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The Pakistani al-Qaeda

Published 25 Dec, 2016 01:35am
A policeman examines the wreck of Shaukat Aziz's car after a suicide attack in 2004 | Reuters
A policeman examines the wreck of Shaukat Aziz's car after a suicide attack in 2004 | Reuters

Within 24 hours of the suicide attack that nearly killed Pakistan’s financial wizard and prime minister- designate Shaukat Aziz, a statement was posted on a website known for carrying propaganda material from several Islamic militant groups. “One of our blessed battalions tried to hunt the head of one of America’s infidels in Pakistan while he was returning from Fatehjang, but God wanted him to survive,” said the statement that was sent to the website in Arabic. The hitherto unknown group identified itself as the “Islambouli Brigade of al-Qaeda”, an apparent reference to Lt. Khalid Islambouli, the man who had led the group of soldiers in the 1981 assassination of the Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

Initial reaction from senior Pakistani security officials was one of scepticism and not without reason. Even if Osama bin Laden or his second in command, Aiman al-Zawahiri, had directly issued the instructions, it was highly unusual for the terror network to use the name al-Qaeda. But then, it was no ordinary incident and clearly indicated that the group involved in the attack comprised of highly motivated Islamic militants.

In some ways, the attack was no different from those on President Musharraf in December last year as well as the one against the Karachi corps commander in June this year. While these were arguably the three most high profile attacks on top government functionaries, a series of other suicide attacks and bomb explosions had already led some of the top government and security officials to suspect the emergence of a home-grown militant force based on a philosophy similar to that of al-Qaeda. “It’s a frightening thought,” says a senior government minister. “Especially since it is not entirely baseless.”

Following a series of background interviews with senior government ministers, police and other security officials, the picture pieced together by the Herald points to the definite presence of a loosely knit organization which shares the ideals of al-Qaeda’s leadership. And a section within the Pakistani establishment now seems convinced that such an entity is geared up for carrying out its aims and objectives inside the country. In other words, it is now possible to talk of a Pakistani al-Qaeda – a nebulous entity which is quite inward-looking in its orientation and not really interested in pursuing a global agenda unlike the outfit from which it draws its spiritual inspiration. Whether al-Qaeda’s top leadership has played any direct role in its creation is still not known but it has certainly been raised on the same modular structure as that of al-Qaeda.

Pakistani groups are still going through an evolutionary process despite having objectives very similar to those of al-Qaeda.

This means that it is capable of allowing a number of groups to work on their own towards similar objectives, without any of them knowing anything about the others. In fact, al-Qaeda’s internal culture sometimes ensures that even members of the same group remain unknown to each other. At the same time, it is structured in such a manner that the arrest or elimination of one person, or even a set of militants, does not affect its performance. More often than not, the ones knocked out are immediately replaced by others. At times, it can even throw up new groups that may share each other’s members without actually being aware of each other’s exact identity. “Call them by any name, these are the people and groups serving al-Qaeda in Pakistan,” says a senior security official. “The most disturbing aspect in this whole affair is the fact that there’s no dearth of recruits and volunteers who are prepared to join them and die for what they believe is a just cause.”

No wonder then that the Americans were not the only ones who were pleased at the recent arrests of al-Qaeda suspects such as the Tanzanian, Ahmed Khalafan Ghailani and his accomplices. The arrests were important for the Pakistanis too, who were able to glean from the suspects some critical insights into the activities of local militant groups. For instance, the arrest of a young computer whizz-kid, Naeem Noor Khan, or a security guard posted at the Punjab chief minister’s official residence, have shed invaluable light on the way these groups operate and coordinate their actions. And whatever intelligence has been put together by the authorities points to the possibility that almost all of Pakistan’s leading political personalities are under threat from these elements.

So far, al-Qaeda’s most organised and well-coordinated operation in Pakistan has been the second attempt on the life of President Musharraf in December last year. Officials admit that the two-pronged suicide attack on December 25 was not only an extremely close call for the military ruler, it was perhaps the most secretive terrorist operation in the country’s recent history. The level of secrecy was revealed when a low-ranking official involved with the investigations accidentally discovered a cell phone SIM card from the debris of the suicide bomber’s blown-up truck. It seemed that the suicide bomber was receiving calls from his accomplice right to the last minute. The information being given to him was clearly regarding the general’s movements and after analysing the SIM card data, investigators were able to locate several suspects, including a special branch official detailed on security duty for the president. The last call had apparently been made by him.

Also read: Islam in the garrison

It was a breakthrough that the security agencies had been desperately looking for. Subsequent investigations revealed the length and breadth of the canvas available to these people, stretching from a small village in Azad Kashmir to Karachi in one direction and from Pakistan’s eastern borders to South Waziristan in the other. It was enough to send shockwaves through the most jaded of counter-terrorism experts in the Pakistani intelligence apparatus. One of the suicide bombers was identified as a former Kashmiri fighter, Mufti Jamil Suddhan. Another was said to be an Afghan-war veteran, Hazir Sultan while yet another accomplice, Liaquat, was identified as an associate of a local Islamic group.

What really startled the investigators was the revelation that most of the people involved in the assassination attempt, including the two suicide bombers, had not even met each other prior to D-day. One official in the know said the people masterminding the operation were so secretive that the person who was spiritually preparing the suicide bombers always met them separately.

