ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – A murky network of smugglers, politicians and spies is moving money to Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives, slipping their operatives out of the region and ferrying others in, according to intelligence officials and a former Taliban commander.
Several Al Qaeda men have left Afghanistan for Algeria in recent days, Fazul Rabi Said Rahman, a former Taliban corps commander, told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. A European intelligence source says others are slipping quietly into the region, and the numbers are on the increase.
"If you have money you can go anywhere, without any problem," Said Rahman said.
Another former Taliban official who spoke on condition his name or rank not be used said several Al Qaeda fugitives were smuggled out of Afghanistan in recent weeks. They were taken out through Pakistan's Tirah Valley, a remote region ringed by towering peaks.
The Tirah Valley neighbors Tora Bora in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province, the scene of some of the fiercest bombing in the U.S.-led coalition's war on terror.
The man who is said to have helped them escape, an Al Qaeda sympathizer named Anwarul Haq Mujahed, himself eluded capture this month.
American and Afghan special forces in search of Mujahed raided several places in eastern Afghanistan, including offices of the International Islamic Relief Organization, where he was believed to have contacts. They also raided his father's farm in Farmada, according to Haji Zaman Khan, an ally of the U.S.-led coalition during last December's assault on Tora Bora.
The farm, a well-known refuge for Al Qaeda members during and after the Taliban rule, was bombed several times during the U.S.-led coalition's campaign.
Mujahed's father, Maulvi Yunus Khalis, was a U.S.-backed commander during the 1980s war against the Soviet occupiers in Afghanistan. He swore allegiance to the northern alliance government, but Taliban in hiding say he has remained close to his onetime Al Qaeda friends.
"Mujahed helped at least 100 of the Al Qaeda men who wanted to escape Afghanistan," Zaman told the AP on Tuesday. "Just in the last month I know he helped some escape."
Before U.S. Special Forces could locate him, Mujahed was spirited out of Nangarhar province, through Dar-e-Nur in eastern Afghanistan, to Laghman province and then to Kabul. From there, he was flown aboard an Afghan Ariana flight to Pakistan's frontier city of Peshawar, assisted along the way by men loyal to Khalis.
Some of the people alleged to have helped him are members of the Afghan government, including the Nangarhar military chief Hazrat Ali and Nangarhar governor Din Mohammed.
Said Rahman, the former Taliban commander, said several Al Qaeda men have left for Algeria in recent weeks.
It was unclear whether they were the same men spirited out by Mujahed.
While some Al Qaeda men are moving out of the region, others are coming in, say European intelligence sources. They are bringing money with them, helped by smugglers and traders, according to the intelligence officials.
The network that allows the traffic to flow virtually unhindered allegedly includes Pakistani militant groups — like Lashkar-e-Tayyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed — Pakistani intelligence and even the upper echelon of Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, one of the key partners in a religious coalition that rules Pakistan's strategic North West Frontier Province and which holds considerable sway in southwestern Baluchistan province.
"We are happy that our brothers are in power here. We expect it will be even easier," said Said Rahman.
He said many top Taliban in hiding move particularly freely in Baluchistan province, of which Quetta is the capital. Among them is Maulvi Abdul Kabir, the No. 3 man in the Taliban, and Abdul Razzak, former Taliban interior minister.
The Taliban's former brigade commander at Spinboldak, Maulvi Jalaluddin, has close ties with Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam officials, like the group's general secretary, Ghafour Haideri, says Said Rahman. "He knows the border very well, how to move across without a problem, how to move others across, who will help and how to get their help," he said.
Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam loyalists and members of the Pakistani intelligence agency, an open ally of the Taliban before Sept. 11, have helped senior Taliban move freely and communicate with others about their whereabouts and planned meetings.
An active transit route is the Afghan town of Allah Jirga, which hugs the border with Pakistan and where Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban's leader, has tribal links, said Said Rahman.
Haideri dismissed allegations that he protects Taliban, but said his loyalties are with the ousted movement.
"We neither give them money nor shelter, we just support them ideologically," said Haideri. "As far as the Taliban are concerned, our support to them was open. We belong to a religious family. The world knows that we never concealed our love and support for Taliban."