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Prize prisoners betray al-Qa'eda secrets (Filed: 02/12/2001)
In the grim cells of Kabul's secret police HQ, the new regime's most valued prisoners hold the key to the hugely destructive capability of al-Qae'da and its host. Julian West gained exclusive permission to see them
BEHIND two sets of iron doors in a grey concrete building in central Kabul lie the dank, dark dungeons of the secret police headquarters: a place that sends shivers down the spines of Afghans, who once lived in fear of the Taliban's feared intelligence agency, Istakh Barat, and before that, the Soviets' notorious KHAD.
Here, in a row of filthy cells, smeared with graffiti and lit only by tiny, high, barred windows, are the new regime's special prisoners. Among them are 43 men suspected of being from either the Taliban's feared "Arab" battalions or al-Qa'eda.
Last week, The Telegraph was given permission to enter the building, which is normally off-limits to outsiders. As the sets of iron doors clanged shut behind us, we found ourselves in a dingy basement, lined with rows of padlocked cells.
Inside, the tiny, airless rooms were crammed with prisoners shivering under rough grey blankets. Some slept, their heads covered, while others cowered under iron beds. These were the Northern Alliance's prize catches - but as prisoners they were a sorry lot.
Most, we discovered, were Pakistani fundamentalists who had crossed into Afghanistan to wage jihad, or holy war. In one cell, a man from Kyrgyzstan huddled under his blanket, unwilling to communicate.
The prisoners who most excited their captors were Osama Abu Kabir, a Jordanian, his friend, Islamuddin, a Singaporean, and three Saudis, all of whom claimed to have come to Afghanistan as part of an international preaching mission.
Abu Kabir, a soft-spoken, bearded 32-year-old from Amman, who said he was a salesman, had flown to Karachi, the Pakistani port city that has become a hotbed for fundamentalist groups linked to Osama bin Laden.
There, he had met Islamuddin, a wispy-bearded 35-year-old, who ran a construction company in Singapore. In quiet voices, they told us how they had been approached by an Afghan who "invited them" to his country.
"This man said he would put me in contact with some Arabs; I thought maybe I could help Muslims by fighting," said Abu Kabir, who learnt to use an M-16 in the Jordanian army. "I hate Americans - in the last 10 years they've shown what's in their hearts towards Islam.
"I don't think the World Trade Towers are any different from bombing in Afghanistan or Iraq, although I'm sorry for the citizens; but if it makes America's economy weak, it's good."
Despite hoping to play a role, both men had done little to contribute to the war before being captured near the eastern city of Jelalabad.
In addition to foreign prisoners, the alliance has recovered passports in Arab names, which it believed belonged to more senior operatives from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Germany and Belgium.
It has also, intriguingly, found several British Airways ticket stubs for travel to Britain from Pakistan. The range of nationalities indicates what intelligence agencies had known only in theory: al-Qa'eda's extraordinary international reach.
In the days since Kabul fell, the organisation's secrets, once tightly guarded by the Taliban, have been tumbling from an extraordinary array of hidden anthrax laboratories, safe houses, bomb factories and weapons caches across Afghanistan.
Although much of the information has yet to be analysed, it is clear that the extent of al-Qa'eda's operations, and the power and protection it was offered by its former hosts, were vast.
It is also apparent that bin Laden's men and the Taliban were investigating, if not making, weapons capable of massive devastation and that Afghanistan had become the base for a wide range of groups, often operating under the cover of aid organisations or Islamic charities, united by their hatred of the West.
Perhaps the strangest was the charity run by two retired Pakistani nuclear scientists, Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood and Abdul Majid, who were rearrested by Pakistani authorities last week on suspicion of helping bin Laden to develop weapons containing anthrax.
The men had run their operations from an innocuous-looking two-storey villa in Wazir Akbar Khan, Kabul's most desirable residential district.
Inside the living room, which contained al-Qa'eda pamphlets, was a board showing diagrams of a helium balloon and various calculations. Beside one of the balloons was a crude sketch of an F-16 fighter aircraft and the words: "Your days are limited. Bang!!"
In an indication that the scientists almost certainly intended the balloon to carry anthrax or another deadly chemical, which would be released when it was shot down, printouts of articles entitled "Biological Warfare - An Imminent Danger, Anthrax: the Threat, and Chemical Nightmares" were strewn across the floor.
A cylinder of helium on a work table, an emptied rocket-propelled grenade cylinder and the sawn-off base of a larger rocket suggested that the men had already begun their experiments. Elsewhere in the house, there was a box of gas masks and filters, discarded clothing and a cache of mortar rounds.
The men are also believed to have been linked to the Taliban's ministry of agriculture which had been developing anthrax spores. Officially, the Taliban's anthrax laboratory developed vaccines for cattle using wild anthrax bacteria in a process identical to that used to develop spores for germ warfare.
There are fears, however, that the staff, more than half of whose 45 members have disappeared, may have been engaged in more deadly work. Last week, the factory in Badram Bagh, a desolate suburb of Kabul, lay semi-deserted behind locked gates.
B-52 bombs had devastated many of the surrounding buildings, although the laboratory itself remained intact. Inside were bottles marked "anthrax", which had been developed from strains originally imported from India, Iran and Turkey.
-- Anonymous, December 02, 2001