September 2004, eastern Afghanistan
“Good,” the leader said, speaking in Arabic. “They are here. Allah be praised.” Waiting still, he sat cross-legged on a large pillow placed on the rich colors of woolen carpets that lined the room-sized cave’s packed earth floor. He had personally chosen the carpets for this particular cave, selected them to his own liking. Strong colors that gave the space a warm, harmonious feeling. Dark reds, greens, golden yellows, and whites tightly woven in geometric patterns, none of the patterns depicting life forms, some with Arabic calligraphy.
Three pillows were evenly spaced in a semicircle near the center of the room, one on either side of the leader’s seat, each one placed to give the sitter a view of the cave’s entrance. Between the pillows, a smaller rug served as a table. Finely woven silk in a different pattern, it was positioned facing Mecca so it could easily become a prayer rug at the prescribed five times each day. Additional prayer rugs for visitors were rolled and stored at the back of the cave, accessible when needed, otherwise unobtrusive.
The cave’s entry, bright with the hazy sunlight of an autumn morning, lighted the entire space well enough for the discussion ahead. Summer was waning. The air was cool at this time of year, but the tail end of the season’s monsoonal air currents from the Indian Ocean kept the humidity high.
A small fire smoldered on a charred metal dish at one side of the cave, fueled by sun-dried animal dung. The flames warmed a metal teapot as their pungent smell rose sour and smoky over the damp air of the meeting room. The body guard, a thirtyish muscular man, hovered nearby tending the fire, measuring the tea and sugar for the pot. He wore a light gray knee length tunic and matching trousers, with a skull cap, the qalansuwa, on his head. Not a boy at all, he took the role of tea boy for the upcoming summit.
The waiting leader wore his usual clothing: a long and loose fitting, off-white tunic extending to his knees over loose fitting trousers of the same fabric. For this special meeting, he wore a gold brocade cloak over his tunic and trousers. Under it all he had concealed a bullet proof vest. In deference to the rocky terrain in which he lived and worked he wore low quarter boots. A Kalikov semi-automatic weapon rested across his lap, a memento given to him by a veteran of the years-earlier jihad against the Soviet invaders.
The most prominent feature of the leader’s appearance was not his clothing. It was his dark, unkempt beard which extended from his face exactly half way down the front of his chest. A white turban over a close fitting skull cap covered his head, its long tail draping over one shoulder and flowing down his chest alongside his beard. Scraggly sideburns crept out from each side of his turban.
The man’s face appeared pale and fine-featured, almost gentle. Nothing about his physical appearance hinted at his role as leader of a far-reaching organization dedicated to the destruction of western civilization.