Afghan military officials working with US forces in Khost say that the top two leaders of Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri, have both been seen in the area over the past eight days.
This is the second sighting of Mr. bin Laden's No. 2 in this area in the past month. Local forces may have their own motives for reporting a bin Laden sighting. But, if true, it would be the first evidence of bin Laden's continued presence in Afghanistan since he was seen at Tora Bora in November.
Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday on CNN's "Late Edition" that bin Laden is "still in the area of Afghanistan, maybe across the border in Pakistan someplace, but I think he's still out in the general area."
Local intelligence reports also show that Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives are regrouping in the mountains south and northeast of the city of Khost, helped and supplied in part by Afghan sympathizers who can blend into the city and bring information and supplies to the fugitives.
The Monitor interviewed one of three informers who reported to Kamal Khan Zadran, the military commander and deputy governor of Khost Province, that Mr. Zawahiri was seen four days ago, riding on horseback with a group of about 25 men toward the Pakistani tribal area of South Waziristan. Zadran says that he also received a report that bin Laden was seen in the area of Khost about eight days ago, and that he may be hiding in a mountainous village called Mir Chapar, southeast of Khost city close to the Pakistani border.
Zadran says that another group of villagers told him that they'd seen a group of about 80 men, four on horses, the rest on foot traveling southeast of Khost. It was clear from their dress that they were Arabs, and they insisted that one of them was bin Laden.
The latest sightings could only be corroborated through interviews facilitated with Mr. Zadran's assistance, although competing warlords in the area confirm that the strength of Al Qaeda and forces sympathetic to them in these largely Pashtun provinces of southeastern Afghanistan is steadily growing.
The reports of Zawahiri's presence in the area are bolstered by several interviews conducted independently by the Monitor last week with Afghan villagers east of Shah-e Kot the mountainous battleground of the US-led Operation Anaconda. Villagers, who were paid to carve out new caves for Al Qaeda, say that they saw Zawahiri, the Egyptian doctor, orchestrating the excavations.
It is difficult to confirm the validity of information and evidence presented by Mr. Zadran. He is the leader of 600 special troops who are called "campaign forces" and were trained by the US to focus on the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban fugitives. But he as well as the approximately 3,000 troops under his brother Badsha Khan, the region's most powerful warlord are still in a standoff with other warlords - who are competing for favor with the US.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Lapan says the bin Laden sighting "doesn't sound far-fetched." But he adds: "It's been our policy not to get into dissecting various reports about where he is or isn't. When we have solid information on his whereabouts, we'll take action to bring him to justice."
Still, Zadran and his deputy commanders say there is a worrying concentration of Al Qaeda forces on two mountains in the region: Pashu Ghar, meaning "Cats Mountain," which lies about 20 kilometers northeast of this city, and Mister Bill Ghar, or Mr. Bill's Mountain, which is about 25 kilometers to the south.
Inside the family's heavily guarded military headquarters, Zadran presents evidence that Al Qaeda has also been operating inside the city. He displays a fake identification letter from a bogus Islamic charity, which makes its carrier, a man from the United Arab Emirates, look like his sole job is to collect money for Muslims in Bosnia. Zadran says the laminated letter, which bears a photo of a man in a Gulf Arab headdress and says its holder is Fahed Mohd [Mohammed] Abdullah, was found in the city, at the same place as a chemical stash, which he says he showed to US forces yesterday.
Zadran says that the letter and the containers of bombmaking chemicals are small indications that Al Qaeda operatives are plugged into this area, operating in the mountains while their Afghan allies slip in and out of the city unnoticed, bringing mostly Arab, Pakistani, and Chechen fugitives supplies and information.
"Unfortunately, all of the most famous Al Qaeda from all over Afghanistan have gathered in my area," says Zadran. "The problem is the Afghan Taliban. Without the Afghan Al Qaeda, the foreign Al Qaeda would not survive. They come to the cities to buy food and bring it out to them."
Zadran says the Al Qaeda fighters are trying to unite against the US forces. "We are in big trouble. There is a possibility of a large attack from all four sides of the city," says Zadran, a commander whose green eyes look tired from working on three or four hours of rest a night. "There is a possibility they will try to set a trap. They are interested in killing Americans, not Afghan forces."
He's worried that an attack could be imminent. "Record this date," he says flatly. "There will be a big operation against the Americans soon. The Al Qaeda is here, and they're not going away. There are some Al Qaeda elements sitting on meetings with the Americans."
It is the second week in a row that the Badsha Khan family-run force has warned that the fugitives from Shah-e Kot, the staging ground from Operation Anaconda, have settled into new positions and are planning an attack on US forces. Late Sunday evening, Zadran received information that between 200 and 300 forces were camped on Cats Mountain, so named because it used to be full of wild cats. The mountain, like others where Al Qaeda has sought refuge, has leftover tunnels from the days of the war against the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Pulling out a topographical map of the area, Zadran points to the remote mountains that he says US forces should be zeroing in on now. Zardan learned of their presence, he says, because some of the Al Qaeda men came down from the mountain to visit the local mosque and an old madrassah, or seminary, called Khalifa Madrassa. By attending prayers, he says, they tried to develop ties with local villagers and present themselves as good Muslims fighting a foreign, infidel enemy.
"I keep telling the US that we need to cut the supply routes of Al Qaeda," says Zadran, urging the US forces to surround the two areas which he says have a high concentration of the fugitives. "But the Northern Alliance is telling them we are trying to target our enemies," which he says is not true. Mistrust here, in this entirely Pashtun part of the country, runs high for the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by ethnic Tajiks.
Reports of how Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri may have passed through the area suggest that even Afghan officials are having a difficult time overcoming cultural traditions and complex tribal ties that seem to be working in Al Qaeda's favor. According to one report, Zawahiri had to pass through checkpoints controlled by Zakim Khan, another warlord who is supposed to be cooperating with US forces. But because a man who at least three of Zadran's informers identified as Zawahiri was traveling with a member of the same tribe to which Zakim Khan belongs, the warlord was obliged to give safe passage to Zawahiri's convoy.
Gula Jan, a local commander, says that he was just outside his home village four days ago when he saw a group of men passing through Saroza, in Paktika province. Mr. Jan says that since he wears a big black turban and heavy long beard, they must have seen him as a local sympathizer.
About half an hour later, another group passed through. "I saw a heavy, older man on a horse who wore dark glasses and had a white turban. He was dressed like an Afghan but he had a beautiful coat, and he was with two other Arabs that had masks on," he says.
"He came down from the horse and he was laughing with me and acting very polite," says Jan. He says that the man in the white turban started speaking to Jan's companion in Arabic.
"He asked my friend, 'Where are the enemies? They started a war to eradicate Islam from the earth, and it's a crusader war of Christians against Islam," he recalls. He says the man asked where the Northern Alliance and American troops were. "'We are afraid we will encounter them. Show us the right way,'" Jan says they asked.
During the course of the visit with the local villagers, Jan says he excused himself to check a "wanted" picture of Zawahiri that was dropped over this area by US airplanes. It confirmed his suspicion that the man was Zawahiri.
"I didn't have a phone," Mr. Jan says. "Otherwise, instead of just going to check the picture, I could have called our military headquarters and told them where I was." It took him over two hours to get the information to Khost.
"While we were having our chat, Zawahiri said, 'May God bless you and keep you from the enemies of Islam. Try not to tell them from where we came and where we were going."
Staff writer Abraham McLauglin contributed to this report from Washington.