Holy warriors outstay their welcome: Arab volunteers who fought in the Afghan war find that their 'jihad' is over, Tim McGirk writes from the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar

Click to follow
The Independent Online
MARRIAGES in this town are lively affairs. The Pathan tribesmen do not throw rice. Instead, they punctuate the festivities with a few bursts into the air from their AK-47s. But in the past few days the main wedding hall in Peshawar has been filled with a more dangerous kind of gunman: it has been turned into an interrogation centre for more than 230 Arabs whom intelligence agencies in the US, Pakistan and the Middle East suspect of terrorism.

Pakistan, under pressure from the US, is rounding up the many Arabs who gravitated to Peshawar in the past 14 years to join in the jihad - or holy war - by Afghan guerrillas against the former Soviet-backed regime in Kabul. Now that the Afghan guerrillas have won, the US and several Middle Eastern governments fear that some of the insurgents who remain are using Peshawar as a staging- post for terrorist operations in their own countries and in the West. There are links, for example, between the suspects in the World Trade Center bombing and an Egyptian extremist group, el-Gamaat el-Islamiya, which until recently based itself in Peshawar. Peshawar's police chief, Massoud Shah, said: 'The jihad is over. They have no business being here.'

Police checking the identities of the Arab detainees have been given wanted-lists by the US and governments of such countries as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, which all face militant Islamic movements at home, according to diplomatic sources in Islamabad. Few of the 230 Arabs held in the wedding hall are thought to be terrorists. Many suspects - including Mohammed Shawky Islambouli, deputy leader of el-Gamaat el-Islamiya - vanished into Afghanistan as soon as the crackdown began. Most of the Arabs netted by the police are doctors, engineers and nurses belonging to the 130 Muslim organisations providing relief aid to the Afghans.

The purge has infuriated many Arabs and Pakistanis, who see it as a double-cross by Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, and a poor reward for the Arabs' role in sweeping the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. But Mr Sharif is worried by the Clinton administration's threat to put Pakistan on its list of states sponsoring terrorism. Washington is worried about Pakistan's nuclear-bomb programme, its covert aid to Kashmiri and Sikh militants inside India and, until recently, its sheltering of Islamic extremists.

Pakistani officials view the new US stance with dismay and bewilderment. Anxious to thwart the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, the CIA helped to recruit and arm Muslim militants from around the world flocking to the jihad. So intent was the US on defeating Moscow in this proxy war that the Reagan and Bush administrations overlooked Pakistan's attempts to import restricted materials to make between five and 10 nuclear bombs. These twin side-effects of the Afghan war - Islamic terrorism and the spectre of a nuclear war between Pakistan and India - are bedevilling President Clinton.

Munir Akram, a senior Pakistani foreign office spokesman, said: 'We don't understand how suddenly we're in the cross-hairs of the Americans. We both participated in this Afghan exercise. It may be over for the US, but we're stuck with these jihadis and we're stuck with a lot of weapons.'

The clean-up of expatriate Muslim extremists is being challenged by a powerful Islamic Pakistani political party, the Jamiat Islami. Throughout the war, the Jamiat collected funds for the Afghan war from rich Gulf Arabs and funnelled Muslim volunteers from 20 countries into the Afghan training camps.

Many of the volunteers were 'holiday holy warriors', students and government employees who would put in a few months tying bandages or carrying rucksacks full of rocket-propelled grenades over the mountain passes and then return home if they survived. But between 1,500 and 6,000 belonging to fundamentalist groups outlawed in their own countries joined the jihad as much for combat experience as reasons of faith.

Murad Ali Shah, the Jamiat Islami party ideologue, said: 'These people come from repressive un-Islamic regimes. They can't go back or they'll be arrested at the airport and hanged.

'Now that they're being forced to leave Pakistan, their animosity is directed at the West. They could go anywhere - London, New York, Bonn. Anywhere.'

These fugitive militants have crossed over to Afghanistan. Police and Arab sources said many took refuge at an Arab camp, Samar Khel, in the hills behind Jalalabad, which is in a region controlled by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former rebel chief and prime minister-designate, who has roped dozens of Arab fighters into his feud with the other Afghan leaders bunkered in the wrecked capital.