March 7: A son of Osama bin Laden’s deputy has given crucial information on the whereabouts of al Qaida leaders after being captured by Pakistani forces in a lawless frontier area close to Afghanistan, intelligence officials in Islamabad have revealed.
Ayman al-Zawahiri’s son, Khalid, was seized along with 20 other suspected foreign militants in a raid by Pakistan’s security forces in the remote South Waziristan area 10 days ago, officials told The Daily Telegraph.
Information gleaned from him by interrogators has helped direct Pakistani and American forces in their drive to capture bin Laden and other senior al Qaida figures, being conducted in the mountainous areas on both sides of the border.
The authorities in Islamabad are unwilling formally to announce the capture of the younger al-Zawahiri, but officials have privately confirmed that he is being questioned by a joint team of intelligence officers — from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency and the CIA — at a secret location in Pakistan.
They say that recent sweeps by British and American special forces in the Tora Bora mountains of Afghanistan have been linked to disclosures made by Khalid al-Zawahiri and others — including his wife — captured with him in raids on houses in Azam Warak, nine miles from Wana, the main town of South Waziristan.
Pakistani security forces also recovered ammunition, passports, video cassettes and other literature belonging to the al Qaida terrorist network in the raids in the lawless frontier area. Al-Zawahiri is said to have been in touch with his father recently.
Hundreds of troops from Pakistan’s paramilitary Frontier Corps, backed by helicopter gun ships, have been deployed in the area to tackle the foreign militants and either capture bin Laden, or drive him across the Afghan border into American hands.
More than 1,600 American troops, including special forces units, are in place at Salerno base near Khost in eastern Afghanistan ready for an all-out spring offensive to capture bin Laden.
By next month, that figure will have more than doubled, bolstered by a heavy contingent of SAS soldiers who have been assigned a key role in the operation. American engineers are currently enlarging and upgrading a landing strip at Salerno so that large military planes can land there to support the mission.
Pakistan is reported to have secretly agreed to permit American and British forces to cross into its volatile border tribal areas from Afghanistan in large enough numbers to pursue al Qaida and Taliban fighters.
The extremely sensitive agreement is said to be part of an unofficial deal, in return for Washington supporting President Pervez Musharraf’s controversial decision to pardon Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the man behind Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, for selling nuclear weapons materials on the international black market.
According to The New Yorker magazine, an intelligence official said: “Musharraf told us, ‘We’ve got guys inside. The people who provide fresh fruits and vegetables and herd the goats (for bin Laden and his followers)’. It’s a quid pro quo: we’re going to get our troops inside Pakistan in return for not forcing Musharraf to deal with Khan.”
There has been heavy speculation that American and Pakistani forces are finally closing in on bin Laden, who slipped through the fingers of the coalition hunting him in the Tora Bora mountain region at the end of 2001.
The terrorist leader and his assistants are suspected to have been hiding in the semi-autonomous regions along the 1,500-mile border with Afghanistan, where inhabitants remain sympathetic to the Taliban movement as well as the Arab fighters who came to support it.
Tribals join the hunt
Tribal leaders today assured Islamabad that armed bands of their community would help Pakistani authorities search for al Qaida and Taliban militants in remote western regions of the country, according to a Reuters report. A grand jirga, or council, of tribesmen decided that up to 2,000 armed tribal fighters would help the government search for foreign “terror” suspects believed to be hiding there.