Al-Qaida community thrived in Afghan city

In struggling Jalalabad, members built schools, homes, drove new trucks

War On Terrorism

November 24, 2001|By Megan K. Stack | Megan K. Stack,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JALALABAD, Afghanistan - Throughout the Taliban years, a large, wealthy community of al-Qaida members moved to this war-broken city - and thrived. In a land of mud houses and donkey travel, hundreds of expatriate terrorists built compounds and schools for their families on government land, cut deals with local authorities and bumped over Jalalabad's dirt roads in new pickup trucks.

"We never had a conversation, because they never let Afghan people near them," said Mohammed Sharif, who lives next door to a Jalalabad compound that was home to 60 al-Qaida members. "They were Arabs, they were rich and they didn't trust anybody."

Contrary to the image of solitary terrorists toiling in isolation, the men here in Jalalabad lived with their wives and raised their children together. The famously rootless al-Qaida sank itself deep into the city's civic landscape, leading the comfortable life of neocolonialists.

To Pakistan, mountains

But now, the members of Osama bin Laden's secretive terrorist network are nowhere to be found. Their Taliban protectors disappeared from Jalalabad last week in a nearly bloodless surrender, leaving the foreigners to fend for themselves.

Some fled to Pakistan. Others are reportedly camped on a remote mountain 25 miles south of town. The men took their guns, their wives and their children. They left behind their artillery, their safe houses and their chemicals.

The buildings have been seized by the new local government, such as it is. In the sandy hills outside town, a listless guard keeps watch over a deserted terrorist camp. "I'm just watching it," he said, "until the government decides what to do with it."

Anti-Taliban fighters too young to shave have stomped through abandoned al-Qaida homes, smashing windows, shooting chickens and pocketing plastic toys. They aren't interested in the bomb and artillery manuals - many of them don't know how to read their own language, let alone Arabic. But they do know their firepower, and they have seized huge stockpiles of grenades, mines and artillery.

Extensive infrastructure

When visitors stop by a compound near the defunct Taliban intelligence agency here, boastful young guards hoist jugs and boxes of chemicals - magnesium powder, lead nitrate, potassium chlorate - from a basement bomb factory. "What are they?" they want to know.

Al-Qaida's infrastructure here was extensive. The members built at least one school for about 30 pupils. A few dozen brick homes were arranged in a campus on a nearby hillside, and other al-Qaida members rented houses throughout the city. Married men lived with their families; single men roomed together. With the blessing of the Taliban, the group commandeered old Soviet military facilities for a training camp and an arsenal.

When the electricity to the neighborhood containing the compound was switched off, the al-Qaida members paid a call to the city government, their neighbors recalled. The terrorists reminded the local leaders that they were building houses on Taliban property with the permission of the regime's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. After that, power was restored to the compound.

"Meanwhile," neighbor Sharif grumbled, "we had to go without electricity in our own country."

Menacing yet domestic

It is unclear how many al-Qaida members lived in Jalalabad. Certainly there were hundreds. They didn't talk to Afghans, and their children were not allowed to play with the neighborhood kids. They drove new cars. The townspeople called them "the Arabs."

The homes in the compound near the intelligence agency seem menacing and domestic, littered with baby shoes, computer manuals and prayer books. There are address books, bank cards and fake passport stamps; books in French, German, Russian and Arabic; and utility bills.

Al-Qaida abandoned the compound just half an hour before the soldiers crashed through the door, guards said. The families left behind photographs of bright-eyed, grinning children. They left their coloring books and plastic train tracks. Forgotten pet rabbits hopped in the yard.

The men also left behind a wealth of clues - mobile phone bills, Deutsche Bank cards, the address of a currency house in Dubai, a receipt for a diamond bought in Brussels, Belgium. Lists of addresses in Islamabad; Stuttgart, Germany; and London. And, of course, they left behind weapons. In the courtyard of a plain stone house, around the bend from the old police station, 80 mortars are stacked like firewood. Next to them, soldiers sift through a crate of grenades.

Prepared for battle

By the time opposition soldiers stormed the city, the two men who lived in the stone house were ready. They'd sent their wives and children ahead. They gripped their Kalashnikovs and waited downstairs with eight other men.

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