Pakistan’s collaboration with the United States in rounding up al-Qaeda suspects and their supporters has reached a fevered pitch ahead of the U.S. presidential elections in November. Pakistani newspapers carry stories of almost daily arrests of suspected al-Qaeda operatives from “foreign” countries. But as before, the suspects are neither made available to the media nor are further details provided about them.
A typical story reads:
Interior Minister Syed Faisal Saleh Hayat has said the security agencies have arrested five more terrorists. “The security agencies arrested four Uzbeks from South Waziristan and one from Multan,” the minister said on Tuesday talking to reporters at the Parliament House. He, however, did not disclose the identity of the person arrested from Multan. The minister said that the fresh arrests were made in accordance with the law and all legal formalities were fulfilled. (Associated Press of Pakistan, APP, carried in Dawn, 24 August 2004)
However, among the notable exceptions have been the much-publicized June 12 arrest in Karachi of Musaad Aruchi, said to be a nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (who was apprehended in Islamabad with CIA and FBI help in March 2003). Aruchi had a million dollar bounty on his head. His arrest apparently led to the unveiling of another alleged al-Qaeda operative, Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan who was arrested at the airport in Lahore on July 13 as he was presumably fleeing the country. Khan, a Pakistani just 25 years old, apparently was computer-savvy enough to transmit encrypted instructions to al-Qaeda cells. Pakistan’s intelligence services apparently then used him to trace his al-Qaeda contacts.
As a result, the most important catch took place early on July 25 in the small city of Gujrat in northern Punjab province, where, after an overnight firefight, Ahmad Khalfan Ghailani surrendered along with two other al-Qaeda operatives and their wives and children. Ghailani, a Tanzanian, had a $5 million bounty on his head for his suspected role in planning the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam in 1998. His two accomplices from South Africa were also suspected to be involved in those attacks.
The raid in Gujrat allegedly unearthed a treasure trove of terrorist information from the suspects’ three laptop computers and 51 discs which were passed on to U.S. authorities. Information gleaned from those computer discs reportedly triggered the August 1 Code Orange terrorism alert by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge for financial districts in New York, Washington and Newark, New Jersey. Among the alleged targets were the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank in Washington, and the Prudential Plaza in Newark. However, the information was found to be three to four years old with just one recent update.
This steady stream of some well-publicized but mostly “shadowy arrests” of foreigners linked to al-Qaeda is directly related to the domestic political situation in Pakistan and the fortunes of President Pervez Musharraf’s military-led government as it continues to collaborate with the Bush administration’s global war on terrorism.
For instance, the Pakistani military’s operation in the tribal agency of South Waziristan began in March to complement the “hammer and anvil” spring offensive of the U.S. military across the border in Afghanistan. Although no “high-value” al-Qaeda leaders were caught, the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at that time earned Pakistan the status of a major non-NATO ally – a status enjoyed by Australia, Bahrain, Israel, South Korea and Morocco. That India – Pakistan’s arch rival – is not one of the group has given a boost to Pakistan. Such a status will allow Pakistan to have easier access to U.S. military assistance and training.
The other imperative for Pakistan to flush out al-Qaeda fugitives is the growing involvement of these “foreign jihadi elements” with militants in the domestic Islamic opposition forces that see President Musharraf and his narrowly based military-supported government as a lackey of the Bush Administration. These homegrown Islamic extremists – as Musharraf likes to call them – believe that the Bush administration has alienated the Islamic world by its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and blatant support of the Sharon government in Israel in its brutal suppression of Palestinian “freedom fighters.” Tied to that is their disenchantment with Musharraf’s recent cooperation with India in curbing “freedom fighters” from crossing over from Pakistan to aid their beleaguered Muslim brethren in “occupied” Kashmir.
Following the two assassination attempts on President Musharraf in December 2003, the entire military establishment became even more perturbed when another of their own – Lieutenant General Ahsan Saleem Hayat, the Corps Commander for Karachi – was nearly killed in a June 10, 2004 attack. Musharraf – now with even more backing from his military colleagues, some of whom are Islamic hardliners – then moved even further to face the body of Islamic extremists that have harbored the al-Qaeda remnants. This move resulted in the capture of Mussad Aruchi (as related above) and eight other Pakistani militants who were later identified with being members of the new organization known as Jund Allah (Army of God) that allegedly trained in South Waziristan and fought the Pakistani military deployment there.
Then followed the suicide- bomb assassination attempt on Finance Minister Shaukat Aziz (now the prime minister) – a U.S. citizen and Citicorp executive with an apartment in New York – on July 30 in the small town of Fateh Jang in northern Punjab province. All Hell then broke loose. President Musharraf could no longer afford to play footsy with the Islamic fundamentalist opposition headed by the Muttahida Majlis -i- Amal (MMA), which he had allowed to form governments in the sensitive border provinces of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan in the absence of traditional political rivals such as former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League – both of which he banned from participating in the restricted elections held in 2002.
It looks as though the hunt for al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants in Pakistan has finally got into full swing – almost three years after their demolition by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. This blitz of anti-terrorist actions has come about due to pressure from Musharraf’s benefactor, the Bush administration, as well as his own instincts for self-preservation.
However, the question remains whether the al-Qaeda big fish in the persons of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Taliban leader Mullah Omar will be caught before the November elections, which the al-Qaeda foot soldiers are allegedly eager to disrupt with a mighty attack in the United States so that their nemesis President Bush will not be re-elected for a second term. Also, President Musharraf would like President Bush to be re-elected to continue his current cozy relationship with his administration. Therefore, the argument follows that al-Qaeda must be prevented at all costs to do anything spectacular before the November elections. However, it can also be equally argued that an al-Qaeda attack could help President Bush to be re-elected and President Musharraf to be kept in office for another indefinite term. The assumption is that the public in times of crisis prefer tried leaders rather than risk new ones.
But in any case, the best-case scenario for President Bush to be re-elected and President Muharraf to continue to remain in power lies in providing an October surprise – with bin Laden’s head on a platter (bin Laden has vowed he will never be taken alive) or the capture of his second-in-command Zawahiri or Mullah Omar.
Already some optimistic comments are being made toward those ends. For instance, visiting U.S. State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Cofer Black (formerly with the CIA) in an interview with Pakistan’s Geo television on September 4 commented on Osama bin Laden: “If he has a watch, he should be looking at it because the clock is ticking. He will be caught.” But Pakistani Information Minister Shaikh Rashid Ahmed promptly dismissed Black’s remarks as