Given the impasse of going through the south, I tried the somewhat novel idea of approaching Usama bin Ladin’s training camps from the north. My goal was to visit Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud, the military commander of northeastern Afghanistan, travel to the front line between him and the Taliban, and if possible, reach the outskirts of the Taliban and Islamist Arab training camps north of Kabul. I wanted to talk to Mas‘ud’s front-line soldiers who had fought the Taliban and their Arab auxiliaries, as well as to the prisoners of war Mas‘ud had collected.
In a Soviet-made Helicopter
My trip began in the ex-Soviet Republic of Tajikistan. Russian soldiers, who still control that country’s borders, had checked my visas and warmly slapped some of the Afghans on their backs. Less warmly, the Afghans reciprocated. Moscow’s fear of Islamic radicalism in Afghanistan had turned enemies into friends. I was on my way to see Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud, whom I'd watched from a distance when I was in the Central Intelligence Agency, and his mostly Persian-speaking, ethnically Tajik, Afghan forces. They, alone among Afghanistan’s many ethnicities and tribes, have successfully resisted the Taliban juggernaut that had conquered most of the country by late 1996.
As the Soviet-made MI–8 helicopter lifted off the grass field on the outskirts of Dushanbe below the burnished foothills of the Hindu Kush, I stopped thinking about Usama bin Ladin. The banter of the young Afghan soldiers, cut briefly by a quick prayer, disappeared in the engine’s roar and the squeals of the stressed skin of the thirty-year-old helicopter. Rising higher toward the mountain passes that would take us from Tajikistan into northern Afghanistan, I focused on the bolts holding the chopper together. Two of them across from me were vibrating. This was a mechanically simple machine to maintain, I reassured myself, as I slid down the bench, allowing a bearded, brown-toothed ox of a man to swing his hips and AK-47 assault rifle into my place. I tried to forget the words of an Iranian friend in the United Nations who told me that Mas'ud's helicopters crashed regularly from mechanical difficulties and anti-aircraft fire.
Looking at a dozen men, most dressed in baggy cotton pants and safari vests, sitting and sprawled on ammunition and grenade boxes, foodstuffs, money bags, unmarked white-plastic liquid bottles, and racks of soda-pop cans, I pondered the irony. The helicopter we were riding in—a leftover from the Soviet–Afghan war—was quite possibly once used by the Red Army to kill the older brothers and fathers of my traveling companions. But without this helicopter and others like it, most of my companions would now probably be dead or in exile, victims of the Taliban Islamist religious movement.
The Taliban first rose up in 1994 among the Soviet-Afghan war’s forgotten children —the poorly-educated young men of the refugee camps and shattered villages of the Pakistani-Afghan border. The Taliban are primarily Pashtuns (known in Rudyard Kipling’s day as the "Pathans"), the dominant tribesman of southern Afghanistan and Pakistan’s northwest frontier. By 1997, they had conquered 90 percent of Afghanistan and all the great resistance commanders of the Soviet-Afghan war. Except one: Mas‘ud, whom the writer Robert Kaplan has rightly described as one of the great guerrilla leaders of the twentieth century, perhaps the equal to Giap or Mao.
U.S. intelligence analysts had often anticipated Mas‘ud’s defeat by the Red Army, but that did not happen. He survived the Soviets and, in the summer of 1997, this most renowned of the mujahidin’s generals surprised the world once again. In the narrow, white-water sliced opening of the Panjshir valley, a verdant bastion protected by barren mountain walls, Mas‘ud’s troops halted the Taliban by blowing the cliffs down upon their Taliban enemies. Within weeks, the "Lion of Panjshir" had driven the Taliban back, nearly to the Afghan capital, Kabul, now a ruined city of rubble. Deterred but not defeated, the Taliban returned to the Shomali plain, which lies between the Panjshir and Kabul in July 1999, a few months before my arrival. Perhaps 700 men under the banner of Usama bin Ladin joined the offensive. Once again American intelligence, and most other observers, thought Mas‘ud’s days were numbered. And once again, in retreat, his smaller, well-trained forces counterattacked. Within a few days, they had routed most of the Taliban’s front-line shock troops and taken prisoner an array of Afghan, Pakistani, and Arab holy warriors.
I looked down on the rolling, sometimes conical, brown plains, seeing in them a bit of the Bad Lands of the Dakotas. I searched in vain for the carnage of war: blown out Soviet tanks, personnel carriers, or small Japanese pick-up trucks—the Taliban’s preferred weapon for all-terrain Blitzkrieg attacks. But we were too far from the Panjshir and the western front, where one finds rusting steel carcasses decorating the landscape like shrubbery.
