A major in-camera military trial has been underway at the sixteenth-century Attock Fort, a military facility that doubles as a maximum security detention centre, for the last several weeks. The field general court martial is headed by a major general of the Pakistan Army and is trying prisoners accused of planning and attempting to assassinate the Pakistani Chief of Army Staff General Pervez Musharraf on December 25, 2003.
What is unusual about the military trial is that eight of the nine accused in the case are civilians, one of them a woman. And they are represented by civilian lawyers. In addition, they are being tried for conspiring to assassinate a person who is also the president of Pakistan, a civilian office. Whatever the verdict, it promises to be a controversial trial.
The specific date on which the trial started has not been disclosed but the proceedings began after an investigating team of the army put together a body of evidence collated from a number of sources, including intelligence information and the interrogation of arrested suspects. Part of the information about the investigations made available to the Herald suggests that the December 25 attack on General Pervez Musharraf was the handiwork of “some misguided Islamic warriors and a bunch of low ranking army and air force personnel.”
But while this is common knowledge, few people know that the main planners of the attacks could have included Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh, a British national and veteran of the Kashmir ‘jihad’, presently being tried for the murder of The Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl on January 31, 2004. Investigators also point to a possible link with Abu Faraj al-Libbi, an al-Qaeda operative of Libyan origin recently arrested by Pakistani security personnel from Mardan on May 4. Investigators suspect al-Libbi of being involved in reactivating the al-Qaeda-linked ‘jihadi’ network in Pakistan to eliminate the country’s leadership.
The investigations have also revealed that at least three attempts were made on Musharraf’s life prior to the two December attacks in the Rawalpindi-Islamabad area alone. Besides, a few ill-planned and half-hearted attempts were also made on Musharraf’s life in other parts of the country, including one on April 26, 2003, in Karachi (see “Mission to Kill”).
Military investigators claim that the first known meeting to wage ‘jihad’ against US allies such as Musharraf was held at an Islamabad residence soon after the US-led air strikes in Afghanistan in October 2001. The meeting was apparently arranged on the initiative of Shaikh, Amjad Farooqui and Rashid Qureshi alias Tipu, though it is not clear if Shaikh participated in that meeting. After the December 2003 attacks on Musharraf, Shaikh was shifted from Hyderabad to Adiala Jail and paraded before some suspects for identification. But the fact that he is not among the suspects being tried in Attock Fort shows that the investigators have not been able to pin him down in the case conclusively.
Dubbed as the Jihadi Tablighi Ijtima, roughly meaning preaching session for holy warriors, the meeting in Islamabad was attended by about 20 people, say the investigators. The participants included veteran ‘jihadis’, newcomers as well as those who were soon to offer the ‘ultimate sacrifice’ by becoming suicide bombers. Those who subsequently became involved in the plan to assassinate Musharraf included at least two low-ranking army officials of the Special Services Group (SSG), Naik Arshad Mahmood and Lance Naik Zafar Iqbal Dogar. Lance Naik Dogar abandoned the mission halfway and is presently a key state witness at the Attock trial. Other prominent members of the group were Ghulam Sarwar Bhatti, Ameer Sohail alias Sajjad, Rana Mohammad Naveed, Ikhlas Ahmed alias Russi, Abdul Basit as well as Mohammad Jameel Suddhan, who was selected as one of the suicide bombers for the December 25 attack.
Most of the main activists of this group were subsequently arrested, some of them giving confessional statements while others turned state witnesses. In their statements, many of which have now been retracted by the accused at the Attock trial, they provided details of their recruitment and plans to assassinate Musharraf. Information gleaned from these accounts by the interrogators reveals that the first known assassination plan was drawn up in March 2002.
The accused planned on striking down Musharraf during the March 23 Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad’s Parade Area. According to investigators, a three-member team of the group, including Naik Mahmood, travelled to Mansehra where some ‘jihadi’ contacts helped them purchase an unspecified number of AK-47 rifles, ammunition and grenades from an arms dealer hailing from the tribal areas. According to Lance Naik Dogar, the weapons were handed over to Shaikh who handled the finances for the project. But the plan failed to materialise as the parade was cancelled due to its concurrence with the eighth day of Moharram.
The next attempt on Musharraf’s life was made some nine months later on December 6, 2002, when two group members, Khaliquz Zaman alias Shafique and Sultan Sikandar, volunteered to take part in a suicide mission at Islamabad’s Shah Faisal Mosque where Musharraf was scheduled to offer Eidul Fitr prayers. Investigators offer few details of how this plan was frustrated, except that Musharraf’s security arrangements came in the way of the bombers.
The third attempt, say investigators, was planned at one of the group’s hideouts in Islamabad’s G-7/2 area. The attempt involved hitting Musharraf in a missile attack during the March 23, 2003, Pakistan Day parade. Investigations reveal that some of the members of the network and their arms suppliers, who delivered four missiles in Rawalpindi, believed the shipment was meant for the ‘jihad’ in Kashmir. Although investigators term this plan to be “of a more serious nature,” they do not divulge the type, make and accuracy of the missiles that were placed on the Margalla Hills overlooking Islamabad. But the missiles could not be fired as the parade was can- celled at the last minute, possibly following a tip-off about the planned attack. The missiles were immediately relocated to two separate hideouts, one of which was the village home of the army commando Naik Mahmood in Kahuta tehsil.
