Balawi scanned the line of cars and taxis, holding the crutch he used in the aftermath of a leg injury, looking for his ride. It was mid-afternoon on Dec. 30 when he finally arrived at Ghulam Khan, the only border crossing between Pakistan’s North Waziristan province and Afghanistan. The checkpoint, a cluster of mud-brick buildings on the Pakistani side, was manned by a handful of guards with rifles and one antique machine gun with its barrel pointed toward Afghanistan.
Balawi found his contact, a tall, solidly built Afghan gesturing to him from the cluster of taxis. Greeting Balawi in Pashtun-accented English, the Afghan officer, called Arghawan, opened the door of a small sedan to let Balawi inside. The driver mumbled a few words into his cellphone, and the two men began an hour-long trek down the mountains and into a dry plateau on the Afghan side of the border.
Sometime after 4:30 p.m., a large airfield appeared in the distance.Khost. Balawi used the driver’s cellphone to dial a number, and in a moment a voice in familiar Arabic came on the line.
“Salam alekum,” said bin Zeid. Peace be with you.
Balawi apologized for the delay and repeated his concerns about being poked and prodded by Afghan guards who might well be spies. “You’ll treat me like a friend, right?” he asked.
Bin Zeid was reassuring.
The car slowed at the approach to the main gate of the Khost base and passed through a canyon of high walls that narrowed at one end, channeling vehicles into the kill zone of a 50-caliber machine gun. Balawi sat low in his seat, the weight of the heavy vest pressing against his gut, but as bin Zeid had promised, there was no search. Arghawan turned left into the main entrance, and the car barely slowed as it zigzagged around a final series of barriers and into the open expanse of the Khost airfield.
The car turned left again to travel along the edge of the runway, past tanker trucks and dun-colored armored troop carriers.
Balawi, in his writings, had imagined the djinn — devils — and their whispered doubts.
“Are you going to perform jihad and get yourself killed, and let your wife remarry and your children become orphans?
“To whom are you leaving your pretty wife? Who will be dutiful to your frail mother?
“How can you abandon your wonderful work?”
There was an opening in a wall, and Arghawan steered the car through a second open checkpoint and then turned left through a third. Balawi was now inside a fortified compound with walls of stacked barriers 10 feet high and topped with razor wire. On the side of the compound opposite the gate were five newly constructed buildings with metal roofs and a few smaller ones. The next-to-last building in the row had a wide awning. Balawi could see a large cluster of people scattered in front of it, a welcome party that included CIA officers and security contractors.
Arghawan stopped the vehicle in the middle of a gravel lot in front of the building, parallel to the awning but several car lengths away from it. From his spot in the back seat behind the driver, Balawi could see bin Zeid, wearing a camouflage hat and standing next to a larger man in jeans and a baseball cap.
Balawi was staring blankly at the group when the car door opened and he was suddenly face to face with a bear of a man with a close-cropped beard and piercing blue eyes. One gloved hand reached for Balawi, and the other clutched an assault rifle, its barrel pointed down. Balawi froze. Then, slowly, he began backing away, pushing himself along the seat’s edge away from the figure with the gun.
Balawi squeezed the door handle on the opposite side and climbed out of the car, swinging his injured leg onto the gravel lot, and then the good one. Painfully he pulled himself erect, leaning on his metal crutch for support. Bin Zeid called out to him, but Balawi would not look up.
He began walking in a slow-motion hobble as his right hand felt for the detonator.
Just at the brink, the djinn would pose the most awful questions, he had written.
“Who will take care of your little child? And your elderly father?”
Men were shouting at him now, agitated, guns drawn.
“It is said in the Hadith that he who says, ‘There is no God but God alone and praise be to Him,’ he is protected by God from Satan on that day,” Balawi had written. “On the day of the martyrdom-seeking operation, the enemy of God will not reach you.”
Now Balawi mouthed the words softly in Arabic. “La ilaha illa Allah!” There is no god but God.
Men were shouting loudly, yelling about his hand, but still Balawi walked. He could hear his own voice growing more distinct.
“La ilaha illa Allah!”
Balawi’s path was now blocked. He looked up to see that he was surrounded on two sides by men with guns drawn. The bearded man who had opened the car door had circled around him and was shouting at him from his left, and two other heavily armed officers stood directly in front of Balawi, trapping him against the car with no way forward or back. One of the men, blond and younger than the others, was crouching as though preparing to lunge.
Balawi turned slightly, finger locked on the detonator, and looked across the top of the car. The smiles had vanished, and bin Zeid was starting to move toward him. As he did, the tall man beside him grabbed his shoulder to pull him back.
Balawi closed his eyes. His finger made the slightest twitch.