April 16, 2007 Face to face with the Taliban's new favorite weapon in the Afghan war: human bombs.
The village was in Taliban country, roughly 170 miles southwest of Kabul and more than an hour by foot from the main road. When a NEWSWEEK reporter walked in alone through the snow one cold February day, a guerrilla with an AK-47 was there to meet him. The visit had been arranged in advance through Taliban officials who have been consistently reliable news sources. Our aim was to speak to volunteers who had trained to be suicide bombers, hoping to shed light on their minds and motives. The guide led our reporter to a mud-brick house, where a boy of 10 or so hauled out something heavy in a flour sack. The Taliban man took the sack and slung it over his shoulder, heading toward another house. Then he told his visitor what was in the bag: a pair of suicide vests, stuffed with explosives. "If these jackets go off, anyone within 100 meters will be killed," the fighter warned, with a twisted smile.
Fortunately the load on his shoulder killed no one at all that day. But Taliban leaders are counting on these weapons to drive America out of Afghanistan. In his latest propaganda video the murderous Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah Akhund brags of having 1,800 trained suicide bombers just waiting for orders to strike and kill. Other Taliban leaders question that figure, but there's no doubt that the rate of attacks is skyrocketing. With tools and tactics borrowed from Iraq's insurgents, the Taliban committed 139 suicide bombings last year, more than five times the 2005 number. So far this year they have carried out more than 30 such attacks, killing dozens of people and wounding scores more. Security forces in Afghanistan are bracing for even worse to come: in his new video, Dadullah declares that the Taliban's annual spring offensive is "starting now."
While Taliban leaders claim to attack only legitimate military targets, most of the dead and injured have been civilians. Of the nearly 300 people who were killed by suicide bombers in Afghanistan last year, 75 percent were unarmed men, women and children. This year is expected to be even bloodier. Suicide car bombs went off last week in Laghman province and Kabul, reportedly killing a total of 14 people—at least five of them children.
Such collateral damage doesn't seem to faze the killers. In another recent Dadullah video, filmed in late February, the Taliban commander addresses a crowd of 450 or so supposed recruits for suicide-bombing missions—"Mullah Omar's missiles," as the guerrillas call them—at a brick-and-stone fortress, most likely in Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area. "You provide the jihad with a technology that will defeat the crusaders' modern technology," Dadullah tells his listeners. "Your bodies are our new cruise missiles and atomic bombs."
It's a misleading analogy. Suicide vests don't have nearly the destructive power needed to be an effective strategic weapon. But they still kill, and they have a disproportionate impact on the struggle for hearts and minds. The bombers have already driven a wedge between ordinary Afghans and the forces supporting the Kabul government. Many civilians actively avoid police and soldiers for fear of suicide attacks like the bombing in Kandahar last September that injured more than two dozen adults and children, and killed four Canadian soldiers who were giving away candy. The troops have grown similarly fearful. Coalition vehicles now display warning signs in both Pashto and Dari: KEEP BACK OR WE'LL SHOOT. In recent months at least 10 Afghan civilians have died when they walked or drove too close to convoys; just last month in Kandahar province a tailgating truck-driver was killed by a warning shot that ricocheted off his engine block.
The bombers themselves claim this is all part of the jihad. Having picked up the suicide vests, the Taliban guide led the way to another house in the village, where eight other heavily armed guerrillas waited. A short while later, three intense-looking young men arrived. The guide introduced them as fedayeen—literally, men who are ready to sacrifice their lives. One of the three, his head and face swathed in a black-and-white kaffiyeh with only his blue eyes peering out, barely spoke except to say he was from Afghanistan. The second, carrying a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and wearing a black knit ski cap, brown jacket and tribal pants and shirt, said he was from Pakistan's Waziristan tribal area. The third, a 27-year-old Pakistani from Peshawar, gave his nom de guerre as Abu Aqeel. "I have come here for jihad, to drive the occupying U.S. and infidel forces from our Muslim country," he declared. "I want my body and bones to hit the U.S. Army." His suicide vest, having been removed from the sack, looked every bit as deadly as the guide had warned.
