Inside Al Qaeda

A 16-year-old, trained as a suicide bomber for Al Qaeda, on the beach in Karachi

The incident didn’t get much international attention at the time: just another Predator strike on suspected jihadis in the mountains of North Waziristan. This one took place on March 16 at a compound near the town of Datta Khel. Several news services ran items, although they differed on almost every important detail.

Hafiz Hanif saw it happen. The young Afghan and other members of his Al Qaeda unit were passing through the area in two cars when they made a stop outside a big walled compound, and Hanif was sent to fetch some supplies that had been left there a few days earlier. He knocked at the front door and then politely turned away, toward the cars. In Pashtun country it’s considered rude to wait facing someone’s door, in case it happens to be answered by a woman. But as Hanif’s gaze passed over the cars, one of them exploded. Moments later the other blew up. The roaring blasts from the American Hellfire missiles knocked him down. When the dust cleared, there was only a tangled mess of smoking metal where the cars had been. Seven Al Qaeda Arabs, including a ranking Syrian and an Egyptian, had been killed instantly. But Hanif found a badly injured fighter and tried to help him. “He had serious head and chest injuries,” Hanif tells NEWSWEEK. “He died in my lap.”

Hanif (the name he asks us to use) is staying with his parents at their home near Karachi for now, and they’re doing their best to keep him there. He’s only 16, and they never approved of his running off to join the jihad. He’s a bright student, good at math and fluent in English and Arabic as well as Urdu and Pashto. Yet he also spent much of the past 18 months training and working with Al Qaeda in Pakistan’s tribal areas and across the border in Afghanistan. We have checked out his account as far as it could be confirmed, and his uncle, a senior Taliban official who backs up the boy’s story, has been a reliable source to Newsweek in the past. After Hanif disappeared in February 2009, the uncle and the boy’s father traveled twice to Waziristan in search of him. The father finally found him on the second trip, after two months of looking, but the boy would not leave his Arab friends until months later, when his mother’s desperate pleading finally prevailed.

Last week President Obama announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. Yet nine years after 9/11, America still has 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. And while their mission is ostensibly to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda, most Americans still have only a fuzzy conception of who the enemy is. Osama bin Laden has become barely a shadow, with a March 2010 audiotape as the most recent evidence that he’s still alive. According to CIA figures his terror network has perhaps 100 or fewer fighters in Afghanistan, but of course that’s merely guesswork. The real war against Al Qaeda is being waged by Predator drones in Pakistan’s tribal areas, and its details emerge slowly and in tiny increments.

What hasn’t been available until now is a detailed, insider’s view of what Al Qaeda looks like today. Hanif’s account provides that view. In some ways the picture is what you might imagine—of fighters on the run, hunted by drones, diminished in numbers. Yet Al Qaeda’s allure remains intense: Hanif chose to join bin Laden’s army rather than his uncle’s Afghan Taliban because of the group’s still-elite status among jihadis. While he’s seen many of his associates killed, he’s also seen them replaced by a constant stream of recruits from the Middle East and elsewhere. And he’s seen how even the tiny number of Qaeda operatives can act as a force multiplier, making other groups more deadly in their war against America. In fact, Hanif claims to have had a small role in one of the CIA’s greatest tragedies: last December’s suicide bombing at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan that killed seven operatives.

It has all seemed like a grand adventure to the boy, who appears blissfully oblivious to the brutality and cruelty of the jihadis: the ruthless murders of suspected spies, the acid attacks on girls, the reign of terror in areas they control. The tale as Hanif tells it is deceptively simple. But it makes clear that the challenge Al Qaeda represents remains devilishly complex.

Ever since he can remember, Hanif had dreamed of joining the jihad. He was just 7 when America invaded Afghanistan, and Taliban fighters, officials, and supporters soon became regular visitors at his family’s home near Karachi. The boy grew up steeped in stories of the holy war against the Soviets; of Mullah Mohammed Omar’s fight to overthrow corrupt Afghan warlords; of the Taliban’s years in power; of the regime’s overthrow by American bombs; and of the thriving anti-American insurgency to restore Omar’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. “The aim of my life has always been to be a shahid,” he says—a martyr. “I want to attack infidels who insult Muslim women, who occupy Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. There is nothing more to be strived for in this life except joining the jihad and becoming a shahid.”