Usama bin Ladin arrived in Afghanistan in May 1996. A scion of one of Arabia’s wealthiest families, the Saudi Islamic militant was, in fact, returning home. He’d first come in the mid-1980s, as the richest of the "Arab Afghans"—the non-Afghan Muslims who volunteered to aid the Mujahidin against the Soviet Union. He linked up with the Palestinian-Jordanian ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, the founder of Maktab al-Khidamat (The Office of Services). Headquartered in Peshawar, the Dodge City of the northwest frontier, the Maktab was the logistical hub for the World Muslim League and the Muslim Brethren, the two primary groups that recruited Arabs for the war in Afghanistan (both generously funded by the Saudi government and Saudi princes). It is through the Maktab, which evolved into the slightly more clandestine al-Qa‘ida (The Base)—the organization that in August 1998 bombed the U.S. embassies in Africa—that bin Ladin later searched for "Arab Afghans" who saw terrorist violence as a legitimate expression of their faith.
I wanted to see exactly who the holy warriors were in Mas‘ud’s prisons. Were they aging leftovers of the Soviet-Afghan war? Were they young men in whom bin Ladin had sparked a new jihad spirit? Had bin Ladin’s hatred of infidel America and its Muslim proxies, in particular the Saudi royal family, become the lingua franca of the Taliban movement, which had received substantial diplomatic and financial support from Saudi Arabia? For the Arabs, Pakistanis, Afghans, and other Muslims who had joined the Taliban, had bin Ladin and Mullah ‘Umar, the Taliban’s one-eyed leader, become inseparable heroes in a common holy war against Mas‘ud and America?
When I caught sight of the Panjshir River snaking through the valley, I started to rethink my plans. I didn’t have to see the camps, I told myself, contemplating behind-the-lines nighttime maneuvers that would be necessary to get close. Mas‘ud’s counterattack in August 1999 pushed the front line back toward Kabul but not back far enough for my purposes. Mas‘ud’s men could no longer easily go into the foothills north of Kabul and look down on the Taliban and "Arab Afghan" encampments. I recalled the telephone call I’d received from a former professor of Islamic history after the Clinton administration took vengeance for the embassy bombings. Reminiscing about his voyages in the very areas that were struck, he remarked, "I don’t think cruise missiles are the ideal weapon to use against Afghan villages. It may be hard to tell the difference between before and after." Filming rock huts no longer seemed to me like a particularly compelling adventure.
Yet one of Mas‘ud’s diplomats had told me that when the wind was up, the Talabani muezzin could be heard. He had seen the camps from a distance and found them eye-catching: the tents’ immense green canvasses staked on poles undulating in long waves above the faithful prostrated for prayer. "A green paradise—what every Arab dreams of," he quipped. I wasn’t optimistic as the helicopter, protected from below by anti-aircraft artillery and, per one of Mas'ud's lieutenants, Stinger missiles, dove over the mountain ridge and followed the river south. The video cameras next to my feet probably wouldn’t capture as much as U.S. spy satellites, which no doubt were flying overhead watching me, goat herds, and whatever bin Ladin and the Taliban were doing. But you never know until you put your feet on the ground. I had come in part to do advance work for CBS News; I also have a longstanding interest in Islamic militancy.
The helicopter set down on a pebbled riverbed near the Panjshir village of Dadakhil. Barefoot children immediately descended from cornfields and windowless mud-brick houses. Within an hour, a battered Toyota land-cruiser deposited me at Mas‘ud’s headquarters where I drank an immense quantity of tea while chatting with an ever-larger array of Afghans who wanted to listen to a Persian-speaking American. The sparsely furnished room, lined with couches, a wooden desk, an armoire, one safe, a framed verse from the Qur’an, and a new computer hidden underneath a plastic drop-cloth, was Mas‘ud’s VIP reception area.
I laid out my plans to Mas‘ud’s go-between for foreign journalists and diplomats, ‘Asim. He nodded quickly, revealing he had already heard from the overseas representatives who had authorized my trip. I could go down to the front lines closest to Kabul and talk to the local commanders and soldiers about photographing the camps. The idea wouldn’t work, however, given the distance from the front line. Somehow, somewhere, ‘Asim promised I would see Mas‘ud.
If Mas‘ud was far away in the Panjshir, it wouldn't be easy to get to him. The Panjshir valley road, which runs 150 kilometers from Anjoman in the north to Jabal Saraj in the south, is a roller-coaster ride. Time and car axles can disappear. Blown off tank treads buried in the earth are the road’s only smooth, sure surface. Bombed and mined by the Soviets, occasionally targeted by Taliban bombers, and neglected for twenty years, the road is the spinal column of what remains of the Panjshir’s civilization. If you don’t fall off it, if an axle doesn’t break, you can drive the distance in nine hours.
