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Al Qaeda in Afghanistan Zapping Foreign Lands


BANGKOK, Thailand -- During the first days of America's bombardment
and invasion of Afghanistan 20 years ago, the Taliban government
collapsed in panic, abandoning Kabul in November 2001.

Simultaneously, their Arab allies including Osama bin Laden and other
al Qaeda fighters fled their expensive homes and weapons-stocked
training camps in Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad and elsewhere.

In Jalalabad, 88 miles east of Kabul, bin Laden and al Qaeda abandoned
all sorts of things during their rushed escape.

In their former homes and schools, I found bullet-punctured targets of
silhouetted heads, foreign passports, forged visas, hand-drawn
bomb-making instructions, and freshly printed news clippings
downloaded from the Internet reporting about the hijackers who crashed
planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Today, the US and other countries fear a possible return of al Qaeda
Islamists -- perhaps renamed and much more secretive -- and a
continuation of their previous deadly behavior which went far beyond
the 9/11 attack.

Startling evidence of their byzantine international reach, especially
into Europe and the Middle East, and history-changing assassinations
and terrorist successes lay in their abandoned homes.

Today's new, victorious Taliban regime promised not to allow al Qaeda
to shelter in Afghanistan again, but many people in the world fear
they could.

"Osama bin Laden spent a lot of time here in Jalalabad during his stay
in Afghanistan," Nangarhar Province's Police Chief Hazrat Ali said in
an interview in November 2001.

"More than 5,000 or 6,000 Arabs were living in this city, and they had
their own bases and training camps. Jalalabad was very much used by
the Arabs during Taliban time."

Exploring al Qaeda's abandoned homes in Jalalabad revealed chilling
aspects of how they prepared to kill their enemies while dwelling in
an otherwise dull provincial capital.

After the 2001 US invasion secured Jalalabad, anti-Taliban troops with
Kalashnikov rifles guarded these valuable homes.

Kitchens, living rooms and inner courtyards were littered with
documents, notebooks, and other random evidence left behind by fleeing
people.

Half-eaten food still lay spread on dining tables.

Inside one sprawling white-walled complex, a notebook's handwritten
French displayed a student's attempt to learn military lessons and how
to stage attacks.

"Airplanes. Number one: Bomb with big explosive power for immediate
explosion," read one entry in French.

"Protect yourself from cannons and missiles. Avoid missiles after they
hit the target because they can explode later," another entry
suggested.

A page torn from a cheap notebook listed chemical formulas including
explanations written in Arabic next to the initials TNT and RDX -- the
initials of trinitrotoluene and royal demolition explosive.

Several pages were illustrated with hand-drawn schematics of large
bombs and detonators, complete with "on" and "off" switches.

In 2022, if there is a resurgent al Qaeda in Afghanistan, they would
presumably upgrade their computer skills to forge visas, which in
those days were often rubber-stamped.

They may also continue to use Pakistan and other countries for
fallback positions.

Amid backyard debris someone repeatedly hand-printed a rectangular
rubber stamp which said, "Consul General, High Commission for
Pakistan, London" and a circular rubber stamp for the "High Commission
of Pakistan, London."

They also repeatedly printed a rubber stamp for "Islamabad
International Airport, Islamabad, Pakistan" confirming an "entry" on
"10 Aug 2000".

Entry and exit stamps for Istanbul, Turkey were also printed on scraps of paper.

A photographic negative, cut from a larger sheet of film, showed an
official departure stamp from Jordan's international airport, with a
blank space where a date could be filled in.

Al Qaeda members and their families also left clothing, Islamic
textbooks, tape cassettes, and personal letters.

That information showed why the US was frequently baffled when hunting
key al Qaeda insurgents, and how the Islamists' loyalty to each other
often depended on marriages.

For example, a discarded personal letter displayed the address,
written in pencil, of Fatma Sliti in Brussels, Belgium.

Fatma's father was Amor Ben Mohamed Sliti.

He was reportedly a well-known member of al Qaeda, born in Algeria of
Tunisian descent.

A small, color headshot photo of the black-bearded Sliti, sized for a
visa application, showed a man with close-cropped hair, wearing a dark
purple shirt, photographed in front of a white background.

