Al Qaeda plotted new US attacks

Villagers say they heard Osama bin Laden's voice last month, and saw his No. 2, Ayman al Zawahiri, in caves.

Key Al Qaeda officials, possibly including Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 to Osama bin Laden, were present in the fortified Shah-i-Kot caves of this region just before the recent US attacks.

Local villagers, who spoke on the condition that their village not be identified, provided details on how they were recruited to blast a new network of caves for these fighters – who were formulating plans for additional terrorist attacks on the US – and to provide an escape route for later use.

If the workers and mullah are to be believed, the Al Qaeda base that was attacked but not destroyed by Operation Anaconda included computers, satellite phones, maps of major American cities, and pictures of huge US bridges that the men said they could not name.

The tales that Al Qaeda's temporary labor force tell are unsettling on many levels. They suggest that some US intelligence sources have been double-dealing them. They suggest that the local population – who will be crucial in any campaign to route out Al Qaeda from this harsh and formidable mountain range – is feeling torn between the US and their Muslim brothers who are calling them to join in a jihad against the dominance of infidels.

As the US continues its mopping up efforts in the aftermath of Operation Anaconda, understanding exactly who these villagers were helping is perhaps just one of the many threads officials will begin to unravel.

"It started almost two months ago, and I am happy because I made a lot of money from them," says Jalad Khan, a driver who could only hope to make the 70,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,100) that Al Qaeda paid him in two to three years. "They gave us food and goat meat, and we were laughing every day. We were having a very good time – it was like a picnic."

That picnic ended hastily, four different men interviewed in one village say, when word spread that the US would begin bombing the next day. A few of the some 100 workers helping the Al Qaeda fighters were also "working" with US forces. So they were able to give the mostly Arab and Chechen fighters a day's notice that Operation Anaconda was about to begin.

That information enabled the fighters to send the families traveling with them to a safer place, and spurred the comfortable departure of some of the more senior Al Qaeda figures, who also sent their extraordinarily well-paid workers home.

Several of the men interviewed say that the fighters were extremely deferential to the apparent leader on site, a portly, bespectacled man who was referred to as either the "sheikh" or the "doctor." A local mullah here, who served as a foreman for several of the villagers he helped recruit, says he the leader was probably Mr. Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who is Mr. bin Laden's right-hand man, because his face matches the picture on flyers that were dropped over this area by American planes a while back.

The men also say that they overheard a live address – via satellite phone – to all the Al Qaeda troops by a man they referred to as "al Qaed," or the leader. The workers believe it was bin Laden, but cannot be sure. The phone connection was cut off. Afterward, the fighters seemed buoyed by the pep talk, which would have been given three weeks to one month ago.

"When we were there, they were joking with us, saying: 'We will strike the Pentagon from these mountains," says Ahmad Wazir, an unemployed father in grime-blasted clothes. He followed that with: "I don't even know what the Pentagon is, if it is a tree, or a village, or a leader."

The apparent ease with which the Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives built themselves a comfortable new network of hideouts – embedded in rocky mountainsides that will be much more difficult to destroy than the caves of Tora Bora – raises questions about the effectiveness of allied intelligence in a war that many Afghans say the US is far from winning.

"I knew who they were. I don't have the power to expel them from the area," says Wazir, so he figured he may as well profit from them. In his mind, he figured, Afghanistan had suffered greatly, in part because of the embargoes slapped on the country under the Taliban and Al Qaeda – and now it was payback time.

The fighters were in a rush, knowing that the US might be coming for them. "They told us: 'You need to finish the work of one month in a week, and the work of one week in an hour.' They said, 'Swear by the Koran not to tell our secrets. We are being chased by the enemies of Islam,' " Wazir recalls.

Mr. Khan, the driver and laborer, says his waist still aches from the work. The Afghan laborers were tied together to prevent them from falling down the mountainsides.

They did some of the work with jackhammers, and then put dynamite down the holes they cut. But a great deal of the work had to be done by hand, he says, rounding out the tunnels with shovels and pick-axes. "We knew they were Al Qaeda, but the problem is that if I did not do the work, they would just bring in people from other areas," says Khan. He says he was told that they were digging for minerals, not building bunkers.

People in the village had mixed feelings about Al Qaeda, and still do. Many villagers were softened by the fact that the fighters presented themselves as warm and generous Muslims, and the fugitives were traveling with women and children. The laborers say they can't be sure the US has Afghanistan's best interests in mind. They say they have no proof that bin Laden and his cadre ever did anything to hurt America, but they do know that US airstrikes hit 60 of their tribal elders in December, as they traveled to Kabul for the inauguration of the interim government.

But the men grew equally suspicious of Al Qaeda men's claim to be good Muslims as they kept talking about killing Americans. Rafar Khan, a young mullah who was the chief foreman for the tunnel-building operation, says that he felt compelled to help the men, for both economic and religious reasons.

"This is the duty of every Muslim, to help the holy warriors. The Americans call them Al Qaeda, but we just call them mujahideen, and they've made sacrifices for this country," says Khan, who wears a beard that looks like a sculpted shrub.

But Khan says he began to have second thoughts about what he had done when, while working, news came on the radio of a large bombing in the Palestinian territories that killed a lot of people.

"They were very happy to hear that, and they were jumping up and down and celebrating," he says, "So then I realized that they were not just religious people, but they are also terrorists," he says. "Now I am very sorry that I was supporting them."

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