One day early last year, he met a gray-bearded tribesman at a café in Karachi. The man told thrilling tales of the Pakistani Taliban’s war against government security forces in the tribal areas. Hanif, who had just turned 15, hung on every word. “He came back to meet me the next day,” the boy recalls. “Carefully I expressed my wish to join the jihad, and the man said he would see if he could help me.” In fact the man was a recruiter working for Baitullah Mehsud. The Pakistani Taliban leader (who died in a Predator strike a year ago) was notorious for recruiting and using young suicide bombers like Hanif; one of his bombers is thought to have assassinated former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

Hanif counted himself lucky: here was his chance to join the fight, and perhaps even become one of the fedayeen—a suicide bomber. Within days the recruiter phoned and said, “Let’s go.” The next morning Hanif quietly packed a change of clothes and left the house as usual—but instead of going to school, he found the recruiter and they boarded a bus for the town of Bannu, gateway to jihadi-controlled North Waziristan, where the Pakistani military leaves the safety of its bases only when it must. “I was happy,” he recalls. “I was going where I wished. I could hardly wait to get there.”

But he never reached the Mehsud camp. On the journey’s last leg they visited an Al Qaeda base near the town of Datta Khel, on the Afghan border, to drop off two young Saudis who had traveled with Hanif from Karachi. On a sudden impulse Hanif decided he’d try to stay, too. “Those Arab mujahedin impressed me,” he recalls. He introduced himself in fluent Arabic, mentioning his uncle, the senior Taliban official. The man in charge, a senior Al Qaeda trainer and operations specialist from Libya known as Sheik Abdullah Saeed, looked him over. “You can stay if you want,” the man said. “I was happy,” Hanif says. “I love speaking Arabic.” The recruiter traveled on without the boy.

Hanif underwent a grueling three-month training course at a place called Khisora in South Waziristan. “I was excited to begin,” he says. “But it was very demanding.” The instructors were all Arabs, but the makeup of the class testified to how wide the appeal of Al Qaeda still remains: about 30 students of various nationalities—Chechens, Tajiks, Saudis, Syrians, and Turks, two Frenchmen of Algerian extraction, and three Germans, one of whom was European and the other two of Arabic or Turkish extraction. Hanif was the youngest, and the only Afghan. Most were in their late teens or 20s, a few were in their 30s, and one was a 50-year-old. A handful of the Turks, Uzbeks, and Chechens knew Arabic or Pashto and could translate for their countrymen.

Hanif’s training started before dawn. The recruits ran in the mountains and did calisthenics. On his laptop in Karachi he proudly shows a video clip of him and other recruits in camouflage fatigues marching and running with their Kalashnikovs. Between mandatory prayers five times a day at the mosque, he learned to ride a motorbike, to drive a car, a pickup, and a truck and to operate a manual transmission. He learned to defend himself in a one-on-one fight, using a knife and an AK-47. Arab experts taught him how to handle explosives and how to make IEDs and suicide vests. “Now I can make a suicide vest filled with five or six kilograms of explosives and ball bearings in just four hours,” he brags. “I made one for myself.” He says it’s still at the camp waiting for him.

He knows how to use it. “I learned how to make and use a jacket like I learned how to maintain and use my Kalashnikov,” he says. He was taught how to avoid looking nervous while approaching a target. Detonators are usually kept in a zippered pocket of the suicide vest, he says, so that jumpy bombers don’t push the button too soon. Make sure to get as close as possible to the target, the trainers emphasized, don’t set off your vest when you first see it in the distance. The Arab trainers studied the recruits closely, he says: “They preferred kids with smart minds, who could follow orders, read maps, stay calm, and not blow themselves up far away from the target.”

At other camps he later found some suicide trainees who weren’t even teenagers. At one Mehsud camp he saw boys who looked no older than 12. While he was there, Baitullah Mehsud made an inspection visit and noticed one very young boy, and ordered his deputy and chief instructor, Qari Hussain, to send the boy home. After Mehsud’s death in a Predator strike in August 2009, Hanif revisited the camp and saw that the orders had been ignored: more child bombers were being trained.

But Hanif thinks back happily on his own training. “They provided good food, good weapons, and explosive devices,” he says. “Everything you needed to be a powerful jihadi was available.” There were generators to provide electricity, and the recruits relaxed at the end of the day by watching jihadi videos on their laptops. But the easy times didn’t last. Around the time Hanif graduated, the Pakistani Army began a drive against militants based in South Waziristan. Mehsud’s attacks on Pakistani targets like Bhutto had become too much for Islamabad to tolerate. The trainers and recruits split up into small units and escaped as best they could to regroup under Sheik Saeed’s command in North Waziristan.

