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The Plots and Designs of Al Qaeda's Engineer

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the man believed to be behind 9/11, hides in plain sight -- and narrowly escapes capture in Pakistan.

December 22, 2002|Terry McDermott, Josh Meyer and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

Jihad, Abdullah Azzam wrote, is the way of everlasting glory, and the only way to get there is behind the barrel of a gun. "Jihad and the rifle alone: no negotiations, no conferences and no dialogues," he said.

Azzam, more than any man, created the modern notion of a Muslim's duty to wage war against all comers in order to reestablish the reign of Islam on Earth. It is a duty, he said, that commands all Muslims to its banner.

Azzam was born in the West Bank in 1941, land later occupied by Israel. He answered his first call to battle with the Palestinian resistance there, which he criticized because it was, he said, mere politics insufficiently rooted in Islam.

He departed for Cairo and an academic career, then left that when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. He was among the first of the Afghan Arabs to arrive in Peshawar, Pakistan, in an upland basin ringed by hills that rise into mountains north and west en route to the Khyber Pass and Afghanistan.

Peshawar, capital of Pakistan's unruly Northwest Frontier Province, has for centuries been an international crossroads for traders, warriors and rough statesmen. In the 1980s, Azzam made it the capital of the Afghan resistance and the destination for tens of thousands of Muslims who joined the holy war.

Saudi Arabia's national airline offered special jihad fares. Arab governments sent emissaries and opened offices for dozens of state-sponsored charities to assist the fighters.

For a decade, parts of Peshawar were transformed into a sort of Little Mecca.

"It was a bustling Arab town -- Arab restaurants, bazaars, bakeries. During the jihad there were Arab newspapers and magazines published here. There were men in kaffiyeh, women fully covered in black," said Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist who became a leading chronicler of the Afghan wars.

It was, said Gen. Hamid Gul, who formerly headed Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, "the first international brigade of the modern time."

Among those who answered Azzam's call was a former student, Osama bin Laden. Azzam's intellectual fervor and Bin Laden's bank book combined in an organization that eventually became Al Qaeda.

The Saudi government sent dozens of missionaries and millions of dollars. The United States funneled arms and more millions through Peshawar.

Gun violence had been a way of life and death in the region long before the Soviet war. As one Pushtun saying puts it: A man's jewelry is his gun. But there had never been anything on this scale before.

Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, was installed as executor of American and Saudi interests. The service created a new logistics operation just to distribute the flood of armaments. Convoys of 10-ton trucks filled with rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and antiaircraft missiles were sent out daily on the cross-country trip from the docks in Karachi to Peshawar and the Afghan interior beyond.

"The original jihadis started in old Peshawar with very little money, in the pre-Saudi, pre-CIA days," Yusufzai said. "Later, they all rented places in University Town, the most expensive neighborhood in Peshawar."

The Arab neighborhoods in University Town were, oddly, the most westernized in the city. Old Peshawar is a crooked tangle of alleys and bazaars rich with the smells, smoke and people of Central Asia. A thick haze of exhaust, dust and brick kiln smoke lies over it.

University Town is clean and rectangular, laid out on a grid filled with walled compounds of big three-story stucco houses that would be at home in Orange County. The new villas were filled by the Arabs and an even larger militia of camp followers. Armies used to be trailed by merchants of flesh and other entertainments; modern armies, even ragtag agglomerations like the moujahedeen, are as likely to be followed by a social worker as a streetwalker. The Afghan wars, because of the international nature of their combatants and finances, were the apotheosis of this.

The biggest industry in Peshawar in the '80s and '90s, after the arms trade, was good works. More than 150 charities, development and refugee care organizations opened offices.

There was plenty to do. Afghanistan at the time of the Russian invasion had a population of 15 million. Over a decade, that would shrink by almost half. Many fled through the mountain passes to Pakistan.

One of the largest aid agencies was a Kuwaiti charity called Lajnat al Dawa al Islamia, the Committee for Islamic Appeal. The charity at one point had more than 1,000 employees in Pakistan and was spending $4 million a year in the region. Its regional manager was Zahed Shaikh -- Khalid Shaikh Mohammed's older brother.

As head of one of the largest charities in town, Zahed became a figure of importance. He knew local diplomats, the Afghan warlords; when Pakistani politicians came to town, he shared the dais with them.

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