Mystery of Disappearing al-Qaeda Soldiers
27 November, 2001
While US troops scour the mountains and caves for Osama bin Laden, the bulk of his al Qaeda army has also disappeared. It was found to be missing when the Northern Alliance seized control of the northern Taliban enclave of Konduz-Khanabad on Monday, November 26.
Roughly 1,500 of bin Laden’s men are reported still holding out outside Konduz. A similar number is unaccounted for.
First the figures:
At the peak of the battle of Konduz, Northern Alliance spokesmen estimated that 10,000 “foreign fighters” were in the town, a figure which DEBKAfile’s military experts rate an exaggeration. The true figure was no more than 6,000. It included several thousand young student volunteers from the Islamic medressas (Islamic academies) of Pakistan, who were told to go and fight America with very little army training or weapons but for their blind hero-worship of the ex-Saudi terrorist.
However, mixed among these eager students, were several hundred Pakistani army officers and soldiers in civilian dress, as well as some 120 Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, ISI service agents, representing Pakistan’s secret intelligence and logistical support for the Taliban.
Most reached Afghanistan before the American offensive was launched on October 7; some entered later and, in a bizarre twist of the Afghanistan war, may even have given US special forces useful inside intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda.
According to DEBKAfile’s military experts, 3000 of these men, some injured, were evacuated from Konduz in a secret nocturnal Pakistani airlift, run before the Taliban enclave fell to the Northern Alliance.
Left therefore in the Konduz-Khanabad sector were no more than 3000-3500 al Qaeda fighting men, roughly the same number present before the siege of Konduz. Around 500 or 600 surrendered last week - together with a group of Taliban fighters who switched over to General Dostum’s Uzbek force - only to engage their captors in a suicide battle in a fortress-prison near Mazar-e-Sharif. Several hundred were killed in the fighting, but they also killed at least one American agent and injured a group of US special forces troops.
After that batch is deducted, a total of 2,500 to 3,000 at most should have been found in the Konduz-Khanabad sector – Saudis, Gulf Arabs, Egyptians, Jordanians, Somalis, Yemenis, Chechens and Palestinians. Intelligence estimates before the Konduz siege put the Saudi extremist component fighting with al Qaeda at 500-700.
That is roughly the missing number, over whose whereabouts speculation is rife.
DEBKAfile groups the various surmises under four main headings:
A. Correspondents who entered Konduz with the Northern Alliance quoted local inhabitants as reporting that two nights before the town fell - and immediately after the Pakistani planes flew in - heavy Russian Antonov air transports touched down at Konduz airport and gathered up the al Qaeda “Arabs” – with their weapons.
DEBKAfile’s military sources, after checking on this lead with army intelligence sources in the Indian subcontinent, present this explanation of the mystery as the most plausible. Those Antonovs were chartered by the Pakistani ISI to lift the al Qaida contingents together with a few Taliban units out of Konduz in north Afghanistan into north Pakistan.
Their landings were masked by the US-authorized flights extricating the Pakistani combatants and therefore went undetected.
And that was not the end of the transfer. It is still going on. Our sources report that al Qaeda and their Taliban allies are streaming out of Kandahar in the south and crossing east into Pakistan. The two forces have thus far grouped some 4000 fighting men on the Pakistani side.
According to DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources, the United States hurriedly injected Marines to the south on Monday in direct response to the enemy’s redeployment. That too is why the first US troop engagement was with a Taliban convoy approaching the Pakistani frontier. For the US Marines’ immediate objective is not to join the Northern Alliance offensive for the capture of Mullah Omar’s bastion of Kandahar, but to block off the continuing passage of Taliban and al Qaeda units across the highly porous frontier.
B. They took advantage of the turmoil and confusion of battle to creep away to the Hindu KushMountains. There is no evidence of this happening, but it accords with their commanders’ original plan; if it came to be, the suicide battle in Mazar-e-Sharif prison will not the last to be staged in Afghanistan.
C. The Tajik warlord Mohamed Daud of the Northern Alliance encircled the al Qaeda contingent and slaughtered its members then and there - or after taking them prisoner.
Whichever theory turns out to be fact, bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar clearly remain operationally viable.
But questions must be asked about the operational capabilities of the Northern Alliance. If their siege of Konduz was as effective as described, why did they fail to prevent a max exodus of enemy troops?
For a realistic summing up of the last ten days’ successful battles against the Taliban and al Qaeda, DEBKAfile’s military sources point out that the 15,000-strong Northern Alliance could never have pulled off these complex feats on their own. Their tanks may proudly fly their green-and-white flags, but Russian special forces generals, in command of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik fighters, managed the Northern Alliance tank war in close conjunction with US special forces.