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Paper no. 1080             08. 08. 2004

by B.Raman

The Pakistani authorities have, for the first time, admitted that many of the dregs of Al Qaeda and other components of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) have been operating from the urban centres of Pakistan and not necessarily from the inaccessible tribal areas as they had been maintaining in the past and that Karachi and Quetta are the main nerve-centres of the Al Qaeda dregs in Pakistan.

2. This is something that we in India have been pointing out ever since the arrest of Abu Zubaidah, said to be the operational chief of Al Qaeda, from a hide-out of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) in Faislabad in Pakistani Punjab in March,2002. As mentioned by me many times in the past on the basis of  reliable reports, an injured bin Laden himself was undergoing treatment in the Binori madrasa of Karachi till August,2002. However, his present whereabouts are not known.

3.Even the 9/11 Commission of the US, whose report was released last month, has drawn attention to the fact that many of the activities of Al Qaeda before 9/11 had centred round Karachi and Quetta. While bin Laden operated mostly from Kandahar in Afghanistan, Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), allegedly the master-mind of the 9/11 terrorist strikes, had most of the time  operated from Karachi.

4. The report said: "Almost all the 9/11 attackers travelled the north-south nexus of Kandahar-Quetta-Karachi. The Balochistan region of Pakistan (KSM's ethnic home) and the sprawling city of Karachi remain centres of Islamist extremism."

5.During a media briefing on August 6,2004, Faisal Saleh Hayat, the Interior Minister, admitted that there was clearly an Al Qaeda presence in Karachi and Quetta, but operatives were also hiding in obscure towns elsewhere. "In the weeks and months to come we hope to further intensify our efforts in hitting at those nerve centres and at those crucial and sensitive areas where by hitting hard, the Al Qaeda will certainly be hurt the most," he added.

6. Despite this, there is still an attempt by the Bush Administration to give the benefit of doubt to Pakistan and spare Gen.Pervez Musharraf and his Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) any need for accountability because of their complicity with these dregs. In an article, apparently inspired by officials of the Bush Administration, even the "Washington Post" has sought to project the Musharraf regime in a favourable light by attributing the recent arrests of some of these dregs in different urban centres of Pakistan to the combing operation launched by the Pakistan Army in the South Waziristan area of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Its argument is-:Thanks to the success of these operations, the dregs are moving into the urban centres, thereby enabling the Pakistani security forces to capture them one by one.

7. The truth of the matter is that many of these dregs had moved into the urban centres in the beginning of 2002, after the US troops went into action in Afghanistan, and had been given shelter by the ISI-supported Pakistani jihadi terrorist organisations, which are members of the IIF. The recent arrests had very little to do with the so-called success of the Pakistani military operations in South Waziristan. They had everything to do with the increasing concern of the military-dominated regime over the growing sympathy for these elements in the lower ranks of the armed forces, as evidenced by the involvement of their sympathisers in the Army and the Air Force in the two unsuccessful attempts to kill Musharraf in December last.

8. Even in respect of the recent arrests, the claims and counter-claims made by the Pakistani authorities and the conflicting explanations given by them have created a confusing picture. Is the confusion deliberate or due to their ineptitude? One finds it difficult to answer this question.

9. In an earlier article on the charade of a split in the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), (, I had referred to the Pakistani habit of making tall claims of success against jihadi terrorists operating from sanctuaries in the Karachi area, which subsequently proved to be false or dubious. To quote from my earlier article: "A remarkable instance of this was seen after      the announcement on June 14,2004, by Faisal Saleh Hayat, the Pakistani Interior Minister, of the      arrests of eight suspects allegedly  involved in the  attack on the convoy of Lt-Gen Ahsan Saleem  Hyat, the Karachi Corps Commander,  on June 10 . He said that the arrested persons belonged to a  hitherto unknown organisation called Jundullah (Army of Allah) and described their arrests as  a   "phenomenal break-through in the war against terrorism." Subsequently, nothing further has been  heard about the follow-up action after these arrests."

