“Here you are, Emir: the drink that you requested. Cold.” Ahmed smiled as he offered the canned beverage to the older and bearded man sitting on the floor among some pillows and books. His smile could easily have been mistaken for one of politeness, of servility or even of happiness, but in reality it was what remained of a humorous smile which he had only half-managed to suppress. Humour, for Ahmed had – all the way back from the main bazaar in Mianwali – toyed with the idea of returning to his master and presenting the desired beverage with the words “a can of Dr Pepper for Dr Zawahiri”. He had of course decided against it, not only because he was chronically unsure if his sense of humour would be shared by his peers, but also because he knew that he was already very different from the men with whom he shared the house in a small alley off Ballo Khel Road. And his very life depended on hiding these differences.
Oddly enough, his lighter skin and his grey-blue eyes were not the problem. Nor was his hair, the colour of which was described as light brown in his home country and as blonde in the country of his current residence. It was true that Ahmed (which was not his real name anyway) did not look like the Afghans, the Saudis, the Pakistanis and the Somalis whom he was living with, but at least his language skills were no problem. For at least 10 years, Western intelligence agencies had argued that they couldn’t get good (human) intelligence on Al-Qaeda or other Islamist terrorist groups because they had no access to native speakers who could penetrate one of these terrorist cells in the Middle/Far East. When Ahmed had reached Pakistan, by way of Macedonia, Turkey and Iran, he was surprised how many fellow young men he found, whose Arabic or Urdu was even more rudimentary than his. But then, they admittedly hadn’t received a 6-month crash course in Surrey by a very attractive language teacher from Palestine, who had not only introduced Ahmed to Arabic morphology, but who also gave him something to dream about and to long for in these lonely nights during which his colleagues dreamt of God, paradise, 72 virgins or maybe a different language teacher or – as Ahmed suspected about some of them – of each other. In fact, there were so many guys from Europe travelling eastward on a similar mission that Ahmed had feared that he would bump into somebody with whom he had once been to university in England or in Germany.
Besides Dr Zawahiri, there were five men living in the house. Many journalists and some American politicians liked to refer to their dwelling – without knowing even its approximate whereabouts – as “some cave in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan”, but they actually lived rather comfortably. After the Asr prayer, they had dispatched Ahmed, who was the youngest recruit, to the bazaar to get some chaat and pakoras as well as gulab jamun for dessert. Ahmed was angry that Khalid had only given him 2,000 rupees for his trip to the bazaar, because these limited resources meant that he couldn’t get another drink for himself. He was so tired of chai and longed for something fizzy gurgling down his dry throat. It also meant that he couldn’t be generous towards the shopkeepers – or rather the shopkeepers’ children because the shopkeepers themselves would still be enjoying their afternoon nap at this time of day -, which Ahmed found to be a shame because he knew that the people whom he lived with had more money than they could reasonably spend, while most of those working in the bazaar were struggling to make ends meet. Ahmed believed in redistribution of wealth, although cynics might have pointed out that it is easy to hold such a belief if one doesn’t have anything to redistribute oneself.
Returning to the house 42 minutes later with several bags that emitted an assortment of different smells, each of which alone might have smelt delicious, but which taken together were more attractive to flies than to humans, Ahmed noticed that everyone seemed to be in good mood. Had he missed somebody’s birthday? It was 4 August. No, the reason for this rarely seen festive mood seemed to emanate from the MacBook on the floor, around which the men had hunkered down and on which they were watching the live stream of Al Jazeera.
“Look what we did! We brought the American pigs to their knees,” said, no, shouted, Karim, ever the one to speak like a terrorist in a cartoon by Hergé. “The infidels are trembling with fear.” Ahmed knew that if it weren’t for the Emir’s presence, Karim would have used a much more expletive term in his last sentence. Al-Jazeera was reporting that the US had closed 21 of their embassies in the Middle East and in Africa. More embassies might get closed soon. Some US personnel were leaving their host countries. Britain, France and Germany dutifully closed some of their embassies too. The US State Department had also issued a worldwide travel alert, which some of the men in the room, having only a vague idea of the relationship between governments and their citizens, interpreted as a ban on US citizens to leave their country. US politicians were speaking of the largest terror threat since 2001, scaring their constituents and at the same time exciting the men in Mianwali and thousands like them around the world.
