North-West Frontier, on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan
sheikh gul scowled at his congregation. “These days every Muslim must fight jihad,” he said in Pashtun, his voice rising. “When the Mongols invaded Baghdad, it didn’t help the people of Baghdad that they were pious Muslims. They died at the swords of the infidels.”
The sheikh threw his hands over his head.
“Now Islam is under siege again. Under siege in the land of the two mosques, and the land of the two rivers”—Saudi Arabia and Iraq. “Under siege here in Pakistan, where our leader works for Americans and Jews. Everywhere we are under siege,” said the sheikh, Mohammed Gul. He was a short, bearded man with a chunky body hidden under a smooth brown robe. His voice seemed to belong to someone much larger. Inside the mosque, a simple brick building whose walls were covered in flaking white paint, the worshippers murmured agreement and drew together. Brothers in arms. But their assent enraged the sheikh further.
“You say, ‘Yes, yes.’ But what do you do when prayers are finished? Do you sacrifice yourselves? You go home and do nothing. Muslims today love this world and hate death. We have abandoned jihad!” the sheikh shouted. He stopped to look out over the crowd and wipe his brow. “And so Allah has subjugated us. Only when we sacrifice ourselves will we restore glory to Islam. On that day Allah will finally smile on us.”
Except it sounds like none of us will be around to see it, Wells thought. In the years that Wells had listened to Gul’s sermons, the sheikh had gotten angrier and angrier. The source of his fury was easy to understand. September 11 had faded, and Islam’s return to glory remained distant as ever. The Jews still ruled Israel. The Americans had installed a Shia government in Iraq, a country that had always been ruled by Sunnis. Yes, Shias were Muslim too. But Shia and Sunni Muslims had been at odds since the earliest days of Islam. To Osama and his fellow fundamentalist Sunnis—sometimes called Wahhabis—the Shia were little better than Jews.
Al Qaeda, “the Base” of the revolution, had never recovered from the loss of its own base in Afghanistan, Wells thought. When the Taliban fell, Qaeda’s troops fled east to the North-West Frontier, the mountainous border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Wells had narrowly escaped an American bomb at Tora Bora, the last big fight of the Afghan war. He liked to imagine that the bomb had been guided by Glen Holmes, who had swung it away from the hut where Wells hid.
But the United States hadn’t closed the noose at Tora Bora, for reasons Wells had never understood. Thousands of jihadis escaped. In 2002, they reached the mountains of the North-West Frontier, so named by the British, since the area was the northwest border of colonial India. The North-West Frontier was a wild land ruled by Pashtuns, devout Muslims who supported Qaeda’s brand of jihad, and was effectively closed to Pakistani and American soldiers. Even the Special Forces could operate there only for short stretches.
So Qaeda survived. But it did not thrive. Osama and his lieutenants scurried between holes, occasionally releasing tapes to rouse the faithful. Every few months the group launched an attack. It had blasted a train station in Madrid, blown up hotels in Egypt and subways in London, attacked oil workers in Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, it fought the American occupiers. But nothing that had shaken the world like September 11.
Meanwhile Wells and his fellow jihadis eked out a miserable existence. In theory, Qaeda’s paymasters had arranged for Pashtun villagers to house them. In reality, they were a burden on desperately poor families. They had to earn their keep like everyone else. Wells and the half dozen Arabs living in this village, just outside Akora Khatak, survived on stale bread and scraps of lamb. Wells did not want to guess how much weight he had lost. He had hardly recognized himself the few times he had seen himself in a mirror. The bullet hole in his left arm had turned into a knot of scar tissue that ached unpredictably.
The winters were especially difficult, even for Wells, who had grown up playing in the Bitterroot Range on the Montana-Idaho border. The cold sank into his bones. He could only imagine what the Saudis thought. Lots of them had been martyred in these mountains, but not from bombs or bullets. They’d died of pneumonia and altitude sickness and something that looked a lot like scurvy. They’d died asking for their mothers, and a few had died cursing Osama and the awful place he’d led them. Wells ate fresh fruit whenever he could, which wasn’t often, and marveled at the toughness of the Pashtuns.
To keep sane he practiced his soldiering as much as possible. The local tribal leader had helped him set up a small firing range on flat ground a few miles outside the village. Every few weeks Wells rode out with a half dozen men and shot off as many rounds as he could spare. But he couldn’t pretend he was doing anything more than passing time. They all were. If America vs. Qaeda were a Pop Warner football game, the refs would have invoked the mercy rule and ended it a long time ago.
