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Captured in the name of terror
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - In the post-September 11, 2001 world, including the United States-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US establishment, including the media, have presented a picture that paints all anti-US moves as orchestrated or inspired by al-Qaeda. However, there is another side to the story.

Over the past nearly two years, approximately 10,000 people, invariably branded as al-Qaeda suspects, have been rounded up all over the world in the name of the "war on terror". The most high profile of these are being held at the US base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.

Many of those arrested have been described as exceedingly dangerous, although there have been some obvious mistakes, such as an aging, toothless man from Afghanistan who was eventually set free.

Clearly, it is in the interests of the world's intelligence communities to talk up their captures, although some of the descriptions of detainees could have come right out of 1,001 Arabian Nights.

Asia Times Online spoke to a Pakistani field official associated with an intelligence agency who has personally handled the arrest of 10 Arabs in Karachi. "I will tell you the modus operandi. For instance, once the FBI [US Federal Bureau of Investigation] gives us a mobile number we track conversations, during which we learn the whereabouts of the callers. Then eventually we make a raid. That's how we arrested the first alleged al-Qaeda operator in Karachi, whose last name was Alavi. He was arrested from the posh district of Clifton, Karachi. At the time of the raid he was sleeping, and when we arrested him he did not have a weapon."

The officer claims that in most cases the people they were pointed to by the FBI had simply fled from Afghanistan en route to their home countries, but they were arrested and branded as dangerous al-Qaeda operators set on making Pakistan their "playing field for terror".

"Both US and Pakistani officials have tried their level best to portray them as dangerous as possible to accredit themselves as a success in the US-led 'war on terror' and to get promotion and rewards," the field officer said.

Such practices, it appears, are not restricted to Pakistan, as this correspondent found out on a recent visit to Sulaimaniya in northern Kurdish Iraq, where there have been several arrests of al-Qaeda suspects.

Ansar al-Islam, or the Supporters of Islam, is a staunchly anti-American, Islamist group based in this region. Its leader, Mullah Krekar, who has spent some time in political asylum in Norway, visited Afghanistan during the time of the Taliban government in the late 1990s. This helped to brand Ansar al-Islam as having al-Qaeda connections.

After the Taliban fell in Kabul in late 2001, Arab Afghans who had been living in the country for some years and who were not necessarily associated with al-Qaeda, fled the country for their home countries. The natural route was via Iran and northern Iraq.

According to the director general of intelligence and security of the Iraqi Kurdish Region (Asaish), Dana Ahmed Majeed, a former representative of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK ), one of two leading Iraqi Kurdish parties, the majority of those Afghan Arabs arrested in the region were seized after the US-led attack on Afghanistan and before the fall of Baghdad.

Dana would not give the exact number of detainees, but independent sources in the Kurdish region put the number at 18.

This correspondent interviewed three of these, in the presence of a Kurdish official and an interpreter. The interviews offer different perspectives on the present war between the US and Islamists, rather than the single one propagated by the US establishment.

Before the interviews, this correspondent was asked whether he wanted the prisoners to attend with handcuffs, or without. After being assured that the captives were harmless, they were presented separately with unfettered hands.

Haqi Ismail, 33, is tall and intelligent, with a slightly care-free attitude. He sports a small beard, but his head has been shaved since his arrival in jail. He lights a cigarette, and answers questions freely.

He comes from the Iraqi city of Mosul in the north, where he was studying in a technical college, besides working at his father's printing press, where he read Islamic literature and decided to leave secular Iraq and live in an Islamic state. He refused to admit any link with any Islamic organization. Haqi left his education half way through in the mid-1990s. He stayed in Jordan for some time, then went to Iran and from there to Afghanistan in 2000. When the Taliban fell, he fled again to Iran, where he was arrested but released at the northern Iraqi border. When he tried to enter Iraq, Kurdish security officials arrested him, and he claims that he was made to admit that he had once met an al-Qaeda operator named Abdul Hadi al-Ansari in Kabul.

Asad Mohammed Khalid is a nervous-looking young man with glasses, and after entering the room he sat down in a submissive manner. He is 23, and comes from the Syrian city of Halabm, where he was a student at an Islamic college. Later, he was admitted to the Islamic University of Medina in Saudi Arabia. While there, the US-led attacks began on Afghanistan, and in the spirit of helping a Muslim country that had been invaded, this untrained and previously non-violent youth traveled to Afghanistan through Iran.

But by the time he reached the Iran-Afghan border the Taliban had already fallen, so he stayed in Iran, where he was caught by Iranian authorities. They interrogated him for 45 days and realized that he was not a terrorist but a sentimental young man, so they allowed him to contact his family in Syria. However, his family warned him that everyone knew that he had gone off to fight in Afghanistan and the government had blacklisted him, so they advised him to go to northern Iraq and take refuge with Islamic groups. The Iranian authorities, though, gave him the choice of a country, and he opted for Jordan, so he was deported there.

Jordanian authorities interrogated him for two days and then let him go. He went to Iraq, passed through Baghdad, and tried to enter Sulaimaniya, but he was arrested at a check post in March 2002, one year before the war on Iraq. Unlike Haqi, who categorically said that he had "no regrets for whatever I have done", Asad is full of regrets over his decision to go to Afghanistan, and he pines for his eight sisters and brothers.

Saad, 30, comes across as a confused character. He belongs to a Shi'ite sect in Baghdad. He speaks Urdu sufficiently well that the security officer present intervened to ask that we converse in English or Arabic so that he could understand what we were discussing.

Kurdish authorities themselves are a bit confused about Saad because he is a Shi'ite, with whom al-Qaeda has few links. But they did recover a card of the Hizbul Mujahideen, a Kashmiri militant group associated with the Jamaat-i-Islami, indicating that he is a member of the organization.

Saad told this correspondent that he is very fond of Indian movies, and he proved this by reciting the names of many actors - big and small. He said that he had always dreamed to going to India, but in 1991 he went to Iran and stayed there until 1993. Then he felt bored, so he crossed into Turkmenistan and sought asylum, but was instead deported to Iran. But Tehran refused to accept him and he was dumped at the border with Afghanistan, so he had little option but to cross over. There he met Ismail Khan, then (and again now) the governor of Herat, who referred him to Kabul to study in a college. In 1996, though, the Taliban emerged and Saad fled, along with the Northern Alliance leadership, to Mazar-i-Sharif in the north.

But the Taliban influence reached there also and he was captured. They were surprised to find an Arab with the Northern Alliance and they offered that Saad side with them. He turned down the offer and was asked to leave Afghanistan, so he went to the Pakistani city of Peshawar, where he met Hizbul Mujahideen people, the largest militant outfit operating in Jammu and Kashmir state in India. He joined them, with the idea that the first Indian soldier he encountered he would surrender to and apply for asylum in India.

But Saad's timing was bad. Immediately after September 11 Hizb officials asked him to leave Pakistan as it would not be feasible for Arabs to stay there. They left him at the Pakistan-Iran border, from where he went to Iraq, ending up at Sulaimaniya, where he was rounded up by Kurdish security people who recovered the Hizbul Mujahideen identity card. On the strength of this they branded him as al-Qaeda. He was arrested in December 2001. "I have no relations with any religion or sect, whether it is Shi'ite or Sunni, but I belong to a Shi'ite family. Had I been involved in any terrorist activity, would I have kept an identity card of any organization?" he asks.

Saad, Haqi and Asad come from very different backgrounds, countries and with different motivations, and each set out to join teams in which they did not fit. Now they share the same fate as al-Qaeda suspects, and, if nothing else, they make up the numbers in the "war on terror".

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