Pakistani forces kill leading al-Qaida militant in shootout

Posted in Terrorism | 28-Sep-04 | Author: Declan Walsh| Source: Guardian

Paramilitary police killed Amjad Hussain Farooqi (top center), a suspected top al-Qaida operative in a four-hour gunbattle at a house in southern Pakistan.
Pakistani security forces arrested more terrorist suspects yesterday, a day after killing the country's leading al-Qaida figure and most wanted terrorist.

Amjad Hussain Farooqi, 32, died after a two-hour battle at a safehouse in the city of Nawabshah, in the southern province of Sind, on Sunday. Two other men, one an Islamic cleric, were arrested in the raid.

"We have eliminated a very major source of terrorist threat," President Pervez Musharraf said yesterday during a visit to Amsterdam.

Farooqi allegedly masterminded two recent assassination attempts on General Musharraf, and was linked to the beheading of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, in 2002.

Pakistan's information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, described him as Pakistan's "most wanted man".

The killing is a coup for the Pakistani security forces, who had launched a nationwide hunt for him with a £190,000 bounty.

It was unclear yesterday whether any reward had been claimed, but the raid led to the arrest of three other terror suspects in Sukkur, 100 miles north of Nawabshah.

The Associated Press said local police had identified the men as Khalid Ansari, a Sunni militant and his two brothers.

Gen Musharraf also said yesterday that intelligence showed that the al-Qaida leader, Osama bin Laden was alive. His remarks came as the commander of US troops in Afghanistan appeared to be losing heart over the prospects of finding Bin Laden or other leading al-Qaida militants in the country.

Speaking in the US compound in Kabul, Lieutenant General David Barno said: "We see relatively little evidence of senior al-Qaida personality figures being here [in Afghanistan] because they can feel more protected by their foreign fighters in remote areas inside Pakistan."

Meanwhile police in Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city, were on alert for possible reprisals over Farooqi's killing. The city is dotted with militant hideouts, some of them thought to contain al-Qaida operatives fleeing an offensive by the Pakistani army along the Afghan border.

Farooqi, who was described by the interior minster, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, as "the chief al-Qaida contact in Pakistan", was the key link between internationalist ideologues such as Osama bin Laden and Pakistan's homegrown militants.

He provided money and people for some of Pakistan's most audacious terrorist attacks since September 11.

Intelligence officials said he had helped bundle Pearl into a car in January 2002 and was present for his videotaped execution.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born militant sentenced to hang for his part in the killing, named Farooqi as a co-conspirator.

Later that year Farooqi was linked to a suicide bombing at Karachi's Sheraton hotel which killed 11 French engineers and a subsequent attack on the US consulate in which 12 Pakistanis died.

Last year Farooqi turned his sights on Gen Musharraf, who has angered Islamists by siding with the US after September 11. He organised two failed assasination attempts in December, one of which killed 16 people and wounded 45.

Officials described Farooqi as an elusive and dangerous master recruiter who avoided detection for years by working with small groups.

His militancy had its roots in Pakistan's support for rebel fighters in Indian-administered Kashmir in the 80s and for the Taliban in the 90s. Farooqi's stay in Afghanistan provided him with high-level al-Qaida contacts, who included Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, who coordinated the September 11 attacks and is now in prison.

In the past year the Pakistani government has turned its sights on its former protege.

A wanted poster published on the front pages of national newspapers last month featured Farooqi and a Libyan, Abu Faraj al-Libbi.

Mr Sherpao said yesterday that Libbi, who remains at large, had financed last year's assasination attempts.

Farooqi's trail began to warm in recent weeks. A dedicated police squad said it had narrowly missed him in four cities before the hunt ended in Nawabshah. Gen Musharraf, whose forces have arrested more than 500 al-Qaida suspects since 2001, predicted his death would lead to "further arrests and eliminations".

Gen Musharraf has come scrutiny after hints that he may renege on a promise to stand down as army chief at the end of this year. The capture will strengthen his argument, already accepted by his western allies, that a strong presidency will root out Pakistan's militants.

"There's a degree of nervousness that his power might be diminished if the uniform came off," said a diplomat in Islamabad. But some analysts warn the slow pace of democratic reform would exacerbate political tensions.