PESHAWAR: With his well-groomed hair, shaven face and delicate hint of aftershave, al Qaeda logistician Abu Salman has operated for years in Pakistan's badlands with little fear of detection. A decade after fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda bosses have carved out a new haven in Pakistan's lawless northwest, recruiting a fresh generation of footsoldiers well versed in how to escape capture.
Despite the long years of conflict, the terror network's reign of fear is too rooted for the Pakistani army or US missiles to dislodge. When Abu Salman nears a checkpoint on the way to the group's premier bastion of North Waziristan, he turns up the music on the car stereo and lights a cigarette. And with this simple indulgence of vices denounced by extremist adherents of Islam, he evades suspicion. Another trick is to leave an English-language newspaper- the ultimate trapping of a secular-minded Pakistani gentleman- lying on the passenger seat.
In his 30s, the al Qaeda operative speaks to AFP under a fake name in the suburbs of Pakistan's largest northwestern city, Peshawar. Officially he is a car dealer. The cover story allows him to swap vehicles without suspicion and so escape detection by Pakistani security forces and the American drones trying to eliminate al Qaeda in the frontline state in the war on terror.
A university-trained engineer, Abu Salman signed up in 2008 while working in Afghanistan. "I saw the pain inflicted by the Americans. I realised that I hadn't done anything with my life up till then," he said. He was given basic military training in eastern Afghanistan in late 2008 but has been integrated into the network as a logistics man, fetching food and medicine.
He personifies the success that al Qaeda has found in Pakistan, exploiting a mosaic of overlapping extremist networks of foreigners and locals dating back 30 years to the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. "Al Qaeda has been pretty much driven out of Afghanistan, but it got stronger in Pakistan," surfing on a wave of anti-American sentiment, says Pakistani journalist and al Qaeda expert Zahid Hussain.
North Waziristan has an estimated several hundred foreign al Qaeda fighters, mostly from Arab countries and Uzbekistan, with a smattering of Africans, Chechens and Westerners, the latter mosly dual nationals. Most arrive overland through central Asia and Afghanistan. A minority, often the most inexperienced, fly in, running greater risks of being arrested as with two French jihadists picked up this year in Lahore.
Abu Salman criss crosses between Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and the tribal belt. "We avoid the telephone and the Internet to avoid being detected and being killed by a drone," he said. Responsible for providing food and medication, he shops for energy drinks such as Red Bull, which he claims are "very popular" among fighters.
But if most are foreign, Abu Salman claims that "more and more Pakistanis want to join up".
"Al Qaeda rents homes for its fighters as well as local Taliban who are less well off, basically getting funds from kidnapping for ransom," says one regular visitor to the main market in the North Waziristan capital of Miranshah, who gives the name of Ahmad Jan.
Wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, long hair and beards, turbans and a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder, the foreigners are almost indistinguishable from the tribesmen whose daughters they marry. Only the locals can tell the difference. "Their skin is often lighter, thinner and taller if they're Arabs and they walk differently" says Jan.
There may be no trace of Osama bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, but ordinary footsoldiers take few precautions, other than avoiding restaurants for fear of being a sitting duck for a drone strike.
According to statistics compiled by American website The Long War Journal, drone strikes have killed nearly 2,000 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Abu Salman claims that most of those killed are Taliban.
Visitors say that the turnover is rapid, that the dead are quickly replaced by new arrivals. Al Qaeda enjoys the protection of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani whose relationship with Pakistan's intelligence agency ISI and own stronghold in North Waziristan has effectively ruled out any ground offensive.
"Everything has changed in 10 years: most of the tribal leaders have been killed and the tribal system destroyed by the extremists. We can't dance any more, or play music at weddings," said Miranshah shopkeeper Qader Gul, 56. "Anyone who protests risks having a member of his family kidnapped, beaten or killed," agreed Jan.
"The young generation is destroyed. It sees nothing except the drones and armed groups... In these conditions, I don't see how the young will become anything other than Taliban," said Fayaz Dawar, 30, a doctor in Mir Ali.