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+ "In the Northwest Frontier"

from Martin Smith

click here for a larger map I wake up early this morning and rifle through my notes and papers, looking to re-read an article that appeared in the Aug. 9 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. The piece, by Scott Baldauf, cites various Afghan military intelligence sources who claim Al Qaeda is regrouping up in the Northwest Frontier Province. That's largely why we've come here, in order to talk to some locals, to investigate.

I am looking for the article because I remember that our current location, Dir, is mentioned. I come across the passage. "Meanwhile, intelligence sources say that just over the border in Pakistan, most of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden himself, have been seen moving into northern Pakistan from the tribal belt south of the Afghan town of Tora Bora. Mr. bin Laden, the top Al Qaeda leader, was last seen three weeks ago in the Pakistani tribal city of Dir, about 45 miles east northeast of Asadabad."

Initially, we didn't plan to stop here on our outbound journey. But we left Peshawar later than we'd planned because of time spent getting the right letters, stamps, and paperwork to permit our safe travel, and by nightfall we have fallen short of our original destination, Chitral. Together with an armed escort, courtesy of the Pakistani Frontier Corps, we pull over at the Al Mansur hotel. It is not safe to travel any further, says the driver, because too many criminals and bandits operate at night. We are shown through a rather depressing hallway and up two narrow flights of stairs to the rooftop. Here there are -- to our surprise -- three simple but clean bedrooms opening onto a spacious terrace with potted plants overlooking the town and the mountains that surround it.

Pashtun girls at the banks of the Lowari River in the Northwest Frontier near Dir. (Photo by Marcela Gaviria)
We are relieved to be finished traveling and pleased to find a decent place to sleep. Standing at the terrace railing, I look about. I watch as men stroll by, past the armed guards that have been posted outside the hotel entrance. There are absolutely no women -- they are kept indoors. I have never seen anything quite like this before. I see though the windows of a mosque next door. A young man is rocking back and forth, reciting from the Quran that lays before him. It is a striking picture and I point it out to Scott. Shameem Shahid, our guide, translator, and fixer from Peshawar, says Dir is an extremely "religious and conservative" town and quite "hostile to Westerners." I wonder. Shameem has been nervous all day driving up this valley, reluctant to stop anywhere so we can take pictures. Our driver tells me that he has told people who ask that we are Muslims from the Caucasus. The last thing he says he wants to tell them is that we are Americans. On the other hand, the place seems to welcome us.

I ask Shameem what he knows about the mosque and whether tomorrow we can visit and meet its leader, the maulana. I am thinking that we are safer to immediately introduce ourselves to the powers that be in this valley and rely on their hospitality, or what there is of it, to secure our safety. I am skeptical about reports that bin Laden was in this area but there may be some people willing to talk about Al Qaeda's presence in the mountains between the town and the Afghan border. We know that the U.S. military is patrolling the region just over the border inside Afghanistan. I speculate that maybe some Arab fighters may have been flushed in this direction. This is as good a place as any to be looking for Al Qaeda.

Over dinner on the terrace, I tell Shameem that I want to visit the mosque in the morning. But Shameem, agitated, says that it is not possible for us to visit the mosque. "It is Taliban. You will not be welcome there." I look back down over the terrace and through the window. The young man is gone. Shameem says we will stay in the hotel and talk to people here.

This morning the town wakes slowly. The dogs that were barking as I fell asleep are still at it. Scott takes some shots of Dir streets from the terrace as the sun comes up over the mountains.

We proceed to interview three people. First the nazim or mayor of Dir town, then the maulana, then a village elder. In one way or another they all proclaim that there is no Al Qaeda here. But they tell another interesting story.

Martin Smith looks down from the balcony of the hotel in Dir.
Last October, a fiery, local cleric, Maulana Sufi Mohammed, rallied between 5,000 to 10,000 men from the area to defend Islam from an invasion of infidels. With little hesitation, the men marched off like so many brave, young jihadis before them, across the mountains and into Afghanistan. But after the fighting subsided, the men did not return. There were no heroes' parades. Sufi Mohammed became afraid the people or the area would turn on him. He arranged to have himself arrested by the Pakistani army. Currently he is in jail in Islamabad.

The village elder says the people are now very, very angry. "Our sons have not returned. We know that they are either in jail or dead. It is the Americans that have done this. The people are angry with Americans. And you are an American."

Shameem is smoking a lot of cigarettes.

Insistently, I ask if we can go into the streets and talk to more people, shop owners, merchants, truckers, craftsmen. Shameem is clear. "No, it is not safe for you to do that." He says again and again that he will not risk it and without him as a translator I am helpless. He suggests strongly that we should move on. "We've been here too long." He means we've worn out any welcome we had. "Look, you are a guest in this hotel and by tradition no one will hurt you here. But on the street crowds will gather and we can not insure that someone will not do you harm." Our driver agrees. And he has made me a bit uncomfortable because he keeps telling people that we are Muslims from Bosnia. I would rather not deceive anyone. If we are found out, it raises questions about our credibility. Maybe people will conclude that we are American spies.

Cut off from the street, we are prisoners of the hotel, frustrated, unable to finish our reporting. After lunch we hit the road.

< previous dispatch  +  next dispatch >

(Aug. 13-14)

Zubaydah Is Dead
13 August, London

Armchair Jihadists
14 August, London

Gulf of Oman
(Aug. 15-21)

Faces at a Dubai Mall
15 August, Dubai, U.A.E.

HMCS Algonquin
16 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

On Board the Algonquin
17-18 August, somewhere in the Gulf of Oman

Like an Elephant Chasing a Mouse
17-18 August, Gulf of Oman

Dubai to Karachi
20 August

A Firehose of Information
20-21 August, Dubai - Muscat - Chennai

(Aug. 22-29)

Old Hash
22 August, Islamabad

Nuclear Neighbors
22-23 August, Islamabad

We Believe in God
24 August, Islamabad

Paranoid in Peshawar
27 August, Peshawar

Bombs or Dust Devils
27-28 August, Peshawar

Rumors and Half Truths
28 August, Peshawar

Pakistan Border Lands
(Aug. 30-Sept. 4)

On the Road to Chitral
30 August, Dir Khas

Prisoners' Dilemma
31 August, Dir

+ In the Northwest Frontier
30-31 August, Dir

Border Town
2 September, Chitral to Arandu

Don't Go to Timargarha
1-2 September, Drosh to Timargarha

An American Informer
3-4 September, Peshawar

(Sept. 5-23)

Road to Nowhere
7 September, Islamabad to Faisalabad

Faisal Town
7 September, Faisalabad

9 September, Faisalabad

The Plight of Women
10 September, Faisalabad

A Little Noticed Gun Battle
10-13 September, Lahore-Karachi

The Madrassa
14 September, Akora Khattak

The Next Big Get
20 September, Karachi - Islamabad

A Circle of Trust
21 September, Islamabad

23 September, Islamabad

Saudi Arabia
(Sept. 24-Oct. 2)

Inside the Kingdom
24-25 September, Riyadh

My Baffling Question
27 September, Unizah-Buraydah

An Obedient Dissident
27 September, Buraydah

An Audience with the Crown Prince
2 October, Riyadh

(Sept. 25-Oct. 10)

Arriving in Yemen
25-26 September, Sana'a

The Wedding Party
27 September, Sana'a

A Talking Drug
28 September, Sana'a

The World's Most Ancient Skyscrapers
3 October, Sana'a

Americans Are Vampires
7 October, Sana'a

Waiting for Rahma
9 October, Sana'a

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