Gul stepped into the crowd of worshippers. He looked at the men around him and spoke again, his voice low and intense. “The time for speeches is done, brothers,” he said. “Allah willing, we will see action soon. May Allah bless all faithful Muslims. Amen.”
The men clustered close to hug the sheikh. Waiting his turn, Wells wondered if Gul knew something or was just trying to rally the congregation. He poked with his tongue at a loose molar in the back of his mouth, sending a spurt of pain through his jaw. Dental care in the North-West Frontier left something to be desired. In a few weeks he would have to visit the medical clinic in Akora to have the tooth “examined.” Or maybe he’d just find a pair of pliers and do the job himself.
Lately Wells had dreamed of leaving this place. He could hitch a ride to Peshawar, catch a bus to Islamabad, and knock on the front gate of the American embassy. Or, more accurately, knock on the roadblocks that kept a truck bomb from getting too close to the embassy’s blastproof walls. A few minutes and he’d be inside. A couple days and he’d be home. No one would say he had failed. Not to his face, anyway. They’d say he had done all he could, all anyone could. But somewhere inside he would know better. And he would never forgive himself.
Because this wasn’t Pop Warner football. The mercy rule didn’t exist. The men standing beside him in this mosque would happily give their lives to be remembered as martyrs. They were stuck in these mountains, but their goal remained unchanged. To punish the crusaders for their hubris. To take back Jerusalem. To kill Americans. Qaeda’s desire to destroy was limited only by its resources. For now the group was weak, but that could change instantly. If Qaeda’s assassins succeeded in killing Pakistan’s president, the country might suddenly have a Wahhabi in charge. Then bin Laden would have a nuclear weapon to play with. An Islamic bomb. And sooner or later there would be a big hole in New York or London or Washington.
Anyway, living here had a few compensations. Wells had learned the Koran better than he ever expected. He had a sense of how monks had lived in the Middle Ages, copying Bibles by hand. He knew now how one book could become moral and spiritual guidance and entertainment all at once.
After so many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Wells found that his belief in Islam—once just a cover story—had turned real. The faith touched him in a way that Christianity never had. Wells had always been skeptical of religion. When he read the Koran at night on his bed alone he suffered the same doubts about its promises of paradise as he did when he read the apostles’ description of Christ rising from the dead. Yet he loved the Koran’s exhortations that men should treat one another as brothers and give all they could to charity. The umma, the brotherhood, was real. He could walk into any house in this village and be offered a cup of hot sweet tea and a meal by a family that could barely feed its own children. And no one needed a priest’s help to reach the divine in Islam; anyone who studied hard and was humble could seek enlightenment for himself.
But Islam’s biggest strength was its greatest weakness, Wells thought. The religion’s flexibility had made it a cloak for the anger of men tired of being ruled by America and the West. Islam was the Marxism of the twenty-first century, a cover for national liberation movements of all stripes. Except that the high priests of Marxism had never promised their followers rewards in the next world in exchange for their deaths in this one. Wahhabis like bin Laden had married their fury at the United States with a particularly nasty vision of Islam. They wanted to take the religion back to the seventh-century desert. They couldn’t compete in the modern world, so they would pretend that it didn’t exist. Or destroy it. Their anger resonated with hundreds of millions of desperately poor Muslims. But in Wells’s eyes they had perverted the religion they claimed to represent. Islam wasn’t incompatible with progress. In fact, Islamic nations had once been among the world’s most advanced. Eight hundred years ago, as Christians burned witches, the Muslim Abbasids had built a university in Baghdad that held eighty thousand books. Then the Mongols had come. Things had gone downhill ever since.
Wells kept his views to himself. Publicly, he spent hours each day studying the Koran with Sheikh Gul and the clerics at the village madrassa. His Qaeda superiors had taken notice. And that was the other reason Wells stayed in the North-West Frontier. He believed that he had at last convinced Qaeda’s leadership of his loyalty; the other jihadis in the village had begun to listen to him more carefully. Or so he hoped.
Wells’s turn to greet Sheikh Gul had come. Wells patted his heart, a traditional sign of affection. “Allahu akbar,” he said.
