For the past year, a secret has been slowly spreading among Taliban commanders in Afghanistan: a 12-man team of Westerners was being trained by Al Qaeda in Pakistan for a special mission. Most of the Afghan fighters could rely only on hearsay, but some told of seeing the “English brothers” (as the foreign recruits were nicknamed for their shared language) in person. One eyewitness, a former Guantánamo detainee with close Taliban and Qaeda ties, spoke to NEWSWEEK recently in southern Afghanistan, demanding anonymity because he doesn’t want the Americans looking for him. He says he met the 12 recruits in November 2005, at a mud-brick compound near the North Waziristan town of Mir Ali. That was as much as the tight-lipped former detainee would divulge, except to mention that Adam Yahiye Gadahn, the notorious fugitive “American Al Qaeda,” was with the brothers, presumably as an interpreter.
Another Afghan had more to say on the subject. Omar Farooqi is the nom de guerre of a former provincial intelligence chief for the Taliban; he now serves as the Taliban’s chief Qaeda liaison for Ghazni province, in eastern Afghanistan. He says he spent roughly five weeks this past year helping to indoctrinate and train a class of foreign recruits near the Afghan border in tribal Waziristan, and among his students were the English brothers. The 12 included two Norwegian Muslims and an Australian, along with nine British subjects, says Farooqi. Their mission, Farooqi told news-week, will be to act as underground or-ganizers and operatives for Al Qaeda in their home countries—and their year-long training course is just about finished.
Indeed, while often thought to have become mostly an inspiration to jihadists around the world, Al Qaeda appears to be gaining strength along the unruly Afghan-Pakistani border. Within the past year, M.I.5 has produced detailed reports about a group of British men, ethnic Pakistanis, who traveled to jihadist training camps in Pakistan by way of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Afghanistan, according to a counter-terrorism official in London who requested anonymity because of the sensitive subject. And the scariest part is not what M.I.5 knows but what it doesn’t know: there’s no way the authorities can watch more than a tiny percentage of the 400,000 British residents who visit Pakistan every year.
U.S. security agencies are no less worried. American intelligence officials tell NEWSWEEK that their people are definitely concerned about terror suspects and operatives shuttling back and forth between Britain and Pakistan. One particular worry is that under current practice, British visitors to the States are not required to apply in advance for temporary visas, which are routinely granted to any British passport holder who is not on a watch list. In other words, the door is wide open for Britain’s growing ranks of young jihadists, even those who have attended Qaeda training camps, if they are unknown to intelligence agencies. U.S. officials are discussing how the visa system could be tightened. “For the most effective background checks on passengers, the United States needs information and assistance from the country where the traveler resides,” says Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke, adding that such help should be “routine.”
While the Americans talk, Al Qaeda is pressing on with its training plans, Farooqi says. He confidently described those plans to a NEWSWEEK correspondent at a mud-brick house in Paktia province, not far from the Pakistan border, mentioning the English brothers almost in passing as an example of the jihad’s recent successes. The specifics of his story could not be independently corroborated. But one gunman among the dozen or so guarding the house, with most of his face hidden by a black-and-white kaffiyeh, appeared to be a European with light-colored eyes; Farooqi later confirmed that the guard was one of the brothers. An open notebook lay on the carpet where Farooqi sat, and the NEWSWEEK correspondent caught a fleeting glimpse of scrawled names and phone numbers, including several that were preceded by the United Kingdom’s country code: 44.
Farooqi says he first met the brothers, all of them in their 20s, soon after they reached Waziristan in October 2005. He recalls one of them, known as Musa, telling him that the 7/7 bombings in London “were just a rehearsal of bigger acts to come.” A few, he couldn’t say how many, had arrived in Pakistan by air, but most had taken a clandestine overland route across Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, escorted by a network of professional smugglers. As NEWSWEEK has reported previously, Al Qaeda uses the same underground railroad to transport Iraqi bombmakers and insurgent trainers to share their skills with Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That’s something a British Qaeda operative would certainly want to keep secret. A newly issued International Crisis Group report on the tribal areas says the militants have been able to “establish a virtual mini-Taliban-style state there” where they can “provide safe haven to the Taliban and its foreign allies.” In the words of a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, who asks to remain nameless to avoid offending his hosts: “The Pakistanis simply don’t control the territory in any meaningful way, and that means a common enemy has a place [to operate]. You have to assume Al Qaeda will make the most of it.” Before September 11, Al Qaeda had no network inside Pakistan and only limited contact with Pakistani militants. Now the group has close support on both sides of the border.
Inside Afghanistan, Taliban field commanders depend on regular visits from their Qaeda paymasters. Guerrillas in eastern Ghazni province say the Arab money teams ride in from the direction of the Pakistan border astride motorcycles driven by Taliban fighters. The Qaeda men ask each local commander what weapons, money and technical assistance he needs—and then deliver the aid that is required. According to Zabibullah, a senior Taliban official who has been a reliable source in the past, Al Qaeda has more than 100 specialists, mostly Arabs, helping support Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Some counterterrorism experts argue that Al Qaeda has become only a figurehead, with no real control over the local terrorist cells it has spawned around the world. The English brothers—and the Pakistan pipeline—are signs that the organization is still in action. Farooqi says he believes, based on overhead conversations, that Al Qaeda is planning for the very long term, a decade into the future. He says the terrorist group is talking about gradually fielding more than 1,000 operatives in Europe over the next 10 years. From what he has heard, only 10 percent of those jihadists are in place so far. Based on information from M.I.5, the British Home secretary, John Reid, recently warned that a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom could be highly likely during the holidays.
The English brothers completed their Waziristan stay in October, Farooqi says, but before going home, they had one final assignment. Their Arab handlers separated them into several smaller groups and sent them into Afghanistan to see the jihad firsthand, embedded with Taliban units in Khowst and Paktia provinces. The unit commanders were warned to avoid putting them in any danger. After that, the brothers were supposed to return to Britain the same way they got to Pakistan. That means most of them could be getting home any day now—if they aren’t there already.