Al-Qaeda's sights on Pakistan, and beyond
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - While the surge of 30,000 United States troops in Afghanistan can
only lead to an escalation of fighting, a major problem looms across the
border, where al-Qaeda plans a new front against the Pakistan army - a move
that will further dry up Islamabad's vital support for the war in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the American-supported coalition government of liberal and
secular parties in Pakistan faces a serious political and constitutional
crisis, while the armed forces are stalled in their campaign against the
Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in the tribal areas.
Simultaneously, al-Qaeda sources have told Asia Times Online, al-Qaeda has
re-established itself in Somalia and Yemen. From
Somalia, the sources say, al-Qaeda plans to further disrupt trade routes around
the Horn of Africa, while from Yemen, al-Qaeda aims to make a comeback in Iraq
and in Saudi Arabia and beyond. The overall goal is to take control of all
Muslim resistance movements in the region, very much on the lines of al-Qaeda's
South Asian pattern.
In South Asia, al-Qaeda's chief of the Lashkar al-Zil (Shadow Army), Ilyas
Kashmiri, sits in Afghanistan orchestrating targets, including in India.
(Lashkar al-Zil is an alliance of several Pakistani, Afghan, Uzbek, Iraqi and
al-Qaeda groups that carry out operations under the al-Qaeda banner.)
Agents in the United States in early October exposed a plot in which an
American national, David Coleman Headley, was allegedly planning terrorist
attacks in Denmark and India. One of Headley's handlers was Ilyas Kashmiri.
The "Chicago Conspiracy" took the Federal Bureau of Investigation all the way
to Lahore in Pakistan, where a retired army officer, Major Abdul Rahman, was
said to be Ilyas Kashmiri's main advisor. According to the FBI, massive acts of
sabotage were planned in India, including attacks on nuclear facilities, the
National Defense College and on parliament in the capital, Delhi.
The objective, very much like the attacks on Mumbai in November 2008, was to
spark a war between Pakistan and India that would force Pakistan to disengage
from any support of the war in Afghanistan. As al-Qaeda sees it, victory in
Afghanistan runs through Pakistan, and in combating the Pakistan army.
In his book Sharpening the Spearheads for Fighting the Pakistani Army, a
top al-Qaeda ideologue, Abu Yahya al-Libbi, wrote a lengthy thesis justifying
the need to fight against Pakistan's army and ruling elite, which he referred
to as American proxies and as heretic as any Christian establishment, he
... the affairs of Pakistan have reached a stage [where there
is] .... aversion from the sharia, displacement from its rulings, placing in
power of corrupt ones, alliances with the disbelievers, manifest assistance to
them, warring against the people of faith and giving precedence to sacrifices
that would gain the pleasure of the stray Nasaara [a Koranic term for
Christians]. Thus, Pakistan became a staunch supporter in the alliance with the
disbelievers who are in open war against the religion of Islam. Its army became
a rich source for its spies and police, heading the fighting with the most
direct participation in tearing apart the joints of the Islamic nation.
After drawing references in support of his argument from classical and modern
Muslim jurists and scholars, Libbi gave three reasons for revolt against the
Pakistani establishment. These include the fact that it is ruled by those who
do not believe in the Islamic system of life and that "the Pakistan army
appears as a group that holds back from much of the manifest and mutawatir
legislation of Islam". Secondly, "The army of Pakistan has become an enemy
assaulting religion, defending against which is obligatory."
The government of Pakistan, its resources [army, police
and secret agencies] has extended to this "assailant" enemy whatever it has
been endowed with of military power and secret services, etc, and its army and
secret services have been dedicated in the most absolute, open and public
manner to these Christian forces that have transgressed upon the lands of the
Muslims in Afghanistan. This is after they have opened their ports for their
ships and supplies; and facilitated the ways for their convoys and their
weapons; and put down military bases for their planes and forces; and
established prisons for the detention of the righteous and mujahideen from the
Muslims. They torture them and lacerate their bodies in order to please these
disbelievers. They have mobilized their forces to act as guardians and
protectors of what they call the boundaries between it and Afghanistan in order
to prevent the Muslim mujahideen from helping their brothers and fulfilling the
sharia-legislated obligations required of them.
In light of
these three points, reinforced by the Pakistan army's crackdown against the
Taliban and al-Qaeda, Libbi calls on the Muslims of Pakistan to revolt against
its rulers and army.
This could be dismissed as a mere academic work by the Libyan Libbi, who was
recently (incorrectly) said to have been killed in a US drone strike in the
North Waziristan tribal area. Yet anger against the Pakistan military is
widespread among militants.
"We don't have any intention for any ceasefire agreement or a peace deal. This
is a battle which will go until final victory. Either the generals of the
Pakistan army are wiped out, or we are," a senior commander of an
al-Qaeda-linked militant group told Asia Times Online on condition of
"The Pakistan army has reached a dead-end in its pursuit of the mujahideen.
They realized their position and hence they offered a ceasefire deal," the
militant said. "They evacuated the Kani Garam and Jannat areas of South
Waziristan as a gesture of goodwill, but the mujahideen are in the mountains
and we don't have any intention for any ceasefire.
"They also offered to have lengthy dialogue with the top Pakistani Taliban
commanders to discuss the situation after the US withdrawal from the region,
but we will not discuss any short-term or any long-term negotiations with them.
This battle will go until the last."
Despite this apparent offer of peace talks, another military campaign looms.
After some success in South Waziristan, the army has entered Orakzai Agency,
the new headquarters of the TTP.
The militant explained, "The operations were done under immense American
pressure and they will continue; that's why we don't trust any army offer. They
always succumb to American pressures. However, even in Orakzai, they realize
they are at a dead-end.
"They attacked the mujahideen from three directions - from Khyber Agency, from
Hungu and from Kurram Agency. We blocked their advance from all three sides and
the weather, which is increasingly cold with snow falls in the mountains, is
helping the mujahideen. Before the snow melts, all the mujahideen will be
gathered in Tera Valley [opposite the Afghan Tora Bora mountains] in Khyber
Agency, including groups like Mangal Bagh, which were previously not ready to
fight. From here we will mount an attack against the Pakistan army," the
militant commander said.
Trouble in Islamabad
Apart from whatever steps the Pakistani army takes to suppress the militants,
the pro-American coalition in Islamabad is losing its grip. The situation is
developing into a struggle between the civilian government on the one side and
the Supreme Court and the military establishment on the other side. The sole
beneficiary of this is likely to be al-Qaeda, as the state will lose its focus
in the war against that group. The loser will be the United States.
The Supreme Court last week struck down the National Reconciliation Ordinance
(NRO) signed in 2007 by then-president Pervez Musharraf following a Washington
and London-brokered deal between former premier Benazir Bhutto and Musharraf.
Under the NRO, all corruption cases against Bhutto and her husband, now
President Asif Ali Zardari, were dropped, enabling them to return to Pakistan
from exile. In addition, about 8,000 politicians, political workers and
bureaucrats accused of corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, murder and
terrorism were granted an amnesty. Many of these people now hold senior
positions, including cabinet posts, and they face court proceedings. The
president cannot be tried while in office.
The names of these people were placed on the Exit Control List on the orders of
the court. As a result, Minister Defense Chaudhary Ahmad Mukhtar was stopped
from going to China to negotiate a defense deal. Minister of the Interior
Rehman Malik, on whose orders the Exit Control List is constituted, is also
named on it. The court also ordered the resumption of a court case in
Switzerland for the recovery of state money allegedly swindled by Zardari and
According to sources close to the military establishment, a four-point agenda
has been presented to Zardari for him to ride out the storm:
Cancelation of the 17th constitutional amendment, at the latest by December 31,
under which the president is empowered to dissolve the National Assembly and
appoint the chiefs of the armed forces.
Removal of all corrupt-tainted ministers from the cabinet.
Implementation of good governance, which means no interference in the functions
of national institutions so that they can work fairly and freely.
The national government should include representatives of the Pakistan Muslim
League Nawaz group, the main opposition party.
Zardari has not responded well to this program, and he is bent on challenging
the court's ruling on the NRO.
New fronts opening
While the US focus is Afghanistan and the fresh 30,000 troops it will have
there, al-Qaeda will push on to open up the war theater in Pakistan. At the
same time, it has consolidated in Yemen and Somalia.
Al-Qaeda's presence in Somalia was limited until 2004, after which it applied
the tactics it had learned in the Pakistani tribal areas - the transformation
of indigenous Islamists into al-Qaeda's "blood brothers", and this without
having to mobilize significant human or material resources. In Somalia, this
has meant nurturing al-Shabaab Islamist insurgents.
The emergence in Somalia in 2006 of the Islamic Court Union - very similar to
the Taliban - and its fall within six months and subsequent chaos and war with
Ethiopia - provided al-Qaeda with the space to push its agenda; this is where
the Lashkar al-Zil was launched. At this point, Ilyas Kashmiri and the recently
killed al-Qaeda leader in Waziristan, Saleh Somali, oversaw the emergence of
al-Shabaab. Hundreds of youths were funded and organized by al-Qaeda to work
exclusively on pirate operations off Somalia to disrupt the important trade
Simultaneously, al-Qaeda regrouped in Yemen, spearheaded by the Lashkar al-Zil.
Yemen is an exceptionally important country in the broader al-Qaeda strategy of
forming a strategic backyard from which to control events in Palestine and Iraq
and beyond - notably to revive its broken networks in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and
Geographically, Yemen's location is similar to that of the tribal belt
straddling Afghanistan and Pakistan, from where militants run their operations
in both countries. In Yemen, the Lashkar a-Zil's expert teams are training the
Ibnul Balad (Sons of the Soil).
Some of al-Qaeda's key operations before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the
US were hatched in Yemen. These include the bombing of the USS Cole in
October 2000, logistical preparations for the "Black Hawk Down" operation and
killing of US soldiers in Somalia in 1993, attacks on Jewish properties in
Mombassa, Kenya, in 2002 and major attacks against Saudi targets.
Al-Qaeda took about five years to reach a turning point in the Afghanistan and
Pakistani tribal areas, but the al-Qaeda leadership is convinced that its Yemen
and Somalia operations will take a much shorter time.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org