Maps, charts and intelligence reports on computer drives smuggled out of a U.S. base and sold at a bazaar here appear to detail how Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders have been using southwestern Pakistan as a key planning and training base for attacks in Afghanistan.
The documents, marked “secret,” appear to be raw intelligence reports based on conversations with Afghan informants and official briefings given to high-level U.S. military officers. Together, they outline how the U.S. military came to focus its search for members of Taliban, Al Qaeda and other militant groups on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border.
In one report contained in a flash memory drive, a U.S. handler also indicates that the United States discussed with two Afghan spies the possibility of capturing or killing Taliban commanders in Pakistani territory.
Pakistan has long denied harboring Taliban leaders or training bases and has engaged in several well-publicized battles with insurgents in its tribal territories bordering Afghanistan.
But the documents contained on memory drives sold at a bazaar in front of the main gate of the Bagram air base suggest that although Pakistani forces are working to root out foreign Al Qaeda fighters from the northwestern tribal regions, the Taliban has been using Quetta, the provincial capital of Baluchistan in the southwest, as its rear guard for training and coordinating attacks, some by foreign Arab fighters, in Afghanistan.
The theft of the drives became the subject of a full-scale criminal investigation Wednesday, two days after the Los Angeles Times revealed the black-market operation.
The contents of the flash drives appear to be authentic documents, but the accuracy of the information could not be independently verified.
Military officials, however, acknowledged Thursday that the sale of the stolen drives posed a security risk.
“Obviously you have uncovered something that is not good for U.S. forces here in Afghanistan,” said Col. Tom Collins, speaking from the public affairs office at the Bagram base. “We’re obviously concerned that certain sources or assets have been compromised.”
In Washington, Lawrence Di Rita, a top aide to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said it was “too early to say” whether any commander in Afghanistan would be held responsible for failing to secure the drives.
The drives appear to contain the identities of Afghan sources spying for U.S. Special Forces that operate out of the Bagram base, which is the center of U.S. efforts to fight Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents and includes a secretive detention and interrogation center for terrorism suspects flown in from around the world.
The memory drives also apparently include the identities of U.S. military personnel working in Afghanistan, assessments of targets, descriptions of American bases and their defenses, and maneuvers by the U.S. to remove or marginalize Afghan government officials it considers a problem.
Pakistani officials rejected the reputed intelligence Thursday. Maj. Gen. Shaukat Sultan, spokesman for Pakistan’s armed forces, said the military promptly checks out information on insurgent activities that it receives from the U.S.-led coalition and that the intelligence sometimes proves incorrect.
“To make a sweeping statement like this, that people are taken to Pakistan to training camps and then brought back [to Afghanistan], is absolutely absurd, and I reject this information,” Sultan said from Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.
U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials have long been concerned about liaisons between Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents and the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The counter-terrorism officials have compiled intelligence alleging that ISI officials were looking the other way, or possibly aiding, as Al Qaeda and Taliban members plotted militant activity in the tribal territories of Pakistan.
The concerns were disclosed publicly in a report to Congress last year by its independent research arm, the Congressional Research Service, which questioned whether Pakistan “is fully committed to fighting the war against terrorism.”
“Among the most serious sources of concern is the well-documented past involvement of some members of the Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and the possibility that some officers retain sympathies with both groups,” the report said.
On the drives from the bazaar, reports from Afghan informants, marked “secret,” outline efforts by U.S. Special Forces in the fall of 2005 to locate and target Taliban insurgents inside Pakistani territory. The focus fell on top Taliban leaders who informants said had been residing in Quetta and facilitating kidnapping and bombing missions around the southern Afghan city of Kandahar.
An October 2005 cable to U.S. commanders at Bagram, also marked “secret,” said an intelligence source had reported that Taliban leaders met in a council of elders, or shura, in Quetta, on Sept. 25, just days before Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections. In the meeting, the leaders apparently decided not to launch attacks on election day but to target government buildings and elected officials afterward, according to the documents on the drives.
“Al Qaeda will finance these activities through Mullah Matin, the Taliban finance liaison to Al Qaeda for southern Afghanistan,” said an intelligence summary dated last year and marked “secret.” “Al Qaeda is financing because they want the Taliban to keep fighting.”
A U.S. Army Special Forces officer in southern Afghanistan met in November with an Afghan source and an operative from Quetta to discuss how U.S. troops might go after Taliban leaders in Pakistan, according to the document on a drive sold at the bazaar Wednesday.
The source told U.S. Special Forces that the Quetta operative could lead them to Taliban “high value targets,” or “TB HVTs” in the military shorthand, according to the document.
The Quetta operative “is willing to take American personnel to the current safesites of TB HVTs in Pakistan particularly Quetta and conduct on the ground reconnaissance/surveillance on their behalf with the endstate being the capture/kill of selected TB leaders,” the report said.
The Afghan source warned the Special Forces officer “that it would be extremely difficult to capture a HVT and move them to Afghanistan even if they were dead,” the report said.
The American then asked the source whether his contact in Quetta “could arrange specific direct-action operations in Pakistan on behalf of U.S. Forces,” the document added.
The Afghan source also reported last year that Arabs, mainly Yemenis and Syrians, were going through Quetta on the way to carry out suicide bombings in Afghanistan.
“The aspiring suicide bombers are initially trained by insurgency elements in Iraq and then moved through Iran to Quetta where they are staged prior to transportation into Afghanistan,” according to a report on the drive.
“A portion of the suicide bombers trained during the same cycle remain in Iraq to conduct attacks on behalf of the Sunni extremist entities,” it added.
In what appears to be a recent computer slide presentation marked “secret,” maps identify eight “major infiltration routes” for Al Qaeda and Taliban forces crossing from Pakistan into eastern and southern Afghanistan.
Documents based on conversations with informants outline how fresh Afghan recruits carrying English-language identity cards would be waved through border checkpoints into Pakistan, where they would train before returning to southern Afghanistan for suicide missions.
In Pakistan, the recruits were blindfolded “and loaded into trucks by armed guards who transported them into the mountains,” the report continued.
They received eight days of instruction, including the use of soap to mold about 10 pounds of “nails, bolts, or whatever metal scrap is available” onto the top of a round container filled with explosives to make the blast more lethal, the report says.
The U.S. struck at targets in Pakistan in the fall and early this year. A Jan. 13 attack, targeting Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, killed about 18 villagers in the Bajaur region, a tribal area northwest of Peshawar. Officials later said Zawahiri had not been at the location.
A week earlier, local residents reported that U.S. forces crossed from Afghanistan’s Khowst province into a village in Pakistan’s North Waziristan that later was hit by fire from U.S. helicopters, killing eight people. The Pakistani military denied the incursion, but accused the U.S. of firing over the border into the village. American officials denied any knowledge of the attack.
A mysterious explosion in another North Waziristan village killed a top Al Qaeda bomb-making operative Dec. 1 in what Pakistani officials ruled an accident. A local newspaper reported, however, that missiles fired from a drone aircraft hit the house where the bomb-maker and up to five others were killed.
The region has since been the site of intense fighting between insurgents and Pakistani military forces. That fighting continued Thursday, when an airstrike killed several suspected militants near the Afghan border. The attack was sparked by intelligence that Al Qaeda operatives were hiding out in the area, Pakistani officials said.
Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report from Washington.