Many authors have tried to fill in the gaps in the historical account of how al-Qa’ida’s central leadership came to reside in Jalalabad for part of 1996, with mixed results. Yunus Khalis has become a fixture in these narratives largely because he was the best known person that Bin Laden interacted with in the summer after al-Qa’ida’s leadership fled Sudan for Nangarhar. For many authors, Khalis’s fame and prominence in the region combined with his known interactions with Bin Laden provide an adequate explanation: al-Qa’ida must have come to Nangarhar in 1996 because of the importance of the Khalis-Bin Laden relationship.
This is, of course, a vast oversimplification, and I hope that the report I recently published for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center will go some way towards exposing the most obviously untenable parts of this narrative. But as part of the research for this monograph, I have also found a primary source which upholds what I had long believed to be the most unlikely component of the accepted account of al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan: the idea that Usama bin Laden called Yunus Khalis a father.
The biographical material on Yunus Khalis is extensive and appears to be growing relatively rapidly. Some of his biographers, like Haji Din Muhammad, are still aligned with the government in Kabul and so have clear reasons for downplaying the connections between Yunus Khalis and the erstwhile al-Qa’ida leader. Other biographers, like Puhnamal Ahmadzai, take a different approach by either ignoring the issue entirely or by actually playing up Khalis’s contact with Bin Laden for one political purpose or another. One of these latter biographers, ‘Abd al-Kabir Talai, states explicitly what has heretofore only been the subject of speculation and hearsay: that Usama bin Laden called Yunus Khalis “the Father Sheikh.”
Although this is so far the only known primary source that makes such an argument about the relationship between these two, Talai gives a clear and believable reason for why Usama bin Laden had such a warm view of Khalis. I encourage anyone interested in the specifics of this exchange to read my report, but for now I’ll simply say that apparently Bin Laden appreciated that Khalis was not a “fair weather friend.”
In any event, there was nothing particularly exceptional about someone calling Khalis by such a familiar name; the titles of two of his biographies refer to him as “Khalis Baba.” In Pashto and Persian “baba” can be either “papa,” “granddad,” or simply a term of respect for an older man, and it is entirely possible that Bin Laden was just following the practice of Khalis’s Pashtun friends by using this term of endearment.
Although I was frankly surprised to find a confirmation of this particular historical tidbit about Bin Laden’s fondness for Yunus Khalis in my primary source research, there are a number of excellent reasons to believe Old Man Khalis was peripheral to the growth of al-Qa’ida as a major terrorist organization. So far there is every indication that Yunus Khalis was dismissive of Bin Laden’s calls for jihad against the American presence in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. And in any event, by 1996 when the al-Qa’ida leadership returned to Afghanistan, Khalis was nearing the end of his productive working life. Although he remained engaged in attempts to promote negotiations between the Taliban movement and various mujahidin factions, he would soon be too ill to have much effect on the operations of groups like al-Qa’ida even if he had wanted to.
The exciting thing about discovering these kinds of historical nuggets in the biographical material of mujahidin leaders like Yunus Khalis is that it reminds us how little we still know about both Khalis and other, much more famous people like Usama bin Laden. And as more sources become available in print, I suspect that we can look forward to all kinds of unexpected adjustments to the current mujahidin myth cycle.