At Jabal Saraj, I could discern the ambush that had broken the Taliban’s advance in July 1999. Rust hadn’t yet wiped away the charred steel in demolished personnel carriers and Japanese pick-up trucks. The above-ground rock graves of fallen Taliban—little piles of stone along the road side and river banks—had an angularity that weather and gravity hadn’t collapsed. Flies upon the mounds revealed that Mother Nature had not yet cleansed the place. For a couple of days after the battle, I was told, mothers and sisters who had lost sons and brothers stoned the corpses, cursing them for impoverishing their lives.
Soldiers described the battle. In pick-up trucks mounted with machine-guns, the Taliban had hurled themselves against Mas‘ud’s positions. They had more courage than good sense. Arab units fought bravely, often refusing to surrender to encircling forces. When their retreat was cut off, the few left alive put their heads together and set off hand-grenades.
The Pakistanis, Afghans, and Arab prisoners of war I interviewed in Mas'ud's prisons had all believed in jihad against Mas‘ud, whom they variously characterized as an "infidel" or a "lackey of Russian infidels." After their capture, some—though by no means all—changed their minds, recognizing Mas‘ud as a devout Muslim and a great mujahid, a holy warrior, against the Soviet Union. They told me how Islamist preachers in Pakistan’s northwest frontier and in Kabul had deluded them into believing that the Tajik Afghans weren’t really Muslims.1 But they had heard the muezzin’s call from prison and seen their guards pray. Two Uighur Turks from China, who were tearfully shell-shocked upon the prison’s cement floor, swore that they had been told Russians were still occupying northern Afghanistan. They begged me for mercy and a free trip home to China, or any place else that would accept them.
For many of the prisoners, Mullah ‘Umar and Usama bin Ladin had been godheads. More like militant Sufi mystics than fundamentalists who strictly follow the Qur’an, these prisoners had lived to die and to fulfill their masters’ words. They wanted to destroy Mas‘ud. They wanted to prepare themselves for the larger fight against the West. In the dark, fly-infested, rock-walled prisons, the devotion was fading—but with some, I thought, I could still see the death wish in their eyes.
None of the prisoners with whom I spoke had fought in the jihad against the Soviet Union. Mas‘ud’s soldiers mentioned that many of the dead Arabs had seemed young. Bin Ladin’s call had obviously transcended the founding Soviet-Afghan war generation. That was an important step, for forty-year-olds don’t usually make for the best suicide bombers.
Yet, I was not impressed with the captured holy warriors. Most of them were poorly educated peasants. Al-Qa‘ida may have chosen the embassies in Tanzania and Kenya because they had weak security; they may have been chosen because the Muslims under bin Ladin’s banner simply could not operate effectively outside the disorganized and listless Third World.
If the majority of the holy-warrior soldiers of al-Qa‘ida, or its most lethal ally and cousin, the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, spent long stretches inside Afghanistan training, then the United States might actually be lucky. The war-shattered, peasant-dominated, pulverizingly poor and disorganized nature of Afghan society militates against a good work ethic. Terrorist teams successfully attacked in Africa, but they were sloppy in execution and flight. The sloppiness was repeated in Aden, Yemen, where would-be suicide bombers, in January 2000, overloaded a Kamikaze skiff with explosives, sinking it. The USS The Sullivans was saved. By October 2000, the bombing team had found their learning curve in the Arabian penisula's once-great but now utterly dilapidated port. Using a boat-packed with light-weight, water-resistant plastic explosives, they crippled and nearly sank the USS Cole.
None of the holy warriors I saw could have gone to the West and not drawn attention or immediately gotten lost. Assuming Mas‘ud’s intelligence was right—and I’d not found Mas‘ud’s best men prone to outrageous exaggeration—of the 700 or so "Arab Afghans" in Afghanistan, very few were capable of anonymously and securely traveling abroad. However, if bin Ladin’s people were to overcome their religious distaste for Saddam Husayn or the Iranian-trained, Lebanese Shi‘ite Hizbullah and receive more sophisticated instruction and aid from either Baghdad or Tehran, then al-Qa‘ida and its friends could become truly lethal worldwide.
Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad
But determination can sometimes compensate for competence. And the "Arab Afghans" of the "Offices of Services" and al-Qa‘ida were certainly determined. In Mas‘ud’s war room, during a conversation with one of his best men, I stumbled on what every intelligence officer dreams of: the component parts—in bin Ladin’s case, the fuses, timing switches, and explosives—that define one’s opponent’s passion and intent. In the lieutenant’s fast-moving, Afghan-accented Persian, I almost missed it.
