John Wells is the only CIA agent to ever penetrate al Qaeda. While living in the mountains of Pakistan, he became a Muslim, convinced of the decadence and shallowness of the United States.
North-West Frontier, on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan
sheikh gul scowled at his congregation. “These days every Muslim must fight jihad,” he said in Pashtun, his voice rising. “When the Mongols invaded Baghdad, it didn’t help the people of Baghdad that they were pious Muslims. They died at the swords of the infidels.”
The sheikh threw his hands over his head.
“Now Islam is under siege again. Under siege in the land of the two mosques, and the land of the two rivers”—Saudi Arabia and Iraq. “Under siege here in Pakistan, where our leader works for Americans and Jews. Everywhere we are under siege,” said the sheikh, Mohammed Gul. He was a short, bearded man with a chunky body hidden under a smooth brown robe. His voice seemed to belong to someone much larger. Inside the mosque, a simple brick building whose walls were covered in flaking white paint, the worshippers murmured agreement and drew together. Brothers in arms. But their assent enraged the sheikh further.
“You say, ‘Yes, yes.’ But what do you do when prayers are finished? Do you sacrifice yourselves? You go home and do nothing. Muslims today love this world and hate death. We have abandoned jihad!” the sheikh shouted. He stopped to look out over the crowd and wipe his brow. “And so Allah has subjugated us. Only when we sacrifice ourselves will we restore glory to Islam. On that day Allah will finally smile on us.”
Except it sounds like none of us will be around to see it, Wells thought. In the years that Wells had listened to Gul’s sermons, the sheikh had gotten angrier and angrier. The source of his fury was easy to understand. September 11 had faded, and Islam’s return to glory remained distant as ever. The Jews still ruled Israel. The Americans had installed a Shia government in Iraq, a country that had always been ruled by Sunnis. Yes, Shias were Muslim too. But Shia and Sunni Muslims had been at odds since the earliest days of Islam. To Osama and his fellow fundamentalist Sunnis—sometimes called Wahhabis—the Shia were little better than Jews.
Al Qaeda, “the Base” of the revolution, had never recovered from the loss of its own base in Afghanistan, Wells thought. When the Taliban fell, Qaeda’s troops fled east to the North-West Frontier, the mountainous border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Wells had narrowly escaped an American bomb at Tora Bora, the last big fight of the Afghan war. He liked to imagine that the bomb had been guided by Glen Holmes, who had swung it away from the hut where Wells hid.
But the United States hadn’t closed the noose at Tora Bora, for reasons Wells had never understood. Thousands of jihadis escaped. In 2002, they reached the mountains of the North-West Frontier, so named by the British, since the area was the northwest border of colonial India. The North-West Frontier was a wild land ruled by Pashtuns, devout Muslims who supported Qaeda’s brand of jihad, and was effectively closed to Pakistani and American soldiers. Even the Special Forces could operate there only for short stretches.
So Qaeda survived. But it did not thrive. Osama and his lieutenants scurried between holes, occasionally releasing tapes to rouse the faithful. Every few months the group launched an attack. It had blasted a train station in Madrid, blown up hotels in Egypt and subways in London, attacked oil workers in Saudi Arabia. In Iraq, it fought the American occupiers. But nothing that had shaken the world like September 11.
Meanwhile Wells and his fellow jihadis eked out a miserable existence. In theory, Qaeda’s paymasters had arranged for Pashtun villagers to house them. In r