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ANJSHIR VALLEY, Afghanistan Muhammad Khaled Mihraban, a polite, soft-spoken 26- year-old Pakistani, thinks he has already killed at least 100 people. Maybe more; he isn't really sure.
"My goal was not to kill," he said. "But I had a line to follow, an Islamic ideal. I knew that Muslims needed their own country, a real Islamic country."
Mr. Mihraban found that country when he came to Afghanistan in 1992. Having decided "to consecrate my life to jihad" while studying Islamic law at Punjab University in Lahore, he said, he joined a Pakistani militant group that was fighting India in the disputed province of Kashmir. His training took place in Afghanistan.
"We learned how to plant mines, how to make bombs using dynamite and how to kill someone quietly," he recalled.
A gifted student, he was soon asked to train others in group camps near Khost. "But I wanted to act, not teach," he explained. So after a stint waging war in Kashmir, he returned to Kabul to fight alongside the Taliban forces that control most of the country.
Mr. Mihraban, who was captured by the rebels fighting the Taliban in northern Afghanistan, said in an interview in a bleak prison that if he were released, he would "stay right here and fight again for Kabul." If he were asked to do so, he said, he would go to London, Paris or New York and blow up women and children for Islam. "Yes, I would do it," he said quietly, without hesitation.
If the international terrorism that has haunted Americans for the last decade has a home, it is Afghanistan, the place that comes closest to the extremists' ideal of a state ruled by the strict code of Islamic law.
Afghanistan is an inspiration, an essential base of operations, a reservoir of potential suicide bombers and a battle front where crucial ties are forged. It is also, American officials say, where Osama bin Laden is experimenting with chemical weapons.
Participants in nearly every plot against the United States and its allies during the last decade have learned the arts of war and explosives in Afghan camps, authorities say, including the defendants in the 1998 bombings of two American Embassies in East Africa.
The Central Intelligence Agency estimates that as many as 50,000 to 70,000 militants from 55 countries have trained here in recent years. The agency says the Taliban permit a wide range of groups to operate in Afghan territory, from the Pakistani militants who trained Mr. Mihraban to Mr. bin Laden's organization Al Qaeda (Arabic for The Base). Middle East officials said that as many as 5,000 recruits have passed through Mr. bin Laden's camps.
American and Middle Eastern intelligence officials believe that Mr. bin Laden maintains a network of a dozen camps in Afghanistan that offer training in small arms and in explosives and logistics for terrorist attacks. The officials said the embassy bombings, which killed more than 200 people, were rehearsed on a model built to scale at one of Mr. bin Laden's Afghan camps.
One camp, according to those officials, is educating a new generation of recruits in the uses of chemicals, poisons and toxins.
Within the last year, trainees at the camp, which is called Abu Khabab, have experimented on dogs, rabbits and other animals with nerve gases, the officials said. Recruits have also fashioned bombs made from commercially available chemicals and poisons, which have been tried out on animals tethered to outdoor posts on the camp test range, according to surveillance photographs and informers' reports.
"The role of Afghanistan is now absolutely clear," said Michael A. Sheehan, the former coordinator of the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism, who in late December became assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations for the United Nations. "Every Islamic militant we've looked at goes scurrying back there for sanctuary. Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent Iran, are the only major sanctuaries left."
Where Recruits Study Tactics and Explosives
Middle Eastern officials estimate that in the last six months, more than 100 men recruited by Mr. bin Laden's and affiliated groups have been trained at the camp, which is named after the Egyptian militant who runs it, Midhat Mursi whose nom de guerre is Abu Khabab.
The camp is part of a large complex of such training sites known as Darunta, about eight miles from Jalalabad, an Afghan eastern provincial capital, down a dusty road that runs atop an old stone dam of the same name. According to Western and Middle Eastern officials, a cache of chemicals is stored in the reinforced caves of nearby mountains and naturally protected underground tunnels.
Abu Khabab's graduates in the last year include Raed Hijazi, the Jordanian-American whom Jordan has convicted in absentia as a ringleader of the failed plot to attack tourists in Amman during the millennium celebrations.
Mr. Hijazi, whom the Syrians arrested in October and sent back to Jordan, has described his advanced training on explosives to Jordanian investigators, according to Western officials. He has told investigators that a key lieutenant of Mr. bin Laden helped arrange his trip to Afghanistan.
A rare reference to the explosives training at the Abu Khabab camp appears in the sealed indictment of Nabil abu Aukel, a Palestinian arrested last June by Israel.