10. I had added: "At a midnight press conference on June 13, 2004, Hayat also announced with great fanfare the arrest of a person whom he described as a nephew of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad (KSM),a top  Al Qaeda operative presently in US custody.On April 29, 2003, the Karachi Police had announced the arrests of Waleed bin Attash and five others in connection with the attack on the US naval ship USS Cole in October 2000. One of the five was described by them as a nephew of KSM. Does KSM have one or two nephews? If two, what further action was taken against the second after his arrest on June 13,2004? If he has only one, how is it he has been shown as arrested twice? After the arrest of April 29,2003, the Police reportedly told the media that he had been handed over to the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with bin Attash and they had been flown out of the country by the FBI. How did the so-called nephew manage to come back to Karachi and participate in the attack on the convoy of the Karachi Corps Commander on June 10,2004? No answers have been forthcoming to any of these questions."

11. To the embarrassment of the military-dominated regime, the "News", a prestigious daily of Pakistan, has now reported on August 4,2004, as follows: "The arrest of Abu Musaab Aruchi, nephew of Khalid Shaikh Muhammed, the alleged mastermind of the September 11 attack in the US, was disputed in the Sindh High Court on Tuesday by Jamila Khatoon, who claimed that the government had mistaken her husband Abdul Karim Mehmood for Aruchi.  She said the police raided her house in Federal B Area on the night of June 12 and arrested her husband. The next day, she said, Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat and Information Minister Sheikh Rashid told a news conference in Islamabad that the government had arrested Abu Musaab Aruchi, quoting her address. The government media, she said in her constitutional petition, also described her husband as Aruchi who carried a $1 million bounty on his head.  Jamila said her husband was a Pakistani with an identity card issued from Turbat. She said the police arrested her husband because he spoke Arabic besides Urdu and Balochi. She said her husband had been living in Karachi since 1988. They had three children who were attending school in Karachi. Jamila said her husband had not been produced in any court of law since he was arrested, nor was the government saying where he was detained."

12. The Musharraf regime is still to clear the confusion caused by its claims and statements. If they had really arrested a nephew of KSM, who is an operative of Al Qaeda, where is he? On the contrary. if they had only detained the husband of this woman by mistaking him for a nephew of KSM, what happened to him after he was detained?

13. Similar confusion surrounds the arrest at Gujrat in Punjab  on July 25, 2004,  of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian national born in Zanzibar, who is wanted by the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and his Uzbeck wife. He carried a reward money of US $ five million for his arrest.  He  had been  indicted in the Southern District of New York on December 16, 1998, for his alleged involvement in the August 7, 1998, bombings of the US Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Originally, it was stated that he and 12 others, nine of them women and children, had been living for 45 days in a house provided by the LET. Subsequently, it was claimed that they had actually been sheltered by a member of the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ).

14. Pakistani officials claimed that the arrests were made after an exchange of fire lasting 14 hours. Surprisingly, only one policeman was injured. There were no other casualties. Initially, the Pakistani authorities had described him as a Kenyan national, but on July 29,2004, they identified him as Ghailani. There was no explanation for the delayed identification.

15. The military-dominated regime suspended 70 police officers of Gujrat and Lahore for not detecting their presence earlier and not acting against them. Some of these officers are reported to have denied any negligence and contended that they did not act against the group because the ISI had brought the group to Gujrat some weeks ago and asked the LEJ activist to look after them.

16. Some of the suspended police officers have also alleged that the police knew even on July 25 that the arrested man was Ghailani, but the Musharraf regime agreed to a request from US officials that the announcement of the identification should be made on July 29, 2004, coinciding with the acceptance speech of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry  on the last day of the Democratic Party Convention at Boston.

17. Critics of the Musharraf regime allege that the ISI, which already knows the hide-outs of Al Qaeda dregs in different towns and cities of Pakistan, would be arresting some of them, who are no longer of any use to the ISI, and delivering them to the Bush Administration in three installments. The first installment, according to them, coincided with the Democratic Party convention. The second would coincide with the third anniversary of 9/11 and the third would take place just before the presidential elections. As a quid pro quo, Musharraf is said to be hoping that the Bush Administration would support his continuing as the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) after December 31,2004, and agree to supply to the Pakistan Air Force F-16 aircraft, a request which has not been accepted till now.