"An encyclopedia?" I asked, caught between hurried note-taking and a daydream of my own work on Afghanistan a decade earlier.
"An encyclopedia written by the Arabs," he repeated.
In the CIA, I’d handled hundreds of "walk-ins," volunteers who came to U.S. embassies and consulates to say something to the American government. Good stuff rarely came blatantly labeled. Rather, it would quietly leap at you in a digression.
"It’s about explosives," he said. "It’s called, The Encyclopedia of the Afghan Jihad. I think bin Ladin’s people wrote it."
I took one look at it, the Mawsu‘at al-Jihad al-Afghani in Arabic, and realized I just might have a key, perhaps the key, for understanding the evolution and intent of bin Ladin’s organization.
"Has anyone else seen this?" I asked, wondering whether Mas‘ud’s people fully understood what they’d found. For the Tajik Afghans, who’d been fighting for twenty years, Usama bin Ladin and the "Arab Afghans" were a footnote to their strife. They tended to downplay the Saudi militant because his importance in American eyes—his ability to steal the world’s headlines—diminished that of their own suffering and struggle, which ought to be, they thought, the main story.
"No," he answered.
Amazing, I quietly said to myself, as I gazed through the bomb diagrams of Explosives, the title of volume one of the Encyclopedia. Throughout the 200-page manual, diagrams were paired with Arabic instructions. Anti-personnel booby-traps, how-to instructions for letter bombs, exploding books, chairs, sofas, beds, irons, teapots, cigarette packs and lighters, whiskey bottles, stethoscopes, women’s hairbrushes, pipes, radios, whistles—a cornucopia of maiming devices—gave way to bigger bombs for cars, trucks, houses, and buildings. The volume also detailed fuses, timing switches, and brewing instructions in both Arabic and English, for the terrorist who could not get his hands on Libyan-stockpiled, plastic Semtex explosives.
The publishing house was the "Office of Services," the mother of al-Qa‘ida. No date and location were given. The Encyclopedia only listed, "Headquarters, of All the Camps of All the Fronts." It was likely that the Maktab had written the work in Peshawar, the Maktab’s main base of operations throughout the Soviet–Afghan war. I started reading the dedications that prefaced the book. Number one was to ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam, the founder of the Maktab al–Khidamat. It read:
A word of truth with a tear of allegianceThe second dedication was to Usama bin Ladin.
To our beloved brother and revered Sheikh ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam
Who revived the spirit of jihad in the souls of the youth with the word of God....
Who suffered harm from most people except from the faithful....
This work is dedicated to Allah, then to you.
To the beloved brother Abu Abdallah—Usama bin Ladin—who was the faithful helper of Sheikh ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam in his jihad and in the creation of the "Office of Services"I skipped over the third dedication, which was to the unnamed mujahidin leaders of the Soviet-Afghan war who had helped educate the "Arab Afghans" and thereby allowed them to offer the Encyclopedia, "one of the sources of energy for the faithful," to Muslim holy warriors everywhere.
Who waged jihad in Afghanistan with his person and with everything he owned.
Who did not cease to wage jihad and incite jihad to the present day
Who has been wronged in his jihad by most of those who cling to Islam...
Let Allah strengthen you and reward you for what you have done.
For the sake of Islam, to you, from all Muslims and [especially] those who wage the jihad, with all the best.
A fourth dedication caught my eye.
To the brothers who participated in the publishing of this Encyclopedia—No one knows [them] except Allah.The fifth dedication underscored the importance of Pakistan to the authors of the Encyclopedia.
We ask Him to put this effort into the balance of the Day of Judgment and reward with all the best all those who translated, designed, printed, wrote, collected material, or those who took pictures, sent computers—or anything else that we may have forgotten.
Let Allah weigh these things with all your other good deeds on the Day of Judgment.
Allah, be he exalted, says...When did the Maktab begin the Encyclopedia? How many volumes were there and on what subjects? I couldn’t tell. The dedications clearly indicated that the work wasn’t completed until after Usama bin Ladin began his peregrinations. He had left Afghanistan in 1990 for Saudi Arabia, where his radical views got him into trouble as soon as Saddam Husayn invaded Kuwait. He was outraged that the Saudi royal family allowed U.S. soldiers to defend the kingdom. The stationing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, which bin Ladin viewed as holy, infuriated him and drove him into exile in Sudan by January 1992. In 1994, the Saudi government reportedly stripped him of his citizenship.
He who doesn’t thank others, is not thanked....
We thank the state of Pakistan, the government and the people
For the presence of the Arab brothers on its land (despite the many problems it has endured) from the enemies of Allah—and the victory it has given to its brothers, the Mujahidin of Afghanistan.
