Pakistan nears endgame in al-Qaeda hunt

Posted in Broader Middle East | 25-Aug-04 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

KARACHI - As Pakistan continues its relentless campaign against al-Qaeda, diplomatic circles in Islamabad and Washington believe that some "high-value" targets might already have been arrested to be produced at a later date.

At the same time, the strongest-ever operation in the country against jihadi forces is seen as a preemptive strike against a backlash in the event of a high-value target being caught.

Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf gestures at his office in Rawalpindi, August 4, 2004.
Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf gestures at his office in Rawalpindi, August 4, 2004.
On Monday, the Pakistani army said security forces had killed four suspected al-Qaeda members and captured two others in a raid in the tribal regions of Northern Waziristan. Hundreds of security forces backed by helicopter gunships took part in the raid, according to official reports.

This follows news on Sunday of the arrest of more than 10 suspects believed to be involved in a plot to bomb high-profile targets in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, including the US Embassy and the official residences of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf. (Such plans were revealed by Asia Times Online, Fear stalks Pakistan's anniversary, August 14.)

The attacks were to have taken place on August 14, Pakistan's independence day. Large caches of weapons were also seized, including bombs generally used in suicide attacks.

Over the past month, scores of al-Qaeda suspects have been rounded up, including Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, who was apprehended on July 13 and who intelligence officials believe helped al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden communicate with his network.

Asia Times Online security sources say there has been extraordinary activity in the corridors of power recently, especially in the offices of Military Intelligence in General Headquarters, Rawalpindi, Inter-Services Intelligence, and the Intelligence Bureau in Islamabad. All three agencies have been ordered to make as many arrests as possible, using the contacts they have built up over the years with militant and jihadi groups.

The spate of arrests in recent days is evidence that they are obeying their orders with considerable - and unaccustomed - zeal, with few being spared.

Javaid Ibrahim Paracha, a former member of the National Assembly (parliament) and leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz Sharif group) is a case in point. Paracha is a champion of Arab families detained in Pakistani jails. He has filed numerous petitions to have them either brought to trial or released. In turn, the government has filed many charges against him for helping militants, but he has ultimately been cleared in court. Now, federal ministers have leveled charges against him in connection with the alleged conspiracy to launch attacks in Islamabad.

Many people in diplomatic and security circles in both Islamabad and Washington who spoke to Asia Times Online believe that the stage is now set for Musharraf's address to the United Nations in New York on September 20 and subsequent three-day stay in the US, during which he is scheduled to meet with President George W Bush. New Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz will not travel with Musharraf, leading to speculation that Musharraf wants all the limelight for himself should he have an important announcement to make with regards to the "war on terror".

At present the three most high-value targets desperately wanted by the Bush administration before the US presidential elections in November are bin Laden, his deputy Dr Aiman al-Zawahiri, and top Uzbek militant Tahir Yuldash. A fourth target is the less-known Abu Faraj al-Libi, believed to have taken over from Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the September 11, 2001, mastermind arrested in Pakistan early last year.

All are thought to be in Pakistan, or to have been in the region over the past few years. Indeed, security sources say that on at least two occasions the net was almost closed around them, but because of internal resistance within the Pakistani establishment, especially the army, the operations were aborted. One incident was toward the middle of last year when bin Laden was tracked to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in Balochistan province. On another occasion, he was said to be in the mountains near Shawal, also on the border. Al-Zawahiri's presence has also been confirmed on several occasions in 2003 to the early months of 2004 (in South Waziristan), according to security sources. According to these sources, such high-value targets "are within reach" and could be - or have already been - caught for delivery to the US.

On the other hand, the sources caution that the Musharraf administration is still acutely aware that if it hands over all of the top targets, it will no longer have any bargaining chips in the "war on terror", in which it is a key US ally. For this, Islamabad has been rewarded with financial aid, most-favored non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) ally status, and support for what is in effect a military dictatorship. There is the possibility, therefore, that a high-value target of lesser importance will be handed over to ensure that it is business as usual.

In the meantime, operations against jihadi groups in Pakistan continue. This, too, could work both ways - either they are silenced, or they are spurred into anti-establishment activities.

Asia Times Online spoke to Qari Waqar Illahi Qasmi, the secretary of information for Khudamul Islam (formerly Jaish-i-Mohammed), led by Maulana Masood Azhar. The Jaish-i-Mohammed was banned for its militancy, especially in Kashmir.

Asia Times Online: The government has come down heavily against jihadi organizations and their supporters. What is your reaction?

Waqar: The government has assumed a link between al-Qaeda and the religious segment of the country, and has started operations against it. This is in fact a bid to crush Islamic forces in the county on the insinuation of the US. I tell you, it is only the religious forces which safeguard the interests of this country, not the armed forces, who did nothing in the 1965 and 1971 wars [with India]. It is only the religious forces who have given a tough time to the Indian forces in Kashmir, and provided Pakistan with strategic depth in Afghanistan.
ATol: Are there any plans for serious protests against the present operations?

Waqar: The Jamiat-i-Alesunnat is the largest organization of Rawalpindi and Islamabad clerics, with a membership of 1,000. They have vowed to hold large demonstrations, and will be joined by the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal. [The Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal is an alliance of six religious-political parties, prominent in the opposition in mainstream politics.]

ATol: This is the usual and general response. Given the severe operations now going on against jihadis, is there any chance of them revolting?

Waqar: What revolt? This is our country and we are the ones who are concerned about its safety, more than anybody else. We don't want any chaos in the country, but I will tell you some facts, the way things are going it is becoming more and more difficult for us to control the situation. I don't question the integrity of our armed forces, I even do not question the intentions of General Pervez Musharraf, but the way the US FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] has established its roots through the local police, this is the main source of trouble.

ATol: Can you elaborate on this network?

Waqar: You may have heard about an organization the FBI has established in Pakistan called "Spider". They have recruited retired army officials, retired police officials and even journalists who spy on jihadis and act as liaison between the local police and the FBI. The FBI pays them [police and the others] heavily, and then asks them [police] to carry out operations. Since the police have to deliver, for the greed of money, they round up anybody. You know there are more than 5 million Pakistanis who were trained in Afghanistan. However, not everybody fought in Afghanistan. Most of them returned without firing a single bullet at the front. Now the police are rounding them up, and when they do dodge the police, the police round up their family members, and do not spare even the females. Recently, Amir, the son of Eid Nawaz, Qari Yusuf Amin and Bilal were arrested from Attock, and Nazakat from Jauharabad - none of them were jihadis, but the relatives of jihadis. [Attock, in Punjab, is where a recent suicide attack was made against now-Premier Aziz, and from where Aziz won a parliamentary by-election so that he could become premier.] Now what do you expect from anybody whose house police raid and torture his mother, wife or sister to tell his whereabouts? Just to deliver the "goods" to the FBI, the police use third-degree methods. We cry about Guantanamo Bay's X-Ray camp and Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, but what is happening in the police torture cells [in Pakistan] is worse. Not only are suspects victimized and sexually abused, the female members of families are brought in to the police stations and threatened with dire consequences if they do not confess a certain number of crimes. Of course, anybody would confess to the crimes, but do you think that after all of this the relatives of the detained jihadis or his friends would be in our control? No way. We are still striving hard to keep our workers under our control, but the way the police have unleashed brute force against us, it is impossible for our workers to keep their patience.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Pakistan bureau chief for Asia Times Online. He can be reached at [email protected].