Apparently, the CIA, the NSA, MI6 or some other abbreviation had intercepted phone calls between Dr Zawahiri and Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP. A few weeks ago, the two of them had been discussing plans for a new campaign, as they liked to call it. They had discussed plots including planes, but had dismissed that idea because it would look like an attempt to copy 9/11; an attempt that was likely to fail because security restrictions at airports were now so tight that most innocent passengers were treated like terror suspects.
They had also discussed striking at embassies, preferably those of the US and the UK and maybe France for its involvement in Mali. They hated Israel more, but she didn’t have many embassies in the region. “How about Germany? They have been on the Americans’ side in Afghanistan,” asked Wuhayshi. “And they allow a woman to be President,” he added with disgust, confusing the posts of the German head of state with the head of government, as so many people do. “They do deserve to die like all the other infidels and invaders,” Zawahiri had replied, “but I fear that even if their ambassador got killed, they couldn’t be drawn into the response that we want. They are as timid as a camel’s ass at the North Pole. We would be wasting our resources.” By “resources”, Zawahiri meant the young men in his house. The plan to attack US embassies was not dropped, because they knew it had to elicit a strong response after the criticism that President Obama had been subjected to after the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi in 2012, but they wanted to find something more creative, something which was not a re-run of Kenya and Tanzania.
The two leading figures of Al-Qaeda had discussed several other ideas: Attacking mass transport infrastructure (nothing new and no long-term economic damage). Blowing up a stock exchange (surely there were backups of the computer system somewhere, which would be activated soon after the attack). Targeting the Football World Cup (they had no people in Brazil and also they feared a backlash or at least a loss in support from the Muslim population who was by and large as fanatical about football as the regulars at a pub in Leeds; they had to keep an eye on the Muslim world and often felt they were fighting against the millions of softened, Westernized Muslims just as much as against the infidels).
With this last thought in mind, Zawahiri had said, with an authority in his voice which signalled that this would not be subject to discussion: “No, we need to strike at something which the whole Ummah will recognize as a legitimate target. Some campaign that Muslims from Morocco to Jakarta will rejoice about.” He was of course not really driven by the fear of public opinion, because Al-Qaeda was after all no democratic organization, nor did it strive to become one. No, these thoughts of the man who had taken over from Osama bin Laden were motivated by a desire to be accepted as an equal to that spoilt brat from Riyadh, on whom he secretly looked down for his lack of theological training and his personal lifestyle, which for a long time had been that of a playboy instead of a mujahid. Also, Al-Qaeda had to reposition itself as the global leader in jihad. Too many other groups had sprung up in recent years and were vying for a piece of the pie in donations, recruits and attention: al-Shabab, Boko Haram, IJU, Ansar al-Sharia, the Brotherhood of the Two Mosques. And the military junta in Egypt might yet turn the Muslim Brotherhood into a much more radicalized underground organisation.
Thus, the brainstorming between the two Al-Qaeda big-shots had continued, mentioning ideas from attacking US warships (maybe a suicide mission disguised as pirates who would pretend to get caught or disguised as fisherman pretending to be in distress after narrowly having survived a staged pirate attack) to attacking the US military in Djibouti (maybe through food poisoning at McDonalds) to blowing up a cruise ship in the Red Sea (would it be enough to cause a tsunami to destroy Eilat?) to a new type of explosives which would be woven into fabric, making it harder to be detected.
