The commander of the British expeditionary force in Afghanistan, Brigadier Roger Lane, said on Wednesday, May 8:
“We believe we are on the right way, that the fight against al Qaeda and Taliban in Afghanistan is all but won, and that they are not showing a predisposition to reorganize and regroup to mount offensive operations against us.”
The British general’s statement accompanied British marines’ Operation Snipe to clear out the Shah-e-Kot region of eastern Afghanistan, while US special forces are similarly occupied in two places: the Tora Bora region near Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, and just across the border in northern Wazirstan, one of the semi-autonomous Pashtun tribal regions of western Pakistan. There, US units are joined by Pakistani special forces.
The facts on the ground reported by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military counter-terrorism sources run contrary to the British general’s assessment. The last word coming out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States, Europe, Central Asia, Asia and the Middle East, is that al-Qaeda is rampant again, having embarked on its biggest ever multi-targeted terror campaign that reaches simultaneously into the United States, Britain, Germany, Pakistan, Russia and Israel. Counter-terrorism experts asked by DEBKA-Net-Weekly estimate that al-Qaeda is throwing more than 100 terror cells into the campaign. It aims also to hit US and other foreign military units in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, especially Pakistan, as well as striking inside the United and Israel, and at US and Israeli installations and institutions around the world.
Experts believe that some of the 200 to 400 operatives in these activated terrorist cells are trained as suicide killers. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s counter-terrorism experts have strong reason to believe that some are armed with bombs or explosives containing nuclear, biological or chemical components. Whether or not they are under orders to use them is unclear.
Neither is the duration of the current round. Counter-terrorism agencies, who note the start of the new offensive, say it could taper off after two or three weeks, or develop into a lengthier cycle. Two suicide bombings this week – one in Rishon Lezion, Israel, that killed 16 people on May 7, and the blast in Karachi the following day, in which 11 French shipyard workers died when their bus was rammed by a car packed with explosives – are seen as part of this cycle – and not the end of it.
Among the wave of air disasters this week, the EgyptAir 843 from Cairo that crashed into a Tunisian hillside on May 8, killing 16 of the 62 aboard, has attracted Egyptian and US terror investigators. In the south Russian republic of Dagestan, a blast tore through a Victory Day parade on May 9, killing 29 people including 7 children. President Vladimir Putin blamed the attack on terrorists, suggesting they came from neighboring Chechnya, whose rebels are allied with al Qaeda. Tunisian authorities have begun assigning to terrorist sabotage the helicopter crash on May 1, in which thirteen Tunisian military officers, including chief of staff Brig. Gen. Abdelaziz Skik, died. Evidence was found that the Bell 212 helicopter engine had been tampered with. The officers were on their way back to Tunis from a surveillance mission in the Kef region near the Algerian border. The Algerian extremist GIA is an integral part of the al Qaeda network. This was not the first attack in Tunis. Last month, a bombing attack blasted a bus carrying tourists on a visit to the 2,000-year old synagogue on the island of Djerba. Most of the 29 victims were Germans. The authorities in Berlin are treating this incident too as al-Qaeda-related.
As the terrorist hits pile up, the Afghanistan campaign drags on.
US President George W. Bush, defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and supreme commander General Tommy Franks used to declare, like the British general, that the war is all but over and the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces were on the run. But their optimism faded after the US-led battles against two units of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in the Shah-e-Kot area, south of Gardez, ended in mid-March without a clear military victory – even though American special forces were joined by Australian, New Zealand and Norwegian elite units and had Afghan military support.
US leaders seem to have learned one of Afghanistan’s bitter lessons: Each time they were sure the al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters had been defeated, victory slipped out of their grasp. The enemy melted away from the front line with the help of sophisticated camouflage and diversionary tactics, only to regroup for fresh assaults elsewhere.
This scenario played out in November and December 2001 in Konduz and Khanabad in northern Afghanistan, when al-Qaeda forces flitted across the frontier into Pakistan and Iran. It recurred in December and January in Kandahar, where US forces control the city’s environs and international airport, but not the city itself. The Americans have not been able to take over Afghan towns in the area between Kandahar and the eastern border with Pakistan – especially in places such as Marouf, Abu Khan and Rashid Koala. Whenever US special forces come near any of these towns, al-Qaeda fighters withdraw and filter across the Pakistani border, returning when the Americans are gone.
Now, once more, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources report US special forces confronted with the al-Qaeda disappearing in remote and rugged Pakistani Wazirstan, where they are engaged jointly with Pakistani elite forces in what they call the Battle of the Madressas, the Muslim seminaries that have long been breeding grounds for the militant Islamic fundamentalists nourishing al Qaeda.
This campaign inside Pakistan was launched after the CIA received intelligence that thousands of al-Qaeda fighters were hiding up in the madressas scattered around the mountain villages, training and getting ready for a fresh assault on the interim government in Kabul and the foreign troops stationed in Afghanistan.
These madressas are farmlike compounds made up of 15 to 20 one-storey structures and using adjacent caves for storing food, water and livestock. Each is surrounded by a low fence with a single gate.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the US-Pakistani Battle for the Madressas is a flop. Helicopter-borne forces dropped over these seminaries invariably find them deserted or occupied by innocent locals with no links to al-Qaeda or the Taliba. The fugitives are clearly forewarned of approaching danger in time to clear out, but thus far the CIA and US military intelligence have not found the source of the intelligence leaks.
One possibility is that officers or men of the Pakistani special units engaged in the hunt are loyal to the erstwhile Pakistani intelligence Afghanistan desk that was dismantled for its pro-Taliban allegiances. They may be tipping off the al Qaeda before raids.
It is also possible that local Pashtun tribesmen, who maintain round-the-clock mountaintop vigils, are reporting on US military movements. This tight communications network linking the Pashtun tribes is not necessarily anti-American; it has been around for centuries to alert the community to the approach of strangers. The Pashtun lookouts use a primitive but effective communications system made up of simple walkie-talkies and stones piled in particular patterns that convey certain messages. At night, bonfire signals are used.
These are Pashtun, not al-Qaeda, communications systems. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly has reported in the past, US intelligence monitoring posts in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Central Asia, the Gulf and the Middle East have never intercepted a single electronic message from al-Qaeda or Taliban commanders to their troops, since the onset of the Tora Bora battles last December. The only exception was a message from Abu Zubayda in Pakistan, who was later captured in a joint US-Pakistani raid.
A senior intelligence source monitoring the campaign’s progress told DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources: “This has become one of the most baffling mysteries ever to face an intelligence agency dealing with terrorists.” The source added: “With electronic surveillance, we can see people moving around between bases, transporting weapons, ammunition and food supplies. We know instructions are getting through to them, but we don’t know how.”
At first, some US intelligence experts believed in a network of couriers. But no such courier has ever fallen into American or allied hands, any more than a written message of any kind. Neither have any innovative al Qaeda coded transmission methods been spotted over the Internet.
According to this source, finding a way to intercept al-Qaeda messages is the key to winning the intelligence-technological battle and therefore a decisive element in the war on international terror.
“As long as we cannot find out how al Qaeda commanders communicate with their men in the field, we are flying blind as regards the network’s plans for the United States. We cannot tell where and how al Qaeda will strike.” The source asked morosely: “Will it be a conventional or nuclear attack? Everyone is fumbling in the dark.”