Afghani veterans fan out to spread the word - and terror

Fundamentalism/ Islam's holy fighters
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The Independent Online
AFGHANISTAN is half a world away from the town of Ipil, in the southern Philippines. That there could possibly be any connection between the 15-year civil war in the mountains of north-west Asia and their local Muslim insurgency, which has been running for even longer, probably never occurred to most of Ipil's few thousand inhabitants. That is, until 200 heavily-armed Islamic militants attacked them this month, leaving more than 50 dead and half the town in ruins.

Zenica is also a long way from Afghanistan, but the town, about 40 miles from Sarajevo, houses 300 of the 1,000-odd veterans of the Afghan war who have since been drawn into the Bosnian conflict. The Bosnian version of Islam, which tolerates alcohol and unveiled women, is a constant source of outrage to the "Afghanis", whose hosts have been infuriated in their turn by rampages against drink shops, female "immodesty" and western aid workers.

Fighters trained in Afghanistan are surfacing in a dozen different conflicts, from Algeria to Chechnya, Kashmir and even China. They include Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, the alleged mastermind of the World Trade Center bombing who was recently extradited from Pakistan to face trial in New York. Police in the Philippines say Mr Yousef, an Iraqi, spent two months there earlier this year, and have linked him to an alleged plot to assassinate Pope John Paul II during his visit in January, as well as the bombing of a Philippines Airlines plane a month earlier which killed a passenger.

A claim by Abu Sayyaf, a radical new Islamic group, to have carried out the aircraft bombing was dismissed at the time by the police, who said the militants lacked the technical expertise. Evidence of Mr Yousef's possible involvement had already forced them to think again when Abu Sayyaf staged its attack on Ipil, by far the most violent in the group's brief history. As in several other countries, the Afghan connection appears to have brought greater extremism and terrorist expertise to a sputtering conflict - Abu Sayyaf is reported to be gaining in strength as the main Muslim guerrilla movement in the Philippines, the Moro National Liberation Front, negotiates with the Manila government under a ceasefire.

The role of the "Afghanis" is particularly prominent in Algeria, where successive leaders of the main Islamic group, the GIA, were all Afghan veterans. Jane's Intelligence Review recently estimated that nearly 3,000 Algerians had fought in Afghanistan, as well as 2,000 Egyptians, including Mohammed Shawky al-Isambouli, whose brother Khaled was hanged for his part in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat. According to the publication they were among more than 10,000 Arabs who had received training and combat experience in Afghanistan, of whom nearly half were Saudis. This was disputed by a diplomatic source, who believed the Saudi total was exaggerated because much of the financial backing for the Afghan warlords and their allies comes from the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia. "Most of the foreign radicals in Afghanistan come from poorer countries such as Sudan, Yemen and Egypt," he said. "Often they, along with Palestinians and Pakistanis, have been sponsored to attend madrassas [religious schools] in Pakistan, where they can live very cheaply and the authorities can be bribed to ignore their presence. From there it is easy to recruit zealots for military training."

Earlier this year a new movement, Taliban, which means "religious students", appeared in Afghanistan. Exploiting Afghan disgust with the cruelty, corruption and drug-dealing of the established mujahedin leaders, its 20,000 well-equipped fighters swept up from the south to the outskirts of Kabul with virtually no resistance. Now, however, it is engaged in a fight on two fronts against the forces of President Burhanuddin Rabbani and the Herat-based warlord, Ismail Khan.

Western countries, as well as Islamic governments, fear disaffected Taliban followers will go in search of other places to use their skills. Pakistan has recently shown greater interest in controlling the movement of Islamic radicals to and from Afghanistan, especially as Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto said evidence of a plot to assassinate her had been found in the wake of Mr Yousef's arrest. "But there is a limit to how much of a grip they can get," said the diplomat. "The radicals have powerful friends, and the government is not really in control in many parts of the country. Apart from the Pakistani route, drugs convoys from Afghanistan go through Iran and central Asia to the Turkish border, and if drugs can go that way, so can people."