I’ve often written about Australians who have joined jihadist groups abroad, but have rarely come across evidence of Australians fighting in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Intuitively, you could expect that some Australians were involved in fighting against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The 1979 Soviet invasion prompted tens of thousands of Muslims across the world to travel to Afghanistan and join the fight throughout the 1980s. This was the world’s largest jihadist foreign fighter mobilisation until the Syrian civil war.
Given Australians have joined jihadist groups in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere since the 1990s, it would be surprising if there had been no Australians involved at all in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Yet I have only occasionally come across indications of Australian involvement, such as a section in Irfan Yusuf’s book Once Were Radicals, where he states that in the 1980s a friend of his, Kamal, “seemed to know a lot of what was happening there [in Afghanistan], and he also knew people who had gone from Australia to fight in the jihad” (page 151).
Another example is that an Australian woman, Rabiah Hutchinson, travelled to Pakistan in 1990 and based herself in the village of Pabbi (near the Afghan border). She stayed under the auspices of Abdul Rassul Sayyaf (who trained many Jemaah Islamiyah terrorists) and interacted with Osama bin Laden. But this was after the Soviets withdrew, and bin Laden was (according to Hutchinson’s biography, The Mother of Mohammed) surprised to encounter an Australian. He reportedly said “Australian – that must be a first!” (page 191). This anecdote suggests that Australians were absent during the 1980s, but we can’t read too much into it. The story might not be true, and Bin Laden was not then the central figure he would later become, so we can’t assume he would have known the nationality of each of the thousands of volunteers who traveled to join the conflict.
So there has generally been extremely little information around on any Australians fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
However, Thomas Hegghammer recently sent me some interesting things he has found.
He found that “there were people in Australia reading al-Jihad and writing letters to the editor”. Al-Jihad was the magazine produced by Abdullah Azzam’s Services Bureau. Hegghammer provided this image of al-Jihad’s 18th issue, page 41:
He added that the “same guy is mentioned in the next issue (p.45) as having sent money.”
Hegghammer also showed that the book Jihad in Afghanistan Against Communism refers explicitly to Australians among the mujahideen at the time:
Hegghammer helpfully adds to the extremely small body of public information on any Australian involvement in the 1980s foreign fighter mobilisation against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a few Australians had been fighting the Soviets, but information on it is hard to come across, and I will let readers know if I hear of anything else.
Update 1: (added 29 March 2018) Anthony Davis from IHS-Jane’s has sent the following example. As with the examples above, I am not personally in a position to verify it, but I greatly appreciate it for adding to the small and fragmentary body of information on this topic:
l met a young Australian fighter called Yusuf while working in the northern Kunduz-Khanabad area in the late summer of 1982 with a group of mujahideen of the Jamiat-i-Islami party. He had served in the ADF and later married a Muslim woman from Malaysia and converted to Islam. He was actually less interested in killing communists than in fulfilling his duty as a Muslim to perform jihad. He took his religion extremely seriously rather to the amusement of his Afghan comrades-in-arms not all of whom prayed five times a day and many of whom enjoyed the odd joint of good local hash. They nick-named him “Sheikh” in a back-handed compliment to his religious rectitude. But with a full beard, long hair and turban, he otherwise fitted in well enough. At the end of the year he turned in his AK and joined me on the three week trek back to Pakistan. As far as I’m aware, he then returned to his wife in a kampong in northeastern Malaysia, having successfully ticked the ‘jihad’ box.