With Saeed’s permission, Hanif phoned his mother for the first time since leaving home. “She was crying,” he recalls. “I told her that I was coming home, though I didn’t want to.” He waited three more months before deciding he had to comfort her with a visit. The Arab leaders told him he could leave if he chose to, he says. “It’s American propaganda that says once you join the jihad you’re a prisoner of it,” he recalls one Arab leader telling him. “The Arabs were telling me, ‘You are free to go, but why don’t you change your mind and stay?’ These committed mujahedin think it’s a sin to talk about home and family. They focus totally on their work.” Many of them carry photos of the nice homes and fancy American cars they left behind, as evidence of the sacrifices they have made in joining the jihad, Hanif says. He went home, but he says he was determined not to stay. “I was missing my Arab friends,” he says. After three weeks in Karachi he sneaked out one night and returned to the base in North Waziristan.

But Pakistan’s military sweeps began intensifying there, too, and the American Predators became an even bigger danger. The sound of the drones in the sky is so incessant you stop noticing it, like the buzzing of insects, Hanif says. “You don’t see or hear anything before the missile’s impact.” He says the aftermath of a drone attack can be particularly hard. He recalls spending hours searching the rubble alongside other fighters after an attack that killed a Qaeda commander known as Abu Suleiman. They eventually found his head. After another drone attack, they dug for eight to nine hours in the debris of a collapsed house to try to find a Qaeda fighter, his wife, and his kids who had been killed. “We finally found parts of them,” Hanif recalls, “but not all of them.”

In the past year, he estimates, drones have killed some 80 Qaeda members, many of them senior commanders. (That figure sounds compatible with the number offered by a Pakistani intelligence source, who tells Newsweek he believes some 120 Qaeda militants have been eliminated by drones in the past two years.) Now the fighters have grown more careful even when visiting the bazaars in Miran Shah, the war-battered capital of North Waziristan. Hanif himself was picked up by Pakistani security forces there and interrogated by an intelligence agent a year ago. He says he was let go after he convinced them he was just a wannabe Afghan Taliban.

Still, Al Qaeda has been able to replace at least some of the men it has lost. New recruits are always arriving, mostly by the arduous three-month overland journey from secret Qaeda safe houses in Turkey, although Central Asian fighters take a much shorter route. Arrivals from Turkey and the Mideast tend to bring lots of money with them, sometimes satchels stuffed with $20,000 or more in cash. The group is fussy about new recruits, carefully studying their backgrounds and watching their behavior before they’re sent to the tribal area and even after they get there. “Our leaders are afraid of spies,” Hanif says. A year ago the militants became convinced that CIA proxies were tagging their cars with magnetic locator devices, to guide Hellfire missiles to their target.

Al Qaeda’s total strength in the tribal area couldn’t be more than about 130 Arabs, together with some Chechens, Uzbeks, and a few Turks, Hanif says, and roughly half of that force left Pakistan this spring to help confront the U.S. troop surge in Afghanistan. They left in groups of five or six, traveling to link up with Afghan Taliban commanders in different areas. Their mission is chiefly to make IEDs, suicide vests, and other bombs, and to train the local Taliban in bombmaking techniques, rather than to fight. He estimates there are some 65 Arabs who stayed behind and are still operating in the tribal area, taking care of the organization’s daily affairs. (In late June, CIA chief Leon Panetta publicly estimated that Al Qaeda had roughly 50 to 100 men inside Afghanistan, and Michael Leiter, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, put the number in Pakistan’s tribal areas at “more than 300.”)

Hanif freely admits he knows nothing of Al Qaeda’s overall strategy, and says he has no idea how many other Qaeda operatives may operate in the orbit of senior leaders like bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his 18 months with Al Qaeda, Hanif says, no one he met had any clue to the whereabouts of either one—and yet all fought eagerly in their names. He speaks as breathlessly as any starstruck teenager about prominent jihadis he has encountered. His list includes Baitullah Mehsud and his successor as head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud; Al Qaeda’s reputed No. 3 leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi; and Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki, “Azzam the American.” In the past six months, though, high-ranking Qaeda figures have largely disappeared as a result of the worsening Predator threat. “They have all gone underground,” Hanif says. “I used to see Azzam al-Amriki, but he also has disappeared.”

