Portrait of an Al Qaeda camp

Fighters inside the Pakistan border are targeting a US base, Afghan locals and officials say.

Locals call Sabila "the lonely village."

"There are no children, no women, no relatives to celebrate Eid [the Islamic feast day] with," says Mohammad Nasser, a shopkeeper from Asadabad, Afghanistan, who has visited Sabila.

The village, just 10 miles across the border in Pakistan, is a collection of high-walled adobe compounds that house a brigade of 300 Al Qaeda fighters who are preparing to attack the Kabul government and US forces, say local Afghans and Afghan intelligence sources.

"Sabila is not a village anymore, it's a training camp for Al Qaeda, and they are a danger both for us and for the US forces." says Mr. Nasser. His own village is three miles from Sabila.

The fighters, who speak Arabic and appear to be mostly Arabs - with a smattering of Uzbeks, Africans, and Pakistanis - keep an extremely low profile, say Afghans who have visited Sabila. They hire Pakistanis from nearby villages to do their grocery shopping and other odd jobs. But there is one job these fighters prefer to do themselves: At least once a week, these Al Qaeda members travel across the mountains to Afghanistan and fire rockets on a US base near Asadabad, in Konar Province.

Loosely called "training camps" by Afghan and US military authorities, Sabila and perhaps a dozen well-defined and named outposts like it along the 1,500-mile Afghan-Pakistani border present the thorniest of problems for US forces, Afghan allies, and Pakistani federal authorities, who have pledged to rout terrorist groups on Pakistani soil.

A troubling gray area

The problem, US military spokesmen say, is that such villages are located in a legal gray area outside of the control of all three governments. Because they're deep enough into Pakistani territory, US and Afghan forces cannot attack them under the rubric of self-defense, or even "hot pursuit." But because they are in Pashtun tribal areas, where Pakistani federal authorities exert little direct control, foreign fighters enjoy profound popularity, as well as tacit support from local tribal and religious leaders.

"We're in a classic low-intensity conflict, and that's where you really have to be sure of your targets," says Col. Roger King, spokesman for US military forces at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

"We work closely with the Pakistani forces on the border. And the primary thing we ask you to remember is that coalition forces reserve the right to self-defense and that can also relate to a border. You should be able to extrapolate from that that 10 miles probably does not constitute self-defense."

In the past, when US forces became aware of a concentration of Al Qaeda forces, such information was passed up the chain of Central Command, and dealt with either by allied Pakistani forces alone or with the assistance of US agents based in Pakistan. But the problem is not a dearth of such tipoffs, Colonel King says - it is deciding which of the hundreds of tipoffs are true, in a society where tribes often settle scores by labeling their rivals Al Qaeda.

"We're really having to deal with this debate of what is truth," says King, "especially when it comes to who do you go and put lethal force against."

If the reports of Nasser and other villagers are true, then Pakistan's support for the US-led war on terrorism would appear to be in serious doubt, at least at the local level.

When asked, Pakistani officials say they haven't heard of Sabila. But Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, spokesman for Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf, notes, "We keep hearing some allegations, which may be frustration from some Afghan officials not being able to achieve what they wanted to achieve," such as rebuilding the country and eliminating enemies within their borders. He promised to pass information about Sabila to intelligence and Pakistani military in the area.

According to Afghan intelligence officials of the Amniat agency, Al Qaeda's presence is scattered in small groups on both sides of the Afghan Pakistani border, in Pakistani tribal towns such as Miran Shah, Bajaur, Tira, Angore Adda, Dir, Chitral, and Dera Ismail Khan. Foreign fighters appear to be within Afghanistan itself, such as in the border town of Barikowt, just a five-hour drive north of the US base in Asadabad in the province of Konar.

Most troubling, the Afghan intelligence officials say, is that foreign fighters have linked up with local Islamist parties, such as the radical Hizb-i Islami, once the most powerful of seven religious parties in the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Accounts from visitors

Pakistani authorities cast doubt on reports of Al Qaeda elements inside their territory. But for Afghans living along the border, namely in Konar, there is no question that these men are foreigners and that they are preparing for yet another war. They give what is perhaps the most detailed account of the daily life of an Al Qaeda camp to date.

