YEMEN ( — The days are long, the training merciless, the mission terrifying. And in the end, if you’re very, very successful, your groin explodes. Such is the short, painful life of the underwear bomber.
If, that is, one ever succeeds. So far – thanks in part to ineptitude and in part to U.S. intelligence work – none have. But these uniquely deranged terrorists, a particularly committed subset of Al Qaeda known as Genital Qaeda, continue to try to bring down a U.S. airliner.

Recruits from Genital Qaeda, seen here in Yemen, are not to be confused with their Afghan counterparts, the notorious Tallywhackerban. (Photo by Col. Umar)

To understand how serious the threat is, we traveled to the remote Yemeni camp where these self-styled penisuicide bombers are trained to bring death from below.
It is 5 a.m., just before dawn, when the raw recruits are roused from their restless, rock-cushioned slumber. Niwad, a rough-hewn, heavyset al Qaeda drill sergeant, orders the bedraggled young men, dressed in dirt-encrusted khakis, to form two lines.
“My brothers, before you came here, you said goodbye to your friends, to your families, to your former lives,” he says in Arabic. “But today, before we begin training, you must also say goodbye to something no less precious. Your man parts. Do this now. For you must sever your attachment to them figuratively before you can do it literally.”
Quietly, lovingly, one by one, the volunteers peer at their groins. Some look down and wave. Others utter silent thank yous. A few sob. One young recruit, whose peach-fuzz beard barely conceals his quivering chin, covers his genitals with his hands and looks pleadingly at Niwad. He mouths the word, ‘No.’ Niwad shoots him.
Sit-ups. Leg lifts. Catching a medicine ball. In the crotch. The first week of training is intense, and intensely painful. Before they can begin working with underwear, the recruits must prove their nether regions are as stubborn as their owners.
“There is so much swelling,” moans Atash, a 22-year-old Somali. “My testicles are the size of Djibouti.”
He is sent to see the camp commander, Col. Umar, who has instructed recruits be sent to him whenever genitals need inspecting. Thirty minutes later, Atash returns.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” he says.
All the days have been difficult, but this one has no equal. From dawn to dusk, men sink to their knees. Writhe in agony. Some beg to be put to death. The reason: blast training. To prepare the men for the initial feeling of a bomb going off in their pants, they are subjected to increasing levels of undergarment combustion.
“We start with small explosions,” Niwad explains. “First we drop Mentos and Coca-Cola down their pants. Then we move up to sparklers, firecrackers, and eventually what you call ‘cherry bombs.’”
It’s meant to build mental toughness, he says, and also to deaden nerve endings. This makes Genital Qaeda bombers less nervous, and less likely to be caught, when passing through airport security. If it seems insane, Niwad says that’s because it is.
“There is a saying here in camp: ‘To be in Al Qaeda takes commitment. To be a suicide bomber takes great commitment. But to be in Genital Qaeda, you have to be nuts.’
“Which is ironic,” he adds, “because when the bomb goes off, that’s the first thing to go.”
After a week of building up resistance to scrotal suffering, each recruit is outfitted with heavy plastic underwear. It does not contain the explosive Pentaerythritol tetranitrate, or PETN, used on an actual mission, but the weight and feel is the same.
After a few hours, the men begin to complain. The temperature has soared to 101 degrees and the plastic retains moisture. Combined with the exercises, this causes a horrible rash. The men call it Muslim Extremitch. Col. Umar insists on applying the Desitin himself.
Col. Umar, who leads the Genital Qaeda, says he is very attached to his men's groins.

