Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 18, 2001
Deserted houses reveal al-Qaeda operations
Left behind were weapons, maps and documents. They depict a worldwide network of militants. 

At War With Terror

KABUL, Afghanistan - From the street, it looks like an ordinary house in a middle-class district, as upright and solid as its concrete walls. But everybody in the neighborhood knew it housed Arab militants loyal to Osama bin Laden.

Apparently so did American military planners. Two weeks ago, a U.S. missile pierced the concrete roof of the house at dawn, exploding in a second-floor room before disintegrating in a crater in the floor. Witnesses said six people were injured, none killed.

On Friday, workmen swept up the charred debris of what once had been a safe house for bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization.

Pasted on the door to one room, a poster titled "Message from Osama" shows the flags of the United States, India and Israel in flames. It wishes a "long life to the Islamic movement of Taliban," the rigid religious movement that fled the capital on Monday before an advance of opposition troops.

The building was one of dozens of dwellings and barracks scattered around Kabul that housed the core of the Taliban's strength: Muslim militants from other countries who came to Afghanistan to learn to attack a Western culture they viewed as a threat and as an affront to Islam.

Though picked through by looters or buried beneath rubble - several of the houses were destroyed by American bombs during six weeks of air strikes - the dwellings contain a trove of weapons, maps, computer manuals and other documents that depicted a worldwide network of disaffected Islamic militants who came here to study and plot terrorism and to join the Taliban's holy war against America.

Some of the documents revealed a sophisticated organization - software manuals in German, notes on the care and use of weapons, instructions on building a pipe bomb.

Most of the material reflected an organization that was crude yet dedicated. The maps were little more than hand-painted illustrations on walls showing the American military presence in Saudi Arabia. A closet in one house contained dozens of hard-backed Korans and books on how to read the Koran.

The videotapes and cassettes found in some rooms were religious in nature, except for one documentary tape about "Wild Africa."

Material that was found about making a nuclear weapon and surviving a nuclear blast appeared to have been downloaded from public sites on the Internet. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said the documents were consistent with bin Laden's stated desire to acquire nuclear weaponry, but indicated that al-Qaeda had not developed any such capability.

A reported foul-smelling laboratory that suggested the group was trying to develop chemical weapons appeared to be nothing more than a camphor-soaked medical storeroom of a house that was formerly a clinic. The storeroom contained eight-year-old patient medical records and drugs such as antibiotics and aspirin, along with a bacteriological incubator.

Most of the debris left behind after the hasty retreat from Kabul depicted the ordinary life of soldiers: Vitamin tablets, cough syrup, an open jar of honey, an intravenous dextrose solution. There were expense lists for items such as fuel and food.

One of the militants was learning English and left behind his notebook: "Who has a pencil? Omar has one."

Welcomed by the Taliban, disaffected Islamic militants from around the world came here to study and plot terrorism and to defend this laboratory for the doctrinaire Islamic state.

Each group got at least one house: Chechen militants in one, fundamentalist Uzbek troops in another. The Al-Arab militants, unhappy about America's friendship with Saudi Arabia, had a house as well.

At a large compound at a former Soviet Scud missile base near Kabul's ruined Darulaman Palace, an entire barracks was devoted to the young recruits from religious schools in Pakistan, who were often sent to the front with a few days' training.

Several buildings were flattened by three American bombs a few weeks ago. Local scavenger children Friday were extracting scraps of timber from the unguarded wreckage for firewood.

The Taliban militants were often housed in Kabul's better residences, sometimes confiscated from opposition leaders who fled the capital when the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996.

Thus a contingent of Taliban came to occupy the former home of Northern Alliance defense chief Gen. Mohammed Fahim. So many militants occupied the house that they built six latrines in the back courtyard.

Khalil Rahman, the owner of the house who lent it to his cousin, Gen. Fahim, walked several visitors through the soiled and disorganized house last week.

"These were the Taliban's things," said Rahman, walking beside a mural of the mosque at Mecca, with an eye shedding tears of blood. The Taliban left behind more than 20 antitank weapons and rooms full of items, including several copies of a glossy booklet "Announcing Jihad against Americans" by Osama bin Laden, along with other titles denouncing unbelievers.

Rahman, like many Afghans, often blame Pakistan for Afghanistan's problems - many Afghans say the meddling by Pakistan and other countries caused the 23-year-old civil war that never seems to end.

The resentment against foreign troops helps explain why many local people captured and brutally killed Pakistanis and Arabs after last week's offensive.

"Everything was in the hands of the Arabs," said Rahman. "The Afghan Talibs were just puppets."

The soldiers who occupied this al-Qaeda guest house appeared to have spent some of their free time on self-improvement.

A book, How To Learn Arabic in a Month, lay on the dusty floor. A Taliban had scratched out the faces of two people on the cover of the book, in line with the Taliban's edict that the depiction of the human face is a vice.

And on another piece of paper, apparently cast aside by a new English student, arose an opportunity to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet, even in truncated form: "To be or not to be, that is question." home page   
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