Dr Farhan Zahid
Ph D, Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
Since its inception, Al-Qaeda has remained a predominantly Arab organization. Ironically speaking, despite having Arab background it has never managed to thrive in an Arab country, rather it flourished under the Afghan Taliban regime (1996-2001). Under the aegis of Afghan Taliban regime, Al-Qaeda came out of all its past miseries and problems of locating safe havens, specially after being displaced from Sudan in 1994. It was in Afghanistan Osama Bin Laden could materialize the ideas that he had been pondering since his takeover of the Arab organization.
The formal backers of Taliban were Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and United Arab Emirates, as these three countries officially recognized the internationally pariah Afghan Taliban regime and established diplomatic relations. The trio also provided formal and informal aid packages to the hermit Taliban regime.
Pakistan was first in the line as it was the country that came forward for its own interest, and at the behest of Saudi Arabia to provide all the material and non-material support to the regime. The other two Arab countries were instrumental as the Taliban were viewed as identical in duplicating their Saudi style of government in Afghanistan and, of course, to counter the growing Iranian influence in Western and Central Afghanistan.
The Wahabi-Deobandi inspired Sharia system and medieval laws, that Taliban had enforced in Afghanistan (1996-2001), were already in practice in Saudi Arabia. UAE, though not like Saudi Arabia, just followed the path of Saudi Kingdom in recognizing the Taliban regime and established diplomatic relations.
The Taliban were followers of Deobandi sub-sect of Sunni Islam; whereas the Saudis also called themselves Sunni, but in real sense follow the Salafi brand of Islam, as the Saudi state was founded because of the collusion of House of Saud and the followers of Ibn Wahab (the founder of Wahabi/Salafi school of thought in 17th century Arabia). The Salafi/Wahabi version of Islam of Saudi Arabia was different in some ways by Deobandi Islam of the Taliban, but there were some common political grounds.
The Afghan Taliban never called themselves Wahabi/Salafis but implemented many of the same laws and practices in Afghanistan as those already standardized in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The Protection of virtue and Prevention of vice ministry was one example. The said ministry was to implement the Sharia laws and a separate police force was recruited for the very purpose following the Saudi lines.
The Saudi government viewed Shia sect of Islam and its followers as heretics and the same policy was implemented in Afghanistan under Taliban. Shias were persecuted and declared non-Muslims at state level. Jizya, a tax levied on non-Muslims, was also imposed to Shias in Afghanistan. Brutal massacre of Hazara Shias during Mazar e Shariff invasion in 1998 was taken place by the hands of invading Taliban armies, aided by many Arab battalions, specially Brigade-055, comprising of Arab Mujahedeen trained at Al-Qaeda-run training camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Saudi Arabia and Iran had long been rivaling over their different schools of thoughts. Shia-Wahabi rift has a long history starting with the destruction and plundering of the tomb of Imam Hussain by Wahabi forces in 1848. The Shia clergy was vocal in condemning the Saudis and even during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), the Saudis openly supported the Saddam regime and aided Iraq militarily against their "bête noire", the Shia Iran. Saudi Iraq policy badly backfired and finally resulted in the in the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but Afghanistan under Taliban was more prone to adopt Saudized Islam.
Despite these common interests, there were issues that both Saudis and Taliban argued over during their relationship. The main bone of contention was Bin Laden, a Saudi dissident, voicing and condemning Saudi Arabia more often than anyone else. Prince Turki al Faisal, the Saudi intelligence chief, visited Mullah Omar, the Supreme Commander of Taliban, several times for that very issue in 1998 and 1999. Firstly, he wanted Taliban to silence Bin Laden and secondly, when Taliban could not do that he demanded, to hand over Bin Laden to Saudi Arabia ; but this time, he was rebuked by Omar. Prince Turki's demands were turned down and this failure ended his long and successful career as Saudi intelligence chief.
Apart from that incident, the Saudi-Taliban relations were excellent. There was much more in common. When the Northern Alliance forces inflicted crushing defeat on Taliban forces and drove them out of Mazar e Shariff during the first invasion of Mazar-e-Shariff by the Taliban forces in 1998, once again Saudis came forward and helped Taliban both financially and militarily in defeating the Uzbek forces and taking over of the two key northern provinces of Afghanistan. It was only because of the Saudi money that Taliban kept clinging to power until their final defeat by the invading US forces in alliance with the Northern Alliance forces, in October 2001.
Despite intense pressure from Saudis, its primary backers, the Taliban regime led by Mullah Omar refused to hand over Bin Laden. Bin Laden had no choice but to convince the Taliban leader about his loyalty to Afghan Taliban regime. He pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar and technically making Al-Qaeda part of Afghan Taliban set up. His support to Taliban turned tables in Taliban favor during their northern military endeavors. His Arab regiments fought alongside Taliban and Arab contingent turned out to be invaluable during the war against Northern Alliance Forces.
Bin Laden also helped Taliban financially and imparted modern warfare techniques to rugged and unruly Taliban regime. In fact Taliban benefited from both. The Arab warriors provided by Bin Laden were an additional force more eager to die during wars and could be readily available at any time. According to rough estimates, more than thirty thousand Arabs, Central Asians including Uzbeks, Chechens and Chinese Uyghur received training at Al-Qaeda-run camps in different parts of Afghanistan. Founder of Jamaat ul Tawhid wal Jihad (aka Al-Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers or Al-Qaeda in Iraq), now called Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was allowed to run his own training camp in Herat province.
Al-Qaeda was also active in making a liaison with other international jihadi organizations, for banking upon Taliban regime for future endeavors. With Al-Qaeda's aegis, Afghanistan had become a hub of Islamist radicals, mostly Arabs, who had come to fight alongside Taliban forces and became their foot soldiers. Many Saudi dissidents also financially supported the Taliban regime because of their policies of giving shelter to Arabs. Bin Laden brokered many of such kind of financial deals in order to win the hearts and minds of Taliban. Saudi militant Islamists took shelter in Afghanistan as they saw Bin Laden establishing his organization in a protective and conducive environment of Afghanistan under Taliban. Saudis were in a way happy to get rid of them as it was merely a repeat of Saudi policy after the Siege of Mecca event in 1979, after which Saudis actively supported Afghan Jihad against the invasion of Afghanistan by Soviet forces in the same year.
Saudi Arabia had been experiencing Islamist militancy since the Grand Mosque Siege (1979) and many of these Islamist militants tuned to Afghan War. Saudis deliberately exported them to the war zone. The same policy was readopted by the Saudis and Islamist radical youth were encouraged to move to Afghanistan. The Al-Qaeda-Saudi connection became clearer when fifteen of the nineteen hijackers in the 9/11 attacks turned out to be Saudis, and it also made things crystal clear the penetration of Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia and an agile presence in over all Arabian peninsula with hundreds of thousands of followers from Yemen, UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, Bin Laden played a key role in bringing most of the veteran Arab Afghan to Afghanistan. These were the people who got settled in tribal areas of Pakistan and had no opted to stay rather than going back to their home countries. The Wahabi oriented Al-Qaeda became the vanguard of Arab warriors. A separate unit called Bigade-055 was established by Bin Laden that fought alongside Taliban during battles with the Northern Alliance forces and later with US forces during Operation Enduring Freedom.
Since its advent on the world Jihadi scene in 1988, Al-Qaeda has remained an overwhelmingly Arab dominated organization; with little room for non-Arabs at the leadership and managerial levels. Even its splinter the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS), led by self-proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim (aka Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), which has created havoc across the Middle East, is overwhelmingly Arab dominated despite claiming itself as Islamic Caliphate of all Muslims.