“He used to come from Karachi to lecture these people individually but never told them anything about the other people recruited for the mission,” he says. And few would argue that surviving such an organised attack can only be described as a miracle. Meanwhile, the earlier assassination bid, says this source, came from an entirely different group in which a number of airmen from the Pakistan Airforce were involved. Perhaps the only thing common between the two groups was their spiritual head and a misconceived jihadi philosophy. Interestingly, despite collecting loads of information on the two operations, the investigators have not been able to nab the Pakistani mastermind, identified as Amjad Farooqi or the al-Qaeda operative described by General Musharraf as the financier of the entire mission.

It is now possible to talk of a Pakistani al-Qaeda – a nebulous entity which is quite inward-looking in its orientation.

Compared to the two attempts on General Musharraf, the attacks on the Karachi corps commander or the one on Shaukat Aziz seemed to have been planned far more crudely. While the Karachi attack was well coordinated and of stunning ferocity, officials say it lacked the finesse that has come to be the hallmark al-Qaeda. Similarly, the attack on Shaukat Aziz appeared to be the work of a Pakistani group, which apparently used a ‘volunteer’ with minimal training. As a result, one of the grenades attached to his body did not explode even after having rolled beneath Aziz’s car.

What is clear from these attacks, though, as well as from a number of recent incidents such as the bomb explosions outside the residence of a military commander in Kohat, is that the Pakistani groups are still going through an evolutionary process despite having objectives very similar to those of al-Qaeda. And these objectives, says one official, are quite clear cut: hit out at top government functionaries who are perceived to be pro-American while driving the country towards a state of anarchy. Many amongst these militants seem convinced that a majority of the Pakistanis are generally opposed to US policies in Iraq and elsewhere and the situation is ripe for an Islamic militant agenda.

At this point in time, says one official, the militants seem to have only one real target in mind – President Musharraf. However, the president’s unprecedented security may have compelled them to turn towards other military commanders or ministers deemed to be close to the military ruler. Other than Shaukat Aziz, says a senior government functionary, the militants have on their hit list Faisal Saleh Hayat, Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed and Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri.

President Musharraf’s car damaged in an assassination attempts | Reuters
President Musharraf’s car damaged in an assassination attempts | Reuters

Some observers argue that it may still be possible that there is no such thing as a Pakistani al-Qaeda, or a central organisation to coordinate terrorist attacks against government officials and religious minorities. If that is true, then who are the people involved in such acts? One senior official closely associated with the investigations believes that some elements from Islamic groups that had either been involved in sectarianism or had previously fought in Kashmir or Afghanistan may be behind most of the recent incidents of suicide attacks.

According to this official, organisations with new names are created on a regular basis and most of the ‘volunteers’ are pushed into action with minimal training. The people behind the creation of such groups are mostly those who have been associated with sectarian groups such as the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or the Kashmiri militant groups such as the Harkatul Mujahideen, Harkat-e-Jihad e-Islami or Jaish-e-Mohammed, which continue to serve as nurseries for these new organisations. In most cases, members of the new groups are disowned by their parent parties. Hence the emergence of names such as Harkatul Mujahideen al-Aalami, Jundullah or the Islambouli Brigade of al-Qaeda.

The inexperience of this new breed of terrorists is evident from the mess some of them have made of their planned strikes. For instance, one suicide bomber set off the detonator attached to his body during an attack on a Shia mosque during Muharram and ended up killing himself without causing any harm to the mourners. Similarly, those who attacked the corps commander’s convoy in Karachi were traced and arrested because they left behind a cell phone. In the same vein, the person who tried to kill Shaukat Aziz was captured on a TV camera, perhaps along with an accomplice who is now on the run. Still, while they may be inexperienced, they are at the same time so motivated that no threat of jail or death can stop them.

Some observers argue that it may still be possible that there is no such thing as a Pakistani al-Qaeda, or a central organisation.

According to one official, it is nearly impossible to extract any information from these elements as they constantly accuse the interrogators of being pro-American while calling themselves the true soldiers of Allah.

Officials and analysts agree that it is a highly tricky situation, with no visible way out. According to a seasoned analyst, it is not easy for the establishment, which invested nearly 15 years in creating a jihadi culture, to convince these people to abandon their misplaced ideology. “They were unable to understand international diplomacy at the time of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan and they cannot understand the current compulsions for Pakistan or President Musharraf to reverse the jihadi policy,” he says. A minister who is perceived to be quite close to the military establishment said at one point an attempt was made to persuade the Kashmiri and other militant groups to accept the changed geopolitical environment, but barring one or two groups, they all refused to oblige. In fact, it gave birth to a new form of radicalism within the militant Islamic movement.

As things stand today, the militants may react anytime to avenge some of the recent arrests and their ability to do so is causing serious frustration within government circles, as well as anxiety among the general public. Perhaps the only way out at this stage is for General Musharraf to embark on a long and protracted war to eliminate a jihadi culture that the establishment has itself created in the first place. It may require the president to come up with a new philosophy to deal with militancy– a philosophy that can generate an across the board cleansing operation, even if it hits at some of the sacred religious, military and government institutions. Otherwise, there is a serious risk of letting the situation slip out of hand. Already, judging from the way the Islamic militant groups have been gaining support and momentum in recent months, the nation should be bracing itself for a lot worse in the coming days.

This article was originally published in the Herald's August 2004 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is currently serving as the editor of daily Dawn.