The Pashtun tribesman known as al-Qaeda’s tailor lived in a house near the village of Datta Khel in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, where he made a living making suicide vests. One morning in mid-December, he sat at his antique sewing machine to fill yet another order, this one very different from the vests he usually made.
The man was celebrated for his ingeniously simple designs that were both reliable and cheap. He started with a sturdy cotton vest, often surplus military gear from the local bazaar, and attached thick straps so it could be secured snugly against the torso. He added fabric pouches and stuffed them with packets of white acetone peroxide powder, an explosive that can be cooked up at home using common ingredients. Next came the shrapnel layer, which consisted of hundreds of nails or other bits of metal glued to sheets of thick, adhesive-backed paper or cloth. Finally, he inserted blasting caps in the powder and attached them to wires that ran to a small nine-volt battery and a cheap detonator switch. The latter item he sewed into a separate pouch that closed with a zipper. That, he explained, was to prevent excitable young martyrs-to-be from blowing themselves up too quickly. An extra second or two of fumbling with the zipper would remind the bomber to move in closer to his target to ensure the maximum possible carnage.
On this day a group of young Pakistani recruits, some of them tapped as future suicide bombers, gathered to admire the vestmaker as he worked. One of them took photos with his cellphone as the man reached into his explosives chest and pulled out a surprise: not the usual bags of powder, but doughy sticks of a far more powerful military explosive called C4. He kneaded the sticks to flatten them and began to pack them into a row of 13 fabric pouches he had sewn onto the outside of the vest. Next he dipped a paintbrush into a bucket of industrial adhesive and slathered the white goo over a large square of sturdy cotton. The man then patiently studded the sheet with metal bits, piece by piece and row by row, alternating marble-size steel ball bearings with nails and scrap and, finally, some children’s jacks.
Among the spectators, there had been lively discussions about the man who was likely to wear the special vest. Most speculation centered on the young Jordanian physician whom the recruits called Abu Leila, using the Arab practice of referring to men by the name of their oldest child and the word abu, or “father of.” But Leila’s father wasn’t nearly so certain. Before he left for Pakistan, Humam al-Balawi imagined himself a mujaheddin, a holy warrior, fighting and maybe even dying in a righteous struggle against the enemies of God. What he hadn’t pictured for himself was a suicide vest.
The one in the tailor’s shop in Datta Khel was coming together, row after metal-studded row, but there was still time. In the coming days Balawi tried his best to make sure that the vest ended up belonging to someone else. Anyone but him.