Fugitive al-Qa'ida fighters in the White Mountains of eastern Afghanistan are extending their network of underground hideouts in anticipation of a prolonged period of guerrilla warfare, according to a mujahedin commander.
Commander Sohrab Qadri, security intelligence chief for the ruling council of the city of Jalalabad, said al-Qa'ida spies are journeying secretly to the town to buy food and supplies for between 1,000 and 2,000 fighters who retreated to the mountains after the withdrawal of the Taliban.
The so-called "Arabs" who are said to include Pakistanis and Chechens, as well as Saudi followers of Osama bin Laden are paying local people the equivalent of £70 a day, a huge sum in rural Afghanistan, to excavate and extend mountain dens around the settlement of Tora Bora, which is 25 miles south of Jalalabad.
"They are paid more than 6,000 rupees to build caves and bunkers and to extend them," Commander Qadri said in Jalalabad yesterday. "They are doing this to exist, to make somewhere to spend their nights, but perhaps they also have something else in mind."
Mujahedin commanders say the road to Tora Bora is too dangerous for foreigners, so it is impossible to confirm the claims. But, if accurate, Commander Qadri's intelligence suggests that far from fleeing the advance of the mujahedin, who arrived in Jalalabad unopposed after the peaceful withdrawal of the Taliban on 14 November, the Arabs have mounted a strategic retreat in preparation for future fighting.
It also reveals the significant financial resources which they have at their disposal, and the way in which they are using them to buy support in a population stricken by poverty and deprivation. "We are sure that special agents who work for them are sent secretly to the bazaar to buy food and supplies," said Commander Qadri. "They have spies in the villages, but if someone comes who they don't recognise they will shoot him, or they will not let him go."
Commander Qadri confirmed reports from Hazrat Ali, the most powerful of the warlords in Jalalabad, who said on Saturday that Mr bin Laden had been spotted by local people in the White Mountains in the middle of last week. He was said to have been riding on horseback at night and hiding in caves during the day, and to have separated from the larger group of his Arab bodyguards.
Circumstantial evidence suggests the US military is also taking these reports seriously and is hoping to lure local people with connections to the al-Qa'ida group into betraying Mr bin Laden.
Yesterday, an empty canister used to release 750lbs of propaganda leaflets fell into the garden of a house in Jalalabad from an American plane which had been flying over the Tora Bora area. The leaflets bore the photographs of Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahri, and offered a $25m (£18m reward "for anyone who has precise information about the whereabouts of these two people".
Ever since the mujahedin's war against the invading army of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, the White Mountains have been a hiding place for guerrillas. Ironically, it was the mujahedin themselves who first used the many caves there, and veterans of that war describe the Tora Bora area as a formidable natural fortress, protected from both the air and the ground.
The caves open on to steep mountain sides, which makes it almost impossible to penetrate them with bombs. The steep valleys through which they are reached are easy to defend against ground attack. "There is a principle in war that if there are two of your enemy, you attack them with four men," said Commander Qadri. "If they are 2,000, we need at least 4,000 or 5,000 men, as well as the most complete equipment. We need to specify their exact location, then bombard them, then attack with well-armed mujahedin."
The tops of the White Mountains are covered with snow all the year round, hence their name, but during the winter conditions up there are exceptionally harsh. "Even in the summer it's very cold," said Commander Qadri. "Now it is the very coldest."
The mujahedin believe small parties of Arabs are roaming further afield in the Black Mountains, close to the road between Jalalabad and the Afghan capital, Kabul. They have concluded the unidentified gunmen who killed four foreign journalists a week ago were not bandits, but either an Arab splinter group or rogue Taliban sympathisers.
What has become of his lieutenants?
The number two man in the al-Qa'ida network, Dr Zawahri, 51, is still thought to be in Afghanistan, possible travelling around with Osama bin Laden. Seen as the "brains" behind the 11 September attacks, the middle-class Egyptian is Mr bin Laden's mentor as well as his financial controller. He was a guest at the wedding of Mr bin Laden's son in Kandahar in January. He was also the second of five signatories to Mr bin Laden's 1998 fatwa calling for attacks against American civilians.
One of Mr bin Laden's most trusted allies. Mr Namangani, 32, was killed last week in northern Afghanistan, fighting Northern Alliance forces in Mazar-i-Sharif. He was buried in the eastern Logar province. Namangani ran the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is the most feared Islamic insurgency movement in Central Asia (IMU), and which is closely linked to the al-Qa'ida network. Founded in 1998, the IMU was dedicated to overthrowing the secular governments of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and replacing them with a Taliban-style government.
Mullah Mohammed Omar
The Taliban's leader is thought to be in the southern city of Kandahar, where he was last seen in public nine days ago in a convoy, protected by gunmen on motorcycles. Rumours say he has been trying to leave Kandahar for the past three days, but has been advised by aides to stay. At the end of last week, he was reported to have appointed a deputy and had gone into hiding. Taliban officials have denied this. It is not known whether Mullah Omar is still in contact with Mr bin Laden.
Chechen warlord linked to Mr bin Laden since the 1980s, he is thought to be leading 2,000 al-Qa'ida foreigners fighting for the Taliban against the Northern Alliance in the northern Kunduz enclave. Of mixed Saudi-Jordanian descent, he is one of the foreigners whose lives are thought most at risk when the city falls. Lost part of his arm fighting Russian invaders in Afghanistan in the 1980s, where he gained a fearsome reputation for cutting the throats of Russian prisoners. Linked to 1999 bombings in Moscow in which more than 200 people died.
The Egyptian military commander of al-Qa'ida was killed when his house in southern Afghanistan was struck in an air attack on 15 November. The former policeman had a key role in organising the 11 September attacks. His daughter married one of Mr bin Laden's sons last year. Atef's terrorist career began with Egypt's outlawed Islamic Jihad, in which he met Ayman al-Zahwari. Left Egypt in the 1980s after a crackdown on Islamic militants and went to Afghanistan, where he met Mr bin Laden.Reuse content