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The Last Refuge

By 10 November 2003 No Comment

al-qaeda-1-nov03Groups of tribesmen sitting cross-legged on the floor of the fort-like house of a tribal chief are venting their anger at what they believe to be a violation of their fiercely guarded independence. Haji Malik Mirza Alam Khan, wearing a turban and sporting an antiquated pistol in a holster, chief of the Ahmedzai Wazir tribe, presides over the gathering.

“It is against our cultural traditions,” one tribesman shouts. “Today they are searching in the open fields, tomorrow they will dishonour us by raiding our houses,” says another, shaking his fist in the air.

The tribal chief remains composed and tries to pacify his fellow tribesmen in a small village outside Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan. “We have to stay calm through the most difficult time of our lives,” the tribal chief tells the gathering of tribesmen, each armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle.

“There is a conspiracy afoot against the tribesmen by the US, it wants to control the tribal areas as it does Afghanistan. We have to be wise in our decisions,” he warns.

Like Malik Mirza Alam Khan, the tribal chiefs of other clans are holding jirgas to find a way around the issue threatening their independence and their way of life – the standoff with Pakistani authorities over the presence of Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in their territory.

Emotions are running high in the mountainous and inaccessible terrain of South Waziristan, bordering Afghanistan’s Paktika province, and home to Pakistan’s fiercely independent Pashtun tribes.

Thousands of military and paramilitary troops have been deployed in these forbidding mountains and valleys in search of Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and to cut off their local support among tribesmen. The operation is widely described as the biggest military incursion in the tribal areas after 9/11.

In a massive crackdown against local tribesmen suspected of harbouring Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, more than 70 tribesmen have been arrested, their shops sealed and warnings issued to the tribes to turn over 13 locals believed to be providing shelter to terrorists fighting against the US-led coalition forces.

It all started early October, when hundreds of Pakistani commandos, following up an intelligence tip-off, fought a pitched battle aided by helicopter gunships, with Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters amidst the mud-walled homes in Baghar village, a few kilometres away from the Pak-Afghan border. Eight Al-Qaeda men were killed, and 18 captured; among the dead were Chechens and Arabs. Two Pakistani soldiers were also killed in the gun battle.

Officials termed the recent operation successful and say two of the captured were important Al-Qaeda members. After a few days, however, they admitted that an Egyptian-born Canadian, Ahmed Said Khadr, believed to be an Al-Qaeda leader, escaped the raid. Sources say the 55-year-old Khadr was living in Afghanistan since the early 1990s and used to run an NGO, Human Concern International, supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan.

“He is a key financier of Al-Qaeda and other Muslim terror networks. He was equal in ranking to Abu Zubaydah as far as financial matters of Al-Qaeda are concerned,”says a source familiar with Al-Qaeda’s hierarchy. Sources say the US forces in Afghanistan captured two of his sons who are now in Guantanamo Bay, while the third son used to live with him.

Local sources say a group of the Al-Qaeda, including Khadr, managed to flee hours before the operation. At least two Al-Qaeda men, who had fled the raids in Waziristan, have been arrested in Punjab province.

Pakistani troops have been patrolling the region since then in armoured vehicles and on horseback while troops and paramilitary soldiers stand guard in newly built bunkers.

The tribals are enraged. They accuse President General Pervez Musharraf of conspiring against them at the behest of Washington.

“It is an order of Bush Sahib, don’t spare the tribesmen, and Musharraf is only a yes-man,” says Farid Khan, while cleaning the barrel of his Russian-made Kalashnikov. “Bush knows that tribal areas are a shield for the (Al-Qaeda and Taliban) mujahideen and he wants to destroy all of us. But we will defend ourselves.” Like Khan, most of the men have weather-bitten wrinkled faces. They are tough and fiercely independent, surviving the harsh climate and inhospitable terrain of this isolated mountainous region.

“They were mujahids yesterday, how come they have become the terrorists of today?” says middle-aged Behram Khan, who himself fought against the Soviets during the 1980s. “They were here during the first Afghan jihad and we welcome them even now. For us nothing has changed, unlike America and Pakistan.”

Since the last two years, US coalition forces have been conducting search-andkill operations against Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan but they have proved to be resilient and show signs of regrouping in Pakistan’s tribal region.

al-qaeda-2-nov03“It is going to be an uphill task for the Musharraf government,” says an analyst. “The tribesmen are the only ones who know of the presence of strangers in their area. If Pakistan’s security forces do not gain the confidence of the angry tribesmen, they will be groping in the dark.”

Pakistan’s tribal belt has a curious administrative structure, still following the format established by British colonial officers prior to the end of British rule in 1947.

The federal government administers the independent tribal belt, but Pakistani laws do not apply to the tribesmen. The tribal chiefs run a parallel judiciary, the jirga system. The administration uses the dated British-era Frontier Crimes Regulations according to which, in this case, tribal elders have to hand over wanted criminals at the request of the federal government. To date, the tribal chiefs have handed over three alleged hosts of Al-Qaeda fighters to the authorities but failed to produce key local agents saying, “it is difficult to find them but we are trying our best.”

The Corps Commander of the Frontier province, Ali Mohammad Aurakzai, told diplomats and ambassadors in Peshawar after the recent operation that over 230 Al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up since the army entered the tribal areas following September 11, 2001. He also enumerated the significant number of Pakistani forces deployed to the hunt: four brigade headquarters, 10 infantry and three engineering battalions, and one special services battalion. Islamabad’s efforts to wipe out hundreds of ‘terrorists’ is a difficult task, given that these tribesmen, historically renowned as warriors, have an ideological bond with Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, who are allegedly buying out many powerful criminals, recruiting unemployed and thoroughly indoctrinated young men in their ranks and making the tribal belt a fortress against the onslaught of the US-led forces.

