Intercepted e-mail traffic points to new al-Qa'ida grouping in remote Pakistan

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US intelligence has intercepted e-mail traffic from suspected al-Qa'ida members suggesting the terrorist group is trying to regroup in remote areas of Pakistan close to the Afghan border.

The evidence is still fragmentary and US officials are uncertain whether the communications are simply an attempt to re-establish contact after the US military campaign, or a fully fledged plan to rebuild the group.

But the intercepts, first disclosed by The New York Times yesterday, could help explain the appearance of the large group of al-Qa'ida fighters that US-led troops are currently fighting to dislodge from their mountain strongholds near Gardez. More worryingly the intercepts could be part of planning for new terrorist attacks – though no specific threats have been detected. Nor have the intercepts yielded evidence that Osama bin Laden or any other top al-Qa'ida operatives are in the encircled pocket.

The use of e-mail fits in with a well practised al-Qa'ida habit – followed by the hijackers of 11 September – of using public places such as internet cafés, airport lounges, libraries and other places which are hard to monitor, to communicate with each other over the internet.

The new sanctuaries are believed to be in villages in the remote and mountainous Pakistani border province of Baluchistan, and possibly even in disputed Kashmir.

But al-Qa'ida may have moved further afield. Some commanders, according to intelligence reports, are being sheltered in Lebanon by the radical Hizbollah organisation, while others may have fled to Africa and Europe.

General Joseph Ralston, Nato's supreme commander and in charge of US forces in Europe, the Mediterranean and west Africa. said recently that some al Qa'ida figures had turned up in Europe. "There is a lot of work to be done in our own backyard," he said.