While the fighters have done what they can to make their village look like every other - hiding trucks and heavy weapons under camouflage nets, for instance - neighboring Afghans say Sabila hardly ordinary.

"It is a village turned into a camp," says Ibadullah, another Afghan shopkeeper in Asadabad who lives near Sabila. "There is a mosque and 30 to 40 family compounds, put together. Before they came, it was dark at night, but now they have electricity because they have generators."

The fighters begin each day with prayer at 5 o'clock, then spend their mornings doing calisthenics and jogging. In the afternoons, the men line up with their Kalashnikovs for target practice, and occasionally fire heavy weapons as well.

The fighters arrived in early November, just days after the fall of the Taliban, crossing by the hundreds at Nawa Pass checkpost. For months, many Pakistani tribesmen happily took in and fed their fellow Muslims as refugees. Later, a tribal council determined the fighters should live in their own village, far from the local villagers, in the event they are discovered by Pakistani authorities or US forces.

"They are good people, and thanks be to God, I personally have given food to them because it is our religious duty," says Ibadullah, who considers himself a supporter of the Taliban. "But we told them not to live in our area because of the danger we might face."

Interaction between nearby villagers and the Al Qaeda fighters is limited. Some villagers, like Ibadullah, have been hired to go into the nearest towns, Bajaur or Nawangay, to buy groceries. Others have been hired to dig wells or perform other menial tasks.

But those who have spent time inside the camps say the fighters have made only superficial attempts to appear like Afghans. All wear the traditional baggy trousers and shirt, but most drink bottled water and eat cookies, crackers, and other items from abroad, rather than local food.

The men of Sabila village may be lonely by Pashtun standards, but they do receive a number of visits, including politicians from the top Pakistani religious parties that now control the state of Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), which includes the tribal areas along the Afghan border. Members of Kashmiri terrorist groups such as Jaish-e Mohammad, Hizbul Mujahideen, Al Badr Mujahideen, Harkatul Mujahideen, and the Afghan-based Islamist party, Hizb-i Islami have also visited.

"Usually on Fridays, the day of prayer, lots of people come to meet the fighters," says Ahmed Shah, an Afghan shopkeeper in Asadabad who changed his name for protection. "Top government leaders like Qazi Hussein Ahmed or Fazlur Rahman (two leaders of religious parties that govern NWFP) don't come directly, but their people come to visit."

Gauging Pakistan's support

For the record, leaders of the six religious parties that govern NWFP, the so-called Muttahida e Majlis e Awam, deny giving safe haven to terrorist groups, but broadly oppose any Pakistani support for the US war against the Taliban or Al Qaeda.

Pakistani authorities say their support for the war on terror is unwavering, at least on the federal level. "The moment Pakistani forces get information, they will take action if the information is credible," says General Qureshi, the spokesman. "As of today, the army and the Border Scouts and the Pakistani security forces, as well as the intelligence agencies, are all already in the tribal areas, so there is no question of moving forces from outside and tipping off Al Qaeda with our movements."

"There is not a single case where information has been given and action has not been taken," he adds.

But at the Nawa Pass border checkpoint, where Afghan and Pakistani flags flutter just a few meters apart, border-security chief Gul Adad says his Pakistani counterparts are working with Al Qaeda.

"I don't know about the politics, but I do know the Pakistanis are supporting and backing Al Qaeda secretly," he says, sitting on the bare floor of his post, and feeding wood into a stove to keep warm. "Openly, the Pakistanis talk against Al Qaeda, but at night, they give them safe haven and even guide them to fire missiles and rockets on the US base."

Pointing to a ridgeline footpath that overlooks his checkpost, he adds, "That is the road they take, and it goes all the way down to a hilltop just across the river from the US base.

"We're on the front lines here. On this side [in Afghanistan], the sentiments are against us. But on that side, not only are the sentiments against us, but there are men with weapons. "

For Nasser, who gives his true name despite the danger, the front line is within his village, as close as his own neighbors.

Speaking of himself and Mr. Shah, he says, "If we give information and they know about it, we will never be able to go back to our village again. But I hope you will tell the US forces about Sabila, because it's time for the foreign fighters to go."

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