The Faces of Death

Rahmat Khan and a man known simply as Hamza both arrived in Afghanistan with the same purpose—to die as Islamic martyrs. But their missions failed. Meet two of the suicide bombers behind the Taliban's new assault.

Suicide bomber Rahmat Khan.

stanley greene / NOOR

              Suicide bomber Rahmat Khan.

The deep crack of the explosion interrupted the hum of Kabul's morning-rush-hour traffic. Seconds later a black tower of smoke rose into the sky over the center of the Afghan capital. It was 8:30 on July 7. Sirens began to scream toward the Indian embassy, which had been hit by a suicide bomber driving a white Toyota.

Two hours later a list of the dead and injured was pasted on the wall of Jamhuriat Hospital, which is on the same street as the embassy. People gathered around the piece of paper, squinting in the sunshine to see if any of their loved ones were among the victims.

A middle-aged woman named Nafisa Nawabi staggered away from the list and screamed. Tears poured down her cheeks.

"We lost so many people from our family," she cried out. She turned to a young woman. "Millad is dead. Is Marwa alive?"

"No," said the younger woman, whose name was Fereshta. "Marwa is also dead, and Shukriya is torn to pieces."

They held each other and sobbed.

Two young men, one in a long-sleeved black T-shirt and the other in a purple shirt, were crying and talking to the women. Omid Whaj, the man in the purple shirt, was the brother of three of the dead: 2-year-old twins Millad and Marwa and a 15-year-old girl named Spojmai. Their mother, Shukriya, who was Whaj's father's second wife, had also been killed. Shukriya's two surviving children-both little girls-were in the hospital.

Like most of the 58 people who died in what was the worst suicide bombing in Kabul to date, the mother and her five children had been standing in line outside the embassy waiting to apply for visas. They were planning a vacation to India.

Outside a Soviet-era apartment block in the Macroyan neighborhood of Kabul, a multicolored mourning tent was already set up. Ambulances brought three of the bodies in cheap wooden coffins. Family members opened them so that the mourners could take a final look at the lacerated faces of the dead children.

"They are not Muslims," Ahmed Shah, the father of the children, said of the people responsible. "They killed these innocent children. That's not what Islam says. They are not Muslims."

The following morning, a group of officers of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), Afghanistan's intelligence service, sat in a room in the service's detention center waiting for a prisoner.

The door opened and in walked a man the officers hoped might reveal some clues as to why suicide bombers are turning Afghanistan into a conflict zone to rival Iraq.

Rahmat Khan was skinny and nervous. He sat down on an office chair, touched the right side of his torso gingerly, and looked around the room, as if expecting someone there to hurt him.

He explained, through a translator, that he was from outside a village named Do Aw, in the mountainous region of Pakistan that stretches along the Afghan border. He had lived there with his sick, elderly mother. He had no siblings, his father was dead, and there were no other relatives in their single-room, mud-walled home. The house was a three-hour walk from the village. Khan did not have any friends.

When Khan's father had been alive, they'd worked as shepherds, but after his father died Khan acquired a wheelbarrow and worked as a porter in the market at Do Aw. His mother had told him he could make more money that way. At the end of a good day, he would have the equivalent of $1.40.

He explained that he didn't have enough money to get married or even buy bedding. He and his mother didn't have electricity. He had never been to school and had visited a mosque only once.

The date September 11, 2001, meant nothing to him. Nor did he know who Osama bin Laden was. He couldn't name the president of the United States and didn't recognize the name of the president of Pakistan. He said his happiest memory was of when his father was alive and the family regularly had enough to eat.

Sitting in the room, his right hand repeatedly grabbing and squeezing the edge of the desk in front of him, Khan explained the series of events that had brought him there.

Taliban suicide bombers-most of them reportedly trained in terrorist camps inside Pakistan-have recently come to pose more of a threat to American lives than their allies in Al Qaeda do. May of this year was the first month in which casualties among the American-led NATO forces in Afghanistan were higher than casualties among coalition forces in Iraq. "The enemy thought the best way to suffer less casualties on their side and inflict more casualties on the government and foreign forces was suicide bombing," said Major General Manan Farahi, head of the counterterrorism forces of Afghanistanÿs Interior Ministry. "They've turned it into almost a tradition in the region."

According to the United Nations, there were 160 suicide attacks in Afghanistan in 2007 (another 68 were thwarted). That's the highest number of suicide bombings since the war began in 2001-up from 123 in 2006. The year before that, there were only 17.

American and Afghan officials say one of the main reasons for the Taliban's resurgence is that Pakistan failed to prevent the fighters from using the country's tribal areas as a safe haven in which the militants could regroup after their defeat in Afghanistan in late 2001. The region's size and lawlessness, coupled with security services' inertia, are contributing causes. However, Afghan forces have managed to catch some bombers-like Khan-who have entered the country from Pakistan.

Last year (according to the Afghan calendar, which begins in the spring of each year), 14 prospective suicide bombers were arrested. By three months into this year (which started in March), eight had been detained.

