SOUTH WAZIRISTAN, PAKISTAN — At sunset, a bevy of four-wheel- drive Land Cruisers screech to a halt in a Wana town market. A group of tribesmen with shoulder-length hair wearing belts strapped with grenades and toting their trademark Kalashnikovs jump out and start loading huge quantities of rice, cooking oil, and other groceries onto the trucks. They drive off in minutes.
"After every week or two they come and go," says a young tribesman, Zahid Khan. "Every person in town knows who these people are and where the food goes."
These tribesmen are the powerful local agents of Al Qaeda fighters, who ferry food supplies to the "Arab mujahideen" in the tribal belt of Pakistan on the Afghan border. Groups of Al Qaeda and Taliban, numbering more than 300 and perhaps including the elusive Osama bin Laden, are buying out local criminals, recruiting unemployed young men, and making the region their fortress against US forces and their Pakistani proxies.
Pakistan's regional commander announced Saturday that more than 230 Al Qaeda suspects have been rounded up since the Army entered the tribal areas following Sept. 11, 2001. Lt. Gen. Ali Mohammad Aurakzai also enumerated the significant Pakistani forces devoted to the hunt: four brigade headquarters, 10 infantry and three engineering battalions, and one special services battalion.
Early this month, hundreds of Pakistani commandos fought a pitched gun battle with Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the village of Baghar, a few miles from the border with Afghanistan. They killed eight Al Qaeda men and captured 18; among the dead were Chechens and Arabs. But local sources say that hours before the raid, a group of 40 Al Qaeda fighters slipped away to nearby towns and mountains.
Officials term the recent operation "successful" but now admit that an Egyptian-born Canadian, Ahmed Said Khadr, believed to be an Al Qaeda leader, escaped the raid. This past week, at least two Al Qaeda men, who had fled the raids in South Waziristan, have been arrested in Pakistan's Punjab region.
Seventy local tribesmen have also been captured in an effort to pressure residents to cut off support and hand over wanted Al Qaeda fighters.
"Waziristan is paradise for Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters," says Bukhar Shah, a Peshawar-based analyst. "They have the support of religious tribesmen, the mountains as their hideouts, and finances to survive and regroup. The success of the US-led forces in Afghanistan mainly depends on the success of operation in the tribal belt."
The remote and inaccessible terrain of these forbidding mountains renders operations against Al Qaeda logistically complicated. There are few proper roads, and residents travel on narrow trails and paths.
But local support may be the fugitives' strongest defense.
"Osama and his men are heroes for locals," says tribal elder Haji Behram Khan. "They are treated as honorable guests. They don't harm tribesmen, stay for a couple of nights, and pay 10,000 to 20,000 rupees [$175-$350] before they leave."
Hordes of Al Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban and took shelter with their families in South Waziristan, where they also capitalized on the tribal tradition of defending their guests with the last drop of their blood.
According to tribal sources with ties to Pakistan's intelligence and police services, hundreds of the fighters have used the tribal belt as a corridor to either hide in various cities and towns of Pakistan or flee to Gulf countries via Iran. The sources also say that over 300 have stayed put in South Waziristan to continue their fight against the US-led forces in Afghanistan.
"After the Tora Bora fighting, they were here everywhere," says a local tribesman. "Their red-colored Land Cruisers, satellite phones, horses, dollars - everything was visible. Now they are visible only to the locals."
"Most of the Land Cruisers are painted different colors now, but locals recognize all of them. Even their local agents now have dozens of Land Cruisers and roam around with bags full of cash," he says.
These Al Qaeda local agents and supporters are known as "Pakistani Al Qaeda" among tribesmen. They often wear sports shoes or sneakers, scarves, and have long hair.
Their presence has been a boon to the local economy. "They have a huge quantity of arms and ammunition and are continuously buying arms from the market, where the weapons are readily available. That has resulted in prices shooting up," says a tribesman. "Prices of Kalashnikovs have risen almost 100 percent and a Russian bullet, known as Zahrilla [meaning 'deadly'], now costs 300 percent more."
As the consumption and demand for weapons has increased in the tribal areas, so have the attacks against US and Afghan forces across the border in Afghanistan. "They have set up expensive wireless [phone] sets, [hooked up] computers in the towns for [international] communication, and attack the US forces from the mountains," says a young supporter, Dilawar Khan, who helped them set up the accessories for the equipment.
Despite their largesse, these men also foster a climate of fear. On the slightest suspicion, anybody suspected of passing information to the authorities can end up dead. It is widely believed that these "Pakistani Al Qaeda" men are behind some recent murders, including the April killing of an official of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). Sher Nawaz was shot dead in Wana market in broad daylight. Some five months ago a local man, Mohammad Noor, was shot dead in the nearby town of Tara Yawar by suspected Al Qaeda agents. He was believed to have been spying for the Americans.
Local residents also talk about the death of another man, saying a note attached to his body read: "Agent of America. This will be the fate of American agents."
Pakistani officials in the tribal region maintain that the fighters are buying out local criminals to gain strength, but do not have widespread support on the ground.
"It is just a greed of money. Only the drug addicts and [thieves] are attracted to the terrorists," says senior local administrator Pir Anwar Ali Shah. "But we are tightening the circle around the terrorists and their supporters."
Many villagers, however, do not share the global hostility against Al Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden. Some claim to have seen and cheered him and his associates shortly after US forces bombed the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan during the winter of 2001.
"It was when Americans were bombing in Afghanistan. We were all in the fields when we saw Osama walking towards the Suleman Mountains," claims Noor Zaman. "We raised slogans of 'Hero of Islam, Osama, Osama.' He stopped, shook hands with us, blessed us, and continued walking towards the mountains."
A few suspect that Osama may have been hiding in the disguise of a woodcutter on the mountains surrounding South Waziristan. "Only a couple of months ago, when we went up on the mountains, there were strangers cutting wood and another group of around 30 people were encircling five or six hooded men. They did not let us go near those masked men. We could see their eyes only," says Jhand Karikhel, a woodcutter. "They gave us 5,000 rupees [around $85] each and said 'pray for us.' "
Stories aside, tribal elders say it is highly likely that bin Laden could have hidden in South Waziristan after he fled from Afghanistan, and believe that footage released by Al Qaeda last month, showing him and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was filmed in their tribal region.
"The footage I saw on a local TV channel, looked to me like our area," says tribal elder Haji Behram Khan. "Osama was wearing a Waziristani round woolen cap, shalwar kameez, and a scarf on his shoulder. The dress is of here and the terrain familiar; I have walked these mountains all my life."
For some residents, hosting the foreign fighters is seen as a sacred event.
"A few months ago, an Arab mujahid stayed at my cousin's house. When he left the house, my cousin's family members sprinkled the water used for washing his clothes all over the house as a blessing," says Mr. Zaman. "My cousin is now very well respected among villagers because he provided shelter to a mujahid."