SHERAWANGI (South Waziristan), Oct 29 A prominent member of the so-called Hamburg cell linked with 9/11 attacks was believed to be among senior Al Qaeda leaders involved with the Taliban fighting the Pakistani troops in South Waziristan.
A green German passport belonging to Said Bahaji, a close associate of Mohammed Atta, the leader of the 9/11 hijackers, was among several documents which were found by Pakistani forces in a mud compound in Sherawangi village which was used by Taliban as their command and control base. There were also documents which showed presence of some other European nationals in the area.
The village on a high ridge was captured by troops this week after days of fierce battle.
“They were ferocious fighters and we had to battle hard to capture the village,” said Lt Colonel Inam Rashid, the commanding officer who led the final assault.
Some of the militants were killed and many others escaped. “We do not know whether he (Bahaji) was killed or he has fled,” said one officer.
Mr Bahaji, a German citizen born to a Moroccan father and German mother, had briefly served with German army before coming in contact with Al Qaeda. He shared an apartment in Hamburg with Mohammed Atta and Ramzi bin Al Shibh, the alleged mastermind of 9/11 attacks. It was there that the famous Hamburg cell was born.
The passport shows that Bahaji arrived in Karachi from Istanbul on Sept 4, 2001. A senior Pakistani investigator said he was accompanied by Abdullah Husayni, a Belgian national and Ammar Moula, an Algerian with a French passport. Both were closely linked with Al Qaeda.
There was no indication that Mr Bahaji ever left Pakistan. Pakistani investigators said that he stayed in Karachi in a hotel for several days where he was in contact with Al Qaeda members. He is believed to have moved to Waziristan some time in 2002.
The militants were still holding on to Kaniguram town, some six kilometres from Sherawangi. Troops were dug into their stone bunkers on surrounding mountains, while helicopter gunships hovered over the village down in the valley.
The boom of artillery fire echoed in the distance. There was constant return of fire from the militants. “It is going to be a tough fight, but we will drive them out in the next few days,” said Brigadier Ihsanullah.
Kaniguram with a population of around 90000 is the second largest town in South Waziristan. The town is known for hosting a substantial number of Taliban and foreign militants. Surrounded by mountains, the highest of which towers 12,000 feet, the town is considered a major militant fortress. There is a network of tarmac roads connecting it to the rest of the region, but they generally remain blocked in winter.
With almost the entire population having fled, the town is now fully under the control of Uzbek fighters who were led by Tahir Yuldashev, head of the hardline Islamic
Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who was killed by a US drone attack last month. Pakistani army officers said some 1500 Uzbek fighters were entrenched in Kaniguram.
“They would fight to the death,” said Major General Khalid Rabbani, the regional commander.
The capture of Kaniguram could clear the way for Pakistani troops to advance towards Saragoha, another key militant base where Taliban forces were now concentrated. “We believe the main Taliban leaders have now moved to Sararogha,” said Major General Athar Abbas.
More than 30,000 Pakistani forces backed by F 16 jets this month launched a three pronged offensive to clear the Al Qaeda and Taliban militants from their strongest hold in the tribal region after a series of terrorist attacks that has shaken the country in recent months.
An audacious attack earlier this month on the high security army headquarters in Rawalpindi proved to be the last straw. The Taliban based in South Waziristan have claimed responsibility of the attacks which have killed more than 300 people this month.
The government troops have made significant advance capturing some key militant areas including Kotkai, the hometown of Hakimullah Mehsud, the new leader of Pakistani Taliban movement. The town which once served as the main training suicide bombers is completely deserted with only the troops taking positions on the surrounding hills. Many houses were destroyed during intense fighting. But the residences of Hakimullah Mehsud and Qari Hussain, another top Taliban leader who ran camps for training suicide bombers were still intact. “We destroyed at least 25 such camps in the area,” said Brigadier Shafiq whose troops last week seized the control of Kotkai.
Almost the entire population had fled the area just before the start of the offensive on October 17. Brigadier Shafiq said there were only Arab and Uzbek fighters in the town. “Most of them were killed, but some are still around fighting,” he said.
It is the third military campaign the Pakistani military has launched in South Waziristan since 2004. The last two campaigns in 2004 and 2006 ended in debacle forcing military authorities to sign a peace deal with the militants which analysts said turned the area into a base for Al Qaeda and Taliban.
But the military officials said they were not going to stop the current operation until the whole area was cleared of all militants.
Pakistan has deployed almost three times more troops than in the previous two operations. “We have sufficient number of troops to maintain hold over the entire area,” said Gen Abbas. Military said the main objective of the operation was to destroy the militant bases and re-establish the authority of the state.