A handful of similar visa-sized color photographs of other bearded men
lay nearby. One image showed a young boy.

A black-and-white photo portrayed an elegant unsmiling woman.

Severe-looking, glaring, turbaned men appeared in nearby scattered photos.

More photos were stuffed in a commercial Afghan Photo Studio envelope.

Al Qaeda's deadly personal relationships in Jalalabad were twisted:

"I've been investigating the key role Belgian citizens played in
Masood's killing," a Belgian RTL television journalist, Marie-Rose
Armesto, told me in February 2002.

Ahmad Shah Masood was the famous Western-backed mujahideen leader of
his Panjshir Valley-based Northern Alliance, and other guerrillas.

Two Tunisians, disguised as journalists, assassinated Masood in
Panjshir Valley two days before September 11, 2001.

Masood had been leading his Northern Alliance insurgents against the
Taliban regime.

If he had survived the suicide bombing, Masood's expert guerrilla
leadership would have been valuable for the US invaders.

Even without Masood, the US used Northern Alliance insurgents to help
Washington invade overland from the north and seize Kabul in 2001.

Jalalabad-based Al Qaeda arranged Masood's assassination.

"The two [dead] bombers were Tunisian citizens but they both lived in
my city, just near my door," Brussels-based Armesto said.

"One of these guys [the bombers' assistants] is Mohamed Sliti.

"The father of Fatma is a well-known terrorist.

"He [Sliti] was born in Algeria, but flew to Tunisia before going to
Brussels -- where he married a Belgian -- and then to Jalalabad.

"He lived in Jalalabad with his Belgian wife and his children,"
including his daughter Fatma.

"The father and the children have been arrested a few days ago [in
February 2002] in Iran. They flew from Afghanistan and entered Iran
illegally. This family, [including] Sliti, have been arrested in Iran
with 150 other al-Qaeda members.

"He was one of the trainers in the Darunta camp," Armesto said,
referring to an al Qaeda stronghold near Jalalabad which invading US
forces repeatedly bombed from the air.

Despite the heavy US assaults, some of Darunta's mud-brick bunkers
were still stocked with rockets and other ammunition at the end of
November.

A big rectangular sign set in white stone declared in Arabic:

"We Want to Show the Flag of Islam All Over the World."

Hundreds of thick, razor-sharp metal fragments from US bombs lay
scattered all over the Darunta complex, alongside unexploded
baseball-sized bomblets nestling in the earth.

Before dawn on November 23, 2001, three big US bombs hit the Darunta
complex with so much force that the shockwaves killed two children,
angry villagers told me near three deep craters.

US officials said the Darunta complex was part of a network run by
Assadalah Abdul Rahman and Abu Khabab.

Some US officials insisted "dead dogs" had been photographed at the
Abu Khabab camp, amid claims that al Qaeda tested "chemical weapons"
on the leashed beasts.

Another camp at Darunta was reportedly run by Hezb-i-Islami.

US satellite photographs of Darunta showed the area riddled with
"tunnel entrances," according to US officials.

Meanwhile, a Brussels court convicted Sliti of being an accomplice --
alongside another Tunisian-Belgian citizen -- in the assassination of
Masood.

The US government's Voice of America (VOA) news reported on March 6,
2002 that Belgian "police arrested Amor Ben Mohamed Sliti on charges
of forgery and conspiracy last week in connection with the forged
passports used by Masood's two killers.

"The assassins posed as Belgian journalists when they blew themselves
up with Masood during a mock interview. The passports found on the
bodies were stolen from the Belgian consulate in Strasbourg and the
Belgian Embassy in The Hague," VOA reported.

"On February 27, 2002, Amor ben Mohamed Sliti -- the alleged leader of
an Al Qaeda assassination team -- was arrested in the Netherlands
after being extradited from Iran," the US government's Congressional
Research Service reported.

The Belgian court sentenced Sliti to five years in prison.

The case showed NATO facilities were also an al Qaeda target.

