Evidence of Al Qaeda spy ring in key Afghan roles

US and Afghan forces raided Amniat offices in Khost in March. The ensuing investigation shows key papers are in Al Qaeda hands.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For the past year, Hazratuddin Habibi has been the intelligence chief of Khost, appointed by President Hamid Karzai to keep an eye on Taliban or Al Qaeda activities in this crucial province along the Pakistani border.

Hazratuddin, a former intelligence chief for the Taliban known by his first name, was certainly qualified for the job. But colleagues in the central government's intelligence agency, Amniat, and in other military departments began to notice that raids on Taliban hideouts were coming up empty. Arrests of Al Qaeda suspects went awry. It occurred to local political leaders as well as intelligence and military officials that Hazratuddin may be a double agent.

On March 20, US and Afghan forces put an end to the intrigue. While two US helicopters provided air cover and special forces surrounded the Amniat offices, soldiers of Afghanistan's combined military forces entered the complex and disarmed Hazratuddin's staff. Acting on behalf of the central government, Gov. Hakim Tanewal officially removed Hazratuddin from his post. Similar raids that day also disarmed the Khost police chief and the police intelligence chief.

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Hazratuddin denies supporting Al Qaeda, and his superiors in Kabul say they cannot discuss the case, which is still under investigation. But US and Afghan military officials agree that the entire Afghan intelligence operation in Khost has been compromised: Afghan military officials in Khost say crucial files and documents are missing. And a copy of a list of intelligence agents appears to have been given to Taliban supporters in Pakistan.

Still to be determined is how much damage has been caused, whether it extends to US intelligence operations, and why Kabul let the problem in Khost remain unresolved for so long. "It would have potentially a significant impact on the operations of the local government," says Col. Roger King, US military spokesman at Bagram Air Base near Kabul.

Khost is not the only province with former Taliban officials in government positions - under a general amnesty, all but top Taliban officials have been allowed to reenter society. But Khost is of special concern, says Colonel King, because it appears to be a major transit point for Al Qaeda supporters entering Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Like any good spy thriller, Hazratuddin's tale is full of plot twists and betrayals. But at its heart, the Khost intelligence debacle is about the US military's difficulty in choosing friends and Afghanistan's difficulty in putting ideological enemies together in the cause of rebuilding a nation. On one side are former communists who supported the 1979 Soviet invasion. On the other are former mujahideen, like Hazratuddin, who fought the Soviets, joined the Taliban, and supported Mr. Karzai when the Taliban fell.

According to those who worked with Hazratuddin, the former intelligence chief never gave up the cause of creating an Islamic state. His greatest support came from other mujahideen commanders in the new central government. This diehard Islamist mind-set, plus a hatred of former communists working in the new government, led Hazratuddin to allow former Taliban to infiltrate the most secret operations in Khost.

"It's definitely proven that [Hazratuddin] has links with Al Qaeda," says Gen. Khial Baz Sherzai, military chief of Khost. "He had 15 men from the Taliban working with him. And even now, after Hazratuddin is gone, about 60 percent of the people in the intelligence department are still committed to Hizb-i Islami (a radical Afghan Islamist party allied to Al Qaeda)."

"Several times we have requested the central government to fire him," says General Sherzai, military commander of Khost during communist times. "As you know, Hazratuddin was a very rich man, and every time he was struck from his job, he would go to Kabul and give some money, and he would be reappointed."

Asad, an intelligence officer who worked under Hazratuddin, says his boss regularly violated security protocols. "I saw him take two files which had all of the information we had on Al Qaeda and which we shared with the US coalition forces," says Asad, whose name has been changed. "I asked him why he was taking the files and he said, 'These documents are so secret, they'll be safer in my own home.' "

After Hazratuddin's dismissal, soldiers of the Afghan combined forces searched the intelligence chief's offices, Afghan military officials say. The two files were missing. Asad also says he saw Hazratuddin make photocopies of the list of Afghan intelligence officers in Khost. Afghan military and intelligence officials say their sources in Pakistan confirm this list was eventually received by Al Qaeda operatives.

Members of other Afghan intelligence agencies in Khost, such as the paramilitary 25th Land Force, say that Hazratuddin's inner circle included known killers from the Taliban regime. Among the most dangerous was Dr. Khandaan (who has only one name), appointed five months ago by Kabul as Hazratuddin's adviser. Afghan intelligence agents now say that Khandaan was a member of Hizb-I Islami.

Last summer, the Hizb officially announced its alliance with the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But Hazratuddin says that he is loyal to the central government - it's his enemies who are linked with Al Qaeda. His list of Al Qaeda supporters is long, including Governor Tanewal, Military commander Habib Noor, and former Afghan minister Shahnawaz Tanai - all of whom, he says, were backed by former communists, Pakistani intelligence agents, and Al Qaeda.

While civil and military officials in Khost say he was the Taliban's intelligence chief, Hazratuddin insists he was merely a businessman in the western city of Herat. He claims that former communists are trying to exact revenge for his activities as an anti-Soviet guerrilla.

Hazratuddin and his enemies agree on one thing, however: All the information from Amniat's offices in Khost is now in Al Qaeda's hands.

"I have proof of who has taken the files to Al Qaeda," he says, sitting in his bedroom at a government guest house in Kabul. "It is those people who work now with the coalition forces. Now the coalition forces have to ask themselves have they ever captured any Al Qaeda on their own? Has the 25th Land Force or the combined forces helped them arrest any Al Qaeda? No, they haven't. They just arrest people for personal revenge."

In Kabul last week, the Karzai government conducted marathon meetings with Governor Tanewal to discuss the security situation in Khost. And in Khost, the US military is reviewing its own security procedures and taking the measure of Hazratuddin's temporary successor, a career military officer named Mohammad Zaman.

US military officials say it's unlikely that security breaches in Afghan intelligence would affect US intelligence gathering abilities.

"We have kept most of our stuff in separate channels from the Afghan intelligence," says King. "Sometimes you share information, sometimes you don't. So it may mean that you lose some of the confirmation ability that we had, but it doesn't necessarily mean that our intelligence grid gets compromised."

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