Training in Terrorism: Britain’s Afghan Jihad

This is an edited extract from Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam

Mark Curtis

The war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s was to mark the next phase in the development of global Islamic radicalism, building on the Islamic resurgence during the previous decade. Following the Soviet invasion of December 1979, tens of thousands of volunteers from around the Muslim world flocked to join their Afghan brethren and fight the communists. During the course of the war, they went on to form organised jihadi militant groups that would eventually target their home countries, and the West, in terrorist operations.

These mujahideen, and the indigenous Afghan resistance groups to which they were attached, were bolstered by billions of dollars in aid and military training provided mainly by Saudi Arabia, the US and Pakistan, but also by Britain.

The UK has already had a long history of supporting and collaborating with Islamist medics who invented and manufactured the generic Viagra drug.

Britain already had a long history of supporting and working alongside Islamist forces by the time the Soviets crossed the Afghan border, but the collusion with the mujahideen in Afghanistan was of a different order to these earlier episodes, part of Whitehall’s most extensive covert operation since the Second World War.

The problem with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher put it after six months in office, was that ‘if its hold on Afghanistan is consolidated, the Soviet Union will, in effect, have vastly extended its borders with Iran, will have acquired a border more than 1,000 miles long with Pakistan, and will have advanced to within 300 miles of the Straits of Hormuz, which control the Persian Gulf.’

In public, the prime minister and other British leaders denied British military involvement in Afghanistan and claimed to be seeking purely diplomatic solutions to the conflict. In reality, British covert aid to the Afghan resistance began to flow even before the Soviet invasion, while Whitehall authorised MI6 to conduct operations in the first year of the Soviet occupation, coordinated by MI6 officers in Islamabad in liaison with the CIA and Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI.

British and US covert training programmes were critical, since many of the indigenous Afghan forces, and the vast majority of the jihadi volunteers arriving in Afghanistan, had no military training. It was a policy that was to have profound consequences.

One, two, three Afghan jihads

In the early 1970s, the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood had gained wide circulation in Afghanistan, as Egyptian and Afghan students, studying at Cairo’s celebrated al-Azhar University, travelled to each other’s countries. One al-Azhar graduate was the most prominent of the Afghan Islamists: Burhanuddin Rabbani, a Tajik university professor who, in 1972, was elected head of the Jamaat-i-Islami (Islamic Society) in Afghanistan, a political party inspired both by the Muslim Brotherhood’s leading thinkers, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, and by Abdul Ala Mawdudi’s party of the same name in Pakistan.

Rabbani’s deputy in the Jamaat-i-Islami was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Kabul University lecturer who also had affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood, while a young Pashtun civil engineering graduate called Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was placed in charge of the party’s political activities.

The British regarded Afghanistan in the 1970s much as they had during the Great Game of the nineteenth century: it was a country where Britain’s commercial interests were small, but, officials noted, ‘it is worth taking some trouble to maintain the close relationship with the Afghan government’ since ‘Afghanistan is strategically located and the Afghan government often have interesting side-lights on the affairs of their neighbours’.

A pro-British king, Zahir Shah, had ruled Afghanistan since 1933 with a regime acknowledged by the Foreign Office to be ‘weak and inefficient, hampered by an uncontrollable and irresponsible parliament, against a background of popular discontent, especially among students.’ Political parties were banned. At the same time, the Foreign Office continued, ‘our own relations with Afghanistan are now better than they have been for about 130 years’, mirroring the historical pattern of British support for unpopular regimes.

In July 1973, the king was overthrown in a military coup led by his brother-in-law, Mohammed Daoud Khan, a former prime minister. The coup was staged by left-wing officers, many of whom had been trained in the Soviet Union, though ‘Daoud was first and foremost a nationalist and determined to preserve Afghanistan’s independence and freedom of action’.

Daoud instituted a republic, proclaimed himself President and made agreements on arms imports and military training with the Soviet Union. To shore up the regime, Daoud soon moved against a growing Islamist movement, jailing some leading figures, including Sayyaf, while others, including Rabbani and Ahmed Shah Massoud, a Tajik engineering student, fled over Afghanistan’s southern border to neighbouring Pakistan.

Pakistan, meanwhile, feared that Daoud would pursue the cause of ‘Pashtunistan’ – a territory under Kabul’s control, encompassing an area of a majority Pashtun population in southern Afghanistan and northern Pakistan; this region had been split in two by the Durand line, the British-drawn border imposed during colonial rule of India. The Pakistani government, under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the founder of the Pakistan People’s Party who led a return to civilian rule in the country, moved to counter Daoud’s promotion of a Greater Afghanistan by backing an Islamist rebellion in the country.

