KABUL The man said to be responsible for bringing al Qaeda to Afghanistan announced he was running for president on Thursday, a move likely to be greeted with apprehension by the international community.
President Hamid Karzai is barred from running by the constitution, and the new government is seen as an opportunity to push the country away from years of damaging allegations of corruption and maladministration.
"Today I nominate myself in order to serve my countrymen and my nation - I want to stand alongside the true servants of Afghanistan," Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf told Reuters minutes before he registered at the offices of Kabul's Independent Election Commission.
Next year, millions of Afghans will vote in what is being hailed as the most important election since the United States-led war against the Afghan Taliban began 12 years ago.
NATO and the U.S. are also pushing for a credible vote ahead of the exit of tens of thousands of foreign combat troops by the end of the next year.
Western diplomats have previously told Reuters of their concerns regarding Sayyaf's nomination, given his deeply conservative views regarding women's rights and social freedoms, and his deep ties to militant Islam.
The Philippine insurgent group Abu Sayyaf is named after him and he was mentioned in the 9/11 commission reports as "mentor" to Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the operational mastermind of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
A conservative Islamic scholar, Sayyaf ran paramilitary training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s, and it was there he meet al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
In 1996, Sayyaf helped bin Laden return to Afghanistan after he was ejected from Sudan. Bin Laden stayed in the country under the protection of the Taliban until the American-led invasion of late 2001.
Sayyaf's nominee for first vice president, Ismail Khan, will also worry the country's Western backers.
Khan, from the country's west, is a warlord turned politician who has been accused of seeking to re-arm ahead of the NATO withdrawal.
Sayyaf's nomination comes two days after the first of the serious contenders, former Northern Alliance leader Abdullah Abdullah, announced his candidacy.
Other likely front runners, including foreign minister Zalmay Rassoul, Western-leaning liberal Ashraf Ghani and Karzai's brother, Qayum, are likely to register over the next few days, with nominations closing on Sunday.
(Reporting by Abdul Aziz Ibrahimi and Dylan Welch; Editing by Nick Macfie)