- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 21, 2009

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan | Pakistani forces have turned their guns on the main al Qaeda hide-out, a tiny village known as Jani Khel at the fork of two rivers that lie just east of the point where the tribal areas of North and South Waziristan meet, locals say.

The village and surrounding countryside lie on an elevated plateau that rises into the snow-capped peaks of the two Waziristans and is known as the gateway to territory controlled by four main Taliban factions, including the one led by Baitullah Mehsud.

The Pakistani military is close to winding up an offensive against the Taliban in the picturesque Swat Valley and nearby districts. The push was initiated in response to an alarming advance by the Islamist militants close to the capital, Islamabad, in April, and the military has been preparing for an operation targeting Mr. Mehsud’s stronghold farther south in Waziristan.

Maj. Gen. Sajjad Ghani, the commander of some 20,000 troops in the northern part of Swat, told the Associated Press that some of the final strongholds in Swat were being cleared and that “high-intensity” operations would end in a week to 10 days.

The Pakistani government announced a week ago that it will next go after Mr. Mehsud in South Waziristan, and ground troops have been moving into position in the region. Although the operation has not formally started, the military already has carried out several air strikes in the region, hitting former Islamic seminaries and training facilities.

The AP, citing intelligence and army officials, said there was heavy fighting Saturday in the villages of Barwand and Madijan, and about 50 militants were killed.

What could make Jani Khel the main focus of the military offensive in Waziristan is that it is also a base for al Qaeda in Pakistan, a collection of several hundred Arabs and fighters of other nationalities who are fiercely loyal to Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani military officials have said that up to 200 militants in Jani Khel have been killed in the past few weeks.

Pakistan military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said Jani Khel has been “the staging area” for militants operating in the region.

A June 15 press release issued by Pakistan’s military Inter-Services Public Relations said security forces have consolidated positions at Jani Khel Fort and Sara Bangla.

A Pakistani security specialist, retired Brig. Gen. Mohammad Saad, told The Washington Times that “more pressure would be forthcoming” on the militants once the Pakistani mobilization is complete.

The U.S. military has targeted Jani Khel in the past.

On Nov. 19, a U.S. drone fired two missiles at a house in Jani Khel that killed five suspected militants, including an Arab al Qaeda operative. The al Qaeda fighter was later identified as Abdullah Azam al-Saudi, a coordinator between al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan and a recruiter of militants.

Former residents of Jani Khel say al Qaeda militants had been active at local mosques, recruiting fighters - many of whom graduated from madrassas - or Islamic schools, in the area.

“Without any doubt, my area for quite some time has become a safe haven of Arab fighters. They have the full support of the local clerics and also some of the families,” said Dadullah, who is originally from the village but currently lives in Peshawar, where he runs an auto business.

A well-known women’s rights activist who grew up in Jani Khel and asked not to be named painted a similar picture.

“Some local residents have not only rented out their mud houses to these alien men, but in fact a few also married off their daughters to them. Thus these locals become natural protectors of foreigners, but they also have an economic interest in giving them sanctuaries after receiving hefty sums of money.”

Pakistani officials say the village’s role has been more sinister - a control nexus linking al Qaeda to Pakistan’s most notorious militant leader, Mr. Mehsud.

Mr. Mehsud spent part of his life in the village and was a prayer leader at a local mosque.

“The location of Jani Khel is also very important, as it lies at the crossroads between North and South Waziristan and provides an inlet to strongholds of Baitullah Mehsud,” said Gul Rahman Wazir, who works at Gomal University in Dera Ismail Khan and is an expert on the region.

“So, apart from targeting al Qaeda, another big aim of the offensive in Jani Khel is to apply a new strategy to encircle Baitullah Mehsud. … It is also the same area which [Mehsud’s] forces have had to traverse to send militants to Afghanistan.”

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