And we ask Allah to weigh this good deed with their other good deeds for the sake of Islam and the Muslims.
The dedication to bin Ladin in the Encyclopedia clearly shows that at the time he was being attacked and abandoned by brother Muslims, which would mean a publication date no earlier than 1991. It’s possible that it was published later, after international pressure started to build on him in Sudan and the Sudanese leader, Hasan at-Turabi, the outstanding Islamist leader of the Arabic-speaking peoples, distanced himself from bin Ladin. This would mean a publication date circa 1994 and certainly no later than 1996. Otherwise the dedication would have underscored bin Ladin’s return to Afghanistan. The Taliban also aren’t mentioned. According to Arab and Pakistani sources in Peshawar, the Encyclopedia was first published in Pakistan in late 1992 or early 1993.
It was clear from the diagrams and discussions in Explosives that the Encyclopedia’s focus was Western, not Soviet. In other words, a work that had originally been provoked by the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan became, sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a holy-warrior’s guide against the West.
Examining the recipe pages for bombs, I strongly suspected that volume one of the Encyclopedia was the training manual for the teams who took down the U.S. embassies in Africa in August 1998. It wasn’t an advanced work—the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) or the Hizbullah could have done better—but it was a good, basic primer for blowing up buildings and cars. It would have provided a good stepping stone for those in Yemen who employed several hundred pounds of C-4 plastic explosive to build the suicide boat-bomb that killed seventeen sailors aboard the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.
I read Explosives through the night in the guest house where I was staying, asking others about it. Rashid ad-Din, a bald-headed bear of a man, who was Mas‘ud’s brother-in-law, sparkled with a sense of discovery. He brought me an immense manual of nearly 1,000 pages. I didn’t have to read the title, Weapons, to know that I had another volume of the Encyclopedia. He, too, had picked up his copy at the front lines, a leftover from one of Mas‘ud’s numerous little victories in 1997. A lover of Arabic and guns, he’d kept volume five for the diagrams of Western and Soviet-bloc weaponry. He particularly admired the detailed instructions on how to use the famous CIA-delivered Stinger, shoulder-fired, ground-to-air missiles—the U.S. weapon that helped turn the tide against the Red Army. (Hundreds of missing, "unreturned" Stingers left over from the Soviet-Afghan war remain in Afghan hands; apparently, Mas'ud hasn't many Stingers—most of my conversations with Mas'ud's lieutenants and friends converged on a dozen. The rest belong to the Taliban and their allies.)
Whatever doubts I had about the general quality of the Islamists who had rallied around bin Ladin, I was impressed by this literary endeavor. The cell that created the Encyclopedia—a series that likely encompasses thousands of pages—had produced one of the most detailed and easily the largest terrorist guide ever written. It would have taken years to put such a collection together, even if most of the work was only compilation and translation. The people who put together the Encyclopedia were truly dedicated. They weren’t kidding about the harm they intended to inflict upon their enemies.
Volume five, in particular, emphasized the preferences of the Encyclopedia. Weapons should have been volume one if the Encyclopedia had originally been intended as a guide against the Red Army in Afghanistan. Knowing how to use assault rifles, machine-guns, and Stingers ought to have been more important than explosive devices for "urban warfare." All the volumes could have been published at once. But that isn’t usually how encyclopedias are handled, especially not if you’re engaged in a jihad where you want to provide the faithful as quickly as possible with the necessary knowledge.
When I returned to the United States I ran my copy of the Encyclopedia, which I’d photographed in part on 35mm film, past a friend who’d lived and breathed bombs for thirty years. He was highly impressed by the simplicity and accuracy of the diagrams. The Maktab al-Khidamat had obviously got its hands on, among other things, U.S. special-forces manuals, "CIA black books"—paramilitary training guides that the agency produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s—and other explosives literature available from Paladin Press, the militiaman’s favorite guide to weaponry and guerrilla tactics.
The authors of the Encyclopedia didn’t just copy material; they often simplified it, ensuring that relatively uneducated true-believers might have a chance of building a working bomb. My expert did not want to be in the kitchen when someone tried to make homemade nitroglycerin per the Explosives instructions. But if the process didn’t kill its maker, the resulting ingredients would certainly explode with great force, he assured me.
The Encyclopedia was attempting to diminish, if not eliminate, the master-pupil tutelage that forced terrorists and would-be terrorists to gather together in one spot for prolonged study. The volumes were a portable university for the common militant. Its ultimate aim was to democratize terrorism.