Bhutto’s government authorised a secret military training programme near Peshawar in Pakistan, where Afghans were given small arms and training by the elite Special Services Group under the auspices of the ISI. In July 1975, the ISI sent its Afghans into the eastern part of Afghanistan to conduct a wave of attacks on government offices and to inspire an uprising; however, this failed, owing to a lack of widespread support for it in Afghanistan.

Daoud’s regime became increasingly unpopular and repressive until another pro-Soviet coup was staged in April 1978 by Mohammed Taraki, of the main pro-Soviet political party in the country, the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), which after gaining power signed a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union.

During 1978, a popular rebellion against the new regime broke out during which the Islamic parties, described in US files as the ‘Muslim Brotherhood’, and backed by Pakistan’s ISI, tried to foment a second uprising by conducting a campaign of terrorism in Afghanistan, assassinating hundreds of teachers and civil servants.

In July 1979, President Carter, concerned about the new regime’s closeness to the Soviet Union, began sending covert aid to Islamist opponents of the regime, the third attempt by outside actors since 1975 to organise an uprising against a regime in Kabul. The operation was undertaken in liaison with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and was part of a plan by an inter-governmental body established by Carter, the Nationalities Working Group, to promote unrest among the ethnic minorities in the Soviet Union, a strategy reminiscent of Britain’s age-old policies in the region.

The secret aid was dispatched five months before the Soviet invasion; Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s national security adviser, later said that he told Carter of his hope that US aid would ‘induce a Soviet military intervention’ that would fail, and therefore ‘give the USSR its Vietnam War’.

In September 1979, after months of brutal infighting between two factions of the ruling PDPA, another coup brought Deputy Prime Minister Hafizullah Amin into power, seeking to control the PDPA as well as fight the US-backed mujahideen guerillas. With Amin’s regime under pressure from the insurgency, and with Moscow fearing that Amin was not sufficiently pliant to maintain a pro-Soviet government in Kabul, the Soviets invaded on 27 December, pouring troops and tanks into the country, killing Amin and installing former deputy prime minister, Babrak Karmal, as president.

Immediately after the invasion, Brzezinski sent Carter a memo stating that ‘we should concert with Islamic countries both a propaganda campaign and a covert action campaign to help the rebels.’

Britain also appears to have begun to secretly support the Afghan rebels before the Soviet invasion. On 17 December 1979, a ‘special coordination’ meeting was held in the White House, chaired by Carter’s vice president, Walter Mondale, involving all key US government departments. As Soviet troops were amassing near the Afghanistan border, threatening to invade to shore up the communist regime, the meeting agreed to ‘explore with the Pakistanis and British the possibility of improving the financing, arming and communications of the rebel forces to make it as expensive as possible for the Soviets to continue their efforts’.

Thus the British now began to play what had become their primary role vis-à-vis the Americans, that of junior partner in US-led covert action, a sharp contrast to the more equal role enjoyed by London in the 1950s; Britain would carry out specialist tasks such as training the Afghan resistance and dispatching covert operatives to support the fighting. Overall, the US plan was ‘to cast the Soviets as opposing Moslem religious and nationalist expressions.’

On 18 December, the day after the meeting, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, by now presumably informed of the request from the White House meeting, gave a keynote speech to the establishment US think tank, the Foreign Policy Association, in New York, entitled ‘The West in the World Today’. In it, she robustly championed Islam as an alternative to Marxism. Referring to the Iranian hostage crisis that had begun the previous month, Thatcher said that ‘I do not believe that we should judge Islam by events in Iran’, continuing:

‘There is a tide of self-confidence and self-awareness in the Muslim world which preceded the Iranian revolution, and will outlast its present excesses. The West should recognise this with respect, not hostility. The Middle East is an area where we all have much at stake. It is in our own interests, as well as in the interests of the people of that region, that they build on their own deep religious traditions. We do not wish to see them succumb to the fraudulent appeal of imported Marxism’.

