New al Qaeda Command Center in Kashmir

Osama bin Laden, his deputy, Ayman Zawahiri, and their top lieutenants have reportedly materialized in the past two weeks at different places between the Little Pamir panhandle of northeastern Afghanistan, the Hunza region of Pakistani northwest Jammu and Kashmir and the Pakistani Karakoram Mountains further to the south – according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exclusive intelligence sources. Despite the fierce campaign waged against him – notably in the Tora Bora cave complex of Afghanistan last December – the world’s most wanted terrorist appears to be alive and kicking.

In Pakistan’s lofty northwest districts, bordering his Little Pamir citadel (first described in DEBKA-Net-Weekly Issue No. 31 on September 28, 2001), the al Qaeda leader even appears to have established a new territorial base, aided by the very Pakistani ISI intelligence officers whom President Pervez Musharraf purged at US insistence for their pro-Taliban proclivities.

US military commanders will therefore have had some hard explaining to do when defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrived in Afghanistan on Thursday, April 25, to propel Washington’s global war against terrorism forward into its next stage. He knows by now that if they want to catch bin Laden and his high command, the US military are looking in the wrong places.

American special and Delta forces are active in the eastern Paktia and Paktika provinces, in areas south of Kabul and, from this week, also in the semi-autonomous tribal areas just inside Pakistan, causing President Pervez Musharraf sleepless nights. In these locations they stand good chances of running into bands of al Qaeda and Taliban fighters – but the terrorist network’s high command is somewhere else.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources report that Bin Laden and Zawahiri were last espied between April 15 and 18, moving around the inaccessible northern Karakoram mountain range of Pakistan’s northwest frontier region, 300 miles east of the Afghan border. In those forbidding mountains, in the fertile Hunza district – which is accessible only by mountain road, and in Little Pamir, Bin Laden and Zawahiri have set up a mobile operational command center, manned by Pakistani ext-intelligence officers that affords them control of the terrain and safety from hostile incursion by, say, US special forces.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, almost all the Pakistani ex-Inter-Service-Intelligence officers who joined up with bin Laden once served on the ISI’s Afghanistan Desk. Musharraf sacked them in a January-March purge of the service. He was under US pressure to disband the Afghanistan Desk, after the Tora Bora campaign disappointed and US special forces failed to collar bin Laden and his senior deputies

The ISI’s Afghanistan Desk was dominated by officers sympathetic to the Taliban. Their influence penetrated the armed forces, leading the military to support the Afghan fundamentalists and their al Qaeda allies, undermine US-led terror operations in Afghanistan – from Konduz to Tora Bora – and defeat their government’s efforts to seal off the Afghan-Pakistan escape route.

Some of the sacked officers were re-assigned to army units in remote parts of Pakistan; 500 were forced into early retirement. Many of this latter group evidently chose to supplement their state pensions by hiring themselves out to bin Laden.

Intelligence sources in Kashmir who spoke with DEBKA-Net-Weekly on condition of anonymity said these officers used their good connections in Pakistan and with tribal and village leaders to set up Bin Laden’s new territorial base in north Kashmir and Little Pamir. The new base cannot compare with the formidable system of camps and bases al Qaeda commanded in central and western Afghanistan under the Taliban. On the other hand, the Saudi-born terror leader now holds sway over a weighty strategic asset, daunting to fight over or even access.

Till now, the US war effort in Afghanistan focused on toppling the Taliban and taking control of the main towns as well as the routes linking them. Bin Laden and his command level have consistently eluded pursuit. Now that he has put down new roots in one of the most mountainous and rugged areas in the world, our sources say that to go after him, the Americans would need the help of at least four governments of the countries abutting on Bin Laden’s retreat – Russia, China, Pakistan and India.

All of those nations have conflicting interests in the area.

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources calculate that the preferred American tactic of aerial bombardment would be all but useless over 26,000-ft mountain peaks and passes canopied most of the year in snow and heavy cloud.

Nevertheless, Rumsfeld will want to hear from US commanders in the field why the campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban centers on eastern Afghanistan when the elusive al Qaeda chief and cronies have clearly relocated in the northern mountain areas on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan frontier. He is not surprised that the campaign in Afghanistan is stalled.

While US forces go round in circles, al Qaeda has grown stronger and bolder since the December battles at Tora Bora. Neither Operation Anaconda in March nor the current British Marines’ Ptarmigan Operation appears to have clipped the terrorist network’s wings. As DEBKA-Net-Weekly reported on April 19, in Issue No. 57, several bands of al-Qaeda have reached the outskirts of Kabul and are launching shooting and missile forays against Afghanistan’s interim government institutions and international peacekeepers.

After Afghanistan and his talks with Afghan leaders and US commanders, Rumsfeld will have to decide whether to continue to Islamabad and confer with Musharraf on Bin Laden’s reconstituted base of operations in northern Kashmir, an operational arm of his Little Pamir citadel.

However, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources report that the Pakistani president is running out of room to maneuver around disaffected elements in his regime in order to help Washington. His campaign to get himself confirmed for a five-year term as president in next Tuesday’s referendum is not going well. He is paying the price of bowing to US demands, including the one to dismantle the ISI’s Afghanistan Desk. If Rumsfeld asks him to crack down on the renegade ISI dropouts in service with bin Laden, the Pakistani president may well retort that it was a mistake to abolish the Afghanistan Desk in the first place.

The fallout has been grave: even the several dozen former intelligence officers attached to units in far corners of the country have gone over to the fundamentalists, working hand in glove with their former comrades in bin Laden’s service and making trouble in their new outfits.

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