Waziristan is considered an ideal refuge by many for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters because of the strong support of religious tribesmen and the remote mountains that provide a hideout to regroup.

“Osama and his men are heroes for the locals,” says tribal elder Haji Behram Khan. “They are treated as honourable guests. They don’t harm tribesmen, stay for a couple of nights, and pay 10,000 to 20,000 rupees before they leave.”

Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri are also believed by some to be hiding among Pashtoon tribes, along the 2,450 kilometres long border.

Some tribesmen claim to have seen Osama and his associates in Waziristan shortly after US forces bombed Afghanistan’s Tora Bora region, following intelligence reports that indicated Osama and his aides could be hiding in the caves there.

“It was when the Americans were bombing Afghanistan. We were all in the fields when we saw Osama walking towards Koh-e-Suleman (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.”

Most local residents do not share the global hostility against Osama and Al-Qaeda. Some regard the Arabs as ‘holy warriors’ and welcome their stay in their homes as an auspicious 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 to be blessed,” says the 30-year-old Noor Zaman. “My cousin is now very well respected among the villagers because he provided shelter to a mujahid.”

Just outside the tribal belt, near Kohat in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), locals have constructed a mausoleum for the two Uzbek and Chechen fighters killed in a gun battle with Pakistan’s security forces last year. Villagers offer prayers and visit the place to be blessed by the “holy mujahids.”

They can count on the support of extremist religious parties of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) that rules the North-West Frontier Province bordering the northern tribal belt. The alliance, bitterly opposed to General Musharraf’s government policy of siding with the US-led war on terror, is holding protests across the country against the crackdown in the tribal areas, criticising the US and Islamabad and voicing support for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters and tribesmen.

“It is to appease America and nothing else. The use of the Pakistani army against its own people for the protection of American interests is regrettable,” says a senior religious leader of the Frontier province, Zar Noor Afridi. “The bloodshed of mujahideen (Al-Qaeda and Taliban) should be stopped immediately in the tribal areas, otherwise the tribesmen will be forced to carry out suicide attacks,” he warns.

Hordes of Al-Qaeda fighters fled Afghanistan after the ouster of the Taliban and took shelter, along with their families, in South Waziristan where they capitalised on the tribal cultural tradition of not handing over an asylum-seeker till the last drop of their blood was shed.

Thus Aimal Kansi, for one, who was executed in the US after being convicted of killing two CIA officials in Langley, Virginia, had spent almost three years hiding in South Waziristan.

Hundreds have used the tribal belt as a corridor to take refuge in various cities and towns of Pakistan or to flee to the Arabian Gulf countries via Iran, while others have stayed put in South Waziristan, to continue their fight against the US-led forces in Afghanistan.

“After the Tora Bora battle, they were everywhere,” says a local tribesman. “Their red Land Cruisers, satellite phones, horses, dollars, everything was visible. Now they are visible only to the locals.”

The local agents of Al-Qaeda and their supporters are known as “Pakistani Al-Qaeda” among tribesmen. Mostly they wear sports shoes or sneakers, have long hair and wear scarves over their shoulders.

Among them are the notorious Naik Mohammad Yargul Khel and Sharif Khan Yagul Khel, both local tribesmen, now wanted by the Pakistani authorities for their suspected role in harbouring Al-Qaeda fighters in South Waziristan. They are believed to be based in Azam Versek town and roam around in a convoy of Land Cruisers with dozens of armed guards. The two are believed to have been instrumental in recruiting young men for the jihad.

Last year, 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a gun battle with Al-Qaeda fighters in Azam Versek town in South Waziristan. The fighters were given shelter by these two wanted tribesmen.

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 reported killing in April of an inspector from an intelligence agency. Sher Nawaz was shot dead in Wana market in broad daylight. Some five months ago, a local, 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 was attached to his body saying: “Agent of America. This will be the fate of all American agents.”

Pakistani officials in the tribal region maintain that the ‘terrorists’ are buying out local criminals to back them but do not have widespread support on the ground.

“It is just a greed for money. Only the drug-addicts and dacoits are attracted to the terrorists,” says a senior local administration official. “But we are tightening the circle around the terrorists and their supporters.”

Local sources, however, maintain that Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have been trying to regroup and are gaining support. “They have a huge quantity of arms and ammunition and are continuously buying arms from the market. That has resulted in prices shooting up,” says a tribesman. “Prices of Kalashnikovs have risen almost 100 per cent and a Russian bullet, known as zehreela bullet (deadly bullet) now costs 300 per cent 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 sets and computers in the towns for communication, and attack the US forces from the mountains,” says a young supporter, Dilawar Khan, who helped them set up the equipment.

“Helping the mujahids of Islam is incumbent upon every Muslim. They want to free the land of the infidels and my life is theirs,” says the young tribesman, Khan. “Today they live like gypsies but tomorrow they will have their own land by defeating the Americans,” Khan says

President Musharraf’s men are well aware of the dangers of a spillover of the troubles in the tribal belt into Pakistan itself. They continue to press the tribesmen for cooperation, as further violent clashes between them and the Pakistani troops may exacerbate an already difficult situation, compelling the Pakistani authorities to move warily. But time is a luxury they cannot afford.




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