To the Mountains by Abdullah Anas and Tam Hussein – review | Books

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Where should we start if we are to tell the story of the violent Islamist extremism that still threatens us today? The question is an important one and its answer has significance that goes well beyond chronology.

Some commentators in the west, usually to the right of the political spectrum, will start in the 7th century AD with the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad or with the first texts of Islam. The implication is obvious: that there is something inherent in the Islamic faith that engenders or at least encourages violence.

Other commentators, often on the left, will situate the origins of today’s wave of violence some 1,100 years later, in the subjugation, humiliation and exploitation of much of the Muslim world by European powers. This too, clearly, is not a neutral choice.

To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan is a memoir primarily devoted to recounting the role of the Arab volunteers who fought alongside Afghan mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. This period and place are arguably the best places to start an investigation of how we got to where we are today.

Abdullah Anas is well qualified to describe these years. Not only was he among the “Arab Afghans” from nearly the start, but he was at the heart of the operation to support the mujahideen in their battle. He was also the son-in-law and close aide of Abdullah Azzam, the late Palestinian activist, propagandist and preacher who was one of the foundational thinkers of modern jihadist thinking.

Resident in London since the mid-1990s, Anas argues that the ideologues of modern international Islamist terrorism have grotesquely distorted the teachings of his late father-in-law, who was assassinated in 1989. In his book, written largely by the journalist Tam Hussein, Anas says that Osama bin Laden and a host of other senior al-Qaida figures rejected what he sees as Azzam’s more moderate definition of jihad. This may be partly true, and Azzam may not have explicitly encouraged terrorism of the sort we have seen in recent years, but his argument that all Muslims are obliged to defend the world’s community of believers irrespective of where an attack might take place was a key contribution to the vision of a global force of militants fighting the west and other enemies of the faithful that developed in the 1980s.

Then there is the Egyptian Omar Abdel-Rahman, whom Anas portrays as a kind old man unfairly jailed in the US for his role in a 1993 attempt by Islamic extremists to bring down the World Trade Center. This is an apologia too far and undermines Anas’s credibility. Abdel-Rahman was the ideological leader of Egyptian extremist groups that led an increasingly indiscriminate campaign of violence, which killed thousands and culminated in the massacre of 58 tourists and four locals in Luxor in 1997. In sermons, he dubbed Americans “descendants of… pigs who have been feeding from the… tables of Zionists, Communists and colonialists” and called for Muslims to “kill them on the sea, air, or land”.

But what Anas can do very usefully is demolish the widespread fallacy that the Arab Afghans played any kind of significant role in the defeat of the Soviets in the 1980s. In 1983, they numbered only 15, he says, and never exceeded more than 300 or 400. Only a minority of these actually saw combat and even fewer fought well.

He also makes clear that the CIA had no role in directly training, funding or equipping this tiny force. Twenty years after its foundation, it is now very clear that the idea that al-Qaida was a monster created by US spies is nonsense. Ditto for its various offshoots.

Specialists and scholars will enjoy the accounts of arguments among different Afghan factions and the personal details related about key figures from the period. They will also see the book for the subjective and partial work that it is. Though Hussein has made a valiant attempt to create something accessible and readable, To the Mountains is not a book for the general reader.

To the Mountains: My Life in Jihad, from Algeria to Afghanistan by Abdullah Anas and Tam Hussein is published by Hurst (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


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