Al Qaeda planning next phase

From a Pakistan safehouse, the Taliban's top intelligence chief claims bin Laden is alive and well.

Pakistani soldiers are posted on hilltops, in dry river beds, behind rocky cliffs, and even in surrounding bushes and trees along the dusty road from Peshawar to Datha Khail - near the border of Afghanistan.

They search each incoming vehicle from Afghanistan and check the identities of all male passengers, while helicopters hover in the skies above.

This was the scene as a reporter was taken on a five-hour drive yesterday to this remote region to meet with Qari Ahmadullah, the Taliban's chief of intelligence and a top negotiator for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

At 1 p.m. local time, we reach a village called Datha Khail, just eight miles from the Afghan border, where the intelligence chief has been living for the past two weeks. The compound is mud-walled and includes five covered, wood-walled rooms, with a small mosque situated in an inside courtyard. It is one mile away from a Pakistani security post.

The owner of the house, Malik Gulmarjan, warmly welcomes us, guiding us to his guesthouse near the entrance at the main gate of the compound. Three men armed with Kalashnikovs are seated on the floor, offering afternoon prayers. Pictures of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Fazal Rehman, the leader of Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Pakistan's largest and most influential religious party, hang on the walls. There are also calendars published by Al Rashid Trust, a Karachi-based charity.

While we were taking tea and biscuits, a portly man with a bushy brown beard and a pukhol cap on his head entered the room. The armed men stand up in respect. I am told that this is Qari Ahmadullah.

After a moment of silence, Mr. Ahmadullah asks his driver about me, and his driver introduces me as a reporter for the local Pashto newspaper Shariat, which has a reputation for being a Taliban sympathizer.

This journalist is certain of Ahmadullah's identity from years of experience reporting about Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. But it is impossible to know the intelligence chief's motives for meeting and talking to a reporter, or to independently corroborate any of his statements.

Ahmadullah reportedly first escaped from Jalalabad to Tora Bora when the Taliban fled the region on Nov. 14. Then, Ahmadullah says, he and several other Afghans - ethnic Pashtuns - were able to flee to Parachinar, inside Pakistan. Ahmadullah and several others later made their way to this mountainous region called Waziristan, in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan.

Ahmadullah says he is willing to speak openly, but says he wants to be cautious about giving detailed information about Mullah Omar or the movement of Mr. bin Ladin.

When I ask him how he was able to enter Pakistan while the Pakistani Army had strictly sealed the border, he points his right hand to the owner of the house who is sitting near me and says: "We still have a lot of loyal friends and well-wishers. They help us with whatever they can."

"It was really difficult to come into Pakistan," Ahmadullah continues. "But the cordial cooperation of our tribal Muslim brethren helped us come here. They even offered their own residential compounds to us to stay for a while, may Allah reward them in paradise!"

Ahmadullah says he's been in contact with Mullah Omar. "Amirul Momineen [Omar] is living in a safe and hidden area somewhere in the northeast of Kandahar," Ahmadullah says.

"He called me twice to come to Kandahar. But I cannot go there easily, because a lot of people know me, and I am frightened they will capture me somewhere on the road. So I sent my assistant Mullah Abdul Haq Wasiq to Kandahar. Unfortunately he was captured by American agents in Ghazni."

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported this past weekend that Mr. Wasiq, identified as the Taliban's deputy chief of intelligence, was arrested by American forces near the southern town of Ghazni. But the US has not confirmed that report.

During the interview with Ahmadullah, another bearded man rushes into the room carrying a satellite phone. "There is a call for you, sir," he says.

Ahmadullah takes the phone and goes out of the room. While we calmly sit in the room, we could hear some of Ahamadullah's part of the conversation with the person on the other end of the phone.

"No, it is impossible right now," he says. "Everywhere there are soldiers and spies. I will manage to come out before Saturday.... He called me three times and told me to stay here.... OK. Sir, if you wish, I would take the risk and come there."

He speaks for about seven minutes, then comes back to the room. He is asked about various statements circulating, that bin Laden is dead.

"That is baseless, absolutely baseless," Ahmadullah says. "Osama is alive, healthy, and safe. Last night our friends in Urozgan informed me by phone that he had met Osama somewhere near the border, and he said Osama was safe. He is always in close contact with Mullah Omar.

"I am personally requested by Mullah Omar and Sheikh Osama to go to Urozgan and take the command of new guerrilla war preparations, which will start as soon as possible, and you will hear the news in papers and on BBC," he adds. "We withdrew from major cities and provinces because the ruthless bombing of Americans had killed a lot of civilians as well as our holy warriors. We took that tactical step for our safety, and we will start our guerrilla campaign against our enemies as soon as we regroup."

Somewhere around 3:15 p.m., some tribal chiefs and several religious scholars from JUI come into the guesthouse. After they exchange greetings, Ahmadullah very politely asks the reporter to leave. "If you don't mind, please leave the room with our friends here. I have an important meeting with these people."

We leave as the sun is going down behind the sandy hills and drive back to Miran Shah and then to Peshawar.

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