KABUL, Afghanistan – He has been called a mentor to accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the man who welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was accused of war crimes and atrocities, and even has a terror group named after him in the Philippines.
But these days, Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf has refashioned himself as an influential lawmaker, elder statesman and religious scholar – and possibly the next president of Afghanistan.
While Sayyaf is not the only former warlord among the 11 candidates in the April 5 election to succeed President Hamid Karzai, he appears to have sparked the greatest worry among Westerners because he is seen as having a viable chance at winning. Other front-runners include Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 elections; Qayyum Karzai, a businessman and the president's older brother; and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and academic.
"Afghanistan still depends on the goodwill of foreign donors for nearly all of its government's budget," said Graeme Smith, senior Afghanistan analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "A Sayyaf win would probably really test those relationships because foreign donors might not be thrilled by some of his positions."
Still, when Sayyaf appeared before thousands of supporters in Kabul on Thursday, he laid out a vision for Afghanistan's future that bore striking similarities to the policy platforms of many of the more moderate presidential hopefuls.
Staunchly anti-Taliban, Sayyaf spoke of the importance of fighting corruption and boosting security and the rule of law. He expressed an openness to signing a security deal with the U.S. as well as support for women to work in professions prohibited under the Taliban.
"We are surrounded by threats, therefore we need to have close relations and deep relations with the whole world," Sayyaf said.
Pointing to the small number of women in the audience, he said, "Women, we will be sure to defend your rights and your dignity."
To loud applause, Sayyaf said women should be permitted to become doctors and teachers, and that he wants to provide a good atmosphere for their education — but one which should be "safe" for women. Allowing images of women on items such as soap boxes is an affront to their dignity and not a way to protect them, he added.
His message resonated with 19-year-old Qudsia Sharifi, who noted the struggles women like her face in Afghanistan.
"I like Sayyaf because he is a professor and he said from his mouth that he's supporting women's rights," she said. "I'm very happy."
An Islamic hardliner who is in his 60s and sports a white beard, Sayyaf enjoys a measure of support in Afghanistan, thanks to his party's deep political roots and popularity in the east of the country.
"Sayyaf is probably in the eyes of many ordinary Afghans the candidate with the strongest religious credentials, with the greatest authority to speak on matters of religion," Smith said. "We shouldn't count out Sayyaf and his power in the rural areas."
The candidate's message on Thursday seemed geared at broadening his appeal. Telling the packed audience that he had no shoes, pens or notebooks as a child, Sayyaf, a charismatic orator, said he had seen poverty firsthand and knows "the difficulty of the people."
Sayyaf first became known in the 1980s for his role as a jihadi leader in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal, Sayyaf gained notoriety as a warlord during Afghanistan's civil war from 1992 until the Taliban takeover in 1996, leading an ethnic Pashtun militia allied with the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, who are also predominantly Pashtun.
Human Rights Watch has said Sayyaf was directly implicated in abductions and brutal targeting of civilians – namely minority ethnic Hazaras – during the 1990s. In recent years Sayyaf has pressed for legislation to bar war crimes trials for militia leaders.
The Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist organization in the Philippines, takes its name from him.
Equally alarming for the West, according to the 9/11 commission report, he was a mentor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is charged with aiding and planning the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Mohammed, a Pakistani citizen who grew up in Kuwait and attended college in Greensboro, North Carolina, has claimed to military authorities that he was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks "from A to Z," as well as about 30 other plots, and that he personally killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Mohammed was captured in 2003 in Pakistan.
Sayyaf struck a conciliatory tone toward the West at his rally Thursday, saying that while he would love to see Afghanistan stand on its "own legs," now is not the time to shed foreign assistance.
"We are in a very weak situation," he said. "We need them."
While he stopped short of endorsing a security deal with the U.S. on those grounds, he said that as president he would respect the decision of a council of tribal elders known as the Loya Jirga, which two months ago approved an accord that would allow a small number of U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan after NATO combat troops withdraw at the end of this year.
Karzai, who is barred from seeking a third term as president, has balked at signing it, and his successor may make the ultimate call. The president has not yet endorsed a candidate and is believed to be keen on wielding influence behind the scenes – though reportedly encouraged Sayyaf to run.
"We are part of this nation," Sayyaf said of the Loya Jirga, "and we support their decisions."