Al Qaeda on the March Again

A chilling message was conveyed by George W. Bush in his speech to cadets at the Virginia Military Institute on Wednesday, April 17:

Osama bin Laden and his gang of terrorists are on the warpath again.

“As the spring thaw comes,” said the president, “We expect cells of trained killers to try to regroup, murder, create mayhem and undermine Afghanistan's efforts to build a lasting peace.”

He did not explain how al Qaeda would be able to make so free of territory under US military control. But DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that since the US-led Anaconda operation was wrapped up in the eastern Shah-e-Kot mountain area last month, al Qaeda has been pouring hundreds of well-trained fighters, equipped with state-of-the-art mountain warfare equipment into the Paktia and Kabul provinces of Afghanistan, transferred from training camps in the foothills of Lahore, Pakistan.

Estimates of their number range from 600 and 2,000. There is speculation that the terror network has now drafted in Muslim guerrillas from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and, possibly Singapore, as well as fresh batches of skilled fighters from the Middle East. An unseen hand is locating them in Pakistan for supplementary training and new equipment, before sending them on to Afghanistan.

This new intake of al Qaeda fighters was first spotted by Australian, New Zealand and Norwegian special force patrols when they turned up near the cities of Khost and Gardez in east Afghanistan. Posted there since early February, these scouting patrols of three to five men each report a steadily increasing stream of al Qaeda arrivals and changed movement patterns. Instead of heading south and making for Kandahar, Khost and Gardez – as was their wont – the newcomers turn west or northwest and keep going towards provinces around Kabul, such as Logar, Ghazni and Wardak.

US commanders suspect the fresh al Qaeda contingents of a dual assignment in Kabul – the assassination of the 87-year old Afghan King Mohammad Zahir Shah, who returned Thursday April 18 to the capital after 29 years of exile in Italy; and the torpedoing of the grand assembly, the loya jirga, which the restored king is to convene in early June, the first step in the process of electing a permanent government. The United States believes al Qaeda may try and block the transition by assassinating tribal chiefs and Afghan leaders invited to the grand council session.

The new US-led offensive ordered this week by General Tommy Franks, head of the US central command, is meant to be a once-and-for-all, thorough cleanout of terrorist lairs in the square miles of rugged territory covered, or skimmed over, in previous US-led operations.

Operation Ptarmigan (or snow partridge, an Asian grouse that changes its plumage from white against winter snow to gray or brown in spring and summer) will be a lengthy enterprise over extensive and difficult terrain, leaving outposts to keep al Qaeda from regaining a foothold in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan. Joined now by British Royal Marines mountaineering experts and Afghan mountain fighters, US special forces are back in the Shah-e-Kot area, preparing to fan out through mountains, caves and valleys up to the Afghan-Pakistani border, including the Tora Bora cave complexes. This time, US and British commandos on foot will scour every mountain peak, valley and crevice to flush out hidden al Qaeda or Taliban fighters. Once sanitized, those hideouts will be blown up, rendered unusable as future military or guerrilla bastions.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s military sources, allied field commanders have been awarded broad freedom of action. Officers on the ground in the previous Tora Bora and Anaconda operations in December and the March were tied down to strict guidelines based on existing intelligence data.

Operation Ptarmigan is opened-ended, expected to be one of the longest campaigns in the brief Afghanistan War. The US command’s present projection is for seven-and-a-half months, possibly spilling into Christmas – or even the first snowfall of 2003.

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