Gulbuddin Hekmatyar: From Holy Warrior to Wanted Terrorist

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 18

During the last week of August, officials in the northern Afghan province of Kapisa announced the arrest of five accused terrorists related to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former leader of Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (the Islamic Party of Afghanistan). Hekmatyar, a key figure in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet invasion in the 1980s, is now believed to be at his most powerful state since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. A high-ranking provincial official from the northern Parwan province, who declined to be named, told The Jamestown Foundation that the most recent government investigation shows that Hekmatyar is leading the insurgency in the northern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, while Mullah Omar and his al-Qaeda ally, Osama bin Laden, operate in the south and the west. It is believed that these three leaders form a triangle that has been labeled the “Triangle of Terror.” Since Hekmatyar forms one of these three points, it is important to understand his background.

Hekmatyar’s Background

Born in 1948 in Imam Saheb district of northern Kunduz province, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is a Kharoty Pashtun who comes from the Ghilzai confederation. His father, Ghulam Qader, who migrated to Kunduz, is originally from the central Ghazni province. Hekmatyar has two wives (both Afghans from his tribe), six daughters and three sons. According to Hamayon Jarir, Hekmatyar’s son in-law, one of his wives lives in Iran and the other lives in Shamshatoo refugee camp in Peshawar together with their sons and daughters [1]. After graduating from Sher Khan high school in Kunduz in 1968, Hekmatyar joined the Mahtab Qala military school in Kabul. Due to his political activities, however, he was expelled from the school two years later. He speaks Dari (Farsi), Pashto, English, Urdu and Arabic.

From 1970 to 1972, Hekmatyar attended the engineering department at Kabul University, but after being implicated in the murder of Saydal Sukhandan from the pro-China Shola-e-Jawedan Movement, he was jailed by the government of King Zahir Shah. As a high school student, Hekmatyar was a member of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) for four years. As a result of studying engineering at Kabul University, Hekmatyar’s communist ideology was also affected by an extremist version of Islam, and he joined the Muslim Youths Movement (Nahzat-e-Jawanane Musalman). While at Kabul University, Hekmatyar’s radicalism began to show its face: he was notorious for spraying acid on the university’s female students [2].

Hekmatyar’s followers addressed him as Engineer Hekmatyar even though he was unable to complete his degree as a result of spending almost two years in prison. In 1974, when King Zahir Shah’s government was overthrown by the king’s cousin, Daoud Khan, in a military coup, Hekmatyar was freed from prison. He then left the country and took refuge in Pakistan’s bordering city of Peshawar together with Burhanuddin Rabbani, Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad and other jihadi leaders. The radical leaders continued to work as members of the Muslim Youths Movement; they later, however, divided into various factions and parties.

Apparently, a failed uprising by jihadi leader Ahmad Shah Masoud of the Jamiat-e-Islami party in the Panjshir Valley against Daoud’s regime in 1975 contributed to a split between Hekmatyar and Rabbani. It was, however, more Hekmatyar’s desire for control that led to the disagreement between the two leaders. Waheed Mujda, who was a former member of Hezb-e-Islami, told The Jamestown Foundation that the main cause of Hekmatyar’s clash with Rabbani was his idea of defeating the pro-Russian regime militarily, while Rabbani wanted to reach this goal politically. Strongly backed by the Pakistani government of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Hekmatyar established Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan in 1976. Later in 1979, another clash between Hekmatyar and jihadi leader Mawlawi Khalis evenly divided Hezb-e-Islami into two factions. Khalis established another faction called Hezb-e-Islami’s Khalis faction.

Hekmatyar received most of the funding provided by Saudi Arabia, the United States and Pakistan to support the Afghan jihad against the Soviets; this made him the most well know and also the most controversial of the Pakistan-based mujahideen leaders. It was Hekmatyar who received anti-aircraft Stinger missiles from the U.S. government through Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). “Hekmatyar’s commanders in eastern Afghanistan were those who fired the first Stinger anti-aircraft missiles at Soviet warplanes,” explained Mujda [3]. Indeed, it was Hezb-e-Islami Commander Abdul Ghaffar who hit the first Soviet helicopter gunship with an anti-aircraft Stinger missile in eastern Nangarhar province in September 1986 [4].

“Hekmatyar was indeed the key character in collecting money from anti-Soviet factions and countries to make the war continue, but since he was so selfish and hungry for power most of the jihadi leaders did not like him, though they needed him,” said Mujda. Mujda quoted Mawlawi Khalis as saying “I pray to god to let Hekmatyar live among us in Pakistan, but I don’t want him with us in Afghanistan because he would not let anyone, other than himself, become the country’s leader.” Hekmatyar was known as an anti-American figure among the Afghan jihadi leaders; ironically, the United States, through the ISI, was his biggest financial and military supporter. Hekmatyar most clearly expressed his anti-American credentials when he refused to shake hands with President Ronald Reagan in 1985 under the roof of the White House. Hekmatyar came under great pressure from Pakistani leaders to meet with Reagan, but his argument was that being seen shaking hands with the U.S. president would strengthen the Soviet claim that the war was not a jihad and was instead a U.S.-led campaign to win the Cold War.