18. This is how the "News" described  the arrest of Ghailani in its issue of August 2, 2004: "Pakistan successfully met the US deadline of July 27-29 linked with the Democrats’ convention for nomination of Senator John Kerry as the Presidential candidate to produce a high value target by arresting Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani in Gujrat."

19. There is speculation that FAZUL ABDULLAH MOHAMMED, of  the Comoros Republic in the Indian Ocean, who has also been indicted  in the US in the 1998 Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, is already in the protective custody of the ISI, but his arrest would be announced coinciding with the third anniversary of 9/11. It is said that he and some others would form the second installment of Musharraf's electoral gift to Bush.

20. The "Dawn" of Karachi has reported that Ghailani has already been handed over to the US, but Hayat and other Pakistani officials have denied this. They assert that he continues to be under interrogation by Pakistani intelligence officials.

21.A claim by Pakistani officials that  two South Africans, Abu Bakar and Zubair Ismail, who were also  arrested  along with Ghailani , also belonged to Al Qaeda and  had planned attacks on tourists sites in Johannesburg has not so far been corroborated by the South African authorities.

22.Pakistani officials also say that Ghailani's interrogation has revealed the presence in Pakistan of a  Libyan national by the kuniyat ( assumed name) Abu Farj and an Egyptian known only as Hamza, who have been described as the close associates of Ghailani and that the Police are searching for them. They claimed that Farj and Hamza both carried a reward money of US $5 million each  on their heads offered by the CIA.

23. Considerable confusion also surrounds the reported arrest  on July 12, 2004 of 25-year-old Muhammad Naeem Noor Khan, a Pakistani national,  described as a computer expert of Al Qaeda. While some reports say he was picked up in Karachi ,his home town,  others claim he was arrested in Lahore. One Peshawar paper has claimed that he was actually arrested in Islamabad, the capital. It is not known how the Pakistani authorities zeroed in on him and whether the US intelligence played any role in the matter. He has been described as the son of a steward of the Pakistan International Airlines, who had been trained by the Al Qaeda in one of its training camps in Afghanistan before 9/11.

24. US and Pakistani officials have projected him as a technical cut-out of Al Qaeda, who was being used by its leadership for conveying coded instructions to its cadres in different countries through the Internet. There has been no satisfactory explanation  as to how bin Laden and other senior leaders of Al Qaeda, who are so security conscious, trusted a young Pakistani boy, who had not sworn personal loyalty to bin Laden, for sending sensitive operational messages to so many cadres located in different countries, thereby exposing the identities of their sleeper cell members in the UK and the USA to one man. It seems so unlikely.

25. When Tom Ridge, US Secretary for Homeland Security, announced a heightened terrorism alert in Washington DC, New York and New Jersey on August 1,2004, on the basis of what he claimed was new and precise intelligence indicating Al Qaeda threats to financial institutions in those places, it was believed that the intelligence must have come from Ghailani and the two laptop computers seized from him.

26. However, during background briefings for the US media, US officials seem to have mentioned that the information actually came from Noor Khan and his name figured in a report on the subject carried by the "New York Times". Subsequently, US authorities apparently realised that the intelligence newly collected and transmitted by Pakistan was of pre-9/11 vintage. The Pakistani authorities too, after an initial much ado about the significance of the arrest of Noor Khan and his role as the computer whiz kid of Al Qaeda, have since started playing down his importance.

27. During the media briefing on August 6,2004, Faisal Saleh Hayat also played down the significance of his  arrest  and described it as  “media hype.” He said: "This name Khan keeps on cropping up time and again. I really cannot throw any light on this individual. These reports of a certain computer or certain disks ... they are purely conjectures. They have no relevance to whatever is going on right now in Pakistan or outside, whether in Britain or in the United States. "Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, the Information Minister,  stressed that although details had been shared with the US, at no time had he or other Pakistani officials told the US that  the information collected contained plans for future attacks in  the US or the UK

28.Pakistani officials have been accusing US authorities of spoiling what could have been a good operation through their hype about an imminent Al Qaeda threat and premature disclosure of his arrest to the US media in order to strengthen their claim. According to the Pakistani officials, they were trying to use Noor Khan to identify his contacts in the UK and the USA by playing him back on them, but the ill-advised disclosure of his arrest and identity has brought the operation to a premature end.

