A young jihadist returns to his former unit on the Afghan border and finds only the desperate remnants of bin Laden’s once-dreaded organization.
Deep among North Waziristan’s mountains, far from any village, Hafiz Hanif finally tracked down the remnants of his old al Qaeda
cell last summer. The 17-year-old Afghan had wondered why he hadn’t heard from his former comrades in arms. They didn’t even answer his text messages in May, after the death of the man they all called simply the Sheik: Osama bin Laden
. Now Hanif saw why. Only four of the cell’s 15 fighters were left, huddled in a two-room mud-brick house, with little or no money or food. Except for their familiar but haggard faces, they looked nothing like the al Qaeda
he once trained with and fought beside. They welcomed him warmly but didn’t encourage him to stay. They said the cell’s commander, a Kuwaiti named Sheik Attiya Ayatullah, had gone into hiding. The others had either run off or died. “Why should we call you back just to get killed in a drone attack?” Hanif’s friends explained.
Continued- Al Qaeda on the Ropes: One Fighter's Inside Story...
Is it still too soon to write al Qaeda’s obituary? Over the past two years, the group’s ranks have been ravaged by America’s unmanned-aerial-vehicle attacks and by a steady exodus of demoralized jihadis fleeing Pakistan’s tribal areas. When Newsweek
interviewed Hanif (his nom de guerre) for our Sept. 13, 2010, cover story, “Inside Al Qaeda
,” he estimated that the group had roughly 130 Arabs in Waziristan, along with dozens more Chechens, Turks, Tajiks, even recruits from Western Europe.
But little more than a year later, he estimates there are no more than 40 to 60 al Qaeda operatives of any nationality on either side of the border. “Al Qaeda was once full of great jihadis, but no one is active and planning opera-tions anymore,” he complains. “Those who remain are just trying to survive.”
The son of longtime Afghan war refugees living in Pakistan, Hanif had just turned 15 when (against his parents’ strenuous objections) he ran away to join the war against the U.S. forces in his home country. That was in early 2009, and for the next year and more, the bright but impressionable boy lived among al Qaeda fighters in the isolated wilds of North Waziristan. His parents finally persuaded him to return home in June 2010, but he headed out again this past June in hope of reconnecting with his old unit.
He was shocked by what he found. “The flower is wilting,” he told a Newsweek
correspondent who met with him in December in a Taliban safe house near the Afghan town of Khost. “I think the once-glorious chapter of al Qaeda is being closed.”