A conversation with an Al Qaeda true believer
The interview, like the US war here, did not start well.
"I will say just one word to you: Get out of my face, now!" says Abdul Rehman, an Arab Taliban fighter, from his hospital bed here. Injured last week during the air attacks on Kandahar, Afghanistan, his tone is matter-of-fact, his English near-perfect.
"I hate you; you are my enemy. There is only one conversation between me and you. This is a war conversation, a killing conversation, and you started this war."
Then, in a breath, he changes from warrior to evangelist.
"I have a big faith, that if you read and know what is Islam, real Islam, you will change your religion."
Mr. Rehman's hatred laced with zeal is a chilling reminder that the threat from Al Qaeda operatives won't necessarily disappear with the US military victories in Afghanistan. Rehman and four other Arab and Sudanese fighters are under Pakistani police custody. But the vast majority of the thousands of Arab fighters and their leaders, including Osama bin Laden, remain at large. Afghan warlords say some Arabs have fled with their weapons to cave complexes to carry on guerrilla war against Afghanistan's new rulers, and some have fled to neighboring Pakistan in hopes of finding a haven elsewhere. Their continued presence in the region could remain a threat to any future Afghan government, and will certainly be the unfinished business of America's war on terrorism.
"As you know, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are the real cause of the destruction of Afghanistan," says Tawakal Ishakzai, a tribal elder for the small Ishakzai tribe of Pashtuns. "If they are arrested and given to the Americans, we will support that, because this will bring real peace and reconciliation to Afghanistan."
At present, victory on the battlefield by anti-Taliban forces has brought few signs of the whereabouts of Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network. Bin Laden himself is thought to be in a cave and tunnel complex in eastern Afghanistan called Tora Bora, where anti-Taliban leaders are currently mounting an offensive. Local Afghans say that as many as 10 Al Qaeda leaders have been killed during heavy US bombing of Tora Bora over the past two weeks, although there is no independent confirmation.
In separate interviews, Rehman, the injured Egyptian fighter, confirms to reporters that bin Laden's third-in-command, Egyptian radical Abu Hafz, died in the air assault on Kandahar's airport. This confirmation indicates that Rehman is likely a member of Al Qaeda himself.
Propped up in his hospital bed and dressed in a dark blue Afghan salwar kameez, Rehman looks like many of the devout Muslims who support the Taliban cause in Afghanistan. A long, black beard extends to his chest. His forehead bears a brownish mark, the sign of many years of brushing his head against the ground five times a day in prayer. The one remaining sign of his militant belief is a cast on his leg. Doctors say the leg is beyond repair and will have to be amputated.
Rehman initially refuses to tell reporters gathered in his room anything, not even his name or country of origin. His name is written on his medical chart, however. And while he told Pakistani police his birthplace was the United Arab Emirates, Arab reporters say he speaks with a distinct Egyptian accent.
After an initial bout of hostility, and demands that one American reporter be thrown out for taking his picture, the Arab fighter ends up giving a patient description of his Islamist beliefs.
"I am a slave of Allah," he says. (The name Abdul Rehman is Arabic for "slave of the merciful one.") "Allah orders me to do one thing, and not to do some other things. I'm just obeying him. This is Islam. But in your religion, it is different. You have democracy. Because democracy says 'We control ourselves, we will follow ourselves only, without asking what comes from Allah. We know better than Him.'"
"So the struggle between you and me is cultural," he adds. "The fight will continue." Where? A reporter asks. "Everywhere. God willing, it will be inside your country."
Rehman says Muslims could not have committed the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, because Islam forbids killing civilians in times of war. "The people who were killed in the World Trade Center, most of them are civilians, but we did not kill civilians," he says. "I want for [President] Bush to show me the proof that Muslims did this."
He then amends his denial. "We did not kill civilians, but if civilians come to attack us, we will attack them," he says. "I don't like to kill people, and I don't like to see blood. But if you have a gun and try to kill our people, what is my option?"
Similarly, Rehman appears stunned upon hearing the news that Mullah Muhammad Omar, the supreme Taliban leader, has surrendered the city of Kandahar. "I don't believe this; I am sure this has not happened," he says, sitting up suddenly. Similarly, he denies that US troops could have set up a base south of the city. "American movies, like Mr. Rambo, these movies affect too much the American mind," he warns. "They try to say to everybody, 'We have the power to do anything. If you hide anyplace in the world, we are seeing you.' The Taliban will never give up. They are fighting until the death."
Rehman, a husband and father of four children, admits that he didn't start out as a religious zealot. In fact, as a young man, he learned English and planned to travel to America to enjoy "a beautiful life there." But current events in the Middle East prompted Rehman to turn to books, including Western history books, and he came away from this education with a feeling that Western civilization aimed to destroy Islamic culture and to kill Muslim people, from Afghanistan to Kashmir, and from Chechnya to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
"I began to ask, why are all these Muslims killed, and why are the Christians always ending up on top?" he says. "I started to study and to ask, and I discovered that your culture was built on blood."
Rehman says he has no intention of returning to Egypt, where authorities would undoubtedly jail him for his radical Islamist activities. He does not know what he will do next. "My country is wherever there is Islam," he says. "I belong to Islam; I don't belong to the land."