your connection to The Boston Globe

More Arab militants join fight in Afghanistan

JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- Arab Islamic radicals who fled Afghanistan in the US-led invasion are coming back, eager to support suicide bombers in their increasingly frequent and effective attacks on Western and Afghan forces.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, young militants feel that "Allah's victory seems to be drawing near" and see parallels with the stalemating of the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and its ultimate withdrawal, said Michael Scheuer, a former CIA official who until 2004 headed a team that searched for Osama bin Laden.

Al Qaeda is bringing back fighters it sent home after the post-9/11 invasion, he said. Al Qaeda leaders have written that "it would take three or four years to get the insurgency restarted. They seem to be pretty much on schedule and are bringing more fighters back into the theater," he said.

Seth Jones, counterinsurgency expert at the US-based Rand Corporation, said the influx is in the dozens or low hundreds, but is increasing, along with a fervor reminiscent of the 1980s, when Arabs such as the Saudi-born bin Laden flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

Attacks have surged. From Jan. 1 to May 31, 2006, 11 suicide attacks took 63 lives. In the same period of this year, 42 attacks killed 171 people, according to AP compiled statistics.

The AP figures only cover incidents in which deaths were reported. The actual number of suicide bombings is likely higher, as many incidents go unreported or uncounted.

The AP tally is compiled from hospital, police, and military officials cited in news stories, as well as accounts from reporters and photographers at the scene. The security personnel include Afghan military, police, and bodyguards.

Battles in Afghanistan are on a smaller scale than in Iraq. However, Afghanistan's importance to Islamic radicals is great. Bin Laden is believed to be hiding in mountains on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

Andrew Black, cofounder of Thistle Intelligence Group, an independent security studies group based in the US and Britain, says the fight in Afghanistan has an alluring clarity for Arab militants compared with Iraq, where war against the West is mixed up with sectarian strife between Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims. "With the Iraqi insurgency beginning to show signs of fissures . . . recruits will be more readily enticed to travel to Afghanistan, where the enemy is well defined," Black said. "Should the internecine fighting in Iraq become prolonged, the Afghan venue, and indeed other venues as well, will reap the benefits of added recruits."

Afghan Army General Ghulam Mustafa Ishaqzai said the Arab influx has been going on for more than a year.