Thatcher’s willingness to put aside the Iranian militants’ seizure of the US embassy in Tehran and her evocation of the contrast between Islam’s ‘traditions’ and ‘imported’ Marxism was striking. This was the speech – endlessly quoted in TV documentaries – where Thatcher, in response to those like the Soviets who accused her of being an ‘Iron Lady’, said: ‘They’re quite right, I am’. Yet a key part of Thatcher’s call to counter what she described as ‘the immediate threat from the Soviet Union’ was a very traditional British reliance on Islamist forces in the region.

The month after the invasion, Thatcher told parliament that the term ‘rebels’ being used by the newspapers ‘is a strange word to me of people who are fighting to defend their own country against a foreign invader. Surely they are genuine freedom fighters, fighting to free their country from an alien oppressor.’

She described Afghanistan in language referring to Islam and Muslims that was striking, saying that it was ‘an Islamic country, a member of the non-aligned movement and a country that posed no conceivable threat to their [the Soviets] country or their interests’, and that ‘the Soviet Union has driven a wedge into the heart of the Muslim world.’

On a later visit to a refugee camp near the Afghan border, Thatcher told her audience that ‘you left a godless country because you refused to live under a godless communist system which is trying to destroy your religion’, and that ‘the hearts of the free world are with you’. She added that ‘we shall continue, together with Pakistan, the Islamic conference, the non-aligned movement, with the vast majority of the world’s countries, to work for a solution.’

The invocations to Islam are again striking, showing that Britain, once again, was prepared to openly identify its own geo-strategic and oil interests with those of specifically Islamic forces.

Organisation of the jihad

The US’s key allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Pakistan – soon began organising the war of resistance, with US and British support. The Saudi regime, media and mosques drummed up support for the jihad against the godless communists all over the kingdom, while the Saudi-backed Muslim World League also played a key role in sending financial aid. The Saudis, along with the US, were the chief bankrollers of the war, each providing around $3 billion.

Saudi funding was managed by Prince Turki, head of intelligence, who worked with, among others, Osama Bin Laden, the son of a wealthy businessman with close connections to the royal family. Using his own financial resources to aid the Afghan resistance, Bin Laden was among the first of the Arabs to join the jihad, arriving there in 1980 and staying for most of the war; though one analyst notes that Bin Laden also visited London in the early 1980s, delivering several sermons at the Regents Park Islamic Centre. Saudi King Fahd, who assumed power in the kingdom in 1982, and Crown Prince Abdullah – the present-day king – both also met with and funded Bin Laden.

Bin Laden used his own money to recruit and train Arab volunteers in Pakistan and Afghanistan and, under the approving eye of Pakistani ISI officers, cultivated good relations with Afghan commanders such as Hekmatyar and Massoud. There is no evidence of direct British or US support to Bin Laden, but one CIA source has claimed that US emissaries met directly with Bin Laden, and it was he who first suggested that the mujahideen be supplied with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. American journalist John Cooley notes that ‘delighted by his impeccable Saudi credentials, the CIA gave Bin Laden free rein in Afghanistan’ to organise Islamist fighters.

A second major player was Sadat’s Egypt, which organised transport to Afghanistan for the Egyptian volunteers, including Muslim Brothers, who were to make up a large proportion of the anti-Soviet resistance. After Sadat’s assassination by Islamists in 1981, some of those who had been temporarily imprisoned later made the trip, including Mohamed Atef, who became a close aide of Bin Laden. Many of the hardline Egyptian Islamists fought with Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami.

Pakistan, which was now under martial law following General Zia ul-Haq’s July 1977 coup against the Bhutto government, organised and managed the Afghan resistance on the ground. Trained in the British Indian Army in the 1940s and subsequently at Fort Bragg in the US, and a favourite of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, Zia had also seen service in Jordan in 1970, leading mercenaries to crush the Palestinians on behalf of King Hussein during Black September.

After seizing power, Zia proceeded to project himself and Pakistan as the champion of Islam, and ‘narrow and bigoted religiosity became Pakistan’s state policy’. Lacking a popular political base, Zia sought the support of the mullahs, and went even further than Sadat in ‘Islamising’ Pakistani society. Zia’s government implemented sharia law in 1979 and was backed by the powerful Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) which provided the main channel of Arab financial aid to the mujahideen in Afghanistan. The JI’s network of Deobandi religious schools, or madrassas, educated and radicalised tens of thousands of young people across Pakistan in the 1970s and ’80s, aided by the massive influx of money that poured in to support the Islamist militant cause in the region.

