South Asia

From the al-Qaeda puzzle, a picture emerges
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 points unknown.

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.

Also, 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.

Much of 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.

At the 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.

Pakistani 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.

Federal 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, including cyanide.

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 personnel.

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.

(©2002 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

 
Sep 11, 2002


Al-Qaeda tales: The North African connection  (Aug 31, '02)

Osama is in Kunar, but the US can't get him  (Aug 29, '02)

Pakistan in the shadow of terror  (Aug 28, '02)

Tribal land, Taliban land  (Aug 27, '02)

Pakistan's heart of darkness  (Aug 22, '02)

 

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