Afghanistan has been portrayed as the perfect refuge for Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda operatives in the days before 11 September – a country run by fundamentalist Muslims of the most extreme sort.
But like other outsiders, al-Qaeda members found conditions in the anarchic, war-torn nation far from ideal, according to computer records turned up by a US newspaper.
"This place is worse than a tomb," a bin Laden associate wrote to his friends at home in Egypt, after scouting out Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Leading US lawmakers were subjected this week to a massive FBI investigation into the leaking of a few snippets of al-Qaeda communications to the press. The National Security Agency, the US governmentís secretive eavesdropping agency, picked up a conversation the day before the 11 September attacks in which someone was heard to say "tomorrow is zero hour".
But a far more complete picture of how al-Qaeda members worked, particularly in Afghanistan, was provided yesterday in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Its chief source was a computer recovered from the country by its journalists.
A deep rift emerged early on between al-Qaeda and their nominal hosts, the Taleban, who seemed locked in mutual scorn. One top al-Qaeda lieutenant, Morgan al-Gohari, complained that the Afghans "change their ideas and positions all the time" and "would do anything for money".
"Is it safe to live among these people?" he asked in a letter to Ayman al-Zawahiri, a Egyptian physician regarded as bin Ladenís right-hand man. "Can any of your work be done there in view of the lack of facilities?"
Bin Laden and his entourage moved to Afghanistan in 1996 after he was expelled from Sudan. By 1998, it appears, the Taleban leader, Mullah Omar, was almost ready to agree a deal with Saudi Arabia to expel him.
"How can he hold a press conference without my permission? There is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?" the newspaper reported Mullah Omar as demanding, after one grandstanding interview given to a journalist by the al-Qaeda chief.
Tragically, however, the US cruise missile attacks on bin Ladenís camps in Afghanistan – after the bombings of US embassies in Africa – turned the Talebanís attitude on its head. Mullah Omar came deeply under the influence of his guest, it was reported.
But the outsiders arriving with bin Laden, often well-travelled through the West and oil-rich Arab states, were nonetheless scathing of the conditions they found in Afghanistan.
One militant normally based in Yemen wrote a mocking account of trying to make a telephone call. It involved arranging a car, waiting hours for it, then travelling packed like sardines on terrible roads, to a government communications office where "most of the time there is some kind of failure, either the power is off or the lines are out of order".www.news.scotsman.com/international.cfm?id=838322002E-mail this article