Today the men are gathered in a large tent, out of the searing heat, and stripped down to nothing but their plastic underwear. The mood, however, is anything but light.
Today Niwad is working on visualization.
“To succeed at anything, you have to ‘see it’ in your mind first,” Niwad tells the recruits. “So what I want you to do is visualize success. I want you to visualize the bomb going off in your pants.”
By the end of the session, it is apparent that several of the recruits, either through excess fear or lack of imagination, cannot perform this task. Some of the men, however, are quite good at it. These are the ones sobbing quietly in the corner.
DAY 10
Niwad rouses the recruits at dawn. They scramble, limp, and drag themselves onto the muster ground, where Col. Umar awaits.
“My brothers, my brave warriors, you must think your commanders are cruel, that we have no respect for your personal areas,” Umar says. “But let me assure you that every day, all day long, all I do is think about your groins. When I’m with you, I don’t see people, I don’t see faces, I see only groins.”
“Yeah, about that…” Niwad tries to interrupt.
“Tomorrow,” Umar continues, “you will begin training with the real underwear. And so, to prepare your skin for the new material, you must all come to my tent, where you will strip and remain naked for the next 24 hours.”
Several recruits frown. Niwad leans over to whisper in his commander’s ear. “Actually, that’s not necessary, sir,” he says.
“Oh you’re no fun,” Umar responds.
DAY 11
At 10 a.m., a truck arrives under heavy guard. A large, dark-green wooden crate is offloaded, the words “Sana Senior Center” stenciled on its sides.
“To deceive our enemies,” Niwad explains.
The anxious recruits form a circle as Niwad pries the lid with a crowbar. Inside are dozens of what appear to be oversized, adult diapers. These are the killing pants.
Niwad hands the underwear to the recruits, who take them with a mixture of awe and fear. The brothers strip down, slip into their garments, and assemble for inspection. They look like a company of gaunt, sun-burnt, bearded babies.
“Sir, I don’t feel very… terrifying in this,” says Kemal, a recruit from Egypt.
“Fine,” says Niwad. “Anyone who doesn’t like the pants, strip them off and march your naked self in to see Col. Umar.”
No one moves.
Desitin is most effective in the fight against Muslim Extremitch.

DAY 13
Now that they wear explosive underwear, the men no longer endure blows to the midsection. Any shock could set the devices off. Relieved, the recruits let down their guard and joke.
“Does this Pentaerythritol tetranitrate make me look fat?” one asks.
“Hey Ahmed,” another yells. “Is that a plastic explosive in your pants or are you just irrationally angry to see me?”
The levity ends, however, when Niwad says it is time to begin detonation training. In the past, this is where the underwear bomb has, figuratively at least, come apart. While the explosive is undetectable, that’s irrelevant if the thing won’t go off. Different methods are tried on the men. Matches. Electric shock. Unstable liquids. The attrition rate is high, like a bris gone horribly, horribly wrong. The marching ground is littered with parts no longer private.

Yet the training continues. Before each explosion is set off, Niwad places his hand on the recruit’s head and utters, “May God have mercy on your groin.”
DAY 15
Of the 31 recruits who began training, just four remain. Eighteen have died. Five ran away with what was left of themselves. Three have gone so insane even al Qaeda thinks they’re too crazy. One left this morning to open a dress shop in the capital with Col. Umar.
Niwad, now alone in command, looks over the scruffy, scrotum-shocked graduates assembled before him.
“Men of Genital Qaeda…” he begins.
“Excuse me,” interrupts a shaky recruit named Yousef. “I don’t think I’m a man anymore. I mean, technically.”
Niwad sighs. “Fine. Men, or… thereabouts, you have achieved great things here, and I know that on your missions, you will achieve even greater things. Eventually.”
“Eventually” is the operative word. As it turns out, Niwad explains, there aren’t any missions because they haven’t perfected the detonator. As a result, he orders the trained bombers back to their regular al Qaeda units. He promises to call them up when a new device is perfected. At which time they will be re-trained.
It’s unclear if Niwad is telling the truth or just saying this because a reporter is present. But it’s clear the men believe him, because they immediately surround Niwad. There is a struggle. Niwad is stripped. A knife slices the air. And then, clear as the Arabian sky, the recruits emit a sound wholly unexpected, but perhaps not wholly inappropriate, considering what they’ve been through.
“Mazel tov!” they cheer.

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