Sherwangai, Pakistan Pakistani soldiers battling their way into a Taliban stronghold along the Afghan border have seized passports that may be linked to 9/11 suspects, as they confront an enemy skilled in operating in a mountainous terrain and waging a guerrilla war.
The military on Thursday took foreign and local journalists for a first look inside the largely lawless territory since it launched a ground offensive here in mid-October. The U.S.-backed operation is focused on a section of the tribal region where the Pakistani Taliban are based and are believed to shelter al-Qaida.
Soldiers displayed passports seized in the operation, among them a German document belonging to a man named Said Bahaji. That matches the name of a man thought to have been a member of the Hamburg cell that conceived the 9/11 attacks. Bahaji is believed to have fled Germany shortly before the attacks in New York and Washington.
The passport included a tourist visa for Pakistan and a stamp indicating he’d arrived in the southern city of Karachi on Sept. 4, 2001.
Another passport, from Spain, bears the name of Raquel Burgos Garcia. Spanish media have reported that a woman with the same name is married to Amer Azizi, an alleged al-Qaida member from Morocco suspected in the 9/11 attacks and the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Her family in Madrid has had no news of her since 2001, according to Spanish media. Her passport included visas to India and Iran, and the army displayed a Moroccan document with Burgos Garcia’s photo and other information. It was impossible to determine whether the passports are genuine.
Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, the army’s chief spokesman, said he had not realized the passports matched any prominent names, and declined to comment further other than to say European militants were sprinkled throughout the area.
The U.S. has maintained for years that South Waziristan and other parts of the rugged frontier have sheltered Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, visiting this country Thursday, said Pakistan squandered opportunities over the years to kill or capture al-Qaida leaders responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I find it hard to believe that nobody in your government knows where they are and couldn’t get them if they really wanted to,” Clinton said in an interview with Pakistani journalists in Lahore.
Although the military spent months using airstrikes to soften up targets in South Waziristan, nearly two weeks into the ground offensive it has captured only a few areas, none with significant strategic value. The army has seized weapons but is still trying to secure the main roads and regularly comes under rocket fire.
“It’s a long-drawn haul,” Abbas said. “They are offering resistance, and we are also striking them hard.”