The South Asia Channel

"The Swordsman": The Taliban's public enemy number one

Abdul Rab Rasool Sayyaf is a controversial Afghan politician, a former member of parliament, and now a presidential hopeful for the country's 2014 election.  To his supporters, he is a leader who took on the Soviets and played a key role in the jihad against the Afghan communists. To his critics, he is a warlord who led bloody battles on the streets of Kabul, killing thousands of Shiites and Hazaras during the 1990s. To Westerners, he's an extremist with links to al-Qaeda-minded people, whose name alone has inspired other Islamist groups as far away as the Philippines. And now, for the Taliban in Afghanistan, he has become "Public Enemy No.1," someone they have already declared a dead man.  

Sayyaf, which means "the swordsman" in Arabic, does not venture out of his sprawling residence west of Kabul very often, and he has kept a relatively low profile in the parliament over the last decade. But his role in the violent and often unpredictable Afghan political world extends beyond the country's "House of People." He is known to have played a key role in the appointments of governors and district governors across the country. He runs his own university and TV station in Kabul. He is wealthy, media-shy, and a shrewd behind-the-scenes political operator. But over the past few years, he's taken on a subject that is critical for the survival of the Taliban and other violent extremists -- their own religious narrative to inspire, recruit, and justify violence in the name of God -- making him their new arch nemesis.    

It began during a speech in September 2012 to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, President Hamid Karzai's chief peacemaker who was killed by a Taliban suicide bomber posing as a peace envoy, when Sayyaf publically warned Taliban suicide bombers about their fate in the afterlife. Quoting Islamic texts extensively, Sayyaf said he wanted to send a message to the militants that on Judgment Day, they would show up with "flags planted in their buttocks from the back," marking them "unforgivable" in the court of God.  He continued by declaring: "You are not fighting against foreigners, but against Islam and Muslims."  Sayyaf then told the crowd: "They [Taliban] are enemies of God and his Messenger (Prophet Muhammad). Quran says kill them well. Kill them with torture. Do you know what it means to kill them well? With Zajir (torment or torture). Hang them! Let people see them hanged for a month. Cut their right hands and left feet. And do your best to eliminate them [Taliban] from the face of the earth."

Then last week, during an Afghan government-sponsored International Islamic Scholars conference in Kabul, Sayyaf again spoke against the Taliban, this time targeting the militants' financial backers in Middle Eastern countries. This is because the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, their chief ally, are known to do fundraising in the Middle East, especially in the Gulf Arab states. Sayyaf knows this well because he himself used to travel to Arab countries in the 1980s, using his oratory skills and knowledge of Arabic, to raise funds for mujahideen fighting the former Soviet Union.

Speaking in fluent Arabic, Sayyaf addressed the approximately 200 international Muslim scholars about the alleged support Muslim countries provide to the Taliban. "I ask you, and for the sake of God tell me, those [Taliban] who are fighting now, their war is not against foreigners," Sayyaf declared. He also asked the international Muslim scholars to explain why some Muslims countries did not oppose the intervention by the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan when the United Nations vote came up in 2001. "Did any of the Islamic countries at the United Nations oppose the arrival of foreigners in Afghanistan? All of the Islamic countries voted in favor for the arrival of them in Afghanistan," Sayyaf remarked. He also questioned the religious credentials of the Taliban by telling the scholars: "Those who are killing innocent Afghans, they don't know anything about Islam."

The Taliban and their violent extremist allies responded immediately to Sayyaf's remarks. In one article titled "What does this old Dajjal (anti-Christ) say?," they attacked Sayyaf, calling him a "manifestation of Satan," and used Quranic texts in an attempt to counter his remarks. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, also tweeted articles, social media posts, and reports from the militant group's own gathering of "1600 undisputed Islamic scholars" and their fatwa to discredit Sayyaf and the government-sponsored Islamic Scholars conference.

The primary reason that the Taliban militants view Sayyaf's remarks, and condemnations by the international Islamic scholars, as an existential threat to their survival is simple. For almost a decade, the Taliban have relied on skewing the interpretation of Islam's religious texts to justify their violence, especially the use of suicide bombing, which had no precedence in Afghanistan until the mid-2000s. But while Afghans abhor the use of suicide bombings, despite extensive propaganda campaigns by the Taliban to justify it on religious grounds, Afghanistan's religious scholars have yet to strongly and consistently counter the militant group's religious justifications for violence -- until now.  Since Sayyaf's "challenge" to the Taliban's religious narrative, the militant group appears to have found itself outgunned in the battle for ideology, something which is far more important to them than winning a military campaign. This is because Sayyaf has established religious credentials from Sunni Islam's most prestigious school, the Cairo-based Al-Azhar University, which allows him to speak with authority on religious issues. He is also a charismatic and gifted orator, which brings him coverage in the local media, and he maintains political influence through his traditional networks in some key northern provinces of Afghanistan, as well as in some of the former Taliban heartlands in the south, which adds to his leverage. Because of this, the Taliban want Sayyaf dead -- in fact, Afghanistan's intelligence agency recently announced that it had foiled a Taliban plot to assassinate Sayyaf only days after his speech in early September of this year.

Sayyaf is not a saint to Afghans. Nor is he considered a moderate Islamist. His involvement in human rights abuses, especially during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s, is well documented by Human Rights Watch. Yet his current stance, effectively challenging the Taliban on their own ideological and religious turf, is something significant for both the international stakeholders who are attempting to end the war in Afghanistan, and for regional Islamic countries that are searching for ways to rescue the peaceful message of Islam from the dark interpretation espoused by violent extremists. After all, the Taliban and other militant groups are expected to step up their terror campaign inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal of international troops at the end of 2014. To do so, they need their religious narrative to hold, enabling them to bring in new recruits to maintain their ranks and sustain their violence. Sayyaf, despite his own violent past and infamy, appears to be taking the lead in challenging this narrative, making him "Public Enemy No.1" to the Taliban and other extremists in Afghanistan and beyond.

Ahmad Shafi is an Afghan journalist and a former NPR producer in Afghanistan.

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