Israel has accused Mr. Aukel of collaborating with Hamas, or the Party of God, the militant Palestinian organization, and several Arab-Israelis on plots aimed at military and civilian targets inside Israel. The indictment, a copy of which was provided by Steven Emerson, an American expert on Islamic terrorism, states that Mr. Aukel, a Palestinian, received advanced training in explosives using chemicals at the Abu Khabab camp in March 1998.
The camp leader warned Mr. Aukel "never to discuss the nature of the training," the indictment says. Israeli officials said Mr. Aukel's arrest marked first time Israel had uncovered an Al Qaeda cell inside its borders.
At the urging of the United States and Russia, which also sees a threat from Afghan training camps, the United Nations recently imposed the harshest economic sanctions on Afghanistan to press the Taliban not only to evict Mr. bin Laden and his senior entourage, but also to close down all the militant camps to foreigners.
The Taliban, or "students of Islam," who rule all but a sliver of Afghanistan, deny that they harbor terrorists or those who train them. Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, said the pressure to expel Mr. bin Laden was both "insulting and useless." Mr. Mutawakil denied in an interview in November that Mr. bin Laden was financing the Taliban, saying he had become a "very poor man." Mr. bin Laden, the foreign minister said, could not possibly be planning terrorist operations since his activities were "closely supervised by Afghan guards."
Mr. Mutawakil recently invited a New York Times reporter to visit any location in Afghanistan identified by Western officials as part of Mr. bin Laden's network.
But Taliban officials in Afghanistan ultimately barred the reporter from visiting any of the locations. At Darunta, the reporter was stopped several miles from the gates of the complex. After five days in Kabul, Jalalabad and environs, the reporter and her Afghan- American interpreter were politely escorted to the border and told to leave Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's Appeal as a War Zone
The Afghan cause has inspired several generations of young men determined to wage holy war. Thousands came here in the 1980's to fight the Soviet forces in response to a fatwa, or religious order, from leading Islamic scholars. Thousands more have come since then to help the Taliban expand their power, or to be trained for jihads elsewhere.
Taliban officials boast that they have imposed true Islamic rule, cleansing Afghan society of Western influence. Since their capture of Kabul in 1996, they have among other things banned education for girls and most work for women, and instituted harsh punishments for blasphemy, playing cards, watching television, listening to music and trimming one's beard.
Mr. bin Laden arrived in Afghanistan in 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan. American officials and Afghan opponents of the Taliban say their loyalty to him has been well earned. The officials say Mr. bin Laden provided the Taliban with some of the cash they used to buy off local warlords in their march to power.
His financial support of the Taliban is said to continue. Several diplomats and aid workers in Afghanistan estimated that he had put up millions of dollars one diplomat's estimate was $40 million to rebuild roads destroyed in the war against the Soviets and the ensuing civil war.
Mr. bin Laden is also said to be providing the Taliban with military help.
Ahmed Shah Massoud, commander of a group of rebels in northern Afghanistan, said in an interview at his headquarters that he was fighting a unit of soldiers specially trained by Mr. bin Laden, the 55th Brigade, which includes some 700 Arabs and other militant Muslims. Mr. Massoud said he had captured brigade members, whom he called the most seasoned fighters.
Despite financial aid and weapons from Iran and Russia, Mr. Massoud's alliance lost ground to the Taliban last year. His forces are now confined largely to the northern region's impregnable Panjshir Valley with its soaring, snow-tipped mountains and dazzling vistas.
Mr. Massoud said his soldiers were holding some 1,200 Taliban prisoners, 122 of them foreign Muslims. There are Pakistanis, an immigrant to Pakistan from the Burmese province of Arakan, Yemenis, Britons and Chinese Uigurs, among others. Interviews with several of them illustrate the attraction that Afghanistan still has for militants around the world.
Mr. Mihraban, the young Pakistani, comes from the town of Chaghi, in the province of Baluchistan. His gentle eyes and polite manner gave no hint of the fervor that had led him to this stark prison in the harsh, craggy mountains of the Hindu Kush.
His trip to Afghanistan began when he joined Harakat ul Mujahedeen, a group whose dedication to unlocking India's grip on Kashmir has landed it on the State Department's list of terror groups. He trained first in 1992 at the Salman i Farsi camp in Baktiah, Afghanistan, which was run by Harakat. He said he also fought in Tajikistan.
Obeida Rahman, 21, a Yemeni from Sana from a poor family of 10 children, had his living and training expenses in Afghanistan paid for by the teachers at his madrassa, or religious academy. They had urged him to fight in Afghanistan against his family's wishes, he said. He had relished his training. "When you have a gun, you're free," he said. "You feel as if you can do anything."
Abdul Jalil, 21, from Kashgar in Xingiang Province, China, said that despite his capture, he was glad that he had come and fought in Afghanistan on the $1,000 his father, a farmer, gave him to study. "I still want to create an Islamic state all over the world, God willing," he said. When he is released, he said, "I will go fight a jihad in China."