Numerous versions and condensations of the Encyclopedia have appeared in France, England, Italy, Belgium, Croatia, Jordan, Egypt, the Philippines, Canada, and the United States. The 200-page terrorist manual that U.S. authorities have submitted in the court case in New York City against the bombers of the U.S. embassies in Africa is in all probability derived in spirit and material from the Encyclopedia. According to the New York Times, the manual was seized in Manchester, England, in 2000.2 The original, full-length Encyclopedia was probably in circulation in Europe no later than 1995. That year the Belgian police arrested a group of Muslim militants (in the so-called "Zaoui affair") who had in their possession on a diskette what appears to have been a complete copy of the Encyclopedia; total pages: 8,000. According to a Belgian security source, the Belgians didn't know what to do with the work and didn't have the resources to translate it; so it was given to the Israelis. The French also obtained a copy from the Belgians. It also isn't clear whether a copy was passed to the Americans, and, if so, whether the CIA analyzed and translated the document. By 1999, the CIA definitely received an abridged version—approximately 1,000 pages—of the Encyclopedia from the Jordanians.
‘Asim’s promise held true: before leaving Afghanistan, I met Ahmad Shah Mas‘ud. I found he had changed little from the photos taken during the war against the Soviets. I noticed his hands; they shook mine softly, in the manner of a devout Muslim. His very average height was camouflaged by a well-pressed, clean khaki uniform and multi-pocketed vest. In a nation of wrinkles and stains, this alone gave him a high status. His forty-eight years gently creased his slender forehead, eyes, and neck. Flecked with gray, his curly black hair and short-cropped beard gave him the air of a beatnik. His dark, warm eyes moved precisely—not at all the flat, motionless pools of the shell-shocked Iranian soldiers I’d known.
Mas‘ud had entered Afghan legend as a warrior-poet. Physically, I could see why. His voice and diction were also efficient. I contrasted the man before me with the one I had seen from a distance in the street a few days before. There, Mas‘ud had personally knocked an absent-minded peasant off his feet with a blow of his hand for blocking the river road. Twenty years of war aside, this oscillation between hard and soft no doubt made his men love and fear him.
We wandered in conversation for hours. Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Europe, the KGB, the CIA, Christians, Muslims, and Jews, the strengths and weaknesses of America’s press and the Republican and Democratic parties—Mas‘ud has a highly curious mind trapped in the Panjshir valley.
Like every other Tajik Afghan I had met, he didn’t really want to talk about Usama bin Ladin. But unlike most, he saw the humor in the situation. He had been trying for years to get Washington to pay attention to the Islamist radicalism in his homeland. The pleas of his representatives in the West had always been dismissed as disingenuous ethnic maneuvering—Tajiks trying to get the better of the majority Pashtuns. Only with the bombings by bin Ladin had Washington again come calling a little more seriously.
Mas‘ud asked me whether the Americans would ever intercept his satellite telephone conversations and give the tape to the Pakistanis. I replied, "No," and explained that intercepts are the crown jewel of U.S. intelligence and recorded conversations would never be shared with Islamabad. I am not sure Mas‘ud believed me. Intercept and cooperation with foreign security services are America’s only real trumps against Usama bin Ladin and the Islamic militants around him. Which is why, in part, Washington has a problem. Intercept can do only so much when people know you’re listening. Nowadays, there are ways around such surveillance. With a satellite telephone, it is not hard to connect to the Internet from anywhere in the world, even from the remote caves of Afghanistan. The speed isn’t much, but it allows the sending of encrypted e-mail that America’s eavesdroppers probably cannot decipher. Telephone encryption systems available to al-Qa'ida are also exceptionally difficult if not impossible to decipher. Depending on the system used, live-time decryption—essential for counterterrorist work—would require a near miracle. And bin Ladin's messengers, once they reach Pakistan, can become invisible in the telephone cacophony of that country's big cities. Unless we have a good idea to whom bin Ladin's men are talking outside of Pakistan, our efforts at intercept are unlikely to be of any significant operational use. Luck on our side and stupidity on bin Ladin's have usually been the critical factors in our intelligence successes against al-Qa'ida and its militant allies.
As for cooperation with Pakistan: U.S. officials have to seek help from Pakistan’s government and its Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, both of which are so riddled with Islamists that they may well contain more enemies than friends of the United States. And even among the many Pakistanis who are our friends, why would they want to stir a hornet's nest by actively working with the United States against bin Ladin? Anyone who has traveled in Pakistan knows that in Peshawar or Quetta or even in Westernized Lahore, bin Ladin is a popular fellow, if not a hero. These factors have, for all practical purposes, paralyzed any serious U.S. counterterrorist policy against the Saudi terrorist.