The covert arms deliveries to the Afghan rebels were organised by and routed through Pakistan, and specifically its ISI. At a meeting with Brzezinski in January 1980, General Zia insisted on the CIA providing no direct arms supplies to the Afghans, in order to retain Pakistani control over the operation. Of the huge quantities of arms exported to Pakistan, for supposed onward distribution to the Afghan groups, around a third were sold onto the black market by Pakistani forces, never reaching the intended recipients. From 1983 to 1987 the annual shipment of weaponry rose from 10,000 to 65,000 tonnes.

The Afghan resistance was organised into seven main groups, known as the Peshawar Seven, after the city in northwestern Pakistan where they were based. The four most important groups were all hardline, militant Islamists, professing holy war and committed to building an Islamic society. One historian has called them the Ikhwahabis – influenced both by the ideology of the Muslim Brothers (Ikhwaniism) and by the ultra-conservative ideology of the Saudis (Wahhabism).

The Hezb-e-Islami was split into two factions. One was led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had broken away from Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, and was dominated by Muslim Brothers as well as being the most powerful of the Afghan factions which received the largest share of external aid, notably from the ISI and Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami. Hezb-e-Islami’s other faction was led by Younis Khalis, a sixty-year-old mullah and scholar whose military commanders included Jalaluddin Haqqani and Abdul Haq, whom we encounter later.

Then there was Burhaneddin Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami, whose military commander in the field was Ahmed Shah Massoud. The fourth group was the Ittihad Islami (Islamic Unity), led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Wahhabi with links to Saudi Arabia, which gave most of its support to Sayyaf along with Hetmatyar; it was Sayyaf with whom Bin Laden, and also Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of 9/11, first went into battle.

The non-Afghan Muslim volunteers were attached to these groups, most joining Hekmatyar’s and Sayyaf’s. Estimates of the numbers who trained and fought in Afghanistan vary widely, from 25–85,000. Although their contribution to the military effort against the Soviet occupiers was significant at times, it was negligible compared to the Afghan forces themselves, who numbered up to 250,000 at any time. The chief ideologue of the ‘Afghan Arab’ volunteers was Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian Muslim Brother and university professor welcomed into Saudi Arabia in the 1960s whose teaching at Jeddah had influenced the young Bin Laden. Azzam had previously been in charge of education at the Muslim World League, which sent him to Islamabad in 1980 to teach at the International Islamic University, itself part-funded by the League and supervised by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 1984, Azzam moved to Peshawar after securing the League’s approval to open a branch there. This allowed him to set up the Maktab al-Khidamat (Afghan Services Bureau or MAK) to organise the jihadi volunteer force, manage its funds and propagate the idea of an international armed struggle. The Peshawar office was established with the help of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami and initially financed by Bin Laden together with large donations from Saudi Arabia. The MAK disbursed $200 million of Middle Eastern and Western, mainly American and British, aid destined for the Afghan jihad; its recruitment effort around the world often drew on the network of Muslim Brotherhood offices.

British covert action

The British role in the Afghan war mainly involved covert military training and arms supplies, but also extended beyond Afghanistan into the Muslim republics of the southern Soviet Union. Britain played a vital role in support of the US and acted as a de facto covert arm of the US government; its role often went beyond what US forces, faced with far greater congressional oversight than existed in Britain, were able or willing to undertake.

Thus, British covert forces, unlike those of the US, played a direct part in the war, undertaking scouting and back-up roles with the resistance groups they and their colleagues had trained. Indeed, during the early stages of the war British SAS commandos were going in and out of Afghanistan from Pakistan, moving supplies to the Afghan groups independently of the Pakistanis – and contrary to General Zia’s demands. Britain initially proposed to the US to ship Soviet-made arms to the Afghan forces in order to disguise their origin; President Carter agreed to this operation, apparently unaware that the arms were to be supplied through the network of Monzer al-Kassar, the British agent who was also supplying Palestinian radicals, noted in Chapter 6.

It was at the request of the US that, from spring 1986, Britain shipped 600 ‘Blowpipe’ shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, mothballed following their ineffectual role in the Falklands War, to the Afghan groups. MI6 also helped the CIA early in the war by activating long-established British networks of contacts in the country – a similar role, in fact, to that played by MI6 in the 1953 coup in Iran. Thus Britain could come in very handy, although, as one British intelligence expert noted, the Americans ‘paid most of the bills’; by now, the specialist British role in covert action depended on American largesse.

The SAS worked alongside US special forces in training Pakistan’s Special Services Group (SSG), whose commandos guided guerilla operations in Afghanistan. British and US instruction was intended to enable SSG officers to pass on their training to the Afghan groups and mujahideen volunteers.