Abu Aqeel kept his face and hair hidden under a green checked scarf, but he seemed eager to tell his story. What we heard from him and other fighters was consistent with the facts we know from U.S. and Afghan intelligence and from previous reporting. His upbringing wasn't especially religious; as a child in the capital of Pakistan's North-West Frontier province, he attended a government school, not a madrassa. But when America attacked Afghanistan in 2001, he sided with the Taliban. He couldn't join the fight then because his mother was ill. Still, he never gave up his dream of enlisting in the jihad. Last summer, at a refugee camp east of Peshawar, he met a Taliban fighter who promised to help. Taliban and Qaeda recruiters prowl the region tirelessly in search of poor, uneducated young Afghans and Pakistanis who will swallow their blandishments, lies and promises of an instant trip to paradise—along with payoffs of thousands of dollars to the bombers' families, according to U.S. intelligence.
Abu Aqeel's mother recovered, and early this year the recruiter phoned and told the young Pakistani to meet him in Dera Ismail Khan, a city on the Indus River about 150 miles south of Peshawar. Together they traveled from there to a militant boot camp not far from Wana, South Waziristan's capital, where a group of Afghans, Pakistani tribals and Qaeda Arabs were training some 130 Taliban recruits. Abu Aqeel spent one month there in basic training. At graduation time, a Taliban commander asked if anyone wanted to volunteer to become a fedayeen. Abu Aqeel immediately signed up to join the Ishtihadeyan—the "Martyrdom Seekers." He said: "I wanted to be a suicide attacker from the start."
Suicide bombings used to be unthinkable in Afghanistan. Such attacks were viewed as a terrible crime against Islam, especially among the ethnic Pashtun—the traditional tribes from which the Taliban has drawn an overwhelming majority of its members. Nevertheless, bloodthirsty commanders like Dadullah and their Qaeda friends have devised an interpretation of the Qur'an to rationalize such indiscriminate carnage. Abu Aqeel and some three dozen classmates underwent two weeks of specialized training. They learned to pack cars, motorcycles and vests with plastic explosives, and how to turn them into bombs using batteries and detonators. (They also learned to use things like cell phones as remote-control triggers for nonsuicide attacks.) They got basic lessons in driving motorcycles and cars. Then the group marched across the thinly patrolled border into Afghanistan. Their equipment was sent in separately to avoid detection. The vests that were shown to our reporter in the village were said to have come hidden in a truckload of clothing.
A pair of Taliban handlers brought Abu Aqeel and his two companions to Ghazni. Suicide volunteers are given as little contact as possible with ordinary fighters and villagers, and are kept away from "distractions" like television, radio and newspapers. They are encouraged to spend most of their time praying and reading the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. "We don't even joke or laugh in front of them," says Omar Farooqi, a Taliban official who serves as a liaison to Al Qaeda in Ghazni. "Theirs is serious business." Nevertheless, he says, the bombers are allowed to change their minds and quit their suicide mission at any time. Abu Aqeel said he had no qualms about his decision. "It does not matter if I die," he told our reporter. "Many others will follow me and we will successfully implement Sharia [Islamic law], expel the foreigners and bring peace to Afghanistan."
In February, he said that he had spent the past month in this backwater village quietly waiting for the order to go out and blow himself up. It's not as simple as it may seem to plan a successful attack, says Mullah Sabir, a senior Taliban commander in Ghazni province; reconnoitering and selecting a target can take days or weeks—and even then it's hardly a sure thing. "At times we can't get close enough to the enemy to hit him," says a suicide handler in Ghazni province who goes by the name Abdullah. U.S. military convoys and patrols would be the preferred targets if their heavy armor and sophisticated detection and countermeasure systems didn't make them so hard to attack. Instead, the suicide bombers are often sent out against softer targets like Afghan government officials and police—targets that tend to increase the risk to civilians.
That's no great worry for the Taliban. Many Afghans routinely blame the Americans for any civilian deaths. The guerrillas have begun using that tendency to their advantage. In one recent attack just outside the eastern town of Jalalabad, a suicide car bomber rammed into a U.S. convoy, injuring one American soldier but killing only himself. Taliban gunmen simultaneously launched an ambush, hitting the convoy with RPGs and AK-47s. The Americans returned fire, and eight or more civilians died in the shoot-out. In response, hundreds of furious townspeople marched in a violent anti-U.S. demonstration.