BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan (AFP) – Al-Qaeda is believed to have called its followers to action in response to the massively attended vote last month that elected President Hamid Karzai, a top US commander said.
A sign that al-Qaeda followers may be slipping back into the country was a recent discovery of a bomb-making operation in Nangarhar province by a small group of Arab fighters killed in an encounter with US forces, said Major General Eric Olson, second in command of US forces here.
“I think there now is a call out to do something to reverse the momentum that right now is going in the direction of freely elected governments,” Olson said in an interview here.
He spoke to two reporters traveling with General John Abizaid, chief of the US Central Command, who arrived here Wednesday to meet with commanders and visit with troops on the US Thanksgiving holiday.
Abizaid’s visit coincided with the killing of two US soldiers, and the wounding of a third by a roadside bomb in south central Oruzgan province, the latest in a surge of attacks on coalition forces.
US intelligence has gathered evidence of anger and disarray within the Taliban over the success of the elections, which drew millions of Afghans to the polls despite the threat of insurgent attacks that never materialized.
Olson said “there is a lot of recrimination and finger pointing about the failure to get something going, some kind of spectacular event.”
“There are some groups that splintered off from the mainstream of the Taliban. They are going to try their own way,” he said.
“On the other end of the spectrum we’ve had Taliban fighters come to us, and tell us that they are through, they want to come over and they will put down their arms and stop fighting.”
Karzai’s inauguration on December 7 and contentious parliamentary elections tentatively targeted for early April loom as potential magnets for retaliatory attacks by Taliban or al-Qaeda.
“What we see in most of Afghanistan is not a direct presence of al-Qaeda themselves, but certainly fighters who support al-Qaeda,” Olson said.
“For example, the Arab fighters who were recently killed in Nangarhar province were fighters who could be classified as fighters who were supporting al-Qaeda,” he said.
Provincial officials reported that four were killed and five arrested in a predawn raid November 20 in the province’s Barikaw district by US and Afghan forces, but other sources said as many as seven Arab fighters were killed.
Al-Qaeda’s top leaders are believed to be hiding in Pakistan’s rugged tribal areas along its mountainous border with Afghanistan, isolated but still dangerous, according to US military officials.
“I don’t think we ought to underestimate what’s left of them,” said Olson. I think that al Qaeda itself is still a viable organization.”
“It still has several key leaders who are still out there, who are still communicating, still giving guidance and direction,” he said.
Although its Taliban allies in Afghanistan are stumbling, he said, al-Qaeda is “far from through.”
“And in some instances they may be even more dangerous now because of their need to launch some kind of high visibility success which may force them into desperate acts,” he said.
The US military here refers to the al-Qaeda leadership as the “two plus three.”
Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri remain at the top of the group’s leadership with three others just below them: Abu Laith al-Libi, Abu Hadi al-Iraqi, and Abu Fara al-Libi, senior military officials said.
Zawahiri is believed to move around from time to time to rally the troops, while the others work operations through couriers.
“Bin Laden has not been recorded as giving guidance directly himself, but we’ve got reason to believe he’s doing it indirectly,” said Olson.
“And we know the senior leadership of al-Qaeda gives guidance either directly or indirectly to the Taliban, and to foreign fighters who we have made contact with and killed in Afghanistan,” he said.
The Al-Qaeda leaders have eluded capture since US-led forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001. More recently offensives by Pakistani forces in the tribal areas have failed to turn up bin Laden or his lieutenants.
“Here’s what I think,” said a senior military official. “I think somewhere up in the mountains in Chitral, Bin Laden lives in a house and lives with a family, and probably one bodyguard.
“And once every month, or probably once every two months, he walks 15 miles to another ruin somewhere where he meets with somebody, and then he walks back 15 miles. He doesn’t have an HF modem, he doesn’t have a satellite TV, DVD, he probably doesn’t have any kind of radio.”
“And that’s probably the life he leads,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.