Inside a Taliban terrorism class

Stepped up attacks in Afghanistan may be a sign of well-trained graduates searching for soft targets.

By his own reckoning, Ahmed Gul was a pretty good student of terrorism. During Taliban times, he learned to lay mines, plant bombs, kidnap enemies, fire Chinese rockets - and to blend into the general population as, say, a simple Afghan farmer.

Mr. Gul is one of 425 members of the class of 1998 at the Mechanical High School here who took what the Taliban called the "Khas Turesti Course," or Special Course in Terrorism. Students who finished the class were usually deployed immediately to combat their chief foe at the time, Ahmad Shah Masood's Northern Alliance.

"The main purpose of the course was to make a strong group of terrorists within the framework of Islam," says Gul, who asked that his name be changed. "The people who had been working with the Taliban from the beginning, they chose the students for the Special Course in Terrorism. We students had to be more religious than others."

Kept secret by Afghan officials until recently, the terrorism course in Khost is a sign of how far the former regime was willing to go in fighting what it considered to be enemies of Islam. The Taliban delved deeply and enthusiastically into terrorism - offering training in everything from Hamas-style marketplace bombings to kidnapping and assassination. Now, perhaps hundreds of terrorist alumni may be practicing their skills against US and allied forces - even against foreign aid workers - across vast, unstable portions of southern Afghanistan.

"We don't know completely where [Islamic militants] are getting their weapons, but they are very well trained," says Gen. Khial Baz Sherzai, military chief of Khost and commander of the 25th Land Force.

"The question is why they don't put mines in crowded cities to kill many people," says General Sherzai. "Here in Khost, we have increased our soldiers in the cities, so all they can do is put their bombs away from the city." But in other cities like Kabul, he says, the potential for terrorist attacks may be greater.

Military officials and intelligence agents for the Afghan government say that the terrorism course appears to have begun only about a year and a half after the Taliban took power. A similar course was offered in Kabul, but the Khost class drew students from all over Afghanistan as well as instructors from Egypt, Pakistan, Libya, and Palestine. Prominent graduates include Hazratuddin Habibi, the former Taliban intelligence chief in Khost who was given the same job by the current Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Habibi was removed from his post last month on suspicion that he was supplying information to Al Qaeda.

A string of attacks in the past month shows that terrorists are remaining quite active. In Khost, there were three land-mine attacks on local residents, including the deputy chief of intelligence, who was unharmed. In other parts of the country, attacks against foreigners are on the rise: a Red Cross worker from Ecuador was pulled from his car and shot; an Italian tourist on a motorcycle tour was shot on the road from Kandahar to Kabul; and two foreign aid workers for the demining group ATC were shot at and injured along the Kabul-Jalalabad road near the town of Sarobi.

For US and Afghan military officials, these are indications that opponents of the current government of President Hamid Karzai are stepping up their efforts to find soft targets, and to increase the feelings of insecurity among the Afghan people.

But officials say it's hard to know whether the current terrorist activities are linked to the Mechanical High School, or whether they go back to training of Islamic guerrillas by CIA and Pakistani advisers during the war against the Soviets in the 1980s. Afghan officials say no official record has been found to to determine which residents of this provincial capital were former students of the terrorist class.

Still, officials say they have a pretty clear picture of how much terrorist training the Taliban did of their own in their five brief years in power.

According to former students at the school and Afghan intelligence officials, the school trained several hundred students starting in January 1998, some 17 months after the Taliban took control of Kabul.

There were six teachers at the school, including one Libyan, two Egyptians, one Afghan, one Pakistani, and a Palestinian headmaster named Abu Maz. This may be the same Abu Maz who led the terrorist bombing campaign of the radical Palestinian terrorist group Hamas.

Classes met daily for three hours of classroom instruction, complete with hands-on practical training in wiring and arming explosive devices, kidnapping hostages, setting up ambushes, planting car bombs, using remote control devices and timers, and how to befriend people to extract information. Training in setting off explosives and target practice with Kalashnikovs required a field trip to the Jawora district of Khost.

"They were not only teaching in classrooms," says the deputy chief of intelligence of Khost, who recently survived a land-mine attack. He spoke on condition of not being named. "In any work, you have to have practical training, so they used to bring the actual mine to class and the remote controls and let the students practice using them."

Gul says he misses his days at the Mechanical High School. Sitting under a mulberry tree, this 40-something farmer and former terrorist recalls his favorite teacher, whom he won't name, his fellow students from other provinces of Afghanistan, and a mysterious first mission as a terrorist.

Immediately after graduation, he was sent to Badakhshan province, the base of the Northern Alliance. Gul refuses to discuss exactly what he did there, but he does indicate that several of his classmates on this mission were killed, or as he prefers to say, martyred for the cause of Islam.

"Most of my class fellows were arrested and they became hostages in Badakhshan, Konar, and Oruzgan provinces," he says wistfully. "Some of them were later killed in the last days of the Taliban. And I don't know how many are alive and where they are.

"But the people who were against Islam, we put the landmines and killed them where we could," he says.

Today's regime is just as bad as the Northern Alliance was, he adds. "The current democracy is against Islam, because women can go to work in offices with their faces uncovered, and they can even drink wine and go to parties. This is all forbidden in Islam."

He pulls a piece of grass and uses it to pick his teeth. "But right now, I don't have the power to do anything," he sighs. "That's why I'm at home and taking care of my family. I am just a simple farmer now."

Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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