North-West Frontier, on the border of Afghanistan and
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
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
"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
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 reality, they were a burden on
desperately poor families. They had to earn their keep like
everyone else. Wells and the half dozen Arabs living in this
village, just outside Akora Khatak, survived on stale bread and
scraps of lamb. Wells did not want to guess how much weight he had
lost. He had hardly recognized himself the few times he had seen
himself in a mirror. The bullet hole in his left arm had turned
into a knot of scar tissue that ached unpredictably.
The winters were especially difficult, even for Wells, who had
grown up playing in the Bitterroot Range on the Montana-Idaho
border. The cold sank into his bones. He could only imagine what
the Saudis thought. Lots of them had been martyred in these
mountains, but not from bombs or bullets. They'd died of pneumonia
and altitude sickness and something that looked a lot like scurvy.
They'd died asking for their mothers, and a few had died cursing
Osama and the awful place he'd led them. Wells ate fresh fruit
whenever he could, which wasn't often, and marveled at the
toughness of the Pashtuns.
To keep sane he practiced his soldiering as much as possible. The
local tribal leader had helped him set up a small firing range on
flat ground a few miles outside the village. Every few weeks Wells
rode out with a half dozen men and shot off as many rounds as he
could spare. But he couldn't pretend he was doing anything more
than passing time. They all were. If America vs. Qaeda were a Pop
Warner football game, the refs would have invoked the mercy rule
and ended it a long time ago.
Gul stepped into the crowd of worshippers. He looked at the men
around him and spoke again, his voice low and intense. "The time
for speeches is done, brothers," he said. "Allah willing, we will
see action soon. May Allah bless all faithful Muslims. Amen."
The men clustered close to hug the sheikh. Waiting his turn, Wells
wondered if Gul knew something or was just trying to rally the
congregation. He poked with his tongue at a loose molar in the back
of his mouth, sending a spurt of pain through his jaw. Dental care
in the North-West Frontier left something to be desired. In a few
weeks he would have to visit the medical clinic in Akora to have
the tooth "examined." Or maybe he'd just find a pair of pliers and
do the job himself.
Lately Wells had dreamed of leaving this place. He could hitch a
ride to Peshawar, catch a bus to Islamabad, and knock on the front
gate of the American embassy. Or, more accurately, knock on the
roadblocks that kept a truck bomb from getting too close to the
embassy's blastproof walls. A few minutes and he'd be inside. A
couple days and he'd be home. No one would say he had failed. Not
to his face, anyway. They'd say he had done all he could, all
anyone could. But somewhere inside he would know better. And he
would never forgive himself.
Because this wasn't Pop Warner football. The mercy rule didn't
exist. The men standing beside him in this mosque would happily
give their lives to be remembered as martyrs. They were stuck in
these mountains, but their goal remained unchanged. To punish the
crusaders for their hubris. To take back Jerusalem. To kill
Americans. Qaeda's desire to destroy was limited only by its
resources. For now the group was weak, but that could change
instantly. If Qaeda's assassins succeeded in killing Pakistan's
president, the country might suddenly have a Wahhabi in charge.
Then bin Laden would have a nuclear weapon to play with. An Islamic
bomb. And sooner or later there would be a big hole in New York or
London or Washington.
Anyway, living here had a few compensations. Wells had learned the
Koran better than he ever expected. He had a sense of how monks had
lived in the Middle Ages, copying Bibles by hand. He knew now how
one book could become moral and spiritual guidance and
entertainment all at once.
After so many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Wells found that
his belief in Islam --- once just a cover story --- had turned
real. The faith touched him in a way that Christianity never had.
Wells had always been skeptical of religion. When he read the Koran
at night on his bed alone he suffered the same doubts about its
promises of paradise as he did when he read the apostles'
description of Christ rising from the dead. Yet he loved the
Koran's exhortations that men should treat one another as brothers
and give all they could to charity. The umma, the brotherhood, was
real. He could walk into any house in this village and be offered a
cup of hot sweet tea and a meal by a family that could barely feed
its own children. And no one needed a priest's help to reach the
divine in Islam; anyone who studied hard and was humble could seek
enlightenment for himself.
But Islam's biggest strength was its greatest weakness, Wells
thought. The religion's flexibility had made it a cloak for the
anger of men tired of being ruled by America and the West. Islam
was the Marxism of the twenty-first century, a cover for national
liberation movements of all stripes. Except that the high priests
of Marxism had never promised their followers rewards in the next
world in exchange for their deaths in this one. Wahhabis like bin
Laden had married their fury at the United States with a
particularly nasty vision of Islam. They wanted to take the
religion back to the seventh-century desert. They couldn't compete
in the modern world, so they would pretend that it didn't exist. Or
destroy it. Their anger resonated with hundreds of millions of
desperately poor Muslims. But in Wells's eyes they had perverted
the religion they claimed to represent. Islam wasn't incompatible
with progress. In fact, Islamic nations had once been among the
world's most advanced. Eight hundred years ago, as Christians
burned witches, the Muslim Abbasids had built a university in
Baghdad that held eighty thousand books. Then the Mongols had come.
