At a terrorist camp, a French spy meets the battling Khadr brothers

November 27 2006


At a terrorist camp, a French spy meets the battling Khadr brothers

November 27 2006


At a terrorist camp, a French spy meets the battling Khadr brothers


The man who calls himself Omar Nasiri is a fortyish Muslim, born in Morocco but raised in Belgium until he was 15. He has good reason for not identifying himself more completely in Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda—A Spy’s Story, his eye-opening account of his time in Osama bin Laden’s organization. Not only is Nasiri now an ex-jihadi living undercover in Germany, he was for most of his time in al-Qaeda also spying for French intelligence. Unable to feel at home in either Europe or North Africa, Nasiri had drifted into crime and later into radical Islam. Torn between sympathy for the Islamicist cause and repulsion at its methods, Nasiri betrayed his associates to the French authorities. The French, in turn, transformed him into an agent. Nasiri even agreed to go toKhaldan, the main al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. There, in 1996, he met, as he recounts in this exclusive excerpt, two young sons of Canada’s Khadr family:

One day, two young boys arrived at the camp. They were even younger than the youngest Chechen in my group. The oldest boy was no more than 12, the younger one about 10.

Camp leader Ibn Sheikh stood up to introduce them in the mosque that night.

“Please welcome your new brothers. This is Hamza,” he said, pointing toward the older one, “and this is Osama.”

As we all welcomed Hamza and Osama that night, I noticed that the greeting was even more solemn than usual. The boys were beginning their training very young, and the brothers were impressed.

Hamza and Osama weren’t put in a group like the other brothers. Mostly, they spent their afternoons with a trainer learning about guns. But sometimes they would tag along with me. I had finished all of my training at this point, but some days Abu Hamam would take me out for extra training, usually with explosives. I spoke to the boys in English, and I noticed they both had strong American accents. But I didn’t learn much about the brothers at first, because they hated each other and fought constantly. Not just bickering the way that brothers do, but really fighting.

One day, a group of us were sitting on the hill near camp. Hamza and Osama were practising on the firing range with one of the trainers. Hamza was shooting a Kalashnikov and Osama was practising with a PPK. They were both terrible—they clearly didn’t know anything about guns. They had obviously already forgotten everything they had learned in the classroom.

As usual, they were less interested in the training than in fighting with each other. After a few minutes, they stopped firing at the targets and turned toward each other. Even though we were far away, we could hear that they were yelling.

Then, suddenly, Osama lifted up his PPK and pointed it at his brother. Hamza immediately pointed his Kalashnikov back at him. We were all shocked—we never turned our guns on each other this way. The boys were screaming more and more loudly. Their fingers were on the triggers of their guns.

I think every brother on that hill believed the boys were actually going to kill each other. And they probably would have if the trainer hadn’t jumped in between and pushed them apart. When it was over, we all turned to each other in dismay. We had never seen anything like this at the camp—they had broken all of the rules we had all learned since our first day of training. Soon, we were laughing about it, even though it wasn’t funny at all. It made us nervous.

The boys were constantly hurting themselves, and they came to the infirmary many times. The two boys were very different. Osama was almost hyperactive—he bounced around constantly and never stopped talking. His brother was much quieter, more cautious.

It didn’t take long for Osama to start telling me about his family. I learned that the boys’ father was Egyptian, and that he was a doctor. The brothers had been raised mostly in Canada, but they lived in Peshawar now. They had been with their father in the Afghani city of Khowst in 1991, during the ferocious battle that ultimately drove from power Mohammad Najibullah, the Communist president who was hanged by the Taliban in 1996.

The father came to Khaldan only once. He stayed for only a few hours. He arrived in a 4x4 with a few other men, but before I had any chance to study them, Ibn Sheikh whisked them off to the explosives laboratory. But Osama bragged about his father constantly. He was very important, he told me, and knew lots of people.

One day he asked me, “Do you know Osama?”

“Of course I do,” I said. “You’re Osama.”

“No, not me. The other Osama.”

“Who is he?” I asked. I knew the boy wanted to tell me.

“He’s very important,” the boy said. “He’s one of my father’s best friends. He pays for all of the food here.”

Over time, I would learn a little bit more about Osama. I learned he was very rich. I learned that he had built roads all over Afghanistan after the civil war ended.

“Where is Osama from?” I asked one day.

The boy began to say something, but then I could see that he stopped himself. He was blushing.

“I think he’s from the Emirates...I don’t know. I can’t remember. Maybe that’s wrong... ”

It was the first time that I ever saw him try to conceal something. He was very bad at it. But at the time, I only registered that Osama must be someone important if the boy was trying to hide information. It would take another two years before I learned why.


Hamza rarely spoke—he almost never had a chance to, because his brother was babbling all the time. But one evening, Ibn Sheikh ordered him to the infirmary because he had a high fever and pains in his stomach. Hamza ended up spending the night there, and I stayed with him.

He told me that night what he had seen during the battle in Khowst. He told me that night after night he saw the sky burning with mortar fire and rockets. One night, a bomb fell near where he and his father were standing on a public square. But it didn’t explode. Everyone stood by for a few minutes waiting for something to happen, but nothing did. The bomb just lay there.

Hamza told me that once it was clear that the bomb wasn’t going to blow, several Afghanis rushed forward to salvage the metal and the explosive material from the shell. The people were desperately poor, and fed themselves by selling bits of ammunition and other matériel back to the mujahedeen.

The Afghanis clustered around the shell, and one began to hit it with a hammer to crack it open to get at the components inside. But then the shell exploded. There was a giant fireball, and when the smoke cleared

all of the Afghanis were dead. There were body parts and pieces of clothing scattered all over the square.

Hamza smiled as he finished the story. “Isn’t that stupid?” He laughed and shook his head. “The Afghanis are so stupid.”

But I could tell from his eyes that, five years after it happened, the story still upset him.

I WOULD LEARN much more about the boys and their father after 9/11, when it emerged that Ahmed Khadr—the man I saw going into the explosives laboratory with Ibn Sheikh at Khaldan—had been a close associate of Osama bin Laden’s since the 1980s. Then the two were funding the mujahedeen in the war with the Soviets. Khadr went on to become one of bin Laden’s top fundraisers.

Among his sons, who were with him in Afghanistan, was Abdurahman—the son I knew as Hamza, who told me about the Afghanis killed in front of him in Khowst. Omar Khadr was his younger brother, who I knew as Osama. He was the noisy one, who always babbled about his father’s important friends.

In 2003, Ahmed was killed in Afghanistan in a shootout with Pakistani forces. His youngest son, Abdul, was with him, and during the attack he was paralyzed from the waist down. The oldest son, Abdullah, was indicted in Massachusetts in February 2006, charged with buying weapons for al-Qaeda, plotting the murder of American soldiers, and conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction.

As for Omar and Abdurahman, the former was captured in 2002 after he allegedly killed a U.S. army medic with a hand grenade. Now he is in captivity at Guantánamo Bay. Abdurahman was arrested in Afghanistan in November 2001. He was handed over to the Americans, and taken to Guantánamo Bay. At some point, he flipped and began working for the CIA—first in Guantánamo and then in Bosnia. He revealed his story on television in 2004, and now Hollywood is making a movie about his life. M

From the book Inside the Jihad: My Life with Al Qaeda, A Spy’s Story by Omar Nasiri. Copyright © 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Books. All rights reserved.