As a Pakistani undercover intelligence officer, Abdul Rauf Niazi was trained to keep his nerve. But as he sat in the backseat of a minivan last month, tearing through the badlands along the Afghan border with four heavily armed al-Qaeda members beside him, Niazi may have sensed he was riding to his death. Niazi had spent weeks befriending Uzbek al-Qaeda fighters, posing as a smuggler who could take them safely into the frontier city of Peshawar. Now he had lured the Uzbeks into the trap. He would drive them into an ambush in which Pakistani police would capture al-Qaeda fighters alive. From there they would be flown away from the nearby Kohat army base to be interrogated by American spooks.
Things went wrong from the start. Al-Qaeda men showed up for the ride with AK-47s and grenades bulging under their tribal robes. They refused to allow Niazi to ride shotgun up front, where he had a chance to escape, and wedged him between two Uzbeks in the back. As the van neared the checkpoint where the ambush awaited, Niazi started to sweat. The police roadblock was hidden by a rocky hill, and when the driver took the curve, he had to slam hard on the brakes. About 70 cops were hidden behind large boulders on one side of the road and among the tombstones of a shady cemetery on the other. When a Pakistani officer approached the van and ordered the driver to get out, the Qaeda man in the front seat stuck a gun in his ribs. As the driver tried to leap out of the van, the Qaeda fighter shot him. In response, all 70 cops opened fire. Two of the Uzbeks hurled grenades and tried to make a run for the boulders, but were cut down by police bullets. Pinned in the cross fire, Niazi never made it out of the backseat.
His story had a posthumous twist. Through Niazi's good intelligence work, authorities were able to find a fifth al-Qaeda man, also an Uzbek, who is now in U.S. custody. But the scene of the roadside shoot-out resembles a makeshift shrine to fallen al-Qaeda fighters. Graffiti glorifying Osama bin Laden have been painted on the rocks, and pilgrims flock to the spot in busloads. Some say they can smell the fragrance of martyrs' paradise wafting from the bloodstains in the dirt. And Niazi's father considers his son a traitor to Muslims. He refused to say the customary funeral rites. "Let Bush come and pray for my son," the father said. "I won't do it."
The deadly highway shoot-out was just one of many troubling signs that al-Qaeda has found a new home--in Pakistan. While the U.S. and coalition forces continue to squeeze al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan, thousands of militants have slipped across the border since last winter. Officials estimate that, altogether, more than 3,500 al-Qaeda operatives and their Pakistani comrades are hunkered down in the tribal belt along the Afghan border and in the sprawling cities of Karachi and Peshawar, sheltered by homegrown extremists. Since December, Pakistani authorities working with U.S. intelligence agents have caught more than 380 suspected al-Qaeda members. In Peshawar last week, U.S. and Pakistani officials detained seven suspected terrorists but failed to snatch two senior al-Qaeda aides who were the main targets of the raids.