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    South Asia
     May 28, 2008
In the footsteps of Osama ...
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

(Part 1: Ducking and diving under B-52s
Part 2: A fighter and a financier)

KUNAR VALLEY, Afghanistan - Nearly seven years after invading Afghanistan to go after Osama bin Laden, the United States has stepped up its campaign to catch the al-Qaeda leader and his senior associates, including Ayman al-Zawahiri, who are believed to be in the rugged terrain spanning Bajaur Agency in Pakistan and the neighboring Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nooristan.

The US has increased surveillance operations through newly built


bases in the region and additional daily flights of Predator drones scour the area for any suspicious characters who might lead the US to the world's most wanted man.

The recent killing of leading al-Qaeda figures Sheikh Abu Soliman and Sheikh Osman in Damadolah, Bajaur Agency, by US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) drones was the result of the spy network's stepped-up surveillance in this vital corridor. (See Ducking and diving under B-52s Asia Times Online, May 22, 2008, in which the news of the death of the two men was first reported.)

According to some reports, in the past few days, US security and military officials held a top-level summit at a military base in the Qatari capital of Doha to plan an operation to hunt for the al-Qaeda leader. General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and the US ambassador to Islamabad, Anne Petersen, were reported to have attended the summit.

Last week, Petraeus testified before a US Congressional committee about security in Iraq and warned that members of al-Qaeda based in Pakistan's tribal areas were planning a new September 11-style attack.

Revelations on the road to Pakistan
I have witnessed how the Taliban rule the Pakistani Mohmand and Bajaur tribal agencies and the Kunar Valley without any formal government. The Taliban are undoubtedly the real regional force "which can only be heard but cannot be seen". The Taliban are more a feeling than a physical presence in these tribal areas, yet they are a force that can transform society.

Seven months ago I visited Bajaur and Mohmand agencies. As my taxi driver headed from Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, he was played some Pashtu music on the car's CD. Quickly, though, he changed it for jihadi songs.

"The militants have not only brought guns to the tribal areas, they have also brought a culture which has transformed tribal society," commented a passenger traveling with me.

This set me thinking. Where are people like Nashanas - a legendary singer? His songs are only heard in urban centers such as Kabul, Peshawar, Herat, Quetta and Kandahar. In his place are poetry and songs that talk not of love and lovers but of a mujahid and his gun - his long hair and beard, his wounds of war, his passion for resistance and his preference for the battlefield rather than intimacy with his lover.

This has given rise to a new breed of people who inspire such poetry, such as Mr S, whom I met this month while returning from Kunar province to Pakistan after a stay with the Taliban.

"Mr Saleem, you are extremist. Please be moderate," he bluntly told me. The reasons for calling me an extremist were twofold: my wearing the traditional warm Pakhol cap in the hot weather, and that I had managed to travel to the Kunar Valley and back despite being out of condition.

S is 25 and initially seemed like any other foot soldier who had taken his inspiration from the lectures of a radical cleric. I was very wrong and the Punjabi with a soft face revealed much humility as I got to know him better on our hike through the mountains.

S is the son of a Pakistani military officer and left his home after completing school at the age of 17. Ever since, he has been an active jihadi, and in eight years he has only seen his family once.

He joined al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001 - even serving for bin Laden - but soon after that event he went to the South Waziristan tribal area in Pakistan with Arab-Afghans such as Sheikh Ahmad Saeed Khadr and Sheikh Essa.

S said his association with Arab-Afghan militants turned him from an ordinary jihadi into an astute trainer. "In my early 20s, I was training big names of this region, including young Arabs and Uzbeks who were many years older than me," said S.

S could have earned a monthly stipend to devote himself to being a jihad, but he chose to work as a trader in Pakistani cities to earn extra money. He then returned to the mountain vastness of Afghanistan to join the Taliban's fight against NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) in Afghanistan.

A turning point in S's life came when, returning from Khost province in Afghanistan where he ran a training camp, he was arrested by Pakistani Frontier Corps.

"I was passed on from one security agency to another, and each time the interrogation methods changed. My pre-9/11 association with bin Laden and Zawahiri and occasional meetings with Zawahiri after 9/11 boosted me as an 'al-Qaeda associate' in the eyes of my Pakistani examiners. For one-and-half years I did not see a single ray of sunlight. After thorough interrogations, they concluded that I was just a fighter and a trainer against NATO troops who happened to be a 'renegade' son of an army officer," said S.

"They contacted my father and despite that he had abandoned me a long time ago, when he heard about my situation all his fatherly affection returned and he agreed to become my guarantor that I would not take part in any jihadi activities.

