KHOST, Afghanistan — When a wave of 11 suicide bombers attacked this Afghan provincial capital in mid-May — among them several men dressed head to toe in blue burqas — panicked residents fled into their homes to avoid the street battles between the killers and local security forces. Twenty locals died in the melee.
That so many bombers could slip into town from North Waziristan in neighboring Pakistan on a single operation testified to the rising level of violence in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military said that al Qaida is playing a critical role in financing suicide bombings and other attacks on U.S. and NATO forces.
However, the relatively low death toll in the Khost assault indicated that the attackers' preparation was deficient, at least by comparison with far more devastating suicide bombings in Iraq.
Interviews with U.S. military commanders over the past three months, U.S. radio intercepts of Arab and Chechen fighters, and confirmed captures or kills of foreign fighters inside Afghanistan indicate that Osama bin Laden's terror network — working through Afghan and Pakistani partners — is present in almost every Afghan and Pakistani province along the two countries' border.
In some cases, al Qaida has paid rewards of $11,000 to the Pakistani and Afghan families of suicide bombers, many of whom are cancer patients or heroin addicts, according to U.S. military communications intercepts.
Terrorist attacks in Afghanistan are more sophisticated than they were a year ago, and roadside bombings and suicide attacks are rising fast, according to the U.S. military. Attacks are up 25 percent over the first four months of 2008, and U.S. officials expect the total to rise some 50 percent this year to 5,700 — more than 15 a day.
Al Qaida isn't operating under its own flag, however, possibly because the group learned a lesson from its experience in Iraq, where many people have turned against al Qaida in Iraq's brutal tactics, terrorism analysts said.
Al Qaida's influence, however, is far greater than its shadowy profile suggests, for it has the wherewithal to finance suicide bombings, the skills to train foreign volunteers and, most important, the global ties, experience and strategy that Afghan and Pakistani insurgent forces lack.
Every capture or killing of foreign fighters — the U.S.-led NATO coalition said on May 28 that it had killed 34 militants in a firefight at a suspected training camp belonging to the network of Afghan insurgent leader Jalaludin Haqqani — is a reminder of al Qaida's backstage presence.
However, the suspected Haqqani camp, in a mountainous region of Paktika province, about 100 miles southwest of Khost on the Pakistani border, typifies al Qaida's lower profile in Afghanistan. Unlike in the 1990s, when bin Laden ran training camps across Afghanistan, the movement now operates out of myriad small facilities set up in compounds and homes that belong to Pashtun clans in the rugged mountains on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. The bases are sometimes mobile, and the trainers meld with Afghans in places where they find sympathetic residents, according to U.S. military briefers.
Of greater significance, according to U.S. counterterrorism experts, is al Qaida's role in devising a regional strategy and in encouraging its regional partners to accept a "two-front-war" against U.S.-NATO forces in Afghanistan and the government in Pakistan. Although some Afghan insurgents object to fighting on two fronts, the strategy provides bin Laden's network a permanent haven in the porous border region, where it can plan bigger international terrorist attacks.
U.S. terrorism experts said that al Qaida's leadership chose the senior leader of Pakistan's Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud — who's taken credit for the destruction of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad and the late May assault on Pakistani security forces in Lahore — as their chief ally.
Uzbek and Chechen "trigger men" from Central Asia, most of whom live in North and South Waziristan, have helped Mehsud, 34, consolidate his authority up and down the border in the past year, according to Vahid Brown, an al Qaida analyst with West Point's Combating Terrorism Center. In March, the U.S. government offered a $5 million reward for Mehsud, who it says is a "key al Qaida facilitator," or ally, responsible for multiple suicide attacks.
Mehsud bullied his way into a position as insurgent leader across most of Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas earlier this year when a new coalition of insurgent groups confirmed him as their "supreme commander."
An Afghan working with Western forces in Afghanistan, who asked to remain anonymous because he wasn't authorized to speak to reporters, said he'd monitored al Qaida radio traffic in a Paktika province district that's a stronghold of the "Haqqani Network," a Taliban affiliate directed by Sirajuddin Haqqani.
"I set up a radio scanner two months ago and I picked up Chechens and Arabs talking regularly," he said. "At one point, we heard an Arab talking to a Chechen say: 'Hey, the money has come in, you can attack soon.'"
