11 September 2001>News Stories>On the Run, Unrepentant

On the Run, Unrepentant
Foreign Fighters Bitter at Turn of Events

John Pomfret . Washington Post . 07 December

"Anyone who is not a Muslim, get out of my face!"

Speaking almost flawless New York slang, Abdul Rehman, a 36-year-old Saudi Arabian, looked ready to leap from his hospital bed, despite a cast that extended from his right hip to his foot and concealed a bullet wound he suffered fighting for the Taliban.

"If I had a gun now, I would shoot you!" he yelled at two American reporters. "Get out of my face!"

Rehman was among six wounded fighters -- three from Saudi Arabia, one from Nigeria and two of undetermined nationality -- who arrived at a hospital in Quetta on Wednesday night after falling in combat against U.S.-backed forces near Kandahar, the Taliban's last stronghold.

The group tried to sneak into Pakistan from a mountain border crossing, Pakistani police sources said. But because the fighters were wounded, they contacted an ambulance and headed to Quetta General Hospital, where they were treated and put under police guard.

A bedside visit to the men was a lesson in the rage felt by foreign fighters who have supported the Taliban since it seized power in Afghanistan five years ago, and who have supported Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization in its war against the United States.

Such foreign fighters are beginning to show up in Pakistan and other countries as the U.S. manhunt for bin Laden and other terrorist suspects intensifies. Pakistan says it is sealing its borders to fleeing Taliban fighters, but they are slipping across the long frontier along with foreigners suspected of belonging to al Qaeda.

"Don't cut my leg, doctor," Rehman shouted at Muhammed Imram, an attending physician. "I will need it to kill Americans."

Rehman denied he was a member of al Qaeda and the Taliban. Although he spoke colloquial American English, he refused to say whether he had lived in the United States. He also would not answer questions about what had taken him to Afghanistan and how long he had been there.

"I am a freedom fighter," he said, "a fighter for Islam. Holy war is in my life like a cancer. It cannot be cured."

Imram said Rehman and his comrades apparently were wounded during a firefight at Kandahar's airport on Monday night. Jalal Khan, a commander of the anti-Taliban tribal militias fighting to take Kandahar, confirmed that his forces clashed with mostly Arab fighters on the airfield that evening.

"We know we shot Arabs that night," he said in a satellite telephone interview from the battlefield. "Our men were close to them. We saw their faces."

Five men and a boy lay in Rehman's hospital room. Against one wall, four men, including the Nigerian, lay with their legs in casts and blankets covering their faces. Against the other wall, Rehman lay next to an injured Afghan boy.

Rehman was listed on the hospital registration form as being 36 years old, but he looked younger. He was the only one who showed his face. And his English was tinged with a New York accent.

"I don't believe you, I don't trust you. I hate you," Rehman said. "Now get out of my face! Americans, they killed us and now they take videos."

Asked why he hated Americans, Rehman went on despite visible pain: "Because of this right leg, because of the thousands of children you are killing by your intelligent rockets. They are actually very stupid rockets. You think you control everything in the world, but Allah is above you.

"I hate you," he repeated, "and I know you hate me because you have different manners, different ways. Your war is against Islam, not against terrorism."

The presence of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan complicates plans of the U.S.-backed coalition and the United Nations to install an interim government of Afghans starting on Dec. 22. Pashtun opposition groups and the Taliban were negotiating for the handover of Kandahar and two other southern provinces today. Pashtun tribal leaders acknowledged that they had offered Afghan Taliban fighters amnesty. No mention was made of foreign fighters.

Between 1,000 and 2,000 foreign fighters are believed to be in Kandahar, according to Abdul Khaliq, a Pashtun opposition leader. Sam Zarifi, an investigator with Human Rights Watch, said unconfirmed reports indicate that 2,000 family members of foreign fighters live in Kandahar, mostly in a district called the Kabuli Bazaar.

More foreigners are believed to be holed up in a cave complex in eastern Afghanistan in Nangahar province, near the city of Jalalabad. Another 500 to 600 are believed to be in Helmand province in the west. And in Paktia and Logar provinces, foreign fighters and their families continue to operate and live.

Zarifi said an investigation into the foreign fighters and their families in Paktia and Logar revealed two groups: one described as Chechens and another called Arabs by local Afghans, who often have a hard time distinguishing one foreigner from another.

The purported Chechens, he said, constitute about 140 families without a large number of fighting men. They started in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, then fled to Kabul when the Northern Alliance began its push into Mazar-e Sharif last month. When Kabul fell on Nov. 13, Zarifi said, the Chechens went to Paktia, near Pakistan's border.

By then, the Taliban had withdrawn from Paktia and a council of Pashtun tribes had assumed control. In mid-November, the council gave the Chechens shelter, Zarifi said, allowing them to live in abandoned houses in villages.

U.S. warplanes, however, continued their attacks in the Paktia region. On Nov. 17, U.S. warplanes accidentally hit the Jalaladin mosque in Khost, the Pentagon said. At the time, Mohammed Usman, a tribal official in the Paktia, said U.S. warplanes had targeted a neighborhood frequented by foreign fighters and their families.

Zarifi said the group assumed to be made up of Arabs -- 30 families including armed men -- was living in automobiles that traveled between Paktia and neighboring Logar province. The families, he said, fled Kabul after it fell to the Northern Alliance. They had been in Khost but left after the tribal council took over, he said.

"Now they are living in their cars in a convoy," Zarifi said. "They are afraid, so no one has been able to approach them. They don't spend the night in one place. They are worried about bombing, food and the cold."

He said foreign fighters steered clear of the Pakistani border because they feared arrest. Police said the fighters at the hospital would be arrested after they recover from their wounds.

Police Superintendent Awal Khan said that initially the fighters had refused to give their names. So he gave them a choice.

"We told them we are wanting your ID to give you medical treatment," Khan said with a chuckle. "No ID, no medical treatment. As they were wounded, they gave us their names."

Imram, the doctor, identified the Saudis as Rehman, 36, Asadullah, 30, and Muheen, 22. He identified the Nigerian as Aghra, 32.