29. It is said that the computer and software seized from him contained a lot of details, including pictures, of the buildings housing the financial institutions, but it is not clear whether he collected them himself through  the Internet or found them in Afghanistan or the Al Qaeda gave the data to him for storage. It is also reported that there has so far been no independent corroboration of his claims regarding his proximity to the Al Qaeda leadership and his role as their Internet cut-out.

30.The following are the salient points of the conflicting accounts regarding Ghailani's and Noor Khan's arrest  and interrogation given by the Pakistani authorities to the media:

  • Computer files and email records seized from  Ghailani and Khan showed they were communicating with Al Qaeda operatives in the US, the UK, South Asia  and  South-East Asia and were planning   attacks in  the UK and the USA.
  • A series of arrests in the UK since August 2  resulted from Khan’s capture. "Their email records showed correspondence between groups in the UK, the US, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Nepal, in which they were exchanging information about targets to be attacked in coming months."
  • Their computer files contained detailled surveillance records of key financial institutions in New York, Newark and Washington. The computer records showed that the Pakistan-based wing of the Al Qaeda was "in regular touch with the Al Qaeda sleeper cells in the US, Britain, Indonesia, Malaysia, and some South Asian countries." The capture of senior Al Qaeda operative Abu Eisa Al Hindi in the UK was an "important blow" to the network’s planning capabilities.
  • "The recent phenomenal success that we have achieved... has certainly helped Pakistan to glean and extract some very valuable, important and significant information. The information had been shared with allies in the war on terror, like Britain, but we caution against over-interpreting the scope of the information passed on. We will not be able to give a direct answer on this specific threat that has come about in the British newspapers — that Pakistan has given some very specific information — that is something that is based on pure conjecture."
  • Khan was found in possession of a high-tech computer and dozens of CDs. “Our experts scoured the computer and CDs and found names of some United Kingdom-based Pakistani members of Al Qaeda. They also found some encoded messages which indicated that Al Qaeda was planning terrorism activity in the UK.”
  • Al Qaeda planned suicide attacks on Karachi airport and an airbase (Chaklala) used by  Musharraf. A cell in Britain planned an attack on London’s Heathrow airport. “During interrogation, Ghailani revealed plans for suicide attacks at Chaklala airbase and Karachi’s international airport. The entire crackdown in London is based on the information extracted from him. Maps of Heathrow airport were found from his computer which was one of their targets.”
  • Al Qaeda has a two-pronged strategy. “They want to carry out a big attack in Europe. In Pakistan they want to target government officials.”
  • Ghailani was found with a computer and more than 150 disks, which  contained maps of "important places" in Pakistan, the US and Israel. "The CDs they decoded contained maps of important places in the United States and Israel as well as  the Chaklala airbase, the Karachi international airport and key military installations in Karachi, Lahore and  Islamabad."
  • Noor Khan, who had the kuniyat Abu Talha,  was one of the terror network’s top planners and had plotted to attack London’s Heathrow airport. "He is in the top hierarchy of Al Qaeda’s external operations wing."
  • Khan had not only been creating websites and secret email codes for Al Qaeda operatives to communicate with each other, he had also actively plotted terror attacks including one on the Heathrow airport. He studied computer science at Karachi's prestigious Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw (NED) University. After graduating, he moved to London where he lived for "quite some time" and was in touch with Al Qaeda members.
  • "He met somebody — we believe it was an Al Qaeda operative — on a commercial flight to the Middle East and that marked his initiation into what became a devoted association with the terror network. "After returning from the Middle East, he travelled to  Afghanistan some time between 1998 and 2001 and underwent arms training at the Al-Farooq camp run by Al Qaeda.
  • "The group of which Khan and Khalfan Ghailani were members is responsible for Al Qaeda’s external operations in the United States, Britain, Malaysia, Indonesia and some other countries."
  • Ghailani had planned attacks to avenge Pakistan’s crackdown on Al Qaeda particularly in the northwest tribal region bordering Afghanistan, to please the Americans. “He was imparting training to suicide human bombers who were to be used against important Pakistani personalities and installations around Islamabad airport.” 

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow and Convenor, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter. E-Mail: )