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Bin Laden's proud alums: Graduates of al-Qaida camps say U.S. too late to stop Islamic militancy

Bin Laden's proud alums: Graduates of al-Qaida camps say U.S. too late to stop Islamic militancy

Author: Gregg Jones
Publication: The Dallas Morning News
Date: November 5, 2001

Murree, Pakistan - Yes, there was a time when he wasn't a model Muslim, Rashid Hussain earnestly admits. He prayed infrequently. He drank alcohol. He gambled on cricket matches. He even lusted after women.

[Caption] A U.S. Defense Department photograph released last week shows a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan after it was attacked.  -  The Associated Press

That all changed last year, after 40 days in Afghanistan at a military training camp run by the ruling Taliban militia and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida group, he says.

The camp near Kabul where Hussain trained with thousands of other Muslims last year, and as many as 54 others like it around Afghanistan, are primary targets of the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and the al-Qaida organization.

But Hussain and other graduates of the Afghanistan camps say the U.S. campaign comes too late to contain the Islamic militancy that is exploding around the world in terrifying acts such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

It is too late, they say, because thousands of angry young men from across the Islamic world have already come to the camps to learn how to kill their non-Muslim enemies with their bare hands, fire automatic weapons, build bombs, hijack airplanes, and survive the sort of high-tech military onslaught a U.S.-led coalition is directing at Afghanistan.

The men trained in these camps were sent home to spread their militant ideology in places such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines. Now, they are poised to return to Afghanistan and fight U.S. and allied forces in a ground war, camp graduates say.

The militants interviewed for this report have been identified with pseudonyms because they fear punishment for discussing the inner workings of the camps.

The Taliban, al-Qaida and bin Laden, whom U.S. officials describe as the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 attacks, lie at the heart of the global effort to build a radical, pan-Islamic army, according to graduates of the Afghanistan camps, foreign experts and U.S. court testimony.

But while the root of this effort lies in Afghanistan, its branches reach around the world in a vast network of Islamic religious schools, militant organizations, radical political parties, and even military training camps -- all tied to, funded, and loosely directed by al- Qaida and the Taliban, according to Pakistani militants and Western experts.

In Pakistan, for example, the militant Islamic organizations "have different names, just to cover their operations," said Mohammed Mirza, 28, who trained in the Afghanistan camps in 1992 and remains a leader in one of the dozens of Pakistani organizations under the al-Qaida umbrella.

"If one particular organization is banned and branded as a terrorist organization, the others can operate," he said.

Bin Laden's organization, al-Qaida, plays a central role in the operations of the network, raising and dispensing funds, providing logistical support, giving ideological and operational guidance "to many different organizations, by different names, in different countries," Mirza said.

"Al-Qaida funds us. Al-Qaida is the base," he said. "There are many people. They are masters of their fields. They have been given different duties, and they are doing them. Al-Qaida is providing them financial aid and things like that, whatever is needed."

Schools' role

U.S. officials say that in addition to the Sept. 11 attacks, al-Qaida is responsible for the 1998 attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen last year in which 17 people died.

Russia has given the U.N. Security Council a list of 55 facilities used by bin Laden and al-Qaida. U.S. court testimony this year by two graduates of the camps detailed the military and terrorist training offered by the facilities, ranging from small-arms instruction to courses in how to destroy a country's infrastructure.

U.S. authorities believe Mohamed Atta and at least two other al-Qaida operatives involved in the Sept. 11 attacks have undergone training at one of the specialty camps.

The testimony of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, a former bin Laden lieutenant, supports Mirza's description of al-Qaida and its network of training camps.

Al-Fadl's testimony in a New York City trial resulted in the May conviction of four bin Laden followers for their role in a plot to kill Americans worldwide, including the embassy bombings. The four were sentenced Oct. 25 to life in prison without parole.

A key link in the chain of radicalization of Muslim youths is the Islamic schools, known here as madrassas. It is there that militant clerics steer young men into the organizations that supply recruits for the Islamic army that is trained in the Afghan camps, Mirza and Hussain say.

