What hasn’t been available until now is a detailed, insider’s view of what Al Qaeda looks like today. Hanif’s account provides that view. In some ways the picture is what you might imagine—of fighters on the run, hunted by drones, diminished in numbers. Yet Al Qaeda’s allure remains intense: Hanif chose to join bin Laden’s army rather than his uncle’s Afghan Taliban because of the group’s still-elite status among jihadis. While he’s seen many of his associates killed, he’s also seen them replaced by a constant stream of recruits from the Middle East and elsewhere. And he’s seen how even the tiny number of Qaeda operatives can act as a force multiplier, making other groups more deadly in their war against America. In fact, Hanif claims to have had a small role in one of the CIA’s greatest tragedies: last December’s suicide bombing at Forward Operating Base Chapman in Afghanistan that killed seven operatives…

At other camps he later found some suicide trainees who weren’t even teenagers. At one Mehsud camp he saw boys who looked no older than 12. While he was there, Baitullah Mehsud made an inspection visit and noticed one very young boy, and ordered his deputy and chief instructor, Qari Hussain, to send the boy home. After Mehsud’s death in a Predator strike in August 2009, Hanif revisited the camp and saw that the orders had been ignored: more child bombers were being trained…

The sound of the drones in the sky is so incessant you stop noticing it, like the buzzing of insects, Hanif says. “You don’t see or hear anything before the missile’s impact.” He says the aftermath of a drone attack can be particularly hard. He recalls spending hours searching the rubble alongside other fighters after an attack that killed a Qaeda commander known as Abu Suleiman. They eventually found his head. After another drone attack, they dug for eight to nine hours in the debris of a collapsed house to try to find a Qaeda fighter, his wife, and his kids who had been killed. “We finally found parts of them,” Hanif recalls, “but not all of them.”…

Hanif freely admits he knows nothing of Al Qaeda’s overall strategy, and says he has no idea how many other Qaeda operatives may operate in the orbit of senior leaders like bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In his 18 months with Al Qaeda, Hanif says, no one he met had any clue to the whereabouts of either one—and yet all fought eagerly in their names. He speaks as breathlessly as any starstruck teenager about prominent jihadis he has encountered. His list includes Baitullah Mehsud and his successor as head of the Pakistani Taliban, Hakimullah Mehsud; Al Qaeda’s reputed No. 3 leader, Abu Yahya al-Libi; and Adam Gadahn, a.k.a. Azzam al-Amriki, the “American Taliban.” In the past six months, though, high-ranking Qaeda figures have largely disappeared as a result of the worsening Predator threat. “They have all gone underground,” Hanif says. “I used to see Azzam al-Amriki, but he also has disappeared.”