Things had gone downhill ever since.
Wells kept his views to himself. Publicly, he spent hours each day
studying the Koran with Sheikh Gul and the clerics at the village
madrassa. His Qaeda superiors had taken notice. And that was the
other reason Wells stayed in the North-West Frontier. He believed
that he had at last convinced Qaeda's leadership of his loyalty;
the other jihadis in the village had begun to listen to him more
carefully. Or so he hoped.
Wells's turn to greet Sheikh Gul had come. Wells patted his heart,
a traditional sign of affection. "Allahu akbar," he said.
"Allahu akbar," said the sheikh. "Will you come to the mosque
tomorrow morning to study, Jalal?"
"I would be honored," Wells said.
"Salaam alaikum." Peace be with you.
wells walked out of the mosque into the village's dusty main
street. As he blinked in the weak spring sunlight, two bearded men
walked toward him. Wells knew them vaguely, though not their names.
They lived in the mountains, second-tier bodyguards for
"Salaam alaikum, Jalal," they said.
The men tapped their chests in greeting.
"I am Shihab," the shorter one said.
"Bassim." The taller of the two, though Wells towered over him. His
shoes were leather and his white robe clean; maybe life in the
mountains had improved. Or maybe Osama was living in a village
"Allahu akbar," Wells said.
"The mujaddid asks that you come with us," Bassim said. Mujaddid.
The renewer, a man sent by Allah to lead Islam's renaissance. Bin
Laden was the mujaddid.
"Of course." A battered Toyota Crown sedan was parked behind the
men. It was the only car in the village that Wells didn't
recognize, so it must be theirs. He stepped toward it. Bassim
steered him away.
"He asks that you pack a bag. With everything you own that you wish
The request was unexpected, but Wells merely nodded. "Shouldn't
take long," he said. They walked down an alley to the brick hut
where Wells lived with three other jihadis.
Inside, Naji, a young Jordanian who had become Wells's best friend
in the mountains, thumbed through a tattered magazine whose cover
featured Imran Khan, a famous Pakistani
cricketeer-turned-politician. In the corner a coffeepot boiled on a
little steel stove.
"Jalal," Naji said, "have you found us any sponsors yet?" For
months, Naji and Wells had joked to each other about starting a
cricket team for Qaeda, maybe getting corporate sponsorship: "The
Jihadis will blow you away." Wells wouldn't have made those jokes
to anyone else. But Naji was more sophisticated than most jihadis.
He had grown up in Amman, Jordan's capital, paradise compared to
this village. And Wells had saved Naji's life the previous summer,
stitching the Jordanian up after Afghan police shot him at a border
checkpoint. Since then the two men had been able to talk openly
about the frustrations of living in the North-West Frontier.
"Soon," Wells said.
Hamra, Wells's cat, rubbed against his leg and jumped on the thin
gray blanket that covered his narrow cot. She was a stray Wells had
found two years before, skinny, red --- which explained her name;
hamra means "red" in Arabic --- and a great leaper. She had chosen
him. One winter morning she had followed him around the village,
mewing pathetically, refusing to go away even when he shouted at
her. He couldn't bear watching her starve, so despite warnings from
his fellow villagers that one cat would soon turn into ten, he'd
taken her in.
"Hello, Hamra," he said, petting her quickly as Bassim walked into
the hut. Shihab followed, murmuring something to Bassim that Wells
"Bassim and Shihab --- Naji," Wells said.
"Marhaba," Naji said. Hello. Shihab and Bassim ignored him.
"Please, have coffee," Wells said.
"We must leave soon," Bassim said.
"Naji," Wells said. "Can you leave us for a moment?"
Naji looked at Bassim and Shihab. "Are you sure?"
As Naji walked out, Wells stopped him. "Naji," Wells said. He ran
his fingers over Hamra's head. "Take care of her while I'm
"When will you be back, Jalal?"
Wells merely shook his head.
"Hamdulillah, then," Naji said. Praise be to God, a traditional
Arabic blessing. "Masalaama." Good-bye.
"Hamdulillah." They hugged, briefly, and Naji walked out.
bassim and shihab looked on as Wells grabbed a canvas bag from
under his cot. He threw in the few ragged clothes he wanted: his
spare robe, a pair of beaten sneakers, a faded green wool sweater,
its threads loose. A world-band radio he'd bought in Akora Khatak a
year before, and a couple of spare batteries. The twelve thousand
rupees --- about two hundred dollars --- he had saved. He didn't
have much else. No photographs, no television, no books except the
Koran and a couple of Islamic philosophy texts. He slipped those
gently into the bag. And his guns, of course. He lay on the dirt
floor and pulled his AK and his Makarov from under the bed.
"Those you can leave, Jalal," Bassim said.
Wells could not remember the last time he had slept without a
rifle. He would rather have left his clothes. "I'd rather
"You won't need them where you're going."
Excerpted from THE FAITHFUL SPY © Copyright 2011 by Alex
Berenson. Reprinted with permission by Random House, Inc. All