The Insurgent's Tale: Rolling Stone's 2005 Profile of a Soldier Reconsidering Jihad

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When Khalid arrived in Afghanistan early that year, the Taliban had unified most of the country under the strict banner of sharia law. The ragtag bands of foreign jihadists who had fought the communists were gone. In their place was a sophisticated network of training camps run by Al Qaeda. This was a new age of jihad, a well-organized, well-financed struggle led by Osama bin Laden. Jihad, Khalid discovered, had been institutionalized.

At first, Khalid ran a sort of hostel in Mashhad, deep in the rugged Iranian frontier. The 600-mile-long border between Iran and Afghanistan is difficult to police because of its steep mountains and many trails, and Al Qaeda was taking advantage of the covert passageways, sheltering jihadists at Khalid's hostel before sending them over the mountains into Afghanistan.

That summer, on a trip into Afghanistan, Khalid met bin Laden at the leader's camp near Kandahar. They talked about the course of jihad and the situation in Yemen, a country for which bin Laden had a special fondness — his father and one of his wives were born there, and Yemen had always supplied some of the best and bravest mujahideen, men bin Laden relied on as his most trusted fighters and bodyguards. Khalid thought jihad should be extended to Yemen, but bin Laden disagreed, saying it would stretch his forces too thin. "There is no justice in Yemen," he told Khalid, "but we can't fight there now."

By the summer of 2001, there was a palpable feeling in the camps that something big was about to happen. Around that time, Khalid ran into an old friend from his days in Bosnia: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a Pakistani who had risen to prominence as an operational chief of Al Qaeda. Mohammed asked Khalid to volunteer for a mission to the United States or Europe — his British passport would enable him to slip in and out of a Western country. But Khalid refused. He was willing to fight foreign soldiers invading Arab lands, but he wasn't ready to take the war to America or Europe.

On September 11th, Khalid was near Kabul when a Libyan cleric announced that the World Trade Center had been destroyed. Everyone in the camp exploded in jubilation — the mood was exhilarating, insane, like Mecca at the height of the hajj. As Khalid remembers it, it was the moment when everything changed. The mujahideen had struck a blow against the West that would never be forgotten. And in the process, they had made themselves the target of the world's only remaining superpower.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan, Khalid saw his most intense fighting in and around Khost. Even with help from a local sheik, the foreign fighters couldn't do much against the American onslaught. One night, Khalid was sleeping in a car near Khost with three other fighters. When he woke up and walked away to relieve himself, the car was blown to bits. Khalid later helped to bury a body he believed to be the wife of Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's second in command. The woman had been killed in a school where many Al Qaeda families had sought shelter from the American bombings.

After a few weeks, as the relentless bombing continued, a message arrived from bin Laden: Any mujahideen who could still travel should return to their home countries. There was no point in dying in Afghanistan. "There was no way to fight a decent war there with the Americans," Khalid recalled. "We hardly ever saw a soldier to fire at." Though the Bush administration believed it had routed the Islamic forces, the mujahideen, in fact, had beat a strategic retreat. American commanders, reluctant to expose ground troops to danger, had relied on a strategy of bombing from above that allowed many Al Qaeda members to slip away, ready and willing to fight again another day.

In late 2001, Sheikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operational chief, ordered Khalid to guide a group of fifty women and children to safety in Iran, over the same mountains he had crossed to enter Afghanistan. "You know the route," Mohammed said. "Take some families with you." He gave Khalid thousands of dollars to pay for Afghan guides and to take care of the Iranian border guards.

The journey to Iran took two weeks. They trekked across high mountains — a string of women and children wandering through a remote corner of the world, eating dates, plants and whatever animals they could kill along the way. When they reached Iran, pro-Taliban allies were waiting to shuttle them to safety. For weeks after the trip, Khalid's shoulders ached from carrying so many children on his back.

In the years before September 11th, Khalid and his fellow mujahideen could move around the world with relative ease — creating fake passports, bribing border police, claiming that they were Iraqi dissidents fleeing the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Immigration officials were a nuisance, but there was always a way around them. Now, returning to England from Afghanistan in 2002, Khalid discovered that even a real British passport couldn't protect him from scrutiny. When he changed planes in Abu Dhabi, the police stopped him, suspecting that his passport was fake. A well-dressed supervisor came out to question him. "What's Marks and Spencer?" the man asked.

"A big British department store," Khalid said. "Look, I'm a British citizen, from Yemen. I'm Shiite. Why would I want to go and help the Taliban? They hate Shiites. I was on a pilgrimage to holy places in Iran." After a few hours they let him go, and he boarded a plane to London.

At Heathrow, he was detained again. British officials asked for his luggage and he told them he had only hand baggage. Strike one. They examined his ticket: one-way from Tehran. Strike two. As he sat on a hard bench in a glass-paneled interrogation room, deathly afraid, he could see officials leafing through his passport in the next room. They kept coming back to one page — a page that had been doctored in Afghanistan to remove a Pakistani visa. He claimed he had accidentally left it in his pants and then ironed them, but they didn't buy it. Strike three. At midnight the agents handcuffed him, shoved him in the back seat of an unmarked car and took him to a maximum-security detention facility.

They questioned him for five days. As the interrogation continued, however, Khalid came to see that he was safer in England, protected by the country's due-process laws, than many of his brothers detained by the Americans in Afghanistan. Realizing that the police had nothing on him, he denied everything. They finally let him go, unable to hold him without further evidence.

The incident communicated something important to Khalid: The jihadi's life had changed after 9/11. Not long ago he could travel all over the world with impunity; now they were hassling him at Heathrow just because he was flying in from Tehran on a one-way ticket with a piece of hand luggage.

Khalid lived quietly in England for a year and a half, working at the corner shop and praying at a local mosque. Around that time, he befriended a fellow Yemeni who would come to share his passion for jihad: Wa'il al Dhaleai, who was well known in England as a leading tae kwon do instructor and Olympic hopeful.

In 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, it was clear to Khalid where he would next do battle. Getting into Iraq from Syria was no more difficult than dressing up like a farmer and walking across the border with phony papers in the middle of the night. But the fighting was a different story. In the early stages of the war, there weren't many foreign fighters like Khalid in Iraq; the bulk of the insurgency was comprised of native-born Sunnis who simply wanted to drive the Americans from their country. They welcomed the foreigners — they weren't in a position to be choosy — but they weren't interested in jihad's broader goal of imposing Islamic law on Iraq.

Khalid quickly discovered that it was impossible to blend in — Iraqis tend to be bigger than Yemenis, and their body language and dialect are hard to imitate. Shiites were especially quick to report foreign Sunnis to the authorities. Khalid and his Arab brothers had the same problem as the American forces they were fighting: They didn't know which Iraqis they could trust.

Most of the foreign fighters in Iraq were very young. At thirty-two, Khalid felt like an old man. Stuck in their safe houses, the mujahideen had to rely on Iraqi insurgents to report on the movement of American convoys, scouting for an opening that would allow them to attack. Months after President Bush declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq, Khalid was ambushing U.S. forces in the northern city of Mosul. Around the same time, Saddam Hussein's sons died in a fierce gun battle there. That October, Khalid's friend Wa'il also died, fighting the Americans in the town of Ramadi.

After three months in Iraq, Khalid returned to England through Syria. But jihad seemed to shadow him everywhere. One evening, after returning home from work, Khalid heard a helicopter overhead. Seconds later the police kicked in the door, handcuffed him and arrested him on suspicion of terrorism. People on his block couldn't believe that the friendly guy who sat behind the counter at their corner store was an Al Qaeda fighter.

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