From the al-Qaeda puzzle, a picture
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - Ibrahim
Hyder Village, a slum area of Karachi, is an extremely
dangerous place. A known underworld hub situated on an
old smugglers' coast, it is a place where no
law-enforcement agency can dare conduct a raid. If any
stranger ventures into Ibrahim Hyder Village, his body will likely be
found in a gunny sack by sunrise.
It was here, in this village, that al-Qaeda
began smuggling its hoarded gold out of the country last
year even as US bombs were falling on the organization's
mountain redoubts in Afghanistan. The gold, packed in
bags, was loaded onto cargo ships and shipped to Dubai,
from where it was sent on to Khartoum, Sudan, and to
But it wasn't only gold being
shipped out, authorities believe. It was, in essence,
al-Qaeda itself. Even as the Taliban were being crushed,
key elements of the organization - its assets, its
leaders, its plans - were following a deliberate
strategy designed to ensure the survival of al-Qaeda in
a different nest.
For example, a Pakistani
militant living in Peshawar - one not associated with
the Taliban or al-Qaeda - described to this reporter how
he had been involved in the rescue of a number of Arab
families last winter who had been living in Kabul,
Jalalabad and Kandahar. The families, who were traveling
without their men (some of whom were known to be top
al-Qaeda operatives), told the story how the men had
disappeared after September 11.
authorities have learned, for example, that when a
delegation led by Pakistani Lieutenant General Mehmood
Ahmed, the then deputy general of Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI), visited Kandahar last October,
apparently to convince Mullah Omar to hand over Osama
bin Laden, something else was on the agenda as well.
Mehmood was accompanied by two brigadier generals, one
of whom was responsible for the ISI's Afghan desk. While
in Kandahar, the chief of the Afghan desk met Abul Hafs,
an Arab and an al-Qaeda man, to discuss strategy in the
apparently inevitable battle to follow. Instead of
defending Afghanistan, Hafs told the brigadier, the plan
was to entrap the US, drain its resouces in a mountain
guerrilla war, and wait for an eventual collapse. It was
basically a replay of the strategy that had helped bring
down the USSR.
But that wasn't the only strand
of the web being spun.
Short term, it was
decided that Pakistan would install several military men
in Afghanistan to aid the Taliban in strategies of war
against the Americans, while in return, the military
al-Qaeda strategist Abu Zubaida, who had experience of
guerrilla war with Hezbollah, would be installed in
Pakistan. After Zubaida's arrest in March, this
assignment was given to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who is
still at large and believed to be in Karachi.
Medium term, various Middle Eastern support
networks would be mobilized and activated to serve as
escape routes and revenue streams - one of these
networks associated with Hezbollah has played a pivotal
role in the past year, forging an alliance between
al-Qaeda and Iran. The same strategy had already been
applied in Iraq, with which al-Qaeda forged a connection
when Osama was in Sudan. Al-Qaeda is likely to strike a
deal with Iraq and later on other Arab countries like
Yemen and others who are in line to feel US wrath, to
exchange help in the future.
Long term, the
organization prepared for a war that it judged would
last for years. Under this strategy, al-Qaeda cells in
Europe were told to freeze activities and concentrate on
transferring funds to North Africa, which would serve as
the new hub of recruitment and training.
the information on how al-Qaeda shifted base comes from
a 33-year-old Kenyan named Sheikh Ahmed Salim, alleged
ringleader of an important Karachi-based al-Qaeda cell
who was arrested in July through joint action by the ISI
and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and was among
a group of suspects flown out of the country in recent
weeks in US custody to a secret location.
time of his arrest, Salim, who also goes by the name
Swedan, had a US$25 million price on his head for his
alleged role in the 1998 bombings of US embassies in
Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The one-time owner of a
trucking firm in Kenya, Salim is alleged to have
purchased the Toyota and Nissan trucks used in the
attacks, flying out of Nairobi to Karachi five days
before the assault was launched.
intelligence agents were led to Salim's cell by
satellite telephone intercepts provided by the FBI.
These led to the arrest in Karachi of a more junior
al-Qaeda figure, a Saudi known only as Riyadh or Riaz.
Riyadh in turn led investigators to Salim, who was
arrested in Kharadar in the south of the city. And now,
largely through Salim's assistance, authorities have
begun to piece together the story of how al-Qaeda has
survived the war that crushed its Taliban sponsors.
Salim has told Pakistani investigators that he
was able to collect millions of dollars from local
sympathizers - mostly affiliated with the banned
Lashkar-i-Jhangvi militant group - in the months after
September 11. Although these claims are regarded as
exaggerated, thousands of dollars, fake passports and
visa stamps have been found in his house.
Pakistan would also serve, authorities are
learning, as the new center for the development of
chemical and nuclear weapons.
authorities had already known of al-Qaeda's interest in
acquiring weapons of mass destruction. For example, a
series of arrests of members of the outlawed militant
group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi in Karachi revealed a makeshift
chemical laboratory that contained several toxins,
The investigation into a
possible al-Qaeda nuclear program currently focuses on
retired scientist Dr Sultan Bashir-ud-Din Mehmood, who
in 1999 received the prestigious Presidential Award
Sitara-i-Imtiaz for his work on the national nuclear
weapons program. Today Sultan is living under house
arrest, with FBI officials still putting queries with
different angles. So far, what he has revealed is not of
much importance, however. According to law-enforcement
sources, his story is that he was helping the Taliban
optimize their per-acre yield in agriculture through the
application of atomic energy.
In any case, it is
believed that al-Qaeda's nuclear program in Pakistan was
only halfway to the point of acquiring a workable device
before the collapse of the Taliban brought it to a halt.
The project, however, probably still survives along with
the most active of the organization's assets and
The area for this new phase of
al-Qaeda activity is believed to be Saharan and
sub-Saharan Africa, with planning divided between
several countries, including the Canary Islands,
Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Algeria, Tunis
and, most importantly, Somalia. The key focus of the
next phase of the FBI investigation will be off-shore
accounts and chemical imports.
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