One SSG commander at this time was Brigadier Pervez Musharraf, who spent seven years with the unit and who is believed to have trained mujahideen. Musharraf had been chosen by Zia as a devout Deobandi and had been recommended by the JI, according to some analysts; it was then that Musharraf came into contact with Osama Bin Laden.

Musharraf recently wrote in his autobiography that: ‘We helped create the mujahideen, fired them with religious zeal in seminaries, armed them, paid them, fed them, and sent them to a jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.’ He claims that neither Pakistan nor the US realised what Osama Bin Laden ‘might later do with the organisation that we had all enabled him to establish.’

US instruction of the Pakistanis and senior Afghan commanders was in areas such as the use of explosives, automatic weapons and remote control devices for triggering mines and bombs, demolition and arson – practices that would later be used in terrorist operations. The CIA provided a variety of arms to the ISI, including plastic explosives, sniper rifles and sophisticated electronic timing and detonation devices that made it easier to set off explosions from a remote location – ‘dual use’ items that could be used both for attacking military targets and also in terrorist operations.

Some training programmes also included instruction in how to stab a sentry from behind, murder and assassination of enemy leaders, strangulation and murderous karate chops. Brigadier Mohammed Yousaf of the ISI later noted that training ranged from striking a ‘knife between the shoulder blades of a Soviet soldier shopping in the bazaar’ to the ‘placing of a briefcase bomb in a senior official’s office’. Afghan educational establishments were considered fair game as targets, he explained, since they were staffed by ‘communists indoctrinating their students with Marxist dogma’.

Britain also directly trained Afghan forces, much of which was contracted out to ‘private’ security firms, a policy cleared in Whitehall; the main company was KMS – ‘Keenie-Meenie Services’, the name given to mercenaries fighting for Britain in the brutal war in Kenya in the 1950s. KMS training, led by former SAS officers, was provided to small numbers of Afghan commando units at secret MI6 and CIA bases in Saudi Arabia and Oman; the latter bases were also used as staging or refueling points for supply flights on their way to Pakistan. In 1987, the Observer reported a secret proposal from KMS to the CIA to send small teams of ex-SAS instructors into Afghanistan to train rebels in ‘demolition, sabotage, reconnaissance and para-medicine’.

Ken Connor, who served in the SAS for twenty-three years, says that he was part of a team of ‘ex-SAS’ soldiers who trained selected junior commanders in the mujahideen in Scotland and northern England in 1983. The Afghans were smuggled into Britain disguised as tourists, and trained in three-week cycles at secret camps. ‘They were well-armed and ferocious fighters, but they lacked battlefield organisation,’ Connor writes.

Training involved various military activities, including the ‘planning of operations, the use of explosives and the fire control of heavy weapons – mortars and artillery’, ‘how to attack aircraft and how to lay anti-aircraft ambushes aligned on the centre of a runway’ and mounting ‘anti-armour ambushes’. Connor notes that there was ‘strong empathy’ between the British trainers and the mujahideen but that there was little warmth between the mujahideen and the British government; ‘it was strictly a marriage of convenience between two organisations that had nothing else in common.’

Various Afghan groups were supported by Britain. One initially favoured force was the Mahaz-i-Milli Islam (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan or NIFA). Unusually, it was led by a layman rather than a cleric, Sayyad Pir Gailani, and supported the restoration of the former king, Zahir Shah – a policy in tune with Whitehall’s historical preference for monarchs; Whitehall appears at first to have regarded Zahir Shah as a possible future leader once the Soviets had been defeated.

The NIFA forces trained by Britain were commanded by Brigadier General Rahmatullah Safi, a former senior officer in the royal Afghan army who, after the king has been deposed, was living in exile in Britain. Safi later claimed to have trained around 8,000 men in NIFA’s camps; by the late 1990s, he was still living in London and had become the European representative of the Taliban, now in control of Afghanistan.

Britain also supported the Islamist groups. One of the MI6 officers in Islamabad coordinating British assistance to the mujahideen was Alastair Crooke who, it was later reported, ‘got to know some of the militants who would become leaders of al-Qaida’. He was described by Milt Bearden, CIA station chief in Pakistan in the mid-1980s, as ‘a natural on the frontier’ and ‘a British agent straight out of the Great Game’.

Training was provided to the forces of Hadji Abdul Haq, a military commander with the Younis Khalis faction of the Hezb-e-Islami. As a favour to the CIA, MI6 ran the operation to supply Blowpipe missiles to Haq in 1986. Haq was one of those figures whom MI6 introduced to the CIA in 1981, which then had very few Afghan contacts; the CIA subsequently began a long relationship with Haq. After the latter had raised a fighting force, the CIA began shipping weapons to him and he became an intermediary between the CIA, MI6 and the Kabul front. Haq’s office in Peshawar, the organising centre of the resistance in Pakistan, was often full of MI6 and CIA operatives who supplied him with maps of new Soviet targets they wanted him to hit.

But Afghan resistance operations were not confined to Soviet military targets. In Hadji Abdul Haq, Britain and the US had backed somebody prepared to use terrorism to achieve his aims. In September 1984, Haq ordered the planting of a bomb at Kabul airport that killed 28 people, many of them students preparing to fly to the Soviet Union. Eighteen months later, in March 1986, he became the first Afghan commander to be welcomed to Britain by Margaret Thatcher, and subsequently held several meetings with US President Reagan.

Responding to British criticism of his role in the airport blast, Haq said that the purpose of the bomb was ‘to warn people not to send their children to the Soviet Union’. A Downing Street spokesman said at the same time that ‘the prime minister has a degree of sympathy with the Afghan cause inasmuch as they’re trying to rid their country of invaders.’

Another of the military commanders in Younis Khalis’ faction of the Hezb-e-Islami was Jalaluddin Haqqani, who received a large quantity of US weapons, much of which were used to help equip the Arab volunteers. A later US Defence Intelligence Agency report noted that Haqqani was ‘the tribal leader most exploited by the ISI during the Soviet–Afghan war to facilitate the introduction of Arab extremists.’ Milt Bearden later wrote that Haqqani was ‘America’s best friend during the anti-Soviet war.’ The CIA and the ISI came to rely on him for testing and experimenting with new weapons systems and tactics.

Haqqani would go on to become a leading military commander in the Taliban and the ‘Haqqani network’ is presently one of the major Taliban factions fighting the British in Afghanistan. Another of Khalis’s junior commanders in the 1980s was Mohammed Omar, who would go on to lead the Taliban as Mullah Omar.

Britain also backed Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had become a prominent military commander in Rabbani’s Jamaat-i-Islami group. British support for him began early in the war and involved money, weapons and an annual mission to assess his group’s needs. These missions – consisting of two MI6 officers and military instructors – also provided training to Massoud’s junior commanders and English lessons to his trusted aides. Britain also supplied communications equipment.

One British official with knowledge of the operation spoke of how, with British help, Massoud’s forces ‘had a communication system which was very nearly priceless and acquired the knowledge of how to use it and how to organise. Those were subtle things but probably worth over a hundred planeloads of Armalites or Stingers.’ The CIA began to supply Massoud in 1984, and is said to have relied on MI6 for reports about him.

The SAS is also believed to have trained Massoud’s forces to use sophisticated weaponry such as US Stinger anti-aircraft missiles which replaced the British-supplied Blowpipes in 1986. These missiles were used by the mujahideen to shoot down several passenger aircraft, with heavy loss of life. Ken Connor notes that ‘newspaper reports linking Britain with the supply of the missiles led to furious Soviet protests, but “deniability” allowed the British government to maintain an air of injured innocence.’

After the Afghan War, the US would spend tens of millions of dollars in a belated attempt to buy back Stinger missiles that were proving lucrative on the black market. The British-supplied Blowpipes have also since resurfaced. A quantity were acquired by the Taliban after they took power in Kabul in 1996; following the Anglo–American defeat of the Taliban in February 2002, over 200 surface-to-air missiles, including 62 Blowpipes, were recovered by US forces. Even in 2005 – nearly two decades after they were first supplied – there were still reports of Blowpipes being unearthed in Afghanistan.

Britain also extended backing to the extremist Hekmatyar, who visited London in 1986 and met Foreign Office officials in London in 1988. Most US aid went to Hekmatyar – by conservative estimates, at least $600 million. Hekmatyar was also a ruthless killer, famed for skinning infidels alive, while his group was responsible for some of the most horrific atrocities of the war, such as the slaughter of members of other Afghan groups that were seen as rivals. Hekmatyar worked closely with Bin Laden and took a virulently anti-Western line: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Qadafi’s Libya were also funders. A US Congress task force described his group in 1985 as ‘the most corrupt’ of the Afghan parties.

