International Islamic Relief Organization, Islamic Relief Agency, World Muslim League, Islamic Coordination Council, World Assembly of Muslim Youth and local NGOs affiliated to Islamist parties of Pakistan such as Al-Khidmat Foundation of Jamaat-e-Islami.
All of these organizations bankrolled MKM in all of its endeavors and according to one Pakistani intelligence report, "some 5 000 Saudis, 3 000 Yemenis, 2 000 Egyptians, 2 800 Algerians, 400 Tunisians, 370 Iraqis, 200 Libyans, and scores of Jordanians were fighting in Afghanistan against Soviet forces...The Arabs had control over charities, while the Pakistanis and Afghans ran militant training facilities."
Role of Saudi intelligence agency, General Intelligence Presidency (GIP), could not be ruled out. Azzam established MKM with Saudi aegis to lure in Bin Laden and radical Arab Islamist youth to Peshawar. Bin Laden had other reasons to participate in holy war against the Soviets. The Saudi regime was under intense pressure from radical Islamist clerics in the Kingdom after the incident of Grand Mosque Siege in 1979. Some 600 people, both Islamist violent extremists and pilgrims, had lost their lives as severe fighting broke out between security forces and militants. Saudis were aided by French Special Forces even then it took two weeks to liberate the mosque. Saudis had taken advantage of events in Afghanistan in 1979 and successfully capitalized by encouraging radical Saudi youth to move into Jihad in Afghanistan against the invading Soviets.
The Bin Laden family, owner of biggest construction empire in Saudi Arabia, had close relations with the Royal family. Salim Bin Laden, the elder brother of Bin Laden and chief executive of the Bin Laden Group of Companies, in order to showcase his loyalties to Saudi Royalty in this time of need, sent his, already very religious brother, Osama to Peshawar. Osama was to join Abdullah Azzam, a representative of Saudi clergy in based in Peshawar, Pakistan. Salim also occasionally visited Bin Laden at Peshawar and donated huge sums of money to MKM.
It was through MKM that local and regional jihadist organizations were formed alongside its original purpose. Thus, a plethora of radical organizations came into being:
- Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami, Pakistan (1983),
- Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami, Bangladesh, Burma and Afghanistan,
- Harkatul Mujahedeen (1985),
- Palestinian Hamas (1987),
- Lashkar-e-Taiba (1987).
There were some Afghan Islamist groups, which were directly funded by MKM:
- Hizb-e-Islami (Hekmatyar Faction),
- Ittehad-e-Islami (Abdul Rab Rasul Sayaf),
Bin Laden finally took over the organization after the death of Abdullah Azzam in a bomb blast in Peshawar in 1989. Earlier he had acquired considerable experience working under Azzam as his deputy and rechristened MKM into Al-Qaeda tul Jihad.
Close links developed between Abdullah Azzam and Pakistani Islamist party, the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), during heydays of Afghan War. JI was primary Pakistani Islamist political party that not only fully supported General Zia's military regime but also fully cooperated with his Afghan War's covert endeavors. JI's principal social welfare arm is Al-Khidmat Foundation (AKF). AKF had worked in tandem with MKM during Afghan War and provided services at Afghan refugee camps. The relief work was blended with running of Islamist seminaries and school for Afghan refugee children and provided them with doctrinal framework which was essential for their recruitment. The US CIA's role in collusion with United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) could not be ignored here which provided books and texts for these schools and seminaries for refugee children. USAID got those books published via Afghan Center for Excellence at University of Nebraska, Omaha. Books of JI founder and Islamist ideologue Abu ala Maududi were also published and distributed in jihadi circles.
Today AKF claims to be an independent NGO with no links to JI, but all of its office bearers are active members of JI and its current president Niamaut ullah Khan is not only former JI mayor of Karachi but also part of central shura (council) of JI. AKF's branches across Pakistan remained active during 2005 earthquake and later in 2010 floods, alongside other banned Islamist charities such as Al-Akhter Trust, Al-Rashid Trust, and Jamat-ud-Dawa.
According to one news report, "Among the Muslim aid groups busy in flood relief operations prominent are Jamaat-ud-Dawah, Al Rasheed Trust, Al-Khidmat Foundation, Al-Akhtar Trust and over a dozen smaller ones... Though Al-Khidmat Foundation is not banned by Washington, yet it is considered as potential supporter of Islamic militants because of being affiliated with country's top Islamic party, Jamaat-e-Islami."
Maktabakul Khidmat (Services Bureau) which later turned into Al-Qaeda has always been ideologically close to Pakistani Islamist parties, mainly Jamaat-e-Islami and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, and proselytizing party the Tablighi Jamaat.
Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, along with his network, moved in to Afghanistan in 1996. With Taliban takeover of Kabul in 1996, Bin Laden used his old contacts to develop a close relationship with Taliban leadership. Al-Qaeda, a successor organization of Bureau of Services for Arab Mujahedeen (Maktabatul Khidmat al Mujahedeen) was established in Peshawar, Pakistan, after Afghan War. The primary reason of MKM was to provide logistical support to Islamist Arab youth coming over to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Abdullah Azzam's Jihad ideology was encouraged from all corners. Pakistani military government allowed him to run his office in Peshawar, mujahedeen groups got connected to him, and the US and other players in Afghan covert operations did not discourage his activities. Thus, Al-Qaeda the violent non-state actor, which later came out of the shadows of Afghan War, had intimate relations with Pakistani Islamist parties from the beginning.