South Asia

Smoking al-Qaeda out of Karachi
By B Raman

Though United States officials may not admit it openly lest they embarrass President General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military dictator, an analysis of reports emanating from Pakistani sources clearly indicates that the focus of the US-led war against pan-Islamic terrorism spearheaded by al-Qaeda has shifted to Karachi in Sindh province from the tribal areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan.

When the dregs of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the various components of the Osama bin Laden-led International Islamic Front shifted from Afghanistan to Pakistan, they had initially taken shelter in the FATA. During the past four to six months they have spread themselves out to Karachi, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) and the Northern Areas (NA - Gilgit and Baltistan).

There are presently three concentrations of the International Islamic Front inside Pakistan - the Uzbeck and the Chechen dregs have taken shelter in the NWFP and the FATA; the Arabs of al-Qaeda, and some Pashtuns of the Taliban, have taken refuge in Karachi; and the Pakistanis of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) have taken shelter in Karachi, the POK and the NA. While the LET is mostly based in the POK and the NA, the other four Pakistani components of the International Islamic Front have split themselves into a number of small groups and are operating from sanctuaries in Karachi, as well as the POK and the NA.

Until August, 2002, the main focus of the US operations was southeastern Afghanistan and the adjoining tribal areas of FATA. On the Afghan side, the operations were carried out largely by US forces with the help of the resurrected Afghan warlords and heroin barons. On the Pakistani side, the operations were carried out by the Pakistani security forces, with the US intelligence agencies providing the technical intelligence (TECHHINT) support.

The results achieved were not commensurate with the efforts put in. Among the reasons were poor intelligence, even misleading intelligence from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Afghan warlords and the leakage of the operational plans of the US troops to the terrorists before their hideouts were raided.

During this period, practically all the dregs of al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the five Pakistani components of the International Islamic Front managed to get out of the tribal belt and flee in small groups to Karachi, the POK and the NA. Some, led by Abu Zubaida, even managed to take shelter at Faislabad in Punjab, but they were smoked out and arrested in the last week of March, 2002.

Investigations by Sindh police into all the terrorist incidents directed against US and other Western nationals and interests since the beginning of this year on Pakistani territory brought out that all these attacks were carried out by the Pakistani dregs of the International Islamic Front and that the conspiracies were hatched and the planning was done in Karachi, even though in some cases the attacks were carried out in places other than Karachi.

Since August 2002, the US has left the mopping-up of the Uzbek and Chechen dregs in the FATA to be handled by the Pakistani security forces, and shifted its attention to Karachi. For the present, no importance has been given to the Pakistani dregs in the POK and the NA. Since their terrorism is largely directed against Indian nationals and interests in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), the US does not feel unduly concerned over their activities and does not feel the need to divert its resources to those areas adjoining Indian territory.

The Pakistani security forces have not so far made any important catches in the FATA. They have been following the same methods which the British used before 1947 under the British-promulgated Frontier Crime Regulations (FCRs), which are still in force - collective punishments, demolition of the houses and seizure of the property of uncooperative villagers. This has given rise to seething anger, not only against the Pakistani troops, but also against the US, but the Pakistani army has thus far been able to prevent the anger from bursting out into violent incidents.

Until last month, the Pakistani authorities, including Musharraf, were vehemently denying reports that the Arab dregs of al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself (if still alive), had taken shelter in Karachi. In support of their denials, they pointed out that all those arrested in connection with the kidnapping and murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl and subsequent incidents were Pakistanis and that no Arabs were involved.

Even though the members of the LJ detained by the Sindh police spoke about the involvement of Yemeni-Balochis in the murder of Pearl, no attempt was made to trace them. The encounter at Karachi on September 11, which led to the death of two terrorists (Mohammad Khalid and Saleh Ibrahim, both reported to be Yemenis) and the capture of one Saudi, one Egyptian and eight Yemenis clearly establishes that the hard core of al-Qaeda has been living in Karachi and operating from there and not from the NWFP or the FATA.

One of those killed is suspected to be a Yemeni-Balochi who slit the throat of Pearl. Among the Yemenis arrested is Ramzi Binalshibh, who was being hunted by the investigative and intelligence agencies of Germany and the US since September. His arrest could prove to be as significant, if not more, than that of Abu Zubaidah, for the following reasons:
  • He was a member of the so-called Hamburg cell, which played a leading role in the planning and execution of September.
  • He was to have been the 20th hijacker, but could not enter the US due to refusal of visa.
  • He had participated in a preparatory meeting in Afghanistan (November 1999) and in two meetings in Malaysia (January 2000 and the second in 2001).
  • He had played a role in the transmission of funds to the terrorists undergoing flying training in the US.
  • Since the US air strikes started in Afghanistan in October, he and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad had been moving together and living together in Karachi. A staffer of Qatari television station Al Jazeera (Yosri Fouda) interviewed both of them in a secret location in Karachi, during which they boasted about al-Qaeda's role in September 11.

    Western counter-terrorism experts believe that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was probably the brain behind September 11. In 1995, he and Ramzi Yousef together plotted from their hideouts in the Philippines a series of terrorist strikes against the US, which did not materialize. Both fled to Pakistan after the Filipino authorities got scent of their plans. Ramzi was arrested by the Pakistani authorities under Benazir Bhutto, and handed over to the US for trial relating to the New York World Trade Center explosion case, but Khalid Sheikh Mohammad managed to evade arrest and emerged as one of the principal aides of Osama bin Laden, when the latter returned to Afghanistan in 1996.

    Western media have in recent weeks quoted a senior US intelligence official as saying that if he had to decide between catching Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, he might prefer the latter. "Bin Laden is unquestionably the leader, the symbol and the recruiting poster," the official said. "But it's looking more and more like Khalid actually makes things happen." They also quoted French terrorism expert and UN Security Council consultant Roland Jacquard as saying, "He is probably the only man who knows all the pieces of the puzzle."

    Khalid Sheikh Mohammed also uses the aliases Abdul Majid, Salim Ali, Ashrai Refaat, Nabith Renin, Khalid Abdul Waddod and Fahd Bin Abdullah Bin Khalid. Police in the Philippines have described him as a Kuwaiti-born and US-educated Pakistani. If he is definitively established to be a Pakistani, this would show that September 11 was masterminded by a Pakistani assisting bin Laden. It may be recalled that Sheikh Omar, who has already been convicted in the Pearl murder case and has appealed against it, was reported to have told Karachi police that during a visit to Afghanistan before September 11 he had come to know of the plans for the terrorist strikes in the US and had immediately informed Lieutenant-General Ehsanul Haq, the present director general of the ISI, who was at that time Corps Commander, Peshawar.

    A number of interesting/intriguing questions about Ramzi Yousef and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad remain unanswered. Are they related to each other as some reports claim? Are they Pakistanis (Yemeni-Balochis) as Filipino and Western agencies seem to believe, Kuwaitis (this is denied by the Kuwaiti authorities) or Iraqis (in the past, the Pakistani media have consistently referred to Ramzi Yousef either as a person of Middle Eastern background or as an Iraqi).

    An interesting aspect of the raid in Karachi of September 11 has not received the attention it deserves. The so-called encounter lasted nearly four hours before the terrorists could be arrested. The authorities of the ISI have claimed that this was because the terrorists were heavily armed. Sindh police sources have, however, denied this. According to them, the security forces led by an ISI officer fired about 5,000 rounds as against about 100 fired by the terrorists.

    The police authorities allege that the ISI officer, who led the raiding group,deliberately kept up heavy firing without any need for it in the hope that this would either kill Ramzi Binalshibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, or enable them to escape. While Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems to have escaped, Binalshib was caught alive.

    The sanctuaries now enjoyed by the dregs of al-Qaeda and the Pakistani components of the International Islamic Front in Karachi would not have been possible without the complicity of the ISI and Karachi's underworld. Since 1994, Dawood Ibrahim, wanted in India in connection with the Mumbai blasts of March,1993, has emerged as the godfather of Karachi's underworld.

    Even before March,1993, he had close contacts not only with the ISI, but also, through the ISI, with the HUM and the HUJI. At the instance of the ISI, Dawood Ibrahim's men, who carried out the Mumbai explosions, were trained in the camps of the HUM/HUJI near Peshawar, run with the ISI's assistance.

    Since settling down in Karachi in 1994, Dawood Ibrahim has enjoyed the protection of the ISI and Pakistan's Intelligence Bureau, with many retired intelligence officers now working in his security set-up. Unless the US and the UN also turn their attention to Dawood Ibrahim and his mafia, have their bank accounts frozen and get them arrested and deported to India to stand trial in connection with their involvement in the Mumbai blasts, the US plans to smoke out al-Qaeda and other terrorists from Karachi may not be totally successful. The government of India, also, should take up this matter with the US.

    B Raman is Additional Secretary (ret), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India, and presently director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai; member of the National Security Advisory Board of the Government of India. E-Mail: He was also head of the counter-terrorism division of the Research & Analysis Wing, India's external intelligence agency, from 1988 to August, 1994.

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    Sep 17, 2002


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