British covert action in the region went beyond Afghanistan, and involved further conspiring with Hekmatyar’s forces in operations inside the Soviet Union itself. Beginning in 1984, CIA Director William Casey stepped up the war against the Soviets when the CIA, together with MI6 and the ISI, agreed to a plan to launch guerrilla attacks into the southern Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, from where Soviet troops in Afghanistan received their supplies. These were the first attacks inside the Soviet Union involving US and British covert action since the 1950s.

Activities included sabotage operations such as rocket attacks on villages in Tajikistan, and on other Soviet targets like airfields and vehicle convoys in Uzbekistan. Some of these operations were led by Hekmatyar, and all were equipped by Pakistan’s ISI. ‘Scores of attacks were made’ up to twenty-five kilometres into the Soviet republics, reaching their peak in 1986, according to former Pakistani intelligence officer Mohammed Yousaf. He also wrote that ‘they were probably the most secret and sensitive operations of the war’, and that the Soviet Union’s ‘specific worry was the spread of fundamentalism and its influence on Soviet central Asian Muslims’.

Propaganda operations were also conducted, involving Afghan rebels distributing Korans in the Uzbek language, which had been printed by the CIA. MI6 funded the leader of Pakistan’s Jamaat-i-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmad – who had close links with Hekmatyar and Massoud – to pump money and Islamic literature into the Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to incite the local religious circles to rebel against their communist governments. British expediency was again in evidence since officials could have had few illusions as to who they were supporting.

British documents of the mid-1950s had described the JI, then led by its founder, Abdul Ala Mawdudi, as an ‘extreme right-wing Islamic party (comparable to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt)’:

‘[It] has tentacles all over the country, which might enable it to exert wide influence if a propitious occasion ever arose … This is a revolutionary and reactionary movement led by a clever, ambitious and unscrupulous man. In theory they wish to establish a state in Pakistan which will be run as nearly as possible in accordance with the tenets of the Koran and Sunnah … The state they would like to establish would be virtually a dictatorship ruled by an Amir following the precedents of the earlier Caliphs … The Jamaat-i-Islami is a potentially dangerous movement, comparable in many ways with the Muslim Brotherhood’.

The reckoning

After Soviet forces were expelled from Afghanistan in 1989, and the pro-Soviet government of Mohammed Najibullah was overthrown in 1992, Hekmatyar’s forces fought Massoud’s for control of Kabul in the ensuing civil war, killing thousands of civilians in the process. By 1996 the Taliban had driven Hekmatyar’s forces out of Kabul and soon taken control of the country, forcing Hekmatyar into exile. By now, the secular leftist political forces in the country had been eliminated and Afghanistan’s immediate future would be decided only by the Islamist groups.

Most importantly, by the end of the Soviet occupation, the foreign mujahideen veterans were forging a radical and violent utopianism that called for jihad as armed struggle. This was based on the ideology of the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabis and Abdullah Azzam’s call for martyrdom, and drew on personal experiences of brutal conflict and the belief that Islam alone had defeated the Soviets. Thousands of previously untrained volunteers had received military instruction in often sophisticated techniques while gaining first-hand experience of fighting.

The Arab–Afghan volunteers, especially those from Egypt, Yemen, Indonesia, Algeria and Libya, now saw their primary objective as returning to their homelands to struggle against their own governments, while Bin Laden hoped to unite them in a global force.

Bin Laden’s al-Qaida organisation was a direct product of the war, set up in 1988 out of the networks that were developing between the Afghans and the foreign fighters. Tony Blair’s foreign secretary, Robin Cook, would later say that the name al-Qaida (meaning ‘the base’) derived from ‘the database’ – ‘the computer file of the thousands of mujahideen who were recruited and trained with help from the CIA’ – and, he might have added, MI6.

Several of the Afghan camp networks built at this time with CIA, ISI or Saudi aid would be subsequently used by al-Qaida as bases for training and planning terrorist attacks, including Tora Bora, south of Jalalabad, which was constructed by one of Younis Khalis’ commanders. Al-Qaida would likely not have emerged at all, at least not in its extent, had it not been for the infrastructure of the Afghan resistance built partly with US and British backing.

Specific British contributions included specialised military training provided to various forces, covert military supplies and support for the larger US covert role in the war; Whitehall thus made a British contribution to the imminent emergence of global Islamist terrorism.