Rahmat Khan was friendly with an iman named Manan. One day in April the two of them were chatting in a bazaar. "I asked him if he could find me work to help me make more money," Khan said. "He said, 'Don't worry-I will find you better work.'"

That day, Khan had brought 160 rupees to the market-less than $3-so that he could buy some flour for his mother.

As the two men talked, Khan told Manan that he had a fever and asked whether Manan had any medication that could help. According to Khan, Manan gave him a small white pill.

"The daylight became like the dark at night," Khan said. "I became dizzy and I accepted what they told me and I did not care about anything. I could not think well."

It was about two o'clock in the afternoon. Manan hired a local driver to take him and Khan a couple of hours into the mountains, to a religious school, or madrassa, near the town of Tal.

There was only one person in the madrassa-a young, bearded Afghan man named Zalmai (not his real name).

Khan spent four or five days at the school talking with Manan and Zalmai. Zalmai told him that the Americans in Afghanistan were oppressing Afghans and that Muslims had a duty to help each other. Jihad was required, he explained. Eventually, Zalmai made the following suggestion: Khan's route out of his miserable life could be martyrdom.

"He also told me that I did not have children and family-only my mother-and it was not a problem for me if I died," Khan said.

But what persuaded Khan to become a suicide bomber was not, it seems, thoughts of jihad but thoughts of sex.

"Both Manan and Zalmai told me that if I carried out a suicide attack I would be martyred and I would have virgin wives in heaven," he said.

Khan asked Zalmai how many virgins would be his. Two, or more? "He said, 'No, more than two-many, many virgin girls.' He said more than 72 virgins will be given to me."

They showed him an explosive vest like the one he would have to wear. He noticed something about it. "It did not have the button or remote control," he said. "They did not show me the remote."

Khan would have no control over when or where the bomb was detonated.

At the end of Khan's time at the madrassa, Manan took him-still carrying the 160 rupees that his mother had given him for flour-to the Afghanistan border by pickup truck. Manan handed him over to an Afghan man named Rauf, who had a long beard. Khan's new handler paid for them to travel by car to the Afghan city of Khost and then to a house in a village near the mountains. Rauf told Khan that he would undertake his suicide attack in Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, in the east of the country.

Eight days after Khan arrived in Afghanistan, his mission began.

"I got up early in the morning," he recalled. "I prayed, and then I had a glass of tea and breakfast."

Rauf produced a vest packed with explosives and told Khan to put it on under his shirt. The vest was like the one in the madrassa-there was no button for Khan to press. Rauf kept the remote.

"I left the house, and we went in a car to Khost. I sat on a lawn like I was sitting in my own house. I sat there for 10 minutes and I asked Rauf to bring me some tea, because my stomach did not feel well. Ten minutes passed, but Rauf did not show up."

According to Khan, Rauf had told him that he should wait there for a while and then Rauf would pick him up and take him to Gardez, where he would target Americans. Khan sat on the grass, near the city's marketplace, with his 160 rupees in his pocket-not enough to get home-and began to despair.

"I was telling myself that it was too late and I was almost dead, but I couldn't do anything," he said. "I couldn't take off the vest, because I thought that people would beat me and arrest me anyway. I was thinking of my mom, because she might still have been thinking that I would go home soon and take some flour with me."

Suddenly a group of Afghan soldiers surrounded him.

"I thought they were angry with me because I had sat on the lawn," he said. "So I apologized and told them I would get up. The security guys told me, 'Just surrender.' So they arrested me, and I told them, 'I have an old mother-please let me go. I have 160 rupees-take it.' I was ready to walk back home to Pakistan, but it was too late."

Khan said he had no idea how the soldiers knew to arrest him, or what had happened to Rauf. As he told his story, he wiped tears from his eyes.

Khan had heard the bomb that had gone off in downtown Kabul the previous day as he lay in his cell in the detention center. The deaths of the women and children were news to him, however.

"That is a wrong act according to Islam," he said. "It is the time to live in friendship with others, to help, not to kill each other."

How, then, did he justify agreeing to commit the same act?

"I was mistaken," he said. "I was deceived."

He now believed, he said, that suicide bombers are not honored in paradise with a gift of virgins.

"I was going to hell, and the person who did this is going to hell," he said.

"Almighty God saved my life," he said, "but I still think that I deserve hell."

It was a DVD that persuaded Hamza to sacrifice himself for jihad.

"In the video, a foreigner shot the Holy Koran and then peed on it," he said.

The man in the film was white and fat, and he wore an American military uniform. According to Hamza, he was laughing and shouting. Hamza and the other young men watching the film in the Taliban safe house in the border area of Pakistan could clearly see that it was their holy book that the man had shot.

"I felt so emotional when I saw that happening to the Koran," Hamza said. "And the person who was showing that to us said, 'Look what is happening to our Koran, and what kind of Muslims are we?' That made me ready to carry out a suicide attack. There were seven of us, and we stood up and we were ready to do suicide attacks."

