Al Qaeda plotted new US attacks
Villagers say they heard Osama bin Laden's voice last month, and saw his No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, in caves.
Key Al Qaeda officials, possibly including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, were present in the fortified Shah-i-Kot caves of this region just before the recent US attacks.Skip to next paragraph
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Local villagers, who spoke on the condition that their village not be identified, provided details on how they were recruited to blast a new network of caves for these fighters who were formulating plans for additional terrorist attacks on the US and to provide an escape route for later use.
If the workers and mullah are to be believed, the Al Qaeda base that was attacked but not destroyed by Operation Anaconda included computers, satellite phones, maps of major American cities, and pictures of huge US bridges that the men said they could not name.
The tales that Al Qaeda's temporary labor force tell are unsettling on many levels. They suggest that some US intelligence sources have been double-dealing them. They suggest that the local population who will be crucial in any campaign to route out Al Qaeda from this harsh and formidable mountain range is feeling torn between the US and their Muslim brothers who are calling them to join in a jihad against the dominance of infidels.
As the US continues its mopping up efforts in the aftermath of Operation Anaconda, understanding exactly who these villagers were helping is perhaps just one of the many threads officials will begin to unravel.
"It started almost two months ago, and I am happy because I made a lot of money from them," says Jalad Khan, a driver who could only hope to make the 70,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,100) that Al Qaeda paid him in two to three years. "They gave us food and goat meat, and we were laughing every day. We were having a very good time it was like a picnic."
That picnic ended hastily, four different men interviewed in one village say, when word spread that the US would begin bombing the next day. A few of the some 100 workers helping the Al Qaeda fighters were also "working" with US forces. So they were able to give the mostly Arab and Chechen fighters a day's notice that Operation Anaconda was about to begin.
That information enabled the fighters to send the families traveling with them to a safer place, and spurred the comfortable departure of some of the more senior Al Qaeda figures, who also sent their extraordinarily well-paid workers home.
Several of the men interviewed say that the fighters were extremely deferential to the apparent leader on site, a portly, bespectacled man who was referred to as either the "sheikh" or the "doctor." A local mullah here, who served as a foreman for several of the villagers he helped recruit, says he the leader was probably Mr. Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is Mr. bin Laden's right-hand man, because his face matches the picture on flyers that were dropped over this area by American planes a while back.
The men also say that they overheard a live address via satellite phone to all the Al Qaeda troops by a man they referred to as "al Qaed," or the leader. The workers believe it was bin Laden, but cannot be sure. The phone connection was cut off. Afterward, the fighters seemed buoyed by the pep talk, which would have been given three weeks to one month ago.