Last summer, Mirza's 21-year-old brother disappeared from home, leaving a note saying he was going for jihad training. The young man said a local cleric had issued a religious ruling that allowed students to leave against their parents' will to undergo such training, said Hafeez Mirza, his father.

The global Islamic army grew out of a war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s -- a war organized, funded and directed by the CIA, say U.S. and Pakistani officials and members of the militant groups. Some of the camps used today were built by the CIA to train mujahedeen to fight the Soviets.

Camp graduates say they are not terrorists but are merely trying to prevent what they describe as the terrorism being committed against Muslims in places such as Indian- controlled Kashmir and the Israeli-occupied territories of the Middle East.

"We are training to save our country, our nation, our religion," Mohammed Mirza said. "This is a stupid statement to say this is terrorism."

Guns and religion

The training is broken into stages, beginning with a basic-training course that lasts 40 days, they said. Some young men -- including Mirza's younger brother -- complete the basic-training course at camps in Pakistan, said Mirza, Hussain and others familiar with the training.

The second level of training lasts three months at one of the Afghanistan camps and involves courses in more advanced weaponry and tactics, in addition to rigorous religious indoctrination, according to several people familiar with the training.

Mirza said his younger brother, cousin and three other village youths went to Afghanistan last summer to take the second course. All five of the young men declined to be interviewed, saying they had sworn an oath on the Koran to not discuss their training with outsiders.

Graduates of the second-level course can apply for even more specialized training that can last between three years and eight years, Mirza said. This training includes martial arts, intelligence gathering, proficiency in a range of weapons and explosives, and paratrooper capabilities.

"Those instructors who are training the guys, all of them can fight without enough food to eat for weeks," he said. "They can survive in snowfall. They can go through rivers. It is such a hard training that if you would wake them and not let them sleep for a week, it would make no difference to them."

In at least one of the training camps in Pakistan, students are taught how to hijack an airplane. The instruction is given in a full-sized, fiberglass dummy airplane, said Haroon Asif, a law student who said he witnessed the class in northern Pakistan.

Thousands trained

Mirza and Hussain describe their experience in Afghanistan as a cross between a Boy Scout summer camp, a religious retreat and U.S. Army basic training. Prospective warriors are whipped into peak physical condition and fired with religious zeal, they said.

Mirza said 2,500 to 3,000 students were in the camp where he trained. Hussain said about 10,000 were in his camp, about five or six miles south of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Many of the instructors were "Arab Afghans," associates of Osama bin Laden and Arab veterans of the war against the Soviets. The students represented virtually every Islamic country, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sudan and Bangladesh, said Mirza and Hussain.

The camp where Hussain received his training "was huge," built on a mountain, he said. The students slept in tents, but there was also a vast complex of man-made caves that offered security in case of air attack -- like the 1998 U.S. cruise-missile attack on several training camps after the embassy bombings in Africa.

In the first week of training, daily life revolved around religious instruction emphasizing strict adherence to their fundamentalist Islamic faith and the religious basis of their armed struggle, Mirza and Hussain said.

The day began at 4 a.m. with prayers and Koran recitations, followed by calisthenics and sprints up and down the mountainsides. After breakfast and a short rest, the students reported for two hours of religious instruction at 9 a.m., followed by 1-1/2 hours of stick fighting and hand-to-hand combat.

Most of the afternoon was devoted to prayers and recitations of the Koran. After dinner and evening prayers, the emir presided over a general assembly at which guard assignments and other security arrangements for the night were announced, the men said.

Living on a diet of only rice three times a day, "the first few days we were very weak, but then after a few days we grew stronger and our stamina grew," Hussain said. Military training began in earnest in the second week, when the morning religious instruction was replaced by three hours of weapons training. The students learned to fire various types of assault rifles, pistols, mortars, rockets and small artillery, Hussain said.

As the days went on, they learned to climb trees and rappel from mountains, how to sneak up on their enemy by crawling stealthily, how to swim across icy cold rivers. The students were pushed to their limits, running up and down mountainsides without water, deprived of food and sleep.

