Afghans and NATO routinely find Pakistani link to bombs

Posted in NATO , Broader Middle East | 14-Nov-06 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: International Herald Tribune

A suicide bomber hit a NATO convoy in October in southern Afghanistan.

PESHAWAR, Afghan and NATO security forces have recently rounded up several men like Hafez Daoud Shah, a 21-year-old unemployed Afghan refugee who says he drove across the border to Afghanistan in September with three other would-be suicide bombers in a taxi.

In every case, Afghan security officials say, the story is similar, and the trail of organizing, financing and recruiting the bombers who have carried out a rising number of attacks leads back to Pakistan.

"Every single bomber or IED in one way or another is linked to Pakistan," a senior Afghan intelligence official said, referring to improvised explosive devices. The official, who would speak on the subject only if not named, continued, "Their reasons are to keep Afghanistan destabilized, to make us fail and to keep us fragmented."

A senior U.S. military official based in Afghanistan agreed.

"The strong belief is that recruiting, training and provision of technical equipment for IEDs in the main takes place outside Afghanistan," he said. He would speak only if not named, because he knew his remarks were likely to offend Pakistani leaders.

The charge is one of the most contentious that Afghan and American officials have leveled at the Pakistani leadership, which frequently denies the problem and insists that the roots of the Taliban insurgency lie in Afghanistan.

The dispute continues to divide Afghan and Pakistani leaders openly, although the Bush administration is trying to push them toward greater cooperation in fighting the Taliban, whose ranks have swelled to as many as 10,000 fighters this year.

A year ago, roadside bombs and suicide bombs were a rare occurrence in Afghanistan. But they have grown more frequent and more deadly, with more than 90 suicide attacks this year.

In September and October, nearly 100 people died in suicide attacks alone.

In the same period, Afghan security forces say, they have captured 17 suspected bombers, 2 of them would-be suicide bombers; NATO forces say they have caught 10 people planning suicide bomb attacks in recent weeks.

The arrests of Shah and others like him, Afghan and NATO officials say, show that groups intent on carrying out attacks in Afghanistan continue to operate easily inside Pakistan.

Shah was one of four would-be suicide bombers who arrived from Pakistan in Kabul on Sept. 30. One of them killed 12 people and wounded 40 at the pedestrian entrance to the Interior Ministry the same day.

That attack, the first suicide bomb not aimed at foreign troops but at Afghans, terrified Kabul residents.

By Shah's account, it could have been far worse. He said that he and his cohorts had planned to blow themselves up in four separate attacks in Kabul. That they failed was partly luck and partly vigilance by Afghan and NATO security forces.

Wearing a black prayer cap and long beard, Shah recounted his involvement in an interview in the presence of two Afghan intelligence officers at a jail run by the National Directorate of Security in Kabul.

Shah showed no signs of fear or discomfort when talking about how and why he had come to Afghanistan, but after two weeks in detention, he said he regretted his actions and, if allowed to return home, would abandon thought of jihad. He complained of tiredness and headaches from a longstanding, but unspecified mental condition, something his father confirmed in a separate interview at the family home in Karachi.

At first, Shah, who was educated through the sixth grade, denied that he had intended to be a suicide bomber. "I was just thinking of fighting jihad against the infidels," he said. "I was hearing there was fighting in Afghanistan and seeing it in the newspapers."

But by the end of the hourlong talk, he admitted that he had intended to blow himself up in Kabul. "I did not know where I was going to do it," he said.

After he was arrested, Shah said, he learned that another man in his group, whom he called Abdullah, had succeeded in a suicide attack outside the Interior Ministry. "When I was arrested I heard about it and I thought it must be him," he said.

"They came here to be martyred," he said of his three companions, all Pakistanis, all around the same age and all also from Karachi.

Shah himself is among the 2.5 million Afghans who live as refugees in Pakistan and who frequently cycle through the Taliban ranks, officials on both sides of the border agree.

The would-be suicide bombers arrested recently, the Afghan intelligence official said, emerge from two clear strands. Some are linked to Pakistani extremist groups, long set up and run by Pakistani intelligence, though they are technically illegal and the government says it has cracked down on them.

Others are allied with Afghan groups like the Taliban and the renegade mujahidin commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also a longtime protege of Pakistani intelligence, who has now allied himself with the Taliban, Afghan and NATO officials say.

Several other would-be bombers arrested recently have also originated in Pakistan or were directed by commanders based there, the officials said.

After a bombing cell of 12 was picked up in Kabul recently, two of the men continued to receive cellphone calls while in custody, urging them to explode their bombs, the Afghan intelligence official said. The calls came from an Afghan commander called Pir Farouq, who lives in Shamshatoo Afghan refugee camp in Peshawar and is closely allied to Hekmatyar.

When Afghan intelligence, at NATO's behest, passed on the cellphone number of the commander to Pakistani intelligence, its informer, a member of the commander's inner circle, was swiftly killed: His body was cut into eight pieces and dumped in the camp. NATO officials have described the same incident to journalists.

Another group of bombers was captured while planning attacks on NATO forces in northern Afghanistan. It was also connected to Hekmatyar, but organized by a commander of his who lives in the Pakistani border town of Quetta, the intelligence official said.

Shah and his companions all studied at the same madrassa, the Masjid-e- Noor, in a working class district in northeast Karachi. Shah said he had studied for four years, becoming a Hafez - one who has memorized the Koran.

The madrassa was run until recently by Maulavi Abdul Shakoor Khairpuri, who, Shah said, was a member of a banned jihadi group, Harakat-ul-Mujahidin. Shah said it was the maulavi who sent them on their suicide mission.

Before they were arrested, he and the others entered Afghanistan together, traveling by taxi from the southern border town of Spinboldak, Shah said.

The maulavi had given him a note addressed only to Umar, who was waiting for them when they arrived in Kabul. He was a Taliban member from Kandahar, Shah said. The note directed Umar to give the group explosives and said the equivalent of about $1,400 would be given to the family of each bomber after completion of the mission, Shah said.

Umar handed them a white rice bag. Inside were four khaki colored vests, with three pockets sewn on each side of the chest, where the explosives were placed. "It has wires leading to a remote control and when you press the button it explodes," Shah said.

"The vests were heavy," he added. "There were a lot of explosives." Shah started looking for a taxi. Someone, apparently an intelligence agent, offered to show him but led him instead to the intelligence office, where he was arrested. The other three bombers slipped away with their vests. So did Umar.

The Afghan intelligence official confirmed much of Shah's story. So did Shah's father, interviewed at his home in a rundown tenement in Karachi on Oct. 17, though with gaps and discrepancies that suggested neither was telling the full story.

Shah said he had undergone weapons training at a militant camp in Mansehra in northern Pakistan six years ago, when he was only 15. But his father, Ahmed Shah, denied that, and he said he did not know where his son had gone after leaving three weeks ago.

Maulavi Khairpuri, interviewed at his home next to the Noor mosque, denied being a member of the now banned group Harakat-ul-Mujahedin, as Shah had said. But he did acknowledge being local secretary of the pro- Taliban Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam.