Foot soldiers propelled by dreams of conquering 'infidels'
Obaidur Rahman set out to fight a holy war five years ago, at the age of 17. But as he rushed from the Taliban trenches north of Kabul, he was captured by the rebel Northern Alliance.
Today the young man from Yemen sits in a remote prison in the rugged Panjshir Valley, legs hobbled by knee-high steel manacles.
But Mr. Rahman remains obsessed with his mission. God willing, he says, that his firebrand version of militant Islam - that shared with accused terrorist Osama bin Laden and Afghanistan's radical Islamic Taliban militia - will be victorious in this long war.
God willing, he says again, fingering wooden prayer beads, he will be able to participate in the next big attack - such as the suicide hijackings that struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The first thing he will do if he is released or escapes, Rahman vows, is visit his family in the north Yemen area of Sada - a region known for its fundamentalist thinking - then join Mr. bin Laden's Al Qaeda network.
"I became very strong [after hearing about the attacks]," he says, in a gentle, chilling voice, "because I know Muslims were very strong there."
The ultimate goal, he says without blinking, emanates from the teaching he received in Yemen of the Prophet Muhammad's words: that it is the duty of all Muslims to fight non-believers.
He contends that all Muslims think this way. While the majority of Muslims worldwide may not agree, it is common currency in this prison that the aims of the Taliban and the 10,000 or so Arab and other volunteers fighting with them are battling to turn Afghanistan into a center for exporting jihad throughout the region.
While the US labels that work terrorism, here it is seen as a religious imperative, conducted by men whose education and training under uncompromising clerics in their home countries have led them to join the fight with bin Laden and the Taliban.
Rahman's aim is to go everywhere there is Islamic fighting. "It is my idea, because of my religion, to make Afghanistan a center for jihad," he says.
That view echoes widely here. Inmates stare up at sheer rock walls towering over their cage. Few are manacled, and most are allowed to walk outside down to the Panjshir River, to wash before they pray, under the silhouettes of armed guards on the mountain tops.
"I am a fundamentalist," says Salahudin Khaled, a black-bearded Pakistani member of the militant Harakat ul-Mujahidin. "That catastrophe that occurred [in the US], if Islamic fundamentalists did that, then we are really happy," he says in broken English, sitting in a tight but relatively comfortable cell where the inmates sleep shoulder-to-shoulder on blankets spread on the floor.
"We chose the United State of America, to show that we can do any action in their face, that we are not under your influence, and that we are strong," he says, elbows resting thoughtfully on crossed legs.
The primary aim is a form of religious imperialism, he says, to form an Islamic government in Afghanistan that can help other Islamic countries and fundamentalist organizations from the Philippines and Burma to Kashmir, Chechnya, Algeria, and even Saudi Arabia.
"Our plan is [also] to help other Arab countries under the control of the US or Europe, to release them ... for freedom," Khaled says.
He argues that the question of killing innocent people is relative, to justify the deaths of civilians in the World Trade Center. The two atomic bombs the US dropped on Japan in 1945, at the end of World War II, he says, killed a lot of innocent people. Likewise, he argues, more recent US attacks and policies toward Israel, Libya, Iraq, and Somalia, among others, result in the death of many innocents.
But how far can such militants take this holy war, when it sometimes involves fighting fellow Muslims? "Whenever we want the right [sic] of any Muslim country, that is holy war," says Khaled, justifying the Taliban's fight against the Northern Alliance, the rebel group that are also Muslims.
"Our objective [of spreading Islamic rule] is precious," he says, his voice deepening with a sense of seriousness. "If Muslims are obstacles and get in the way, we will kill them, or fight them, to get to our objective."
Many of these holy warriors tell similar stories about how they became steeped in militant ideology.
Rahman says he was influenced in his radical views by Sheikh Abdulmajid Zandani, head of the militant wing of Yemen's Islamic Islah Party.
Despite his high position, US investigators wanted to question Mr. Zandani about the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole a year ago.
"They said to us, you should go to Afghanistan to learn military arts, then you should go to Chechnya to fight the Russians, and Kashmir to fight the Indians," Rahman says about his Yemen teachers.
His journey began with three months of training in a bin Laden camp in Khost - a prime target of current US bombing raids. His penetrating eyes speak of a true believer, an ideologue who says Islam's war against the pagan West will continue. Every American is "guilty." "There were no innocent people in those skyscrapers," Rahman says, locking eyes on an American visitor.