“These ideas are getting sillier and sillier,” thought Ahmed who had overheard fragments of one side of the phone conversation when he had come into the room to serve tea and fruits, purposefully leaving the door to the corridor open as he left the room. He had wondered how much of this bullshit he should mention in his next report, because not only were these ideas ludicrous, but from the tone of Dr Zawahiri’s voice and his almost childlike joy in coming up with ever crazier ideas, Ahmed had realized that at least Zawahiri himself knew they were ludicrous. This was not the serious planning of terrorists, this was the pastime of old men who wanted to feel young again.
Ahmed was a quick thinker, something which he needed to hide if he wanted to avoid arousing suspicion. But he was after all also a civil servant and as such, he was required to report anything which he saw or heard. Providing facts, names, dates, numbers was his task. The analysis would be done by others, probably by people who enjoyed a 90-minute lunch break every day and left work early on Fridays. But, knowing that these stiff-assed bureaucrats were also his lifeline to the people who could – or would at least try to – get him out if things turned sour, he had decided to include everything in his report what he had overheard when he would have the next chance to drop off his handwritten summary at the Muhammad Feroz Shah Library, where he went every two weeks under the pretext of taking out books on loan. Leaving three A5 pages with narrow handwriting on both sides in a handbook on bridge and dam engineering for someone else to pick them up was of course very old-school. Not having lived through the Cold War himself, Ahmed thought that this is how his predecessors must have operated during the old days. But his employer had deemed it too risky to equip him with any electronic gadget, save for the tracking device implanted in one of Ahmed’s teeth. Thus headquarters could always see where he was, but not how he was. Apart from the absence of movement which usually goes hand in hand with such a change in one’s state, this little tooth implant would not even inform his superiors if he were to die.
His bearded housemates were still following the news on Al-Jazeera, even though it was the same images which were played over and over again: embassies, cars leaving embassies, the US State Department and outdated photos of Al-Qaeda leaders, among them the man in their midst as he had looked many years ago. “Those fucking sons of bitches derailed our plans before we even got started,” Mahsood foamed. “Did they?” Zawahiri asked, trying to look as mysterious as a Sphinx. “Think of it, my fellow mujahideen: we managed to push the USA to their knees. They closed their embassies, their diplomats are scared to death, their citizens can no longer besmirch our Holy Lands. And we did all of this from the comfort of our home. It didn’t cost us anything.” He paused, having realized that this last point could actually be used as an argument against suicide missions in the future. Zawahiri was not at all prepared to give up this option of using young men, who were willing to sacrifice themselves for his purpose. Hence he quickly added: “And we will of course still continue with our plans. Nothing can stop us!” The four other men in the room knew what was expected of them after such a statement. “Allahu akbar,” they shouted in unison. “Terrorism for couch potatoes,” Ahmed thought, wise enough to keep the remark to himself, but secretly wondering what had been made of the report he had filed a week earlier.
“Ahmed, it’s time to enjoy some of the food you brought,” Zawahiri ordered before Ahmed could even sit down among the men. The harshness of the command did not fit the mood in the room, and Ahmed noticed Karim glancing at him uneasily, perhaps perturbed by how Ahmed got pushed around.
Back in the kitchen, Ahmed removed the foil in which the food had been kept warm and protected against the flies, distributed it evenly on six plates (for he was an egalitarian), and when taking the spoons from the drawer with cutlery, he was so much looking forward to a good meal (“finally something different than meat and rice”) that he almost overlooked that the large knives and the meat cleaver were missing from the drawer.
The time it took him to process that observation was longer than the time it took his brain to inform his stomach. All his appetite was immediately gone. He thought of taking one of the butter knives to keep it on him, but he knew it would be pointless. By tomorrow morning this whole terror scare would indeed have cost the life of someone. Worse than realizing this was the realization that he had not been – contrary to what he had always believed – the smartest guy in the house. He had been outwitted and turned into an unknowing tool in this latest form of terrorism. “Al-Qaeda 2.0,” Ahmed thought, as an inkling of a smile rushed across his face for one last time.