“Allahu akbar,” said the sheikh. “Will you come to the mosque tomorrow morning to study, Jalal?”
“I would be honored,” Wells said.
“Salaam alaikum.” Peace be with you.
wells walked out of the mosque into the village’s dusty main street. As he blinked in the weak spring sunlight, two bearded men walked toward him. Wells knew them vaguely, though not their names. They lived in the mountains, second-tier bodyguards for Osama.
“Salaam alaikum, Jalal,” they said.
The men tapped their chests in greeting.
“I am Shihab,” the shorter one said.
“Bassim.” The taller of the two, though Wells towered over him. His shoes were leather and his white robe clean; maybe life in the mountains had improved. Or maybe Osama was living in a village now.
“Allahu akbar,” Wells said.
“The mujaddid asks that you come with us,” Bassim said. Mujaddid. The renewer, a man sent by Allah to lead Islam’s renaissance. Bin Laden was the mujaddid.
“Of course.” A battered Toyota Crown sedan was parked behind the men. It was the only car in the village that Wells didn’t recognize, so it must be theirs. He stepped toward it. Bassim steered him away.
“He asks that you pack a bag. With everything you own that you wish to keep.”
The request was unexpected, but Wells merely nodded. “Shouldn’t take long,” he said. They walked down an alley to the brick hut where Wells lived with three other jihadis.
Inside, Naji, a young Jordanian who had become Wells’s best friend in the mountains, thumbed through a tattered magazine whose cover featured Imran Khan, a famous Pakistani cricketeer-turned-politician. In the corner a coffeepot boiled on a little steel stove.
“Jalal,” Naji said, “have you found us any sponsors yet?” For months, Naji and Wells had joked to each other about starting a cricket team for Qaeda, maybe getting corporate sponsorship: “The Jihadis will blow you away.” Wells wouldn’t have made those jokes to anyone else. But Naji was more sophisticated than most jihadis. He had grown up in Amman, Jordan’s capital, paradise compared to this village. And Wells had saved Naji’s life the previous summer, stitching the Jordanian up after Afghan police shot him at a border checkpoint. Since then the two men had been able to talk openly about the frustrations of living in the North-West Frontier.
“Soon,” Wells said.
Hamra, Wells’s cat, rubbed against his leg and jumped on the thin gray blanket that covered his narrow cot. She was a stray Wells had found two years before, skinny, red—which explained her name; hamra means “red” in Arabic—and a great leaper. She had chosen him. One winter morning she had followed him around the village, mewing pathetically, refusing to go away even when he shouted at her. He couldn’t bear watching her starve, so despite warnings from his fellow villagers that one cat would soon turn into ten, he’d taken her in.
“Hello, Hamra,” he said, petting her quickly as Bassim walked into the hut. Shihab followed, murmuring something to Bassim that Wells couldn’t hear.
“Bassim and Shihab—Naji,” Wells said.
“Marhaba,” Naji said. Hello. Shihab and Bassim ignored him.
“Please, have coffee,” Wells said.
“We must leave soon,” Bassim said.
“Naji,” Wells said. “Can you leave us for a moment?”
Naji looked at Bassim and Shihab. “Are you sure?”
As Naji walked out, Wells stopped him. “Naji,” Wells said. He ran his fingers over Hamra’s head. “Take care of her while I’m gone.”
“When will you be back, Jalal?”
Wells merely shook his head.
“Hamdulillah, then,” Naji said. Praise be to God, a traditional Arabic blessing. “Masalaama.” Good-bye.
“Hamdulillah.” They hugged, briefly, and Naji walked out.
bassim and shihab looked on as Wells grabbed a canvas bag from under his cot. He threw in the few ragged clothes he wanted: his spare robe, a pair of beaten sneakers, a faded green wool sweater, its threads loose. A world-band radio he’d bought in Akora Khatak a year before, and a couple of spare batteries. The twelve thousand rupees—about two hundred dollars—he had saved. He didn’t have much else. No photographs, no television, no books except the Koran and a couple of Islamic philosophy texts. He slipped those gently into the bag. And his guns, of course. He lay on the dirt floor and pulled his AK and his Makarov from under the bed.
“Those you can leave, Jalal,” Bassim said.
Wells could not remember the last time he had slept without a rifle. He would rather have left his clothes. “I’d rather not.”
“You won’t need them where you’re going.”