A neighbor's view of the Al Qaeda network

Arab fighters who fled Jalalabad last week left a trail of clues, from warfare training manuals to mortars.

To 9-year-old Ashaq, the men who lived next door were rather odd.

Even by Afghan standards, they were unusually well-armed, with everything from heavy machine guns to rocket-propelled grenade launchers and land mines.

The only time Ashaq and his family saw neighbors Abul Nasir and Abu Saleh, was when they drove in and out of the compound in Toyota trucks.

"We knew they were commanders by their pickup trucks, because only commanders can have such cars," says Ashaq. He says the five children who lived next-door were not allowed to speak to him.

"We didn't know what was inside the home," says Abdul Darof, Ashaq's father. "When we saw them at the gate, they had furious features and they didn't want to talk with us."

Now, the Darofs know why their neighbors were so secretive. They were members of Al Qaeda, a loose network of Islamic militants founded by Osama bin Laden, the man Washington considers responsible for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Since the Arabans, as they are known locally, fled their homes and military bases around Jalalabad, a city in southeast Afghanistan on the main road between the capital, Kabul, and Peshawar, Pakistan, a clearer picture is emerging of their lives and their mission in Afghanistan. As the US continues to pursue its war on terrorism - and Mr. bin Laden - Al Qaeda's methods and motives are under close scrutiny.

Most Arabs kept to themselves, neighbors say, and seemed focused on preparing for war. While they wore typical Afghan clothing and learned Pashtu, the language of Afghanistan's dominant ethnic Pashtuns, Afghans say the Arabs were an unfriendly lot. Asked if he was happy his neighbors had left, Mr. Darof smiles and points to his own home. "I am only happy this place was not bombed by American planes," he says.

In the home of Mr. Nasir and Mr. Saleh, heaps of weapons are stacked in storage closets. Dozens of warfare training manuals teach everything from how to assemble a homemade land mine to how to shoot down a jet fighter with a stinger missile. One 1,023-page tome has a section with algebraic formulas to help fire a missile at a fast-moving target.

All of the manuals are written in Arabic, but many illustrations and photographs have English captions, perhaps lifted from military-training manuals or gun-enthusiast magazines.

"We knew these people were dashadgard" - Pashtu for "terrorist," says Jamal Mucheh, picking through munitions and weapons left behind in the courtyard. He is a subcommander with the mujahideen, self-styled holy warriors allied with the Northern Alliance forces that have seized control of much of Afghanistan from the Islamist Taliban militia. The Taliban has played host to bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Subcommander Mucheh says he and his fighters confronted a vehicle full of Arabs last Wednesday when the Taliban were retreating from Jalalabad. "We wanted to arrest them peacefully, but they didn't surrender," he says.

At Duranta, an Al Qaeda military base outside Jalalabad, strings of 30-foot-deep craters show where massive 500-pound American bombs landed Oct. 9. Some local residents say this is where Al Qaeda members mixed chemicals to make weapons.

"We saw this camp before the Taliban came, during the Russian times [1979-1989], and we liberated it from the Russians then," says Zaman Shah, a mujahideen commander who has been a fighter since he was 10. "Now, we have liberated it a second time."

The sprawling camp occupies hills that overlook the Kabul River and the crucial road between Kabul and Jalalabad. Artillery pieces, tanks, and anti-aircraft weapons have been left in hilltop positions now occupied by Northern Alliance forces. One mud-brick building with a collapsed tin roof remains packed with thousands of mortar rounds, artillery shells, and rocket-propelled grenades, some still in their plastic wrappers.

Commander Shah says that most of the Arab and Taliban soldiers who occupied the base are probably nearby, perhaps in the White Mountains to the south.

"I don't worry about the Taliban or the Arabs," he says. "Even if they return, we will go back to our mountains then again return to this base."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.