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Questions over 'Afghan Arabs'

Ayman al Zawahri
Ayman al Zawahri, third from left, one of the most prominent "Afghan Arabs," next to Osama bin Laden, second from left  

By CNN's James Martone

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- The capture of Arab fighters in Afghanistan has raised questions about their origins and motivations -- and whether any were part of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda group.

Various Arab governments agree on the need to verify that their nationals in Afghanistan were not involved in terrorist groups and say they are coming up with ways to find out -- including trials.

"Under those circumstances of confusion about those Afghan Arabs, about where do they live and what do they do, I believe the best way is to put them to trial," says Amre Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.

But the type and location of such trials is an unresolved issue in the Arab world, where officials say they don't even have figures for how many of their men went to Afghanistan -- let alone their details.

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"We don't know if there are any Egyptians over there, and if an Egyptian commits a crime somewhere, he will be treated fairly, like any other person," says Egyptian presidential adviser Osama Al-Baz.

"They should be put on trial in their own land, and if it is possible, they can be brought back to their normal life," says Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail. "That may be the best way to handle that."

In the 1980s, thousands of Arab men left their countries, often with assistance from their governments, to help Afghanistan -- a fellow Muslim nation -- fight against Soviet intruders.

At the end of the Afghan-Soviet war, thousand of the so-called Afghan Arabs chose to remain.

"Maybe about half an original 7,000 stayed and settled there, became part of the environment and took Afghan wives," says Mohamed Salah of the el-Hayat newspaper, who has reported on the so-called Afghan Arabs for two decades.

"And when the strict Islamic government of the Taliban came, the Afghan Arabs felt it was in accordance with their beliefs."

Mustafa Osman Ismail
Sudanese Foreign Minister Mustafa Osman Ismail: "They should be put on trial in their own land"  

Fear of a trial back home also prompted some of the men to stay in Afghanistan. Several of their colleagues were convicted in military trials back home for alleged plots against their home governments.

Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman's two brothers left Egypt for Afghanistan in 1989 and took jobs as merchants there after the war ended. He says his brothers had no contact with Bin Laden, although the United States accuses one of the brothers, Ahmed, of being part of al Qaeda.

"Egypt at the time was looking at those returning from Afghanistan as terrorists," says Abdullah Omar Abdel Rahman.

"Some of them had done illegal things, so we understood it would be hard for my brothers if they returned, and they decided to stay in Afghanistan."

One of the most prominent Arab fighters who stayed is Ayman al Zawahri, believed to be the right-hand man of Bin Laden.

Zawahri's whereabouts is unclear, as the U.S.-led military campaign targets the top al-Qaeda leadership. But he would be killed if he came back to his native Egypt, where he was sentenced to death in the 1990s for terrorist acts.


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