Peshawar, Pakistan Protected by sympathetic clerics, up to 1,000 Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are hiding in Pakistan and planning a Taliban comeback in Afghanistan, according to Taliban members and others familiar with the Islamic movement.
Most of the exiles - including some of the best-known figures in the Islamic militia - live quietly in Pakistan's lawless frontier region, protected by tribal leaders of their own Pashtun ethnic group in an area where the central government's authority is limited.
Many of the Taliban fugitives remain convinced that interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai's hold on power depends on U.S. support and once the Americans are gone, they will have little trouble dealing with Afghans who are now allied with Washington.
"I am waiting for the big war," said Mullah Towha, former chief of security for the Taliban governor of Afghanistan's Nangharhar province. "America and Britain will have to leave one day, and then we will have a jihad against those Afghans who fought with them against other Muslims."
The mullah, who has trimmed his beard and abandoned his distinctive Taliban turban for a white skullcap, spoke to The Associated Press in a car as it weaved through the Khyber Pass in the middle of Pakistan's tribal belt. He lives in an Islamic shrine protected by a "pir," or holy man.
Pakistan has repeatedly denied knowingly harboring al-Qaida and Taliban renegades and has insisted that intelligence service links to extremists were severed after President Pervez Musharraf threw his support to the U.S.-led war on terrorism last year.
"There is absolutely no truth in these reports," chief government spokesman Maj. Gen. Rashid Quereshi told AP on Tuesday. He called the idea that Pakistani intelligence was still supporting Taliban fugitives "nonsense" and "part of a malicious campaign against Pakistan."
Nonetheless, the Taliban fugitives reportedly living in Pakistan include some of the most high-profile and influential members of the hard-line Islamic movement. All once worked closely with Pakistan's powerful intelligence service and have close ties to influential figures in the Pakistani military and government establishment.
According to Taliban and other sources, they include former Defense Minister Mullah Obeidullah, former Interior Minister Abdul Razzak, former Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Hasan Akhund and Amir Khan Muttaqi, spokesman for the Taliban's supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
It is unclear why the Pakistani government has made no move to round them up. Local chiefs in the border area wield considerable power and tracking them down would take time and resources and doubtless meet local resistance.
Also, before Sept. 11, top fugitives were close to powerful figures in Pakistan, who may be protecting them.
The list also includes Jalaluddin Haqqani, who several Afghans say was the mastermind of al-Qaida and Taliban efforts to regroup in his stronghold of Paktia province - target of the just-concluded U.S.-led Operation Anaconda.
The police chief of Paktia's provincial capital Gardez, Haji Mohammed Ishaq, said Haqqani lives in Pakistan's South Waziristan region along the Afghan border, supported by former leaders of Pakistan's spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence or ISI.
Since most of the Taliban were ethnic Pashtuns, they have little trouble blending in with the mostly Pashtun population of the Pakistani border areas.
For al-Qaida fugitives, the situation here is more complicated. Pakistanis who joined al-Qaida-affiliated movements such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harkat ul-Mujahedeen, or Movement of Holy Warriors, returned freely to their own country.
A Muslim leader in Karachi, Hasan Turabi, said many of those Pakistani al-Qaida fighters have since turned to acts of violence in Pakistan, directing their anger at Musharraf for abandoning the Taliban after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
However, Arabs, who formed the core of the al-Qaida terror network's leadership and are easily identified as outsiders, must rely on the protection of Pakistanis who fought with them in Afghanistan. The Arabs also have the support of Pakistan's hard-line clerics and tribal leaders who supported the Taliban.
Sources familiar with al-Qaida, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said several key al-Qaida figures slipped into Pakistan last year and may still be here.
They include Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian who contacts here say is the key figure trying to reorganize and revive al-Qaida after the collapse of Taliban rule.
Zubaydah, a key lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, has close ties to Azhar Mahmood, the imprisoned leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, or Army of Mohammed. Because of those ties, he can rely on the movement's extensive network inside Pakistan, the sources said.
Zubaydah, the sources said, is trying to revive al-Qaida's financial network to support operations both in Afghanistan and abroad.
In Washington, CIA chief George Tenet said Tuesday that many pockets of insurgents remain in the Afghan-Pakistan border area, and wiping them out could pose a military challenge because they are in smaller groups of 10 men or so.
"As spring emerges, we'll see, maybe, more activity on their part," Tenet said.
U.S. officials have acknowledged that al-Qaida has stepped up its financial activity and communications in recent weeks, suggesting some leaders are reasserting control.
The U.S. officials, who spoke to AP in Washington on condition of anonymity, said much of the activity is centered in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, near the Afghan border.
Moving back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan has proved little problem for Taliban and al-Qaida figures, despite claims by both the Pakistani government and the U.S. military that the border is closely guarded.
Towha said that on the night he fled Jalalabad last November, he and the Nangharhar governor, Mullah Abdul Kabir, drove to Tora Bora along with one of bin Laden's interpreters, Khair Mohammed, and Ahmed Saeed al-Kadr, a Canadian of Egyptian origin and one of the 10 most-wanted al-Qaida leaders.
Al-Kadr is reportedly hiding in Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city, sources familiar with al-Qaida said.
From Tora Bora, Towha said, they hiked to Paktia province and then crossed the border at Ghulam Shah after bribing Pakistani tribal militiamen.
Kabir, once the third-most powerful man in Afghanistan, regularly moves between Pakistan and his homeland, Towha said.
Other Taliban and al-Qaida figures fled to Iran, Afghan sources say, despite Iranian denials that it is harboring any fugitives.
According to Towha, the Taliban and al-Qaida fugitives still receive money and support from members and former members of the Pakistani spy agency ISI, which nurtured extremists for years.
Another former Taliban member and an aid worker of Middle Eastern origin who works closely with Afghan refugees and Arabs who lived in Afghanistan, also spoke of clandestine ISI support, despite Musharraf's shake-up of the agency last year.