The goal of returning home to continue the jihad is common among the prisoners. Julie Sirrs, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who has interviewed many of the non-Afghan prisoners held by Mr. Massoud, said nearly half belonged to groups that the State Department has designated as terrorist. None had ever met Mr. bin Laden, they said, but he was their hero. Ms. Sirrs, now an independent consultant, financed her own studies of the prisoners.
In an interview at one of his camps in the Panjshir Valley in late summer, Mr. Massoud said his prisoners had been deluded into believing that they were fighting a jihad in Afghanistan by helping the Taliban.
The prisoners, he said, are in fact "sinners" for conducting terrorism and violating Islam's injunction against fomenting division within Muslim ranks. "My message to those fighting in Afghanistan now is that they will never get God's blessing for what they are doing in my country," he declared.
How Islamic Schools Urge Students On
American officials acknowledge that they have limited influence over the Taliban, who they say have a powerful regional ally in Pakistan.
Relief officials and Afghans said they saw soldiers in Pakistan Army uniforms fighting for the Taliban last summer and fall. The witnesses reported that Pakistani Army buses with blackened windows and burlap-covered trucks filled with weapons and supplies routinely crossed into Afghanistan heading for the front near Taliqan, a northern town that the government captured last fall.
Mr. Massoud and relief officials in Afghanistan said the Taliban were finding it ever harder to recruit fighters for the civil war and had even encountered armed resistance to their recruitment missions in different towns and villages. The Taliban forces, he asserted, are increasingly dependent on Pakistani soldiers and students sent to the front to fight for the Islamic cause.
Pakistan denies that it has sent soldiers to fight alongside the Taliban. But diplomats, relief workers and Afghans interviewed in Kabul and Jalalabad insist that Pakistan has provided not only weapons, logistical and other assistance, but soldiers as well.
"Some soldiers apparently came to fight; others for just a look-see at real fighting," said a United Nations official who visited areas near the front during the offensive. "The Taliban were doing quite badly at first. But there is no doubt that Pakistani support gradually turned the tide."
There are also suggestions that Pakistani authorities have pressed students to fight for the Taliban. One relief worker who visited the Indira Gandhi Children's Hospital in Kabul in late June said that all of its 400 beds were filled by Pakistanis wounded at the front, some as young as 15. Several patients said that they had been sent to fight by their religious academies, many of which closed for the summer battle season, leaving impoverished students with no place else to go. A doctor at the hospital said Chechens, Yemenis and Saudis were among the patients.
American officials say they have little leverage over Pakistan. The United States cut off military aid in 1990 after the Pakistanis detonated a nuclear bomb.
With no ally in the region to help, the Clinton administration has mounted a wide- ranging diplomatic campaign to isolate the Taliban militia from the world community. The effort bore fruit late last year when the United Nations, prodded by the United States and Russia, expanded economic sanctions on Afghanistan a change that will take effect on Jan. 19.
Senior American officials said that for all their concern about the threat of terrorism, the administration never explicitly offered the Taliban what they most want: formal diplomatic recognition. In its dealing with the Taliban, officials said, the administration promised only that relations would dramatically improve if they expelled Mr. bin Laden and Al Qaeda's leaders and barred foreigners from the camps.
Officials said they decided against directly offering recognition, because, they said, the administration had profound reservations about the Taliban's abuses of human rights, particularly of women.
Senior officials also felt that they could not trust the Taliban to deliver on their promises, citing what they called repeated "lies" from the Afghan leadership about Mr. bin Laden's status.
In late December, President Clinton's top national security advisers gathered in Washington to consider the next steps against the Taliban, including possible military action.
A senior C.I.A. official told the group that the bombing of the destroyer Cole in Yemen in October 2000 appeared to have been organized by Muhammad Omar al-Harazi, a longtime member of Al Qaeda also involved in an earlier attempt to destroy an American warship, The Sullivans, as it passed through Aden in January 2000. Mr. Harazi founded the first Al Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia and was arrested in 1997, accused oftrying to smuggle antitank missiles into the kingdom. Between the failed attack on The Sullivans and the bombing of the Cole, officials said, Mr. Harazi fled to an Al Qaeda guest house in Kandahar, a Taliban stronghold. The C.I.A. said this evidence did not conclusively establish that the group ordered the attack.
Several officials at the meeting opposed military action on the ground that it would achieve little and would make Americans targets of further terrorist attacks. And officials said a military strike could even be counterproductive, enhancing Mr. bin Laden's public standing among militants. "Making him a hero is the last thing we want to do," said one senior American official.