In These Remote Hills, a Resurgent al-Qaeda

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REBEL DANCE: Waziris celebrate after their leaders decide to defy a ban on public displays of arms

The villagers found the man's body off the road, in the pines. He had been tortured; his trousers were stripped off, and a handwritten note was taped to his groin. "Don't be angry or shocked," the note read in Pashtu. "He was an American spy."

Judging from his clothing and his features, locals say, the man was an Afghan from across the border. But nobody in Kaniguram, a mountain hamlet in the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan, could say why he had been slaughtered just a few weeks ago. The Pakistani police have no jurisdiction; their command in the tribal areas extends only 100 yards off any main road. And tribal authorities have no interest in tangling with the man's killers, whom locals assume are linked to al-Qaeda. Kaniguram, residents say, is a main thoroughfare for al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who are routinely carrying out ambushes against U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

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After keeping a low profile in the borderlands following their 2001 rout from Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants are standing tall again. Besides taking potshots at Americans, they are also going after perceived local enemies. So far this year, 11 people suspected of informing on al-Qaeda have been murdered in the Switzerland-size, semiautonomous tribal land. An agent of Pakistan's much feared secret intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, was shot in March as he rode his motorcycle in daylight. A tribal chief's son sitting outside his shop in the marketplace of Wana was mowed down in July by a pair of gunmen in a car. His father had been suspected of collaborating in the U.S. hunt for al-Qaeda fighters. Though virtually every man in the town is armed, nobody in the bazaar moved against the assassins.

Tribal sympathies in Waziristan appear to lie with al-Qaeda. Moreover, it is a sacred duty among Pashtun residents to give sanctuary to Muslims seeking it. With its rugged terrain, its warrior tribes and its centuries-old hostility to authority, Waziristan is a fitting bolt-hole for Islamic militants, possibly even al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. U.S. intelligence believes he is hiding somewhere near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, 150 miles of which snake along Waziristan's frontier. Last week the Qatari TV network, al-Jazeera, aired a videotape of bin Laden walking with his lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri in rugged hills that look like those in much of the border area. Neither the video nor an accompanying audiotape of what the CIA says are probably bin Laden's and al-Zawahiri's voices contained any certain clue as to when they were recorded.

Americans probably cannot count on much help from the Waziris, despite the $25 million bounty Washington has put on bin Laden's head. "Do you know how much money Osama has?" asks tribesman Mehfooz Ullah. "Over $200 million. How could anyone hand him over for $25 million?" And, he adds, "we can't betray a Muslim brother." Painted in giant letters on the rock faces that run along Waziri roads are the slogans LONG LIVE OSAMA and WE LOVE OSAMA.

While no one can pinpoint bin Laden's whereabouts, Waziris proudly confirm that his fighters are being harbored in the area. Al-Qaeda men, they say, are living in remote settlements in the 10,000-ft. peaks above Kaniguram. Periodically they come down with a heavily armed escort of local militants to replenish their supplies; they have lots of money, the locals claim. Said Marjan, a local teacher, likes to practice his Arabic with them. "But they're very secretive," he complains. "The Arabs don't tell you anything." Dozens of Chechens and Uzbek members of al-Qaeda, along with their families, also fled to south Waziristan after the fall of the Taliban. "They're stuck here," explains a Waziri doctor, who says the militants believe that if they returned home, they would be hunted down. "They help the local farmers in the fields, so nobody complains." The Chechens and Uzbeks trade their labor for room and board.

Pakistan's man in Waziristan is assistant political agent Syed Anwar Ali Shah. "Nothing is happening over here," he says, but he and his staff never leave their fortified army garrison in Wana after nightfall. Islamabad has little sway over the district. The religious parties that have controlled Waziristan since elections last October hold up the deposed Taliban regime as a model of pure Islamic governance. They organize protests whenever the Pakistani army pursues Taliban or al-Qaeda agents who have fled to Waziristan to escape U.S. hunters. When national authorities ordered tribesmen — whose usual getup includes a rifle or pistol and a belt with a grenade or two attached — to stop bearing weapons in public, the local men responded by forming militias and threatening rebellion if the army tried to disarm them. The army has since backed off.

The alliance between the survivors of the Afghan war and their local hosts could mean Waziristan will become the biggest staging ground for future attacks on U.S. and Afghan forces in Afghanistan. A former Taliban official told TIME in a telephone interview that al-Qaeda and Taliban forces are preparing for a large offensive. He claimed that the Iranian government has been sending funds to the groups via drug smugglers who operate in the Baluchistan desert, where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan intersect. An Afghan diplomat confirmed this account.

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