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Tribesmen take cash, count 'blessings' from Al Qaeda

By Owais TohidCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 2003


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.

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"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."

A tribal fortress

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.