KABUL, Afghanistan – Hundreds of Arab fighters suspected of links to Usama bin Laden were given citizenship by the former Afghan government whose leaders are now receiving U.S. help fighting the Taliban, according to documents shown to The Associated Press by the ruling Islamic militia.
The documents, written in Afghanistan's Dari language, show that 604 people from countries such as Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia and Egypt were granted Afghan citizenship in March 1993 by President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Rabbani, who was ousted by the Taliban in 1996, now heads the northern alliance of opposition forces. The United States has been bombing Taliban positions in hopes the alliance can seize Mazar-e-Sharif and other major cities.
The documents did not include the names of any publicly known Al Qaeda figures linked to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States that killed 4,500 people.
However, the documents do add substance to claims by critics of the opposition Northern Alliance that some of its leading figures have maintained close ties to Islamic extremists dating back to the 1979-1989 war against Soviet invaders.
The hardcore of bin Laden's Al Qaeda movement are Arab militants, some of whom came to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet invaders. Others are unable to return to their home countries because of subversive activities there. By granting them citizenship, the Rabbani government enabled the fighters — known as Afghan Arabs — to remain in the country permanently.
Bin Laden himself moved to Afghanistan in 1996, a few months before Rabbani's government was ousted from Kabul, but it is not known if he was ever granted citizenship. Bin Laden came here from Sudan after U.S. pressure moved the Sudanese to ask him to leave.
The United States began phasing out support for the anti-Soviet alliance — including the Arab volunteer fighters — after the Soviets pulled out their troops in 1989.
Once in Afghanistan, bin Laden is believed to have rallied Arab veterans of the Afghan war — both here and elsewhere in the Islamic world — to continue their struggle as part of Al Qaeda.
Critics fear the United States and its allies could end up dealing with a new set of Afghan leaders with their own ties to members of Al Qaeda if the alliance seizes power.
Retired Gen. Hamid Gul, former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, said he believed some alliance figures still maintain close ties to Arab extremists and "someday they will turn their guns" against the U.S.-led coalition.
U.S. officials have repeatedly noted that they share with the Northern Alliance the goal of defeating the Taliban — but that does not mean Washington and the Northern Alliance have the same long-term agenda.
Most recently, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Stufflebeem said last week:
"We're sticking to our game plan, our strategy. ... Where it crosses with wherever the Northern Alliance may have, that's a good thing," Stufflebeem said. "But we are not going to adapt our game plan to theirs necessarily, nor would we expect them to adapt to ours. So we're mutually supporting each other."
President Bush launched attacks against the Taliban on Oct. 7 after they refused to turn over bin Laden, the prime suspect in the September terrorist strikes.
Over the weekend, Abdurahman Hottak, the head of the Taliban's consular department, showed AP a file with papers indicating that the 604 Arabs had all been issued Afghan citizenship cards — and with them the right of residence — by the Rabbani government.
The AP was allowed to examine the papers and take notes from them.
According to the documents shown by Hottak, the request for granting citizenship was made in November 1992 by Rabbani's interior minister, Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai.
Ahmedzai was a member of a faction of Rabbani's coalition government led by Abdur Rasool Sayyaf, who is currently Rabbani's deputy prime minister in the Afghan government-in-exile, also known as the Northern Alliance.
Sayyaf was then chief of the Ittehad-e-Islami group, which had the largest number of Arab fighters in its ranks. Presumably, many, if not all, of the Arabs were granted citizenship as a reward for service in Sayyaf's organization.
The file shown by the Taliban included a presidential approval bearing Rabbani's signature. In addition to the 604 Arabs, Hottak said Rabbani's government had granted citizenship to 233 other Arabs in the first five months of his rule. In all, Arab fighters are believed to number in the thousands.
The chief spokesman of the Northern Alliance, Abdullah, said he did not know of the citizenship request.
"Yes, Ahmed Shah Ahmedazi was interior minister at the time and the interior ministry belonged to Sayyaf," said Abdullah, who uses only one name. "But of course, I am not aware of when, or how or whether it happened that this thing was done. I don't know anything about it."
Abdullah said Sayyaf's group included a considerable number of Arabs among its fighters and "to some extent he was still close to the Arabs" after Rabbani's coalition overthrew the pro-communist government in 1992.
Sayyaf also supported Iraq's Saddam Hussein against the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War.
Sayyaf was the only one of the U.S.-backed Afghan rebels who refused to send fighters to join the coalition. The other Islamic groups together volunteered 1,000 men, but sent 800 warriors to fight with the U.S.-led coalition in the Gulf War.
Sayyaf, who has been strongly anti-American, also has sharply condemned the presence of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia — the same grievance voiced by bin Laden as a reason for his anti-U.S. terrorist campaign.