The court said Sliti's accomplice, Nizar Trabelsi of Tunisia,
"admitted planning to drive a car bomb into the canteen of Kleine
Brogel Air Base, a Belgian military post that is used by NATO and is
the home to a US Air Force munitions support squadron," the Associated
Press reported.

Trabelsi received the maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.

Sliti had previously worked as a car mechanic in Brussels. He became
an Islamist in the mid-1990s after being radicalized by another
Belgian-Tunisian, Tarek Maaroufi, who also became a jihadist.

"In December 2001, Tarek Maaroufi was arrested for planning to bomb
the US Consulate in Milan [Italy], and for his role in the
assassination of Masood," the Congressional Research Service reported.

In 1999, Sliti took his Flemish wife and their five children to live
in Jalalabad where he joined al Qaeda, according to Dutch journalist
Guy Van Vlierden.

In Jalalabad, Sliti arranged his 13-year-old daughter Habiba, also
known as Hafsa, to marry Muhammad Ibn Arfhan Shahin, also known as
Hkimi, who was then a Tunisian guerrilla in al Qaeda.

Shahin and Sliti's cousin Hisham, also known as Hicham, were
eventually imprisoned by the Americans in Guantanamo Bay.

Shahin served 13 years and Hisham received a 12-year sentence.

The anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks published a November 4, 2007 US
Department of Defense "Detainee Assessment" document from Guantanamo
about Shahin.

His aliases included:

Abel Bin Abhmed Ibrahim Hkimi, Abdel Khalek, Abu Bilal al-Tunisi, Abu
Hind al-Tunisi, and Muhammad Bin Erfane Bin Chahine.

Shahin had arrived in Afghanistan in 1997 and also settled in
Jalalabad in 1998, the Guantanamo document said.

"He married a woman named Habiba, the daughter of Omar Sliti, also
known as Abu Nadir, and lived with his wife in the Istakhbarat --
Taliban Intelligence -- section of Jalalabad until after September 11,
2001."

Shahin "fled Afghanistan after the US bombing campaign with a group of
al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters led by [an] Osama bin Laden-appointed
military commander in Tora Bora.

The group crossed Nangarhar province and the Afghan-Pakistan border in
mid-December 2001.

"Their Pakistani contact convinced them to surrender their weapons and
gathered the group in a mosque where Pakistani forces immediately
arrested them."

Among a slew of charges against Shahin, the Guantanamo document said:

"Detainee also stated that he would kill President Bush if given the chance."

Sliti's wife meanwhile divorced him, gained custody of their children,
and they successfully reintegrated into Belgian society.

The Belgian government stripped Sliti of his citizenship in 2010.

Vlierden reported Sliti then traveled to Syria in 2014, joined Islamic
State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and lived in its temporary capital
Raqqah as a tax collector, Habiba his daughter told French journalist
Antoine Malo.

Malo interviewed Habiba, identifying her as Hafsa, in a detention camp
run by Syrian Kurds holding captured ISIS members and their families,
Vlierden reported.

Kurds had captured her in 2018 when ISIS lost Raqqah.

Meanwhile elsewhere in Jalalabad another housing complex included a
small school for boys who studied Arabic and English vocabulary, plus
Islamic subjects.

They abandoned several rabbits in a cage.

"A gun, a girl, a glass, a goat," read a page from an illustrated
English-language vocabulary book.

In a small backyard, on a square plank of wood, black paint depicted
the silhouette of a person's head and shoulders, for target practice.

About 100 bullet holes peppered the target, mostly hitting the face
and upper body.

Dozens of missed shots gouged the tan mud-and-straw wall.

In the housing complex's main yard, a brick shed protected dangerous
stacks of rockets and other live ammunition.

If al Qaeda returns to Afghanistan, scattered, secretive houses and
other buildings could become their sanctuaries, and attract an
occasional air strike from the currently defeated US military.

Bin Laden, born in Saudi Arabia, was suspected of helping to finance
al Qaeda, an international insurgency and terrorist network which
attracts other Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens, Sudanese, Somalians,
Europeans, and Afghan Taliban.

Among their goals is a worldwide Islamic holy war to oust the US from
Saudi territory, topple Riyadh's royals, and end Israel's occupation
of Palestinian land.

***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at
https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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