I left Dadakhil with Mas‘ud on a helicopter the next morning. The western front was active and over the mountains two Taliban jet fighters attacked. We rolled into evasive maneuvers that catapulted my stomach into my mouth. The rickety door to the helicopter slid open, and I found myself looking down at herds of fleeing billy-goats. Hanging onto the bench and tape-wrapped tubing, with its red Russian Cyrillic lettering saying, "Don’t Touch!" I remembered a television journalist asking about the nationality of the pilots and helicopters that would transport his television crew through the Pamir mountains and the Hindu Kush.
Suddenly, a soldier hanging onto the flip-flopping pilot’s door screamed into the cockpit.
"What is it?!" I yelled, hoping the Afghan at the rear of the helicopter had mistaken large birds for fighter aircraft.
"They intercepted the planes’ radio!" he shouted directly into my ear.
"AND?!" I screamed.
"Shoot it down!" he yelled back. I immediately glued my face to one of the filthy, oval windows.
Hitting the ground hard, we landed in an irrigated rice field not far from Taloqan, where two French aid workers had been wounded a few weeks before. We spent the afternoon eating rice and chicken and waiting for the skies to clear. Mas‘ud returned to asking me more questions about whether the United States would ever give the Pakistanis intercepts of his communications, particularly between his small, life-sustaining fleet of aged Soviet helicopters and his forces on the ground. I said "No," and I thought this time Mas'ud believed me. He then went to pray in a bullet-riddled mosque, and for a few minutes the immense stress etched into his forehead, eyes, and stiff back disappeared as he shut his eyes and contemplated God.
When a helicopter finally returned me to Tajikistan, an old, white-haired Afghan who’d seen me off asked whether I’d taken some good pictures. "Better than I’d hoped," I answered, handing my passport to a beautiful, blond Russian female officer, who was encircled by Afghans demanding their turn. She failed to notice that my Tajik visa had expired. In a few days, I was back in Moscow being spoiled by Russian friends who didn’t at all share my curiosity about Afghanistan.
While walking in Moscow's streets, stopping at every bar I could find, I realized how easy it was for the United States to forget about Afghanistan after the Cold War. Afghanistan is a brutal country where time slows down as your bowels speed up. There is a consensus among world-weary travelers that no place on earth will wear you down quicker and more completely than Afghanistan. It is the extreme opposite of the United States. Half a world away from Washington, inaccessible and blown to bits, the country is simply beyond the scope of most American officials. They need to be able to see long-term not to flee such a mess. Americans need to feel a debt of honor to the Afghans who fought the Soviets and who now desperately need them patiently, constantly, and generously to intrude into their affairs. For very understandable reasons, we didn't do what was required.
The Central Intelligence Agency’s Role
Nonetheless, the CIA should have definitely done better. The institution exists to look into the future; the clandestine service is supposed to do those things which are hard, physically and morally, for the rest of the country. And yet the CIA's record in Afghanistan and against Islamic radicalism shows few moments of operational foresight. The CIA made a decent quartermaster during the Soviet–Afghan war, delivering a large quantity of military material to the Pakistanis with very few officers involved. As an intelligence service, however, it failed then and is failing now.
Islamic militancy was the sub-text of much of my work as a case officer in the Near East division of the Central Intelligence Agency’s directorate of operations. Though Iranian operations were my preferred bailiwick, and I’d inherited the anti-Afghan biases of my Persian instructors and friends, I’d occasionally tracked Afghan affairs. Yet, I never went into the country. In fact, no case officer during the Soviet-Afghan war ever went inside. Though popular imagination had the CIA and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI) recruiting "Arab Afghans" for a jihad against the Red Army, the truth was otherwise. Case officers had relatively little contact with the mujahidin in Pakistan, let alone inside Afghanistan. They had no contact whatsoever with "Arab Afghans" like Usama bin Ladin and ‘Abdullah ‘Azzam. The first agency officer who had even a minimal command of an Afghan language didn't arrive in Pakistan until 1987, only a year and half before the war's end. Languages weren't necessary, so the theory went, since the Pakistanis were really doing all the "field" work.
When the war ended, America’s interests waned almost overnight. "We ran down the fire-escape as quickly as we could," remarked a CIA officer who served in Pakistan in 1989. The American government, the CIA specifically, had minimal intelligence interest in the Afghan civil war that followed the collapse of the Soviet-installed Afghan communist regime in 1992. The people who had bled more than any other to wound the Soviet Union had fallen into ethnic civil strife. The official U.S. view was clear: the United States "had no dog" in the civil wars in Afghanistan. Even when an American energy company, UNOCAL, started eyeing Afghanistan for a possible pipeline to move central Asian oil and gas to Western and Asian markets while avoiding Iran, the U.S. intelligence community only marginally increased its interest in collecting information.
