Bin Laden's foreign legion the main target for US and friendly forces

War on terrorism: 55 Brigade
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In anticipation of a land war, gun-toting international Islamist fighters of al-Qa'ida have been appearing at mosques in Afghanistan, asking locals to look after their families if they should die.

It is far from clear if they, or their families, will survive any coming onslaught. Osama bin Laden's foreign legion will not only be a primary target of the allies but the opposition Northern Alliance and the Afghan civilian population. The fighters, known as Arab-Afghans, form the personal army of Mr bin Laden and about 5,000 are seconded to the Taliban 55 Brigade, now playing a critical role in the defence of Kabul.

Defence sources claim the 55 Brigade is about to become the target of some heavy US pounding from the air. This would be a change of operational policy. Until now, the Taliban lines north of Kabul had been spared at the behest of the Pakistani military government, to stop the Northern Alliance making gains.

However, US and British diplomats are said to be increasingly disenchanted with Pakistani efforts to form a "broad-based government", with the Taliban still represented but the Northern Alliance largely excluded.

Talks between various groups in Islamabad have got bogged down, and the US State Department is deeply sceptical about some of the Taliban leaders the Pakistanis are putting forward as "moderate". For example, Maulvi Jalaluddin Haqqini, a senior Taliban commander who spent several days in Islamabad at Pakistani request, has been described by US intelligence as a brutal and hardline fundamentalist.

Most of the 55 Brigade are volunteers – single young men who came from all over the Muslim and non-Muslim world to join the jihad in Afghanistan. But others had brought their families over and these dependants are now pariahs in their homelands. The 55 Brigade illustrates the broad nature of al-Qa'ida recruitment – Arabs of various nationalities, but mainly Egyptian, Saudi Arabian, Yemeni, Algerian, Somali, Sudanese, Pakistani, Chechen, Uigur Chinese and some from the Balkans, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some were mujahedin in the war against the Russians, others joined the ranks more recently and have served in a variety of wars including Chechnya, Kashmir and even Bosnia. All have built up a reputation for being experienced fighters and also extreme, at times ritualistic, cruelty towards both enemy soldiers and civilians.

Brigade members had tortured captured Russian soldiers, sometimes skinning them alive, and are blamed for atrocities, including beheadings, in Kashmir. They also led Taliban troops in some of their worst excesses in their conquest of much of Afghanistan.

It was "Afghan Arabs" who were seen in the forefront when the Taliban were accused of massacring 4,000 on taking Mazar-i-Shrif in November 1998. Mullah Mohammed Omar said this showed typical UN bias, the real figure was 3,500, he said.One thing is for sure, the 55 Brigade and al-Qa'ida have superior equipment to the Taliban's foot soldiers.