Fire on the Mountain

Tales of Life and Death in Tora Bora

For Osama bin Laden, this provided an opportunity to channel his religious fervor into a worthy cause. The son of a wealthy Saudi businessman, bin Laden set up shop in Peshawar in the early 1980s to support the Afghan jihad. He gave money to Afghan resistance leaders and charities working in refugee camps. More importantly, he recruited volunteer fighters, setting up hostels in Peshawar, putting the volunteers in touch with the various Afghan resistance groups and on occasion leading them to battle in Afghanistan. Although there was no shortage of manpower in Afghanistan, the CIA encouraged the effort because it wanted to see the Afghan conflict grow into an international cause célèbre.

Driven by a desire to gain martyrdom, thousands of young men heeded the call to arms, traveling to Peshawar, where they received their introduction to jihad, and then to military training camps set up along the Afghan-Pakistani border. From there they would enter Afghanistan with one of the resistance groups. By the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, several thousand Arabs and other foreign Muslims are said to have fought in Afghanistan, with hundreds losing their lives.

In Tora Bora there were always a dozen or so Arabs, and the running commentary on their presence in Afghanistan was that they had bought their way into our ranks. They were poor fighters, but they had money, and money carried clout with our leaders in Pakistan. After spending some time with them in Tora Bora and elsewhere, two things struck me about them: their religious zeal and their deep albeit subtle hatred of America—a mix that would later give rise to the Islamic terrorism now haunting the West.

I remember hearing one of the Arabs talk about the various stages of martyrdom as we trekked one day across the White Mountains to Tora Bora. As someone who had spent more than a year at a Saudi-funded religious school in Pakistan, I understood some Arabic, enough to follow him. As if reading from a manual, he talked about how two angels carry the martyr to the gates of heaven as soon as the first drop of blood comes out of his body, how on the second drop, the martyr will enter the garden of heaven, and on the third he'll be greeted by heavenly girls. He gave quite a graphic description, and even as a deeply religious person, I couldn't help but find it a bit morally licentious.

Seeking heavenly pleasures was all well and good but it wasn't what we were doing in Afghanistan. We were fighting a holy war, it was true, and cried, "God Is Great!" before lobbing mortar shells at Soviet troops, but our first and foremost goal was to liberate our country. As for the young Arab who yearned for martyrdom, he might as well have gone to a different planet to fight the infidels and die in the way of God.

I don't know what happened to him, but many others did attain martyrdom, some in ways they had not foreseen. After the Soviets left, we launched a major offensive to take the city of Jalalabad, and during that battle, I heard more than once that small groups of Arabs were taken out at night to the desert by angry local Afghans. "You want to go to heaven?" they would be asked. "I'll show you the way." The shortcut to heaven was a bullet in the head.

Most of the young Arabs who fought in Afghanistan returned to normal lives. Some were unable to shed their jihad fervor and went on to incite Islamic insurgencies in their own countries. These fighters came to be know as Afghan Arabs. A small group of diehards stayed behind, finding shelter in the chaos that fell over Afghanistan and awaiting the return of a bin Laden to lead them to a holy war of a different sort, one that may take years to quash.

As for me, I left Afghanistan in the fall of 1989. I lost contact with the men I knew at Tora Bora. I could only assume the worst as Afghanistan descended into civil war. Some made it in the news, however. My cousin Mirweis, who went on to work as a stringer for the BBC, was murdered in 1994 on the orders of a warlord who didn't like his reporting. Commander Mahmoud was killed by a personal enemy hours after the Taliban swept in on Jalalabad in the fall of 1996. And at least one went on to become a commander for the Taliban. But Dr. Hamid apparently survived the mayhem that overtook Afghanistan, going on to do one last battle for his country.

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