A bomb-making laboratory found in a residential house is part of a growing body of evidence emerging in the Afghan capital, Kabul, about the global magnitude of terrorist activities here.
The compound is one of at least 10 Al Qaeda houses abandoned this past week when the radical Islamic Taliban and Osama bin Laden's "foreign legion" of Arab and Pakistani fighters fled. What they left behind is a fast-disappearing trail of evidence that's being scooped up by journalists, Northern Alliance soldiers, and even Kabul residents foraging for heating fuel.
"The Americans were asleep on this one," says Anthony Davis, an Afghanistan expert with the London-based Jane's Defense Weekly, who has examined some of the abandoned Al Qaeda documents in Kabul.
"They should have had US Special Forces units detailed to those places, or at least had the Northern Alliance lock them up and guard them. Instead, the press corps is doing their job for for them, in a very haphazard way. It is not a great day in the annals of American and British intelligence."
At this house on a Kabul side street, on the second floor, behind two white-painted reinforced doors and strewn among scrawled hard-line religious tracts, are bomb-making materials that underscore Afghanistan's role as a lead exporter of terrorism .
"Learn how to use these things," instructs one page of a hand-written student exercise book, in Arabic. Wires in the diagram below lead to boxes labeled "TNT."
In addition to diagrams for making explosive and safety fuses and a variety of chemical compounds and grenades, there are circuit boards, makeshift timing devices using the guts of wristwatches, transistors, resistors, and LED lights, and tangles of wire.
Visits to many of the houses in Kabul used by some of an estimated 10,000 foreign Al Qaeda operatives - known simply as "Arabs" to unsympathetic local Afghans - provide a glimpse into the secretive world of militants here who declare that killing Americans is a sacred duty.
"This gives us very clear and overwhelming evidence of the high level of sophistication and global reach of this group," Mr. Davis says. "There is no way the men who came here from around the planet were going to go back home the same people. In terms of technical experience and radicalization, this place is a forging ground."
If the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11 had not sparked the current US operation in Afghanistan - and the subsequent collapse of the Taliban - "this hotbed of militant and terrorist training would have continued on its merry way indefinitely," Davis says.
One house reportedly yielded documents about rudimentary nuclear physics, thermonuclear explosions, missile designs, and biological weapons in Arabic, German, Urdu, and English, according to The Times of London. Another had Microsoft flight-simulator software and a list of American flight schools torn from "Flying" magazine, notes The New York Times.
Outside the city of Jalalabad, an apparent chemical weapons factory contains texts and manuals dedicated to Mr. bin Laden. The walls are lined with bottles of acetane, lead acetate, nitric acid, carbolic acid, glycerin, and other chemicals. About a dozen gas masks are scattered on the floor. The factory is in a remote former-Soviet military base along the Kabul River. Flush with rusted Soviet vehicles and artillery pieces, the base was converted nearly a decade ago into a training base eventually used by Al Qaeda. In one bunker, heavily bombed in recent weeks, lie diaries abandoned by fighters. One entry reads: "Oh, Osama, we will defend you until death comes upon us."
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar recently was quoted as saying his "big cause" is the destruction of the US. "The plan is going ahead and, God willing, it is being implemented," Mr. Omar said. The Taliban has been the first target of Washington's declared war against terrorism, for its refusal to hand over the Saudi-born bin Laden and top members of his Al Qaeda network. If any proof were needed, their symbiotic ties are evident in several houses.
The flight-simulator software was found with more than a dozen French-made Milan antitank weapons in a house belonging to the Taliban Defense Ministry. It's inside walls are painted with a map of Saudi Arabia with American, British, and French flags, very loosely marking Western troop concentrations. The map is labeled: "Occupation of the holy lands of Islam by the Crusaders" - a touchstone issue in many parts of the Islamic world over the presence of as many as 20,000 US troops in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region. Pamphlets in other houses show an American soldier superimposed on a picture of the Islamic holy city of Mecca.
President Bush warned earlier this month that Al Qaeda was "seeking chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons." Though there is no proof bin Laden has acquired any, the accused terrorist mastermind recently told a Pakistani journalist that he would unleash chemical or nuclear weapons on the US if he was targeted with them by American forces.
While American officials maintain that bin Laden and his men are responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, much possibly useful evidence in that case and others - including a smorgasbord of names, phone numbers, maps, and other details related to Al Qaeda operations - may have been lost in the swift turnover of Kabul.
Rebel officers collected some material their first day, and journalists have gathered suitcases full. Local residents say many documents disappeared in the wind or into their stoves. Only yesterday did rebel guards receive orders to protect any remaining evidence.
"People knew they were Osama's soldiers," says Atiq Shams, who lives two doors down from an Al Qaeda house in the rundown district of Kalola Pushta. "When the Arabs escaped, we saw pictures of Osama on the wall," says Mr. Shams. "We took them and burned them." All that remains, as alliance troops begin to move in, are torn fragments of the Arabic edition of a sort of "terrorist cookbook," which describes everything from how to make TNT and propellant for rocket grenades to mine-laying methods.
The fact that these Al Qaeda houses were open for looting is seen by many as a lost opportunity for American investigators.
After the first reports late last week of the likely significance of the Al Qaeda houses, US officials say they are listing the locations. "Now, we are about the business of checking those sites as they fall under our control," said Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of US operations in Afghanistan.
Already, the picture of the Al Qaeda lifestyle here is becoming clearer. All but a few of the base houses are in poor neighborhoods. Appearing neglected - but armed with everything from plastic explosives to Western-made detonators - they suggest a Spartan existence of extreme single-mindedness. "Do not be afraid that you may be killed," reads a tract in the bomb-making house, in the Wazir Akbar Khan district. "You will be alive in the other world."
In one house, a slightly out-of-focus image of one pale-skinned resident shows a young man with short hair and a bushy black beard. Unseen in the photo are the soldering irons and tweezers, or the plastic sack with a cannibalized Casio watch, used to make a timing device. Also out of frame are the ink-on-velum and film negative images used to produce fake visa and immigration stamps. Among them: ones purporting to be from the Pakistan Embassy in Rome the Tajikistan consulate in Islamabad.
"The people doing this work are not Afghans. They are Arabs - they are terrorists," says Mullah Baligh, who leads a Kabul mosque. "They are interpreting the Koran to favor their views and only appeal to the uneducated by saying: 'Come on, it is a jihad.'"
Today, many of the Al Qaeda houses smell of rotting food and dust. Detailed expense sheets for fuel, salaries, and rent point to a high degree of organization. So do the ammunition request forms.
"It was obvious they were from Al Qaeda," says landlord Gul Ahmat, who owns the most luxurious of the houses. "I regret renting to them, because they left a big, unpaid electricity bill," he says. "They paid three months in advance, then they didn't let me come back."
Correspondent Philip Smucker in Deh Bala, Afghanistan contributed to this report.