A case officer who served in Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union repeatedly asked headquarters for permission to try to collect intelligence inside Afghanistan, exploiting the physical access offered by Mas‘ud's northern alliance, which then controlled a wide swath of the country. Sensitive to Islamic radicalism from years of working on Lebanese and Palestinian militancy, he thought Afghanistan warranted our attention. C.I.A. headquarters refused every request. The agency was not fond of Mas‘ud, for the Pakistanis loathed him and no one wanted to irritate the Pakistanis. A Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, Julie Sirrs, had actually been fired in 1999 for traveling to see Mas‘ud and northern Afghanistan—even though she had received permission—because her visit disquieted senior U.S. officials, who feared sending the wrong signals. (Interestingly, a trip she’d made a year earlier to Taliban-controlled southern Afghanistan had no adverse professional repercussions and had been admired within the Pentagon for its pluck.)3
Even after the return of bin Ladin to Afghanistan and the bombings in Tanzania and Kenya, the CIA’s disposition hardly changed. Only a handful of case officers have spent even a few days inside Afghanistan. No meaningful networks have been developed there. One doesn't need to know the CIA from the inside out to see that the U.S. Navy had no advance warning about the attack on the Cole even though bin Ladin's men had been lying in wait in Aden for over a year. Given the loquacious nature of Middle Eastern societies, in-house complaints about the clumsiness of the botched attack on the USS The Sullivans probably circulated throughout the outer circles of bin Ladin's network. If U.S. intelligence had had valuable agents within bin Ladin's apparatus, we would have known something about The Sullivans, and the Cole would never have entered Aden's mountain-ringed harbor.
And despite the close association between the Taliban and bin Ladin, the American bias against Mas‘ud remains. On rare occasions, according to U.S. officials and Mas'ud himself, senior American officials have met him in quick rendezvous, usually to encourage him to try harder to find some modus vivendi with Mullah ‘Umar.4 Having settled the war with Mas‘ud, the thinking goes, the Taliban might calm down and then turn over, or at least stifle, bin Ladin. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence and the State Department have mirrored each other in not wanting to do anything that might seriously roil the status quo with their Pakistani counterparts.
This attitude may finally be changing as the U.S. government has realized the intractability of the Taliban position toward bin Ladin and the deafness of the Pakistanis to Washington’s pleas to do something about the Saudi's terrorist camps and cells. A more regular relationship with Mas‘ud is no doubt now in the offing, as the CIA and the State Department search for ways of making up for lost time in their pursuit of bin Ladin. But this has so far not translated into the down-and-dirty, essential intelligence work: thorough, ongoing debriefings of Mas‘ud's prisoners-of-war and the regular, in-country questioning of Mas‘ud 's front-line soldiers and supporters who battle and trade with the Taliban and their allies. And State Department officials, who much more so than American intelligence officers carry the authority and approval of the U.S. government, have continued to keep a polite distance from Mas‘ud. No senior State Department official has yet to fly into Dadakhil and shake hands with the "Lion of the Panjshir." Uncle Sam remains wary of, if not hostile to, a Realpolitik approach pressuring the Pakistanis and the Taliban through direct aid to Mas‘ud. Like its predecessor, the Bush administration has so far shown no desire to engage the United States in an activist, tough diplomacy in south-central Asia, even if bin Ladin is Public Enemy Number One. So Washington continues with the same policies even though it knows they haven't worked.
U. S. government spending on counterterrorism, a response in large part to al-Qa‘ida’s bombing successes, is approaching $10 billion per year.5 According to CIA director George Tenet, al–Qa‘ida is America's most immediate national-security threat.6 And yet the CIA—bureaucratically the cutting-edge of America’s defense against terrorism overseas—had not as of October 2000 sent a single operative or analyst to search on the ground for the clues to bin Ladin's strengths and weaknesses. In other words, what ought to be elementary stuff in both the intelligence and the news businesses. Curiosity aside, that's what brought me to northern Afghanistan.
Reuel Marc Gerecht, director of the Middle East Initiative at The Project for The New American Century, was a Middle East specialist in the CIA, 1985 to 1994. Under the pseudonym Edward Shirley, he is the author of Know Thine Enemy, A Spy's Journey into Revolutionary Iran (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997)1 A point confirmed in Jeffrey Goldberg, "The Education of a Holy Warrior," The New York Times Magazine, June 25, 2000.
2 The New York Times, Apr. 5, 2001.
3 See also this issue.
4 Discussions with Mas'ud, Sept. 1999.
5 Center for Nonproliferation Studies at cns.miis.edu/research/cbw/terfund.htm.
6 George Tenet, "Usama bin Ladin as America’s ‘Most Serious’ Threat," Middle East Quarterly, Spring 2001, p. 83.