Inside the mind of a Taliban bomb master

The Sunday Times

Squatting on a concrete floor with nails, wires and a plug socket scattered around his feet, Naimatullah goes carefully about his business.

“This is the detonator for the bomb,” he says in a soft voice, a small object in his hand. Then he scoops up some white powder, packing it into a plastic drinks bottle. “These are very tasty explosives, very strong,” he says.

The camera tracks Naimatullah’s hands as he crams nails, fertiliser, petrol and lime into a yellow bucket. The bomb he is making is designed to explode with a lethal burst of shrapnel, slicing through the flesh of British and American soldiers in Afghanistan. The petrol will set fire to their “infidel tanks”, he adds.

The 25-year-old Pashtun, with a neatly trimmed beard, is one of the Taliban’s bombmaking masterminds. Last week, in an interview with The Sunday Times, he displayed the video, filmed on a mobile phone, showing himself at work. It will soon be used to help train other bomb makers.

Every year Naimatullah crosses the border into Pakistan and spends a couple of months at a Taliban camp, teaching his deadly art to the next generation of bomb specialists.

The toll is heavy. Last Wednesday Corporal Stephen Curley, 26, a Royal Marine, became the latest British casualty following a blast in Helmand province. In total 181 British servicemen and women have been killed by bombs since mid-2007. Last year nearly 400 Nato troops died in explosions and 1,800 were badly wounded.

On the same day that Curley died, Naimatullah described how he operates. “I enjoy killing foreign soldiers,” he said. “I am serving my God and my nation and I am training others to do the same.”

He boasted that he had killed “lots” of American troops only a fortnight earlier by detonating a bomb under a US armoured vehicle. That attack took place in Khost province in southeast Afghanistan, where he leads a 10-man explosives unit. But his expertise has been passed on to Taliban cells operating across the entire country.

Among the victims in Helmand have been four of the most highly trained British bomb disposal experts, including Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid. Last week it emerged that their chief, Colonel Bob Seddon, has resigned, citing concerns about the amount of pressure that his men are facing in Afghanistan.

In 2007 there were 2,600 attacks using homemade bombs. In January alone this year there were 1,000 bomb attacks. Faced with such an onslaught, have Britain and its allies underestimated their enemy? And what can they do to counter bombers such as Naimatullah?

SITTING cross-legged on the floor of a safe house in Kabul, Naimatullah appeared far from threatening when I met him last week. Despite his relative youth, he was already going bald. “It is because I normally wear a turban,” he explained, smiling.

A friend who grew up with him in the same village had persuaded Naimatullah to break cover. The son of a peasant farmer, he looked uncomfortable in the presence of a western “infidel”. He refused to reveal his real name, spoke monosyllabically to begin with and avoided making eye contact.

He said he wanted to be interviewed so he could correct some of the common misconceptions about the Taliban. The meeting was also an opportunity for him to demonstrate his handiwork by giving me a copy of his training video.

“The foreigners say we are paid to lay the bombs,” he said. “They call us the $10 fighters. This is all lies. We are not paid a regular salary. If the little money we do receive stopped coming to us then we would still continue our jihad for as long as we could afford.”

Five years earlier Naimatullah’s father sent him to a madrasah across the border in North Waziristan where he studied the Koran, sharia and the tenets of jihad, or holy war.

“The mullahs would tell us how the infidels had invaded our homeland,” he said.

“They did not come for reconstruction — it is a lie. They just came to ruin the country and to kill Muslims. Of course I agreed with what they taught me. We could see what was happening.”

Within months he had joined the Taliban, initially working as a foot soldier in his home province of Khost. He swiftly gained a reputation among his peers as a fearless commander, often volunteering to lie in ambush closest to advancing US troop convoys.

Naimatullah’s dedication paid off and his commander eventually sent him back to school, this time to a madrasah in Pakistan’s North West Frontier province. On his first day there, a leading cleric stood up in front of the pupils and asked them what they would rather be: a suicide bomber, a bomb maker or a fighter.

“It was the young and naive ones who wanted to be suicide bombers,” he said.

“I wanted to be a bomb maker. Suicide attacks you can only carry out once. In my profession I can live longer and so I can kill more.”

His training took place in the basement of a mud house on the edge of a village. An instructor taught in front of a blackboard, drawing in chalk the techniques used to make IEDs as the class of 10 sat at his feet, surrounded by photographs of bombs tacked to the walls.

By 2009, after a series of successful attacks on US troops, the pupil had replaced the master. Naimatullah is now one of at least 100 trainers who teach recruits about various types of IED: pressure plates, detonated when a soldier steps on the bomb; remote-controlled, triggered by a mobile phone; and command wire, detonated by attaching wires to a battery pack.

He advises students to lay the bombs in hard ground and to improvise by adding unexploded mortar rounds, artillery shells or gas canisters to create maximum carnage.

“We look for areas where troops are naturally channelled by the terrain. Or we look for routes that convoys will follow — harder ground, previous tyre marks in the dirt. But we also have to consider where we hide, where the best place to put the man on the trigger is.”

Classes last for 2½ hours each day and students are made to sit an oral exam — many are illiterate — at the end of the three-month training period.

Naimatullah explained how bombs can be made from components scavenged from old artillery shells or sometimes from putty explosives acquired in Pakistan, as well as the Taliban’s secret ingredient: “We mix yoghurt on top of the explosives. It helps to hide the bomb,” he said. The curdled yoghurt might also throw sniffer dogs off the trail.

They sometimes add American-donated fertiliser that “is easily found in the bazaar”, said Naimatullah, relishing the irony. Sim-card holders from mobile phones are ferried in from Pakistan. The Taliban attach the electronic holders to the bomb’s detonator and place a sim card inside. To detonate the bomb, the Taliban simply dial the sim card’s number.

Naimatullah added: “In other provinces like Helmand they are using a lot of homemade stuff, but for us Pakistan is a 20-minute drive away. Why should we risk making explosives when we can just go across the border and get it ready made?” He grew silent when pressed on whether Pakistan’s military or its intelligence agency supplied components. “I cannot say. It comes from Pakistan. That is all,” he said with a sly smile.

LAST autumn I met Schmid in Sangin, the most dangerous district in Afghanistan. He was exhausted, having defused 64 IEDs over four months in searing temperatures and under constant threat from Taliban gunfire. Schmid, 30, told me that the army was trying to train more bomb disposal experts because of the strain men like him were under in Helmand.

It could not be achieved overnight, he said: “Technicians do seven years of training. People think there’s a short-term solution to the number of operators, but they can’t just be churned out. They need a good background knowledge of ammunition and explosives.”

Two weeks after our conversation Schmid was dead, blown up by a bomb he had tried to defuse. He was awarded the George Cross posthumously.

On Friday a coroner examining the death of Captain Daniel Shepherd, a colleague of Schmid in the bomb squad, said there was an urgent need for more remote-controlled robots. Shepherd, 28, was killed by a blast last July after defusing 13 bombs by hand in 36 hours.

Schmid’s American counterparts are considered so valuable that many are assigned former US special forces soldiers to act as bodyguards against Taliban gunfire. Over the past three years the US military has pumped more than £10 billion into research and technology designed to detect and neutralise the IEDs that cost the Taliban just £20 to make.

Nato officials admit that money will not defeat IEDs unless the source of the problem is addressed: until the supply line from Pakistan is cut off there will be no end to the bloodshed. Men like Schmid and Shepherd will continue to die.

Naimatullah, who has seen four Taliban fighters killed since he became the commander of his own IED unit, said: “We know about the computer planes [US drones] and their technology. Every night we prepare to die. This is a holy war; we are fighting for a good cause so the thought of death does not bother us.”

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