Three Al-Queda recruits tell Newsweek they're 'Back in Business'
Back in Business
Three Qaeda recruits tell NEWSWEEK they’re training again for terror in Afghanistan
By Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau
Nov. 25 issue — When his invitation finally arrived this July, Mohammad Rasul says he didn’t hesitate. Within days the Kabul businessman, 36, was one of 28 new Afghan recruits at a jihadist training camp run by two seasoned Qaeda fighters, a Yemeni and a Chechen, somewhere in a forested part of Afghanistan. “Our target is to kill Americans and America’s servants,” the Yemeni told the group. “There is no difference between the U.S. and [Afghan leader Hamid] Karzai.”
A DECADE OF CIVILIAN life had not erased the skills Rasul (he goes by an alias) first learned fighting against the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. Two days after he arrived at the camp, he says he was chosen to be an assistant trainer. He helped teach the other recruits to fire RPG-7s and to launch BM-12 rockets from simple, jury-rigged stands. The group trained on antiaircraft guns, planted antitank and antipersonnel mines and made bombs using diesel fuel and chemical fertilizer. They studied small-unit combat and ambush tactics. When the two-week course was done, the recruits scattered across Afghanistan to put their lessons to work. They had a name of their own now: the Avenging Martyrs Brigade.
Rasul talked to NEWSWEEK recently at a popular riverside park outside Jalalabad, where families were picnicking on the grass while their children played. A tall, muscular man, wearing a black leather jacket, loafers and a well-trimmed beard, Rasul claims he has taken part in several recent attacks on American targets and the Karzai government. He gives few specifics, but he does say his Kabul-based unit was behind the Sept. 5 car bombing outside the Ministry of Culture that killed more than two dozen people and injured 150. “We made a mistake,” he says. “We missed our real target.” What was that? He won’t say. How does he feel about causing the death of so many Afghan civilians? Rasul answers: “In war, we aren’t handing out candy.”
‘BEHIND EVERY ROCK’
Al Qaeda is once again training terrorists inside Afghanistan. The camps are much smaller and more transient now, but there are said to be at least a dozen, and their new graduates, mostly from inside the country, are believed to number in the hundreds. Their goal, as unlikely as it may seem, is to turn Afghanistan back into a global base for Osama bin Laden’s followers. In the past few weeks NEWSWEEK has found and interviewed three Afghans who independently told of attending programs at three different clandestine camps this past summer. Military experts in Washington believe the stories are exaggerated, but they do not deny that such camps exist. The trainees insist their strength is growing. “Soon there will be Afghans and Al Qaeda behind every rock in Afghanistan,” Rasul brags. “You will see—we will kill Americans the way we Afghans chop onions.”
His confidence is in sharp contrast to the harsh conditions at some camps. Jalal Shah, 30 (also a disguised name), is a Taliban bureaucrat who fled to Peshawar when the Americans took Kabul. In August he traveled with four other Afghan exiles to a largely deserted mountain village in a remote corner of eastern Afghanistan. There they were joined by five Arab recruits: three Saudis and two Yemenis. One carried an American passport, Shah recalls. The place was run by a leathery Qaeda veteran, a Saudi named Abu Yasser. He and the camp’s four other foreign instructors bunked with the 10 trainees in a crumbling two-story mud-walled house with no bathroom, little furniture, a few blankets and only rudimentary facilities for cooking and eating. The trainers seemed to expect trouble at any moment. They never took off the hand grenades that hung from their belts, and everyone was required to take turns on sentry duty at night.
The class spent two weeks learning to assemble car bombs, make time bombs and lay land mines. The subject of explosives had particular significance to Shah, who says he’s an old friend of convicted World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef. Shah’s class also studied suicide bombing, especially how to pack explosives and strap them to their bodies. The camp’s director told the recruits he had trained a total of 26 Afghans and Arabs in three similar courses elsewhere during the preceding weeks. In his parting speech he told Shah’s group it was up to each individual to decide whether to become a suicide bomber. “We don’t want to push you,” he said. “It depends on the strength of your Islamic spirit.”
Now back in Pakistan, Shah says he’s prepared to go home and die. “I’m ready to sacrifice my life for Islam,” says Shah, a talkative man with a toothy grin and a close-cropped beard. He seems unconcerned about what will become of his wife and their three children—or the fourth child she’s expecting. If it’s a son, Shah plans to name him Osama. He says his four Afghan classmates have all returned to their home country on undisclosed “special missions,” and he expects to attend another camp soon for further training. Meanwhile he’s not wasting any time. Since returning from his summer session he says he has persuaded 15 Afghan volunteers to go for training.