With three failed attempts, say investigators, the group was getting desperate. A series of meetings were held, mostly at the Misriyal Road residence of Shaukat Fazal Chaudhry in Rawalpindi and Zubair Ahmed alias Tauseef’s house at Dhama Saidan, as well as at the two Islamabad hideouts. This time, the group chalked out a more elaborate plan in which two to three suicide bombers were to ram their explosives-laden vehicles into Musharraf’s car on the main road near his residence in Rawalpindi. The plan required a larger group of ‘volunteers’, more elaborate infra- structure, a large quantity of explosives and a mechanism to minimise the margin for error. Funding for the plan was arranged by robbing a bank in Bahawalpur.
Military investigators claim that the first known meeting to wage ‘jihad’ against US allies such as Musharraf was held at an Islamabad residence soon after the US-led air strikes in Afghanistan in October 2001.The meeting was apparently arranged on the initiative of Ahmed Omar Saeed Shaikh, Amjad Farooqui and Rashid Qureshi alias Tipu, though it is not clear if Shaikh participated in that meeting.
Since Shaikh was apprehended on February 11, 2003, in connection with Daniel Pearl’s murder, the shots were allegedly called by Amjad Farooqui and Rashid Qureshi. The group had already marked a spot near two petrol stations on the road used by Musharraf from where the attack was to be carried out. The entire infrastructure and all those involved in the operation were gradually relocated to closer spots to start the preparations.
Meanwhile, two houses were acquired on rent at New Shakrial, which overlooks the airport road used by Musharraf to commute between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, and another one in Ali Town on Adiala Road. A vegetable shop was also acquired near the Jhanda Chichi intersection on the road where the attacks were to be carried out. The shop was allegedly manned by Amir Waseem and Abdul Ghaffar alias Munna, reconnaissance men who recorded the daily routine of the general’s motorcade. Rana Faqir Hussain and Zubair Ahmed reportedly acquired a taxi for reconnaissance of the route usually taken by Musharraf.
The plan involved a three pronged attack on Musharraf’s car, for which three second-hand Suzuki High-Roof vans were obtained. Two vans, bearing registration numbers RIP 3096 and FDJ 4965, were purchased from Rawalpindi while the third, with a Peshawar registration number H 9654, was bought in Islamabad. During the weeks before the mission the vans were modified and turned into virtual bombs. Investigators believe that perhaps one vehicle was also used for teaching suicide bomber Mohammed Jameel Suddhan to drive.
According to his brother’s testimony, Jameel informed him a couple of days before the incident that Haider Farooqui, one of his ‘jihadi’ comrades, had taught him to drive. Jameel had earlier fought in Afghanistan as well as Kashmir, but his brother could never imagine that this time around he was on a suicide mission. Haider Farooqui was recently arrested from Lahore, perhaps as a result of the information available after al-Libbi’s arrest but much after the trial had begun.
Interestingly, during the entire period when preparations for the December 25 attack were in full swing, another secret group of assassins, reportedly including several low-ranking personnel of the Pakistan Air Force, had been giving final touches to its own plan to blow up the bridge near the Jhanda Chichi intersection in an attempt to kill Musharraf. Investigators believe the planners of the two moves were the same people but had decided to keep the two groups separate.
Musharraf survived the attempt by the second group on December 14, apparently due to a jamming device that prevented the remote control triggers from blowing up the dynamited bridge when Musharraf’s motorcade passed over it. The bridge blew up less than a minute after the motorcade had passed. This was the same jamming device that prevented a car from exploding when Musharraf’s convoy passed it near Karachi airport on April 23, 2003.
The planning for the December 25 attack appeared foolproof as it involved suicide bombers ramming vans full of explosives into Musharraf’s car as he proceeded from his Rawalpindi residence to his office in Islamabad. On the day of the attack, three Suzuki vans drove into the area near the Jhanda Chichi road crossing. Two of them took position at the Total and PSO petrol stations respectively, while the third was parked at the nearby Annexe Bridge intersection. The Suzuki at one of the two petrol stations had Jameel as the driver. He was accompanied by two other men who, according to the investigators, ensured that the vehicle was positioned correctly, tapped the suicide bomber and then walked away to a nearby vantage point. The same rituals took place in the other two vehicles.
As Musharraf’s motorcade arrived, the van at the Total petrol station jumped into gear and sped towards the road. A police constable who tried to wave it off the road was overrun by the vehicle which then exploded halfway to Musharraf’s car. Within no time, the other van moved in from the PSO filling station but it too missed the target and rammed into the divider on the road, exploding with a furi-ous bang. According to some eyewitnesses interviewed by the investigators, some supporters of the bombers standing along the road raised slogans of “Allah-o-Akbar” (God is great) after each explosion. The third vehicle parked near the Annexe Bridge, which allegedly had Ameer Sohail on the wheel, failed to start on time, thus providing the critical few seconds for Musharraf’s security, thrown into utter chaos following the first two explosions, to cordon off his car.
Taken together with the two highly organised attacks on then prime minister-designate Shaukat Aziz and Karachi Corps Commander Lieutenant General Ahsan Salim Hayat (currently the Vice Chief of Army Staff), the attacks on General Musharraf suggest an unwavering commitment on the part of a specific group of militants from Kashmir and Afghanistan to eliminate the pro-US Pakistani leadership. And if the investigators are to be believed, the threat remains real.
This article was originally published in the Herald's June 2005 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.