Out of a list of successes and near-misses in Pakistan, the killing of one key al-Qaeda operative may mark a turning point in the fortunes of the contest. In what is the latest in a series of breakthroughs announced by Pakistani security, a two-hour gun battle on September 26 in Nawabshah, 270km north of Karachi, ended in the death of Amjad Farooqi. This latest victim had been the target of a massive nine-month manhunt (and a $330,000 reward) for his having been involved in most of the major terrorist incidents that took place in Pakistan in the recent period. He was ostensibly caught by a mobile phone intercept, which traced him to a hideout in Nawabshah. Subsequent accounts make no mention of a phone trace, and lay emphasis on suspicious movements to the house, which appeared to be receiving visitors using costly vehicles such as Pajero jeeps.
The incident kicked off a wave of arrests, based on information taken from three suspects arrested after the gun battle. In all, 11 militants, including a key suspect in a 2002 suicide bombing in Karachi, which killed 11 French engineers, have been taken into custody from Karachi, Rawalpindi and Mir Pur Khas. Three of the arrested militants belonged to the outlawed Jaish-e Mohammed group.
The removal of Amjad Farooqi is indeed a success for Pakistani security. He is considered to have been a key recruiter for al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and has a distinguished jihadist pedigree. Farooqi fought against Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir in the 1980s and transferred to the Taliban campaign in Afghanistan in the 1990s. Here he underwent training with the Pakistani jihadist organisation Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami, and made contacts with al-Qaeda leaders such as Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, one of the alleged co-ordinators of the 9/11 attacks. His militancy also embraced anti-Shi’ite activity, as evidenced from his one-time membership of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a violent group that targets Shi’ite Muslims in Pakistan.
Though coming to world attention for his suspected role in the killing of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in January 2002 (he was named by Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a British-born militant sentenced to hang for his part in Pearl’s killing) Farooqi’s most high profile exploits were two failed attempts on the life of President Musharraf last December. In both cases, Farooqi had allegedly enlisted the help of some junior army personnel to blow up the presidential motorcade. A new development came with the interrogation of the arrested accomplices, who are said to have claimed Farooqi as the author of the assassination attempt in July on prime minister designate, Shaukat Aziz, in July, claimed at the time by “The al-Islambouli Brigades of al-Qaeda” (see Terrorism Focus, Volume I, Issue 3).
The implications of Farooqi’s killing theoretically touch al-Qaeda’s operational prospects in Pakistan deeply. He is considered to have provided the funding and the manpower for some of the most audacious attacks in the country, and was responsible for organizing the structure of militant cells working independently from each other. He is considered to have been very high ranking, taking direct orders from Abu Faraj al-Liby, whom Pakistani intelligence now refer to as al-Qaeda’s new operations chief.
But as to whether Pakistan security has, in the words of Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao, “broken the back” of al-Qaeda’s network in the country depends on how much credence is given to the official version of events. Sources quoted by the Asia Times insist that Farooqi was not caught up with on September 26, but has been in custody for several months. The Nawabshah incident, in this account, is a stage-managed affair, which may have been intended not only to keep up the ‘tempo’ of success against the militants, but also to silence embarrassment at the level of involvement of the lower echelons of the military in the failed assassination attempts on President Musharraf. Had he stood for trial, the argument goes, some interesting information might have been released. Security officials at the scene in Nawabshah were reported to be furious that he was shot dead, since he could also have provided vital information on the killing of Daniel Pearl. As it is, DNA testing is still under way to confirm Farooqi’s identity. The Asia Times report quotes sources as claiming that Farooqi, far from being a mastermind of an elaborate al-Qaeda network, was in fact an isolated, independent operator able both to finance and staff his operations on his own back.
Stage-managed or not, the Nawabshah confrontation is an interesting marker of the level the conflict has reached. Since July, when an alleged al-Qaeda computer expert and a Tanzanian wanted for the 1998 east Africa embassy bombings were arrested — which yielded significant intelligence on militants in the country — over 70 terrorist suspects have been picked up. Raids are now in progress across the country in Punjab, Sindh and North West Frontier Province, where more arrests are expected. The attrition is all the more significant in that Pakistan is a considerably safer bet for al-Qaeda members than Afghanistan, where, according to the U.S. commander in Afghanistan Lieutenant-General David Barno, there is “relatively little evidence of senior al-Qaeda personality figures … because they can feel more protected by their foreign fighters in remote areas inside Pakistan.” If the ongoing raids across the country are successful, and the pace is maintained, there is the possibility that al-Qaeda’s room to maneuver may become terminally restricted.
In the short term, however, there is increased security nervousness. Wary of retaliatory terror attacks after Farooqi’s death, security authorities in Karachi have issued a red alert covering foreign missions, government offices and places of worship. Anxiety at the ability of terror groups to operate anywhere in the country has lead to trials of arrested suspects being conducted inside heavily fortified jail premises. There is a long way to go yet before Pakistan can claim to be winning the struggle.