Opinions on the importance of the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libby, announced by the Pakistani authorities on May 4, are mixed.
Touted as the “al-Qaeda number 3” — after Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri — and with a $10 million bounty on his head, al-Libby was captured, along with four accomplices in the Pakistani tribal areas in North West Frontier Province, at a village some 30 miles north of Peshawar. According to the Pakistan daily Jang newspaper, al-Libby was riding a motorbike while clad in a burqa, when he was captured by security forces in the Shadand Baba locality of Mardan district [www.jang.com].
Much excitement was aroused by the seizure, at the time, of al-Libby’s laptop, with the hope that, as in the case of the seizure in Iraq on February 20 of Abu Mus’ab Al-Zarqawi’s laptop, valuable intelligence leads would provide links up the chain to the al-Qaeda leadership, even Bin Laden himself.
As a result of al-Libby’s arrest some 18 suspected members of his terrorism network in eastern Punjab province and North West Frontier Province (NWFP) have been picked up. But how much more can be expected is the subject of doubt, given that it has been some time since al-Qaeda has risked communication through electronic means, preferring an elaborate process of personal human resources to pass on information.
Nevertheless, al-Libby is a significant catch, being the highest profile al-Qaeda figure in Pakistan since Khalid Sheikh Muhammad’s capture in 2003, and labelled one of the six most wanted Islamist militants in Pakistan. He is implicated in at least two assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf and is held to have been plotting, in collaboration with outlawed militant groups including Jaysh-e Mohammed (JEM), a series of attacks on foreign government installations and United States interests in the country. Al-Libby was a trainer at al-Farooq camp in Afghanistan during the period of the Taliban, where he forged his links with Pakistan mujahidin and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence’s Afghan cell of the time.
Other than that, it would be easy to overstate his importance in the hunt for Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, not least due to the fact that the al-Qaeda groups of today are small independent units without vertical hierarchies to a controlling structure. Moreover, al-Libby’s wanted profile would have focused much of his efforts in search of safe sanctuaries and precluded him from any close contact with the main figureheads of al-Qaeda. If there is real intelligence value from his arrest, it may be more likely in his connections with al-Qaeda funding from the United Kingdom and the North African cells, which are held to be the most intact and geared to take on future attacks on the United States. Even here, al-Libby’s information may prove to be outdated.
The real fallout from al-Libby’s arrest may be something that will not act to the advantage of President Musharraf and the war on terror. His arrest came in the context of an intensive military operation in South Waziristan which has been bitterly opposed by local tribesmen. This operation so far has resulted in the death of several hundred soldiers and has brought retaliation in the form of operations against military bases and convoys.
According to a report in the Asia Times, The strength of the reaction from Islamist militants last year — including those linked with al-Qaeda — over a wide geographical spread of targets ranging from the NWFP to Karachi, pushed Musharraf’s government into concluding a ‘deal’ with al-Qaeda. To affect the deal Musharraf used the good offices of influential prayer leaders at Islamabad, Maulana Abd al-Aziz and Maulana Abd al-Rasheed Ghazi. As a result, for over six months now, militant efforts have been re-directed at Afghanistan. With the arrest of al-Libby, and a nationwide crackdown on militant groups, that deal has now collapsed [www.atimes.com].
What is worse, Pakistani authorities are finding themselves having to redouble investigations into al-Qaeda penetration into the military. In addition to Islamist militant links unearthed at the time of his arrest with low-ranking military cadres, al-Libby’s connections with the Pakistan military, the Pakistani daily Dawn reported, date back to his period in Afghanistan (1996-2001). Personal links forged then are being investigated and are likely to result in a swathe of purges. The potential military backlash could prove painful, and place Musharraf’s future in the balance [www.dawn.com].
As it is, Musharraf will have to deal not only with the continued threat of assassination, but also with the potential threat from groups aiming to plot enough unrest to force his political ouster. There is enough disaffection within the ruling coalition to take advantage of any extra fuel from a renewed Islamist militant terror campaign in the country. With the arrest of al-Libby, one terrorist cell may have been neutralized. The fallout may not be so easy to handle this time.