HOME FOR JIHAD
Noor Khan (again an alias) needed no persuasion. A shy, portly religious-school teacher in Jalalabad, he scarcely seems suited to a jihadist’s life. Nevertheless, he says he has a sacred obligation to fight against the Americans and Karzai. This summer he was selected for a Qaeda training course in the mountains near the Pakistani border. The Arab instructors led him and 14 other trainees through a merciless two-week session, says Noor, 25. They ran through obstacle courses, climbed ropes, scaled cliffs. They shot RPG-7 antitank rockets, threw hand grenades and learned how to plant several types of antitank and antipersonnel mines. They studied ambush techniques, forest and house-to-house fighting and the art of night attacks. They learned to make and detonate bombs of various types, including suicide bombs. But they also got training in survival skills, such as how to escape from a siege.
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Now the camps’ graduates seem to be getting out into the real world. Rocket and bomb attacks against U.S. forces and Afghan government targets around the country have increased markedly in the past three months, and there have been several unsolved explosions in Kabul, although none of them was fatal. Reached by satellite phone last week, one senior Taliban official, a friend of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s, warned that America’s troubles have only begun. “The Americans have started a huge campaign, and they should be really sorry for themselves, because they’re caught in the middle of this big web,” he said, adding: “Afghanistan’s geography has made it a natural bunker for jihad.”
A particularly unsettling incident unfolded last week at the University of Kabul. It began on Monday, when intelligence agents intercepted a message ordering the intended recipient to set a bomb to assassinate a prominent moderate on the medical-school faculty. Police found and disarmed two bombs and arrested one student. That evening a violent protest erupted on campus, supposedly over a shortage of food in one dormitory’s kitchen. “It was horrible,” says a grocer, who was just locking up his shop for the night when the demonstration began. “It was totally different from any other protests I have ever seen. It was violent from the beginning.” A mob of roughly 1,500 students began pelting campus police with stones, and when the battle was over, security forces had killed at least four students. The next morning the protests resumed, and once again they quickly turned bloody. Human-rights groups faulted the conduct of the police, and the United Nations called for an investigation.
Most recent attacks have been far less imaginative—and less disruptive. “A lot of the violence is not very professional,” says a knowledgeable official in the Bush administration. “In August in Kabul there were 12 bombings, but only one was a decent piece of work. My judgment is that they have lost a lot of expertise. But I don’t doubt they are out there retraining in some areas.” Some parts of the country are “still pretty hairy,” he concedes. But even in those places, the antigovernment forces seem to have only limited resources. It shows in the way the violence shifts from place to place in response to U.S. military pressure.
That pressure is likely to increase soon all over the country, NEWSWEEK has learned. The Pentagon is preparing to redeploy its forces in Afghanistan, according to the administration official. The plan, which he says “will begin to get cranked up in December,” is to set up 10 new installations across the country, each with a core group of roughly 50 personnel. That number includes both Special Forces and civilian reconstruction specialists. “Some, where security or operational needs demand it, will undoubtedly have a lot more people around than the 50 guys who will be the core team. Others won’t.” The idea is to beef up regional security while getting on with the business of rebuilding the country. Both tasks are essential to the overall job of defeating the terrorists. “These guys are spoilers,” the source says. “They don’t want any visible progress. That way they get to discredit Karzai and the international community that supports him.”
Al Qaeda’s leaders are frustrated by their trainees’ lack of progress so far. According to Taliban sources in Karachi who work closely with Al Qaeda operatives, bin Laden’s lieutenants are complaining that their Afghan allies don’t seem really serious about taking the war to the Americans. “Al Qaeda men are unhappy,” says one Taliban source. “They say they have spent a lot of money, put in a lot of time training and reorganizing the Afghans with little result.” The impatience has been particularly intense since September, when 9-11 plotter Ramzi bin al-Shibh was arrested in Karachi. Since then the group’s fugitive leaders have tried to stay on the move, never spending two consecutive nights at the same safe house and keeping their use of satellite phones to a minimum.
The new recruits agree that the past year has held some major setbacks and hardships for the war against America. Many tons of Qaeda and Taliban munitions have been confiscated and destroyed as a result of U.S.-led military sweeps in the countryside. Rasul admits as much—but he hastens to add that those arsenals are being rebuilt. Jalal Shah also insists that the troubles are only temporary. “Allah is simply testing our faith through these hardships,” he says. Both men seem convinced that the Americans are losing the war. “Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still free and leading us,” says Rasul. “This is proof of the U.S. failure.” He may well be overstating his case, but he certainly has a point.