"They were training us in such a hard way to make sure that we'll not run when we'll be actually fighting, we'll be aware of every problem, and we'll be in a position to handle anything," Mirza said.

Every Thursday evening, instructors would regale the students with war stories about mujahedeen who had been martyred in the cause of Islam.

"The circumstances of when they fought, how they died, what they did, what they learned, what they ate -- all those stories are told to the new guys, just to build their morale," Mirza said.

Lesson in punishment

Hussain recalled one of his favorite stories, told by an instructor called Commander R.K. The setting of the story was a village called Lanjot, in Indian-controlled Kashmir.

"The Indian army went in, claiming there were some mujahedeen within that village," said Hussain, recounting the story told by Commander R.K. "They beheaded 20 innocent civilians, picked up their heads, put them on their guns and put their heads on display to the Pakistani side.

"Commander R.K., who saw all this, said that the Pakistani army is not doing anything, so within 48 hours I'll take revenge," Hussain said. "He, with his fellow commandos, crossed into Indian-occupied Kashmir. There were three Indian soldiers drinking water. They beheaded them, took their uniforms, and went to one of the Indian army camps.

"When they went in the Indian army camps, first they shot the soldiers in their feet and legs," continued Hussain. "When all the soldiers fainted, then they beheaded them, put their heads on their guns and brought their heads back to Pakistan."

Hussain said the story drove home to the students the importance of learning how to defend their fellow Muslims -- and how to punish their oppressors.

Another instructor who made a lasting impression on Hussain went by the name of Sheikh Osama. He is a legendary figure among the Islamic militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan for his role in the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian commercial jetliner. The jet and its passengers were flown to Kandahar, the Taliban spiritual capital. To end the standoff, India agreed to release a jailed militant cleric named Masood Azhar.

As Sheikh Osama told the story, he and five friends flew to Nepal to put their plan into action, Hussain said.

"They had five Kalashnikov automatic assault rifles in their bag, and they prayed to God that if God is with them, these guns should not be detected," Hussain said. "They went through the security check, God was with them, and the guns were not detected. They boarded the plane and in midair they took over the plane."

After his release, Maulana Masood returned to Pakistan and formed a militant group known as Jaish-i-Mohammad. Last month, after Jaish claimed credit for a car-bomb attack in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 38 people, the U.S. State Department added the group to its list of terrorist organizations. A Jaish spokesman has since disavowed responsibility for the attack.

These days, like many other men trained in the camps of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hussain talks of going to Afghanistan to join the holy war against the United States. He went to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir on Sept. 30 with seven friends for another week of military training at a camp run by Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen -- another group the U.S. State Department lists as a terrorist organization.

"We knew that America would attack Afghanistan, and so we went to prepare to retaliate against that attack," Hussain said.

Seven of his friends have already gone to Afghanistan to fight against U.S. forces, and four more friends are planning to go, he said.

"God willing, so will I," Hussain said, although he also said he would like to become a rich software tycoon and "support the jihad financially," as bin Laden has done.

Mirza said tens of thousands of trained militants in Pakistan alone are awaiting orders from their superiors to cross the border and fight U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

Thousands of recently trained al-Qaida soldiers were sent to Pakistan before the U.S. bombing began "to avoid the casualties of trained persons," he said. "But when the Americans arrive, they will go back to fight. It could be me, too."

Some of the men have been specially trained as commandos and guerrillas, "and they will try their best to capture (American soldiers) alive," he said.

"If I could speak to a reasonable person from the allied forces, I would like to advise him to go back," he said. "In the history of the United States, this would be the most major mistake they are going to commit."

When the call goes out, as it will soon, he said, tens of thousands of men will begin moving toward Afghanistan, working their way through an underground network of safe houses and secret contacts. Others, he said, will move into place to launch attacks on the Pakistani air bases U.S. forces are using.

The chain of command is secret and strictly compartmentalized, "but we are in contact, all of us," Mirza said. "We are organized from the very base. We are in touch with Kabul, we are in touch with the Taliban. There are many ways for the trained persons, the warriors, the mujahedeen, to get to Afghanistan."

"We are training to save our country, our nation, our religion."
 


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