He’s especially excited to have met Jordanian double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the suicide bomber who killed the seven CIA operatives at a secret base near Khost last December. In fact, he says, his group tailor made Balawi’s suicide vest. “He was always joking,” Hanif recalls. “We had a nickname for him: Abu Layla.” (Layla was the older of Balawi’s two daughters.) He spoke Arabic, English, and Turkish, Hanif says, and he was a special guest of Sheik Saeed, who took particular care of him. One day late last year, Hanif and three or four other fighters were assigned to accompany Balawi on the drive to Miran Shah. “We dropped him off there,” Hanif says. “Two Pashtun-looking men picked him up.” The next day Sheik Saeed told Hanif that Balawi had been driven across the border into Afghanistan, where a U.S. helicopter was waiting to take him to the CIA base. (According to American officials, Balawi arrived at Forward Operating Base Chapman by car, not helicopter.)

Hanif runs a video on his laptop to show what he claims is the making of Balawi’s suicide vest. He was there to see it done, he says. The video shows a Qaeda operative as he painstakingly packs explosives into 13 thin fabric tubes that are joined together side by side and connected by wires. Then the man spreads hundreds of tiny ball bearings on a piece of glue-covered fabric. He sews it all together on an old-fashioned sewing machine, adding some leather straps and buckles. And finally he adds the complex electronic circuitry, installing a detonator connected by thin wires to a wristwatchlike device to activate it.

But Hanif seems happiest recalling other times. There were high-spirited volleyball matches between the Arabs and the Turks, and sometimes when security allowed they went up into the mountains to hunt rabbits, birds, and other small game they cooked and ate outdoors. And he never tired of visiting Miran Shah, a mud-brick warren of shops and homes largely controlled by various militant groups. Hanif would go at dusk to one of the Public Call Offices, shops that offer phone services and Web-connected computers. Friendly merchants would let them in, then lock up and leave them inside. To passersby the shop would appear closed for the night while Hanif and his friends talked on the phone and used the Internet for hours until the shop owner came back to let them out.

About once a month the boy was sent to buy rations for the camp. He sometimes spent more than $1,000 on food, supplies, ammunition, even gifts for friends. “I loved buying good food for everyone,” he says. There never was a shortage of money; they had enough cash to trade in their old vehicles for new Toyota pickups and Land Cruisers. They also had a fleet of new Ford Rangers that had been captured by the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan and driven out to Pakistan.

Hanif’s unit was sent to Afghanistan this April. Early one morning before dawn, he says, they shouldered their weapons and crossed into Paktika province, carrying fake Afghan ID cards. His subgroup, which included some Arab IED experts, was assigned to work with Afghan Taliban commanders in the provinces around Kabul. “I was proud to be fighting inside my country for the first time,” he says. Afghanistan was tougher than Pakistan. His unit was involved in firefights almost every day, he says: “There was much more military action.”

In Ghazni province he met a cousin of Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the bloodthirsty Al Qaeda in Iraq leader who was killed in 2006. “I told him I was thinking of going home to visit my mother,” Hanif says. “As he left our unit, he gave me a two-page letter, telling me not to return home to see my family.” The letter warned, “It will change you.” But Hanif decided to go anyway. In July he got permission from his commander and went home.

He’s been there nearly two months now. Just as his Arab friends warned, he says, he keeps encountering evils, distractions, luxuries, and temptations. “There are terrible things on the Internet and on the street that can corrupt your soul,” he says. “You have to be careful.” He had been home only 10 days when his Taliban uncle began urging him to get married and go into business. His father too is pressuring him to finish school and get married. “You’ll be a better martyr,” his father argues. Hanif doesn’t buy it. “If I get engaged, as my parents want, I know the life I love is over,” he says.

He spends hours on the computer in his bedroom surfing Taliban, Qaeda, and Iraqi jihadi Web sites and interacting with like-minded young men in militant chatrooms. He avoids any contact with women on the Web, even on Islamic sites, calling it a waste of time. He watches DVDs of jihadis ambushing U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. The chatroom messages he exchanges with other young militants are often dotted with sad-face emoticons. “I’m missing Miran Shah,” he says. “I miss the mountains and my fellow mujahedin. My heart is not happy here.”

The boy wrote a last will and testament, like all Qaeda suicide bombers, and it remains on his computer, addressed to all of his male kinsmen. He urges them to join the jihad and seek martyrdom “so I will see you, my beloved brothers, in the company of virgins with me.” The document was dated Dec. 21, 2009, just as he was turning 16.

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