Trained in terror, eager to lash out

Taliban: A captured Pakistani fighter held for five years by the Northern Alliance would attack America if given the opportunity.

War On Terrorism

The World

October 19, 2001|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAHARAK PRISON, Afghanistan - Salahuddin Khalled, a captured Taliban warrior, sits in a cell among 20 criminals and prisoners of war, plastic bags of clothes, metal pots, and shoes hanging off the walls and dangling from low log rafters.

Though captured by the opposition Northern Alliance in 1996 and penned up in a one-story, mud-brick prison, Khalled, a 27-year-old Pakistani, remains unrepentant.

Given the opportunity, he says, he would happily have helped hijack one of the jets that slammed into the World Trade Center on that terrible morning in September. If freed from prison, he would eagerly volunteer for future attacks on America.

"Yes, if I had the chance I would do it, with my heart and soul," said the slight, scholarly young man with owlish glasses and a gentle voice, sitting on a dusty carpet in the warden's office.

Soon, he predicted, there will be more terrorist operations, including the detonation of an atomic weapon in the United States.

Where would such a device come from?

"We can find the means to build one," he said.

Khalled, who holds a university degree in Islamic law, is among 21 foreign Taliban fighters from Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, China and Myanmar held in this prison. Khalled was tutored in terrorist skills from 1992 to 1994 at a camp near the city of Khowst, one of Afghanistan's training centers for Islamic radicals.

After fighting in Kashmir, where Islamic radicals are trying to force out an Indian government, he returned to Afghanistan and commanded 30 Taliban soldiers fighting the Northern Alliance.

Captured by the opposition forces in 1996, he was locked up here, where he spends his time reading the Quran and writing letters to his father. His father takes a philosophical view of his son's predicament.

"Follow your conscience," his father recently wrote. "Don't worry about your problems. Everybody has such problems."

Khalled says he is a member of Harakut-al-Mujahideen, a Pakistan-based, Islamic fundamentalist group with a reputation for militancy. Two members of the group were accused of killing a United Nations military official and wounding a French diplomat in Kabul in 1998, after an American cruise missile attack on several terrorist camps.

Harakut-al-Mujahideen is not part of Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaida network, Khalled said, nor does bin Laden finance the group. But when Harakut fighters needed special training in weapons or tactics, Khalled said, bin Laden would lend them experts.

Baharak Prison sits on the rocky shores of the Panjshir River, deep in an opposition-controlled area, surrounded by steep, treeless mountains made of rock and clay and dust. There is only one road in and out of this isolated spot in the Hindu Kush mountains - a twisting, roller-coaster, one-lane dirt track dug into the side of the mountain.

The prison is a one-story, mud-brick block the color of the surrounding earth, approached by a single-lane bridge. Inside, six dark cells face a sunlit exercise yard.

The warden says no one has ever escaped. Nearby villagers tell the story of one group of prisoners who escaped Baharak, only to turn themselves in a short time later when they realized there was no way out.

Though Khalled applauds the carnage at the World Trade Center and Pentagon, he says he wouldn't know who was responsible even if he were at large instead of in prison and cut off from the world. There was a strict code of silence, he said, among militants training at Afghan bases. Teachers told students never to reveal precisely what they were being trained for.

"If one classmate asks another," Khalled said, "it is none of his business."

Khalled defends the Sept. 11 attacks, saying he believes that the terrorists' aim wasn't to kill thousands of innocent people, but to cripple America's economic and military centers.

"Our target was to hurt the American government," he said.

Of course, thousands of civilians died, but why should that be of concern? he asked. "If America can drop an atomic bomb on the Japanese [in World War II], why cannot we attack the economic and political center of America?"

Asked whether he fears retaliation by the United States, he shook his head.

"America cannot find where it should attack," he said, speaking a Persian dialect through an interpreter. "You are looking all over the country of Afghanistan, and you cannot catch even one of them."

Unlike many of the Taliban, who tend to come from poor families, Khalled has an upper-middle class background. His father is a university professor of Islamic studies, and his four older brothers are university trained.

As a boy, Khalled attended a madrassa, an Islamic religious school, in Pakistan. He earned a law degree at Punjab University, known as a center for radical students, but decided not to practice.

"My commitment was greater than that," he said. "It is my commitment that I should read Islam and see Islamic law established all over the world."

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