South Asia

The foreigners fighting with al-Qaeda in Waziristan

Militants in Waziristan
Image caption The region is well-known for providing sanctuary for militants

It is becoming increasingly clear that the four German nationals killed in a US drone attack near the town of Mir Ali in Pakistan's North Waziristan on Monday were in touch with high level al-Qaeda operatives.

What the Germans were doing so conspicuously in Mir Ali is still a matter of debate.

The town, located just inside the border of North Waziristan, has long been the first stop for travellers moving in and out of the region. It is a 40-minute drive from the town of Bannu, in regular Pakistan territory.

Mir Ali used to be the main hangout for militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, led by Tahir Yuldashev.

This was before the drone strikes and military operations drove them further into Waziristan.

It has traditionally been favoured by smugglers, kidnappers and other criminal elements.

It has been hit in the past by drone strikes, most famously in November 2008 when a missile attack is reported to have killed British militant Rashid Rauf, who was wanted for a failed attempt to bomb transatlantic flights from the UK.

He was identified quickly, as were the Germans, after the missiles struck.

"They first came to the area about a year ago," Afzal, a local tribesman told the BBC.

'Overstated threat'

The Germans are neither the first nor the only Western nationals living in these parts.

Indeed, since 2008 an increasing number of Europeans and North American nationals are known to have travelled into Pakistan's tribal regions.

The Europeans nationalities include Dutch, German, French and British.

In addition, increasing numbers of Turks have appeared, although they are called Arabs by locals.

Several have been arrested, mainly on the road between Bannu and Mirali, by Pakistani security forces.

Reports on their numbers differ - some journalists say they are in their dozens, while others are of the view that the figure is much lower.

"I would say that no more than 15 such foreigners are present in the tribal regions at the moment," says Sami Yousufzai, correspondent for Newsweek magazine in Pakistan.

Mr Yousufzai, an award-winning journalist, has reported extensively across the tribal regions and in Afghanistan and recently wrote an expose of al-Qaeda's activities in Waziristan.

"I think al-Qaeda's threat is sometimes overstated - although it is very real," he says.

"The drone attacks have severely dented their capabilities - many key figures have been killed in them."

Most journalists and locals in the tribal areas agree with this assessment.

"The drone attacks have severely restricted al-Qaeda's movement in the region," a local journalist from South Waziristan told me recently.

"Their leaders keep a low profile and have restricted their movement."

Al-Qaeda's operatives have also moved away from Waziristan's main towns of Wana, Miranshah and Mir Ali.

According to local tribesmen, they are now concentrated in remote locations near the border with Afghanistan.

In particular, al-Qaeda is now running a network of camps in the Dande Darpakhel and Data Khel areas of North Waziristan.

The camps provide basic and advanced training in the use of small arms and the use of explosives, according to Taliban militants who spoke to the BBC.

European operation

Local tribesmen and security officials have told the BBC the Germans were part of al-Qaeda's foreign contingent.

Image caption Failed New York bomber Faisal Shahzhad had connections in Waziristan

"They had been staying in the Dande Darpakhel and Data Khel areas," says Afzal, the local tribesman.

Others have told the BBC that they had also been seen in the company of Hakimullah Mehsud, supreme commander of the Taliban in Pakistan.

Hakimullah Mehsud's Tehrik-e-Taliban organisation is believed to have trained and partially financed failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

This would give credence, though, to intelligence assessments that the Germans were involved in what is seen as a bigger operation across Europe.

Mr Yousafzai, however, is of the opinion that a lot of these are mind games by al-Qaeda.

But while the bombing campaign has dented al-Qaeda's operational capacity, it has failed to dislodge them from the area.

"If anything, the missiles have cemented the relationship between the Taliban factions and al-Qaeda in the area," a local journalist says.

"It has increased co-operation between them and also enlarged the local orientation of the Pakistan and Afghan jihadists.

"This means while al-Qaeda may be on the backfoot for the moment, its long-term future increasingly looks secure."

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