Hekmatyar’s power increased during the 1979-1988 war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. His active Hezb-e-Islami intelligence service made him a hero among other fighters because his agents were able to penetrate the Afghan government; this allowed Hekmatyar to neutralize government initiatives. It was Hezb-e-Islami’s intelligence service that gave Hekmatyar the power to resist against the Soviet’s KGB and the Afghan government’s security service, KHAD (Khedamat-e Etelea’at-e Dawlati).

Hekmatyar’s power later became a great threat to Dr. Mohammad Najibullah, who was elected as the president of Afghanistan in November 1986. Feeling the threat, Najibullah, the former chief of KHAD, invited Hekmatyar to join the government, but Hekmatyar rejected Najibullah’s request even though Najibullah agreed to give him 95 percent control of the regime. The withdrawal of the last Soviet soldier from Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, based on a UN resolution, provided more opportunity for Hekmatyar and his allied jihadi leaders to expand the insurgency to the country’s bigger cities. In 1992, Najibullah’s regime was overthrown and Sebghatullah Mujadeddi, the leader of the Afghan National Liberation Front, took power based on an agreement with the mujahideen forces in Pakistan. Mujaddedi transferred power to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of Jameat-e-Islami Afghanistan, after a two months term.

It was during Rabbani’s rule when the various jihadi parties and factions, including Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, began to fight for more power. Hekmatyar played a key role in provoking the multi-factional war in the country. In 1996, Hekmatyar joined President Rabbani and his defense minister, Ahmad Shah Masoud, and became the prime minister, but it was too late for him to be able to establish control over the country because Taliban fighters had already established control on the edges of Kabul. In September 1996, after being in power for three months, Hekmatyar sought exile in Iran and the Taliban took power in Kabul. After Hekmatyar warned his former ally Pakistan in 2001 not to support the U.S.-led war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and after his negative position toward the U.S.-backed Afghan government, Hekmatyar was expelled from Iran. Since then, Hekmatyar has been living in hideouts and has been targeted by U.S., Afghan and Pakistani security forces.

His appearance on al-Jazeera television in May, and his pledge to fight foreign troops in Afghanistan and Iraq “under the banner of al-Qaeda,” once again inspired fears among those who know Hekmatyar well.

Hekmatyar’s Effect on the Afghan Insurgency

Hekmatyar is not blinded by a radical Islamic vision. For him, Islam is more about politics than it is about religion. In fact, this makes him more dangerous than Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who has surrounded himself with illiterate religious leaders. Hekmatyar, on the other hand, is more adept at military and political strategy. Additionally, Hekmatyar has led wars throughout Afghan territory and is completely familiar with the country’s diverse geography, culture and beliefs.

“Hekmatyar’s ability of imposing his inspirations, especially on the youth, is unbelievable,” says Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad, a former member of Hezb-e-Islami’s leadership council and Hekmatyar’s former deputy. “During the past few years, Hekmatyar has found an absolutely new Hezb-e-Islami by absorbing new members—most of them youths—who may not even know me,” added Waqad [5].

Every week, Hekmatyar’s Tanweer Weekly publishes in Shamshatoo refugee camp in Peshawar together with Estiqamat, a pro-Taliban magazine. In the August 10 issue of Tanweer, Hekmatyar again pledged to fight foreign troops in Afghanistan “till the last drop of blood moves in his body”—an expression always heard in Hekmatyar’s speeches. By controlling this publication, Hekmatyar is able to recruit a tremendous amount of followers who are willing to die in order to kill a foreign soldier. Meanwhile, Hekmatyar uses his military experience to defeat the enemy (coalition and Afghan government soldiers), which for him are no different than the former Soviet army. In fact, among the three top insurgent leaders, who are located on each angle of the Triangle of Terror, Hekmatyar is considered the most powerful and the most dangerous for the current stability situation in Afghanistan.


1. Author interview with Hamayon Jarir, August 22, 2006, Kabul, Afghanistan.

2. Author interview with Waheed Mujda, a former member of Hezb-e-Islami’s Political Relations Department, August 25, 2006, Kabul, Afghanistan.

3. Waheed Mujda, August 25, 2006.

4. Ishtiaq Ahmad, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan Trail from Jihad to Terrorism, Islamabad: 2004.

5. Author interview with Qazi Muhammad Amin Waqad, former member of Hezb-e-Islami, August 20, 2006, Kabul, Afghanistan.