An American embedded as a trainer with the Afghan National Army confirmed similar radio traffic. "It sounds from radio chatter like they have more recruits coming in, including Arabs, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Chechen fighters," said Army Maj. Cory Schultz, 37, of Fremont, Calif.
A leading al Qaida ideologue, Abu Yahya al Libi, who escaped from the U.S. prison at Bagram Air Base in July 2005, claimed in a propaganda booklet released in mid-March that Pakistan's army should be treated as an occupying infidel army waging offensive war on an invaded Muslim population. He told Pakistanis that it's incumbent upon them, as "good Muslims," to fight their own government.
Al Libi has helped the Pakistani Taliban set up propaganda operations with FM broadcast stations that use portable Chinese transmission boxes, said Brown of the West Point counterterrorism center. "Abu Yahya al-Libi translates the network's ideas to a popular audience" on both sides of the border, said Brian Fishman, also from the West Point center.
Al Libi maintains close ties to the "Tora Bora Front" in eastern Afghanistan and has been interviewed on the Web site of the front, which is the domain of Mujahid Khalis, the son of the late mujahedeen leader, Younus Khalis, who welcomed bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. Khalis junior ran an Islamic center in Jalalabad, the biggest city in eastern Afghanistan, which became the Taliban intelligence headquarters, and it was there that bin Laden had his last dinner in Jalalabad before fleeing over the mountains to Pakistan.
Al Qaida's influence extends well beyond the border region and deep into Pakistan. Al Qaida protege Mehsud is allied with Mullah "Radio" Fazlullah, whose insurgents took over the Swat district in northwest Pakistan, until, under public prodding from the Obama administration, the Pakistani army launched an operation to regain control.
In a 2007 interview with this reporter, Fazlullah endorsed al Qaida's goals in neighboring Afghanistan and around the globe: "When Muslims are under attack in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have a duty to fight back against the American 'crusaders' and their allies," he said.
Other leading insurgent groups led by Jalaluddin Haqqani's son, Sirajuddin, as well as Mullah Nazir, who operate along the Afghan-Pakistan border out of Waziristan, have been forced to agree to the new al Qaida-backed strategy for the two-front war, Western terrorism analysts said.
Terrorism analysts think that bin Laden himself has likely taken refuge in North or South Waziristan, or in a large city well beyond the tribal areas. They say his larger-than-life presence remains a thorn in side of U.S. efforts.
Both U.S. military and Afghan security officials confirmed a steady movement — by air from Dubai and other aerial hubs, by land across Iran and water from the Persian Gulf — of international jihadists from the Middle East to South Asia. Many Arabs, Chechens and other foreign fighters recently completed tours fighting in Iraq, where al Qaida has suffered significant setbacks.
American military commanders say they are doing what they can to flush out known Taliban and al Qaida havens inside Afghanistan, but terrorism experts believe that insurgent are planning fresh attacks in conjunction with an influx of 20,000 U.S. and NATO forces this summer.
Col. John Spizser, 46, of Harker Heights, Texas, who commands U.S. forces north of the White Mountains in eastern Afghanistan, acknowledged that one commander, Abu Ikhlas al Masri, an Egyptian al Qaida member, is contributing to the intense fight against his forces in the province of Kunar, not far from the Pakistani regions of Swat and Bajaur. He said his goal was to keep "facilitators and financiers" locked in a battle near the border and keep them from further affecting the fight inside Afghanistan.
Western terrorism analysts said that al Qaida has learned to operate within the limits forced by U.S. and Pakistani military operations in the rugged Pashtun hinterlands.
As a precaution against the U.S. raids, al Qaida members in Waziristan rarely have tea in groups of more than three, said Afghans who travel to the region. In addition, Taliban fighters, often working with al Qaida military trainers, have started to train indoors, as well as in small mud-walled compounds, where they attract only limited attention from U.S. surveillance flights and aerial drones.
Increasingly, al Qaida appears to be focusing on words as much as deeds. Bin Laden's latest denunciation, issued on June 3, the eve of President Barack Obama's Cairo speech seeking better relations with the Muslim world, charged the president with ordering Pakistan's crackdown in Swat. He said that Obama was following in the path of his predecessor, George W. Bush, intending "to build enmity against Muslims and increasing the number of fighters, and establishing more lasting wars." In the view of some U.S. terrorism analysts, the same could be said of al Qaida.
(Smucker is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY