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Al Qaeda planning next phase

From a Pakistan safehouse, the Taliban's top intelligence chief claims bin Laden is alive and well.

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Pakistani soldiers are posted on hilltops, in dry river beds, behind rocky cliffs, and even in surrounding bushes and trees along the dusty road from Peshawar to Datha Khail - near the border of Afghanistan.

They search each incoming vehicle from Afghanistan and check the identities of all male passengers, while helicopters hover in the skies above.

This was the scene as a reporter was taken on a five-hour drive yesterday to this remote region to meet with Qari Ahmadullah, the Taliban's chief of intelligence and a top negotiator for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar.

At 1 p.m. local time, we reach a village called Datha Khail, just eight miles from the Afghan border, where the intelligence chief has been living for the past two weeks. The compound is mud-walled and includes five covered, wood-walled rooms, with a small mosque situated in an inside courtyard. It is one mile away from a Pakistani security post.

The owner of the house, Malik Gulmarjan, warmly welcomes us, guiding us to his guesthouse near the entrance at the main gate of the compound. Three men armed with Kalashnikovs are seated on the floor, offering afternoon prayers. Pictures of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Fazal Rehman, the leader of Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), Pakistan's largest and most influential religious party, hang on the walls. There are also calendars published by Al Rashid Trust, a Karachi-based charity.

While we were taking tea and biscuits, a portly man with a bushy brown beard and a pukhol cap on his head entered the room. The armed men stand up in respect. I am told that this is Qari Ahmadullah.

After a moment of silence, Mr. Ahmadullah asks his driver about me, and his driver introduces me as a reporter for the local Pashto newspaper Shariat, which has a reputation for being a Taliban sympathizer.

This journalist is certain of Ahmadullah's identity from years of experience reporting about Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders. But it is impossible to know the intelligence chief's motives for meeting and talking to a reporter, or to independently corroborate any of his statements.

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