From the moment he walked into the room, it was clear that Hamza, who said he was 21 or 22 years old, was very different from Rahmat Khan. He shook hands with confidence, smiled, and did not seem intimidated. Hamza was a native of Tajikistan, a country that borders Afghanistan, and his family had fled the civil war there in the early nineties for Afghanistan. He spent almost 10 years studying in nine different madrassas in the Pakistani cities of Karachi and Peshawar. During that time he had memorized about one sixth of the Koran. He was clearly very smart. He gave no last name and said his real name was Saif. Hamza was his Taliban name, and that's what his Afghan captors called him.

Late last year, Hamza said, he was in Peshawar with some fellow madrassa students when a man named Mohammed approached them. They got to talking.

"Mohammed asked us what we wanted to do," Hamza said. "We said that we wanted to go where the Taliban were. He said to us that we should go to [the town of] Bara and there we could find Taliban and [a man named] Habib, who is from Tajikistan."

The group made their way to Bara and found Habib. It was Habib who showed the young men the video, but only after he had shown them films of the Afghan resistance against the Soviets in the eighties and footage of Arab suicide bombers blowing themselves up.

The training was brief. There was some driver's ed-but only for using first and second gear. Their missions would involve simple desert driving, their instructors explained. They were then shown the button, located behind the gearshift, near the hand brake, that would trigger the car bomb. That, they were told, was all they needed to know.

The men stayed in a house in Bara for three months. The Taliban gave them some expense money and allowed them to go into town. They slept, prayed, and ate together in the same room, although the Taliban leaders told them not to talk to each other except at mealtimes. They rarely discussed their upcoming missions.

Eventually Hamza was told that his name was on a list of volunteers. He was third in line.

The two men who were supposed to blow themselves up before Hamza disappeared one night. "I don't know their names," Hamza said, "but one had gone to [attempt a suicide bombing in] Islamabad [the Pakistani capital], and one had gone to [the border district of] Parachinar, where there was fighting between Pakistani military and Taliban."

Did the men reach their targets?

"Yes," he said calmly, "they did."

One day in May, his time came.

"Habib came and took me to another house, which was 15 minutes from where we were, toward Peshawar," Hamza said.

There he met an Afghan named Ajani (not his real name) and an Arab named Abu Zayed, who taught Ajani how to use a video camera. Ajani and Hamza were to be partners: Hamza would be the driver and martyr; Ajani would film the attack.

After a day's training, Hamza and Ajani spent three more days at the house, and then, with 10,000 rupees ($140) each in expense money, they set off for Kabul, still not knowing what their target would be. Once there, they checked into a hotel and called the contact whose information Habib had given them-a man named Aslam.

Aslam arrived at the hotel the following morning, and the three men drove to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Aslam had a bag that he said contained clothes and a video camera.

As they left Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghan security officers stopped the car and arrested them. Hamza said he did not know that the car was rigged as a bomb but he was not shocked at the discovery of explosives in the back. He had been told not to ask questions of his handlers.

His target, he said, "was foreigners in Faryab province, but after I was arrested the [NDS] guys who questioned me told me that our target was the airport of Faryab province."

Hamza said he regretted his actions. He said he now realized the people of Afghanistan were good Muslims and that foreigners in Afghanistan were just trying to help. He also said he had discovered that the video that inspired him was from Iraq, not Afghanistan.

"I am not sure now if the person was American or from somewhere else," he said. "Maybe only the uniform was American."

Traffic police in a dark-green pickup truck cleared other vehicles out of the way as four ambulances, each carrying a coffin, passed through the streets of Kabul. They were part of the funeral party for Ahmed Shah's family.

Qambar Cemetery is a small, unenclosed graveyard perched on the side of Afshar Mountain, one of the many dry, caramel-colored slopes that surround Kabul. Four of the graves were newly dug, thigh-deep, shovels cast carelessly next to them amid the hard dirt.

About 200 men-women are not permitted at some Muslim funerals-lined up, facing the four coffins, and prayed in unison. They lowered the caskets into the graves, working quickly to lay slabs of stone over them.

Ahmed Shah stood among the throng, biting his scarf, watching the burial of his wife and three children. He was not crying. He did not speak one word.

The morning of the funeral, Across town in the detention center, Rahmat Khan was not adjusting well to jail. He looked forlorn and alone. He winced as he stood up, saying that he had been beaten in custody. His kidney hurt.

Khan has yet to stand trial, but he will likely spend many years in prison and could be sentenced to death. According to Sayed Ansari, a spokesman for the NDS, suicide bombers are not appointed defense attorneys. "It's a crime that does not require a defense lawyer," he said.

Shortly before he was arrested, Khan had a dream. His mother was crying, telling him, "My son, you are caught in a very dangerous place. May God help you."

He thinks of her often.

Somewhere in the mountains of Pakistan she is waiting for her only child to return from buying flour.

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