"So I was released in front of Peshawar railway station, blindfolded, and when my blinds were removed there was my old father in front of me. I was standing with my hands and feet chained, and when my guards removed these my father hugged me and wept profusely.

"That was the only brief interaction between me and my family as I once again went into my own world of jihad. It was me and my gun, and I never looked back to see if there was any family, a father or a mother, waiting for me ... though I miss them a lot," S related in a sad, soft voice.

S then went on to tell of his first showdown with American soldiers in Birmal (near Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area) in Afghanistan. Some Americans were killed, but most of S's colleagues were either killed or wounded. Shattered, S only just managed to make it back to his base.

S has earned a reputation in jihadi circles as a spiritual healer. Whether for headaches, stomach aches or wounds, his recitation of the Koran has a healing effect.

"What worldly gains do we get in these mountains?" S asks rhetorically. "None! We have left everything behind ... even this mass of flesh does not belong to us. Hence we are left with our soul ... which is now very much alive and awakened," said S.

Later, while walking in the forested mountains of Kunar, I shot a question at S: "Where is bin Laden?"

"First, you tell me what your guess is," said S with a smile. So I sat down under a tree, and in the light of the moon I drew a circle in the sand with the dried branch of tree.

"This is the region of Kunar-Nooristan-Bajaur and Chitral [the region that spans the Afghan-Pakistani border]. I suppose this is where Osama is supposed to be ... I have reason to believe he might be in Nooristan, in some deserted place near the Afghan province of Badakshan," I smiled back at S, giving him a challenging stare.

For a moment S did not speak, he just watched my face; he seemed surprised. "You have got a good vision of this region at least," S finally commented, then he stood up and we continued the journey.

"I also have the same region in mind ... though I do not know where exactly he is," S said, adding that the main concern is that the Americans are also attracted by this region and are now focussing their efforts on it in their search for bin Laden.

"If, God forbid, they catch or kill the sheikh [bin Laden] it would cause a huge loss to the mujahideen. Believe you me, it would be like almost winning the war. The morale of the mujahideen would be low and all the money pouring in from the Middle East would stop because it only comes in the sheikh's name," S said.

"This is a guess according to material knowledge. But I will share with you the spiritual experience. As you are aware, people in this region take me into their homes if they suspect someone is haunted by a jinni [supernatural spirit].

"Some time ago in this region I was invited to treat such a person [a man]. The effect of the jinni was removed as I overwhelmed the jinni. It was in my control [and it later, according to S, embraced Islam] so I asked him [the jinni] to tell him [the man] the whereabouts of bin Laden. He [the man] came back after a while and told me he could only travel up as far as the Kunar Valley before he was stopped by Muslim jinnis who had placed a heavy guard in the region," S said.

"So even judging by my spiritual experience, you seem to be correct that the sheikh is somewhere in Nooristan at the crossroads of Kunar and Badakshan," said S.

Switching topics, S said he is against the use of suicide attacks. "I do not know the exact status of such attacks in Islamic law, but certainly in my manuals of war it is prohibited. I have argued with all the top commanders that any target can be hit without the use of suicide attacks," S said.

On strategic matters, S is clear that attacks on Pakistani security forces in the tribal areas can only add up to problems. "I always argued with top ideologues like Sheikh Essa that the more success we get in Afghanistan, the more we will gain support from Pakistan. If NATO remains strong in Afghanistan, it will put pressure on Pakistan. If NATO remains weaker in Afghanistan, it will dare [encourage] Pakistan to support the Taliban, its only real allies in the region," S said.

Our chat was interrupted by our guide Zubair Mujahid, who directed us not to speak as a border crossing was near. "We will cross in half an hour and will reach Pakistani territory at about 3 o'clock in the morning," he said.

"So early ... do you not fear that a group of goons will try to kidnap us for ransom?" I teased Zubair.

"Goons! Who is a bigger goon than us ... we have left the entire world and the entire world has abandoned us. Yet we freely challenge the world powers without any fear ... you think those little robbers who snatch money from people can dare stand in front of us?" Zubair replied.

In an hour we reached a point in Pakistan from where I could take video footage of the whole region of Kunar and Bajaur and the mountain belt going towards Chitral, Nooristan and Tajikistan.

Zubair and S, along with two other fellows, were saying their morning prayers on a wide stone on the edge of a cliff. The sun was showing its first struggling signs of rising in the east. I had the strong feeling that the region is on the threshold of a new culture whose rays are about to spread beyond war games and war theaters.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

(Copyright 2008 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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