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While hundreds of inexperienced Pakistani, Sudanese and other Muslim faithful enter Afghanistan every week to join the Taliban army, the estimated 1,000 Arabs of Brigade 055 have been in the country for years. Trained in bin Laden's terror camps, they are the Taliban's most dedicated and highly skilled soldiers--the elite of the roughly 5,000 al-Qaeda fighters on the ground.
About 100 of the very best serve as bin Laden's personal security detail. Most are veterans of battles against regimes in their homelands or the mujahedin war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Primarily led by Egyptian and Saudi revolutionaries, Brigade 055 (the unit began as a Soviet-era Afghan-government outfit) also includes volunteers from Chechnya, Pakistan, Bosnia, China and Uzbekistan.
Like most al-Qaeda terrorists, brigade members are fervently committed to bin Laden's cause, and will literally fight to the death. "They give no quarter, and they expect no quarter," says an official at the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency. At the moment, they're helping out at key strategic northern cities like Mazar-i-Sharif, Taloqan and Jalalabad --and, not surprisingly, becoming a major target of U.S. firepower.
Despite the name, the 55th isn't a brigade in the traditional sense. Rather than deploying as one unit backed up by a range of artillery, members fan out in small groups to help reinforce their Afghan brothers, often taking the forward positions. By threat or persuasion, the 55th tries to instill its sense of fearlessness, and discipline, in the Afghan rank-and-file--and goes so far as to shoot those daring to retreat. Even among all the notorious players in Afghanistan, the brigade enjoys a particularly brutal reputation for butchering opposition forces. And if the U.S. enters a ground war, the 55th is sure to draw blood.