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    South Asia
     Jul 8, 2010
Al-Qaeda's new man eyes Pakistan
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

ISLAMABAD - One chapter in the Afghan war came to an end with the killing in May of al-Qaeda's number three and Afghan operations chief Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in a drone attack in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area.

The appointment of a new commander, Egyptian Sheikh Fateh al-Misri, previously not an al-Qaeda member and in Afghanistan only as a battle-hardened Arab fighter, marks the beginning of a shift in al-Qaeda's strategy that aims for a more focused guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda's Pakistan operations will be used to complement the battle against foreign forces across the border.

A previous al-Qaeda commander, Libyan Abu Laith al-Libi, also killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in January 2008, had a similar


background to Misri as he had not initially been a member of al-Qaeda and commanded his own Libyan groups that were active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was appointed operational commander in 2007 and in a short time proved himself in battle. He also developed close coordination with various other groups.

According to militant contacts who spoke to Asia Times Online, the militants believe that while Misri will focus on tweaking Afghan strategy, he realizes that the war there cannot be separated from Pakistan.

Last month, for instance, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani and the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, twice visited Kabul to offer their services in opening negotiations with the Taliban. The Pakistanis aim to connect with various Afghan groups and promote a battle against al-Qaeda and its affiliated Pakistani organizations.

Acutely aware of this, Misri unleashed the attacks in which at least 95 members of the Qadyani sect were killed and nearly 100 injured at their places of worship in Lahore. Apart from the immediate horror of the attacks, the militants aimed to monitor the response of the security and rescue forces. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, dozens of militants poured into Lahore. They included men from nearby areas, members of a militant cell in the southern port city of Karachi, as well as people from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, previously North-West Frontier Province.

Their main targets were to be "non-Muslims" in the eyes of the militants, such as the Qadyanis, and "polytheists" like the Shi'ites.

Pakistani intelligence agencies, however, became aware of possible attacks on places of worship and security was beefed up in Lahore, especially at places frequented by Qadyanis and Shi'ites. In a series of raids, 28,000 kilograms of explosives were seized, along with many weapons.

The militants became unnerved and last week, without consulting their top leadership in North Waziristan, there was a double suicide attack on the shrine of a Sufi saint in Lahore in which more than 40 people were killed and nearly 200 injured.

The attacks certainly drew attention to the militants, but al-Qaeda is aware that such incidents can cause blowback, such as happened in Iraq when it attacked the Samarra Shrine of Imam Hasan Askari in 2007, one of Shi'ite Islamís holiest shrines. This sparked a round of bloody sectarian retaliation in which up to 60 Sunni mosques were attacked and scores of people were killed.

Therefore, much as with the Moon Market blast in Lahore in late 2009 (in which innocent civilians were killed), the Punjabi Taliban denied their involvement in the shrine attack.

"Why should we do this kind of operation?" questioned Punjabi militant spokesman Muhammad Umar, alias Usman Punjabi, in a telephone conversation with Asia Times Online. "There were hundreds of shrines in Afghanistan during Taliban rule [1996-2001] and they never touched them. So why should we do that?

"I say a commander would be most incompetent if he sent in suicide attackers because there was such a crowd in the shrine that an explosive-laden car parked near the shrine would have been sufficient for a massacre. So I assure you, the Taliban were not involved in these attacks," Umar said.

The attack on the Syed Ali Hajweri Shrine has caused a serious rift between Pakistan's two major schools of thought - Deobandi (to which the Taliban adhere) and Brelvi (who are anti-Taliban Sufis).

Several Sunni organizations called strikes, while Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, a custodian of a shrine in Multan, announced a national conference to decide on a unified strategy to combat terrorism.

However, the initiatives only polarized the country, and Deobandi scholars, while condemning the attack on the shrine, said that all measures were clearly aimed against them.

It should be recalled that all of the top Brelvi (Sufi) scholars in Pakistan have their roots in pre-partition (1947) India, and they don't have strong political traditions in Pakistan. Deobandi scholars on the other hand do, and they have the largest network of madrassas (seminaries) and mosques.

As a result, no right-wing political party can afford to annoy the Deobandis, no matter how close they are to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. Therefore, immediately after last week's attack on the shrine, Nawaz Sharif, a former premier and the leader of the country's largest right-wing party, the Pakistan Muslim League, held a press conference to stress the need for negotiations with the Taliban.

He said that a wrong foreign policy (one that supports the American war in Afghanistan ) was the root cause of terrorism in Pakistan. Sharif's statement was immediately condemned by the ruling Pakistan People's Party, which added that he drew his support from radical groups.

Militants have lost much of their support base and sympathy in Punjab - the largest province - as extremists previously did in Iraq. All the same, they are establishing a reign of terror that has led to deep political and sectarian polarization. This in turn has diluted Pakistan's enthusiasm to streamline a negotiation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

However, there is another aspect, as pointed out by a prominent Sufi - a parliamentarian from Khyber Agency and the federal minister for Zakat and Ushr (charity department), Pir Noorul Haq Qadri. He told Asia Times Online:
By 2007, the whole of Khyber Agency comprised adherents of the Brelvi school of thought [Sufis]. We are traders and therefore we want peace in the area. Then militants silently came into the area. They selected people who could resist them and assassinated them and in an organized campaign they blew up shrines and created so much chaos that by mid-2008 the people's will was completely broken and nobody was prepared to take a stand against them. From 2008 onwards, Khyber Agency has been a completely different place - it is in the hands of the militants.
The clamor is growing for action against militants in Punjab, but the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) operation haunts the establishment - it does not want Pakistan's fault lines once again exposed. In July 2007, security forces stormed the Taliban-supporting mosque that had become a haven for militants. The action energized militants across the country.

The authorities might decide to take action against particular seminaries in Punjab and against some banned organizations, after a national debate through conferences. This will take time, and when it happens it will cause sectarian strife. This preoccupation and engagement of the security apparatus will provide breathing space for al-Qaeda, which has already defeated the military in Orakzai Agency, where it controls large areas.

New commander Misri will be waiting to strike, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

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