ONE Friday evening, just after sunset prayers, Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman climbed into a camouflaged truck in Peshawar, Pakistan, and set off for his first trip inside Afghanistan. It was 1985, he told me later, and he had just spent three years in Egyptian prisons, where he had been severely tortured as he awaited trial on charges of issuing a fatwa resulting in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat; a military court later acquitted him of that, and of a related conspiracy charge. (Last January in New York the sheikh was sentenced to life imprisonment for seditious conspiracy to wage a "war of urban terrorism against the United States.") As he settled into the back seat of the U.S.-supplied truck, the sheikh, who was then forty-seven and had been blind since infancy, was helped into a flak jacket by the fundamentalist Afghan resistance leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar.
At that time the Soviet Union was occupying Afghanistan, and the United States was supporting the Afghan resistance; Hekmatyar, though he was one of the most stridently anti-Western of the resistance leaders, was receiving roughly half the arms that the CIA was supplying. The sheikh had first met Hekmatyar in Saudi Arabia a number of years before, and they were friends. They had much in common: both were exceedingly charismatic religious populists; both had committed their lives to jihad, or Islamic holy war; both were fiery orators. They were both given to elliptical, colorful turns of phrase, and their shared message was clear: the imperative to overthrow a secular government -- whether in Afghanistan or Egypt -- and establish an Islamic state.
Outside Peshawar the mountain passes came alive with men. The mujahideen were loading their caravans with AK-47s, mortars, grenades, and mines to return to Afghanistan. Mules and ponies strained under the weight of wooden crates strapped onto their backs. There were no identifying markings on the crates, nor were there any on the contents, but everything was pan of what would become Washington's largest covert-action program since Vietnam -- equipping fighters on the last battlefield of the Cold War. The truck in which Sheikh Omar was traveling joined a convoy of six or seven others and continued toward the Khyber Pass.