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Afghanistan: UN Official Describes Effort To Track Al-Qaeda

Most of Al-Qaeda's terrorist camps in Afghanistan have been bombed to rubble, and its leaders are on the run along with top officials of the Taliban. But authorities involved in the international antiterror campaign say both groups remain dangerous -- concerns reflected in recent actions by the UN Security Council. A UN official assigned to monitor ongoing financial and military links to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban talked to RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon about his task.

United Nations, 28 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Three months before the terrorist attacks in the United States last September, a United Nations monitoring group provided a grim assessment of developments in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in a report to the UN Security Council.

The group's description of terrorist camps, gun smuggling, and heroin trafficking confirmed that material support to the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda allies was still flowing into the country despite sanctions and warnings from the Security Council.

The council in late summer decided to set up a sanctions monitoring network surrounding Afghanistan. The plan was partially overtaken by the events of 11 September and the subsequent military rout of the Taliban by U.S.-led forces.

But the council has kept alive sanctions against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, and earlier this month ordered a five-member expert team to make sure there is firmer compliance this time around.

The chairman of the team, Michael Chandler, served with the original monitoring group that reported on sanctions violations last spring and with a short-lived mission that studied support for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda this autumn. But this time around, his group will have to expand its focus beyond Central Asia.

In an interview last week (25 January) with RFE/RL, Chandler, a British former military officer, called the prospect of tracking the movements of hundreds of groups and individuals worldwide a daunting one.

"It's a huge problem. I mean, our mandate when we started under [resolution] 1363 (passed on 30 July 2001) was relatively straightforward. We were predominantly dealing with the countries bordering Afghanistan and then one or two other key areas from which the Taliban drew its sympathy. Now [with resolution 1390] (passed 16 January 2002) we have to deal with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and their sympathizers globally."

Chandler declined to name countries suspected of helping the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Prior to the U.S. military campaign this autumn, there were credible reports that the Taliban received support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the only countries to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate leaders.

Chandler's monitoring group, which includes experts from the United States, France, Jordan, and Nepal, has a more specific mandate than the Security Council counter-terror committee set up last October. That committee is working with member states to ensure they have the legal mechanisms and institutions in place to suppress financial support for terrorists, among other measures.

But the council has placed a focus on cutting off support specifically for Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their supporters. The council's Afghan sanctions committee has compiled a list of more than 200 wanted individuals, ranging from scores of Taliban governmental figures to suspected Al-Qaeda operatives believed to be linked to some of the September terrorists.

The list also calls for cutting off support for nearly 70 entities, ranging from honey-selling businesses in Yemen to construction companies active in the Middle East and Africa. Chandler says total support for Taliban and Al-Qaeda members has reached hundreds of millions of dollars over the years. The easy availability of arms in Afghanistan also poses problems, he says.

"The main priorities we're going to be looking at [are] the financing and funding and the economic resources, the travel ban -- and that's really centered on not so many people -- and then of course the arms embargo is something we've got to think about very carefully. How are we going to try and make sure that countries are able to stop the flow of weapons getting back into this area?"

Chandler's previous duties with the United Nations included training police and border officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 1990s. Problems common to the Balkans, such as gun trafficking, drug smuggling, and organized crime, are also prevalent in Afghanistan. Based on surveys done so far, Chandler says it was clear the Taliban and Al-Qaeda regularly used organized crime networks to help get the resources they needed.

"The people who are involved in moving drugs are very often the same people who will use the same infrastructure to move human beings as illegal migrants, traffic in weapons and smuggle any other high-value items. It's like being a good trucker. You don't want to travel the return leg with an empty truck. If you use that as a sort of analogy, you have drugs coming out one way and that produces money and that buys the weapons and then the weapons go back in."

U.S. forces have detained nearly 500 members of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban in Afghanistan, but some of the top suspected terrorist leaders are still believed to be at large and able to direct terrorist missions. Various U.S. special forces and intelligence officials have taken thousands of documents and other evidence -- such as computers and terrorist handbooks -- that they are using to help foil future attacks and track down other cells.

Chandler declined to discuss his group's cooperation with U.S. forces, saying only "most member states are very helpful if we ask for information."

But he expressed concern about possible disintegration of the situation in Afghanistan despite the efforts at building a broad-based, multiethnic coalition.

A report based on information compiled by his group this past autumn showed support for the Taliban lingering in many places. The report cited instances of banditry and criminality high in areas where the Taliban had derived their support.

He said the Pashtuns, in particular, who represent 40 percent of the population and share cross-border kinship with Pashtuns in Pakistan, are capable of switching back support to the Taliban just as quickly as they withdrew it. Chandler says the Afghan Pashtuns could reject the fledgling Kabul-based administration if they feel they do not have a stake in the country's future.

"And now, even since we have written the [autumn] report, there are a number of reports coming in of perhaps a degeneration now in this vacuum, where the interim administration is not yet able to exercise its governmental influence and control with interfactional unrest."

Chandler's monitoring group is due to make its first report to the Security Council on 31 March.