Early in the morning on January 12, suspected U.S. aircraft fired missiles at houses in the village of Damadola in the Bajaur Agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), killing 18 people. This was the first attack of its kind in this area (Frontierpost.com.pk, January 14).
What is the significance of Banjaur agency and its relation with the central government? What is the connection if any of Bajaur to the Al-Qaeda terrorists and why would one, of all places, look for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two man in the al-Qaeda hierarchy, in Bajaur? Who is Mawlawi Faqir Mohammad, who appeared briefly to eulogize the bombing victims, and then disappeared into thin air? What about Bajaur makes it so tempting for the terrorists to hide there?
FATA, which roughly comprises the size of Florida, has a population of over three million, predominantly of Pashtun tribes. As some major tribes inhabit FATA, Pashtunwali, or the Pashtun tribal code, provides the foundation for the area’s legal system.
This area of Pakistan has remained isolated for centuries. Afghan kings, the British Raj, Pakistani generals, the Soviets and American Green Berets have all tried unsuccessfully to assert control over these wild lands at one point or another. These loosely administered territories are not governed by boundaries or politicians, but by tribal elders and tribal loyalties. The British granted the tribal people maximum autonomy and allowed them to run their affairs in accordance with their Islamic faith, customs and traditions. This prickly borderland formally belongs to Pakistan, but has deep historical, cultural, and ethnic ties to Afghanistan (The News, March 14).
Of the seven FATA Agencies, North and South Waziristan and Bajaur play the most significant role in the war on terrorism because of the presence of local militant groups and their association with the top leaders of al-Qaeda. Bajaur has the added dimension of being the suspected host to several members of al-Qaeda’s top leadership. Also notable is its proximity to the volatile province of Kunar in Afghanistan, one suspected hiding area of Osama bin Laden.
In May of last year, a prominent al-Qaeda leader, Abu Farraj al-Libbi was arrested in Mardan a town southeast of Bajaur. At one time, al-Libbi was also serving as bin Laden’s secretary. When another key al-Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the mastermind of 9/11 attacks was arrested in March 2002, Libbi had replaced him as the terror network’s number three leader.
Two days later, security forces arrested thirteen people including ten foreigners of having al-Qaeda links from Bajaur Agency. The foreigners included Uzbek and Afghan nationals. Al-Libby was at some point living under the protection of Malawi Faqir Mohammad (UPI, May 5, 2005).
Faqir Mohammad, who delivered a fiery anti-Pakistan and anti-U.S. speech at the collective funeral of the civilians killed in the Friday bombing on January 12, left the scene. He narrowly escaped the missile attack.
Mawlawi Faqir Mohammad and al-Zawahiri along with Mullah Omar were reportedly invited to a feast in the village. Faqir Mohammad, who had a close connection with the Taliban, is also wanted for giving shelter to foreign terrorists. (al-Jazeera, January 14).
Faqir Mohammed is a leader of the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Sharia, a religious group that forcibly imposed Islamic religious laws in the Pashtun tribal areas of northwestern Pakistan in the 1990s. Although the Pakistani military later removed most of the parallel courts and administrative units established by the movement, the group continued to run a parallel government for some time.
The group still has some influence and occasionally sets up temporary tribal courts to try cases such as fornication, alcohol consumption and selling narcotics. In 1996, when the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the group established a close working relationship with Mullah Omar’s regime.
This group is also believed to have recruited thousands of ethnic Pashtuns to fight in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban when the United States attacked the country in December 2001. Many of these volunteers later died in prison camps in northern Afghanistan.
The group was never directly involved with al-Qaeda but is known to have cooperated with it in the past on the instructions of the Taliban. Pakistani intelligence officials say they would not be surprised if the group is now sheltering senior al-Qaeda leaders. Faqir Mohammad himself, as a result of his association with the Taliban and especially Al-Qaeda leaders is on the wanted list in Pakistan. “They are very influential and have the infrastructure to hide bin Laden and his comrades,” said the Pakistani official. (UPI, May 5, 2005).
Al-Zawahiri, aside from his association to Faqir Mohammad is the son in law of the Momands, one of the largest Pashtun tribes inhabiting Momand Agency. His wife is a Momand Pashtun and is living with her children on the border of Bajaur and Momand. Under Pashtunwali, al-Zawahiri is considered part of the family and the tribe and he must be protected with the lives of the tribesmen.
Aside from its “hospitality,” Bajaur is important to the Taliban and foreign terrorists for its proximity to Kunar province. The tribes straddling the border area are drawn to two basic tenets: Pashtunwali and Islam. Giving shelter to a fellow Pashtun or Muslim is a Pashtunwali tradition and an Islamic duty. This and the rugged terrain and inaccessibility of the border region make it an ideal sanctuary for al-Zawahiri and other members of al-Qaeda. Any pressure, whether from the U.S. or Pakistani government, will not change the mentality of the people. Attacks in which allegedly innocent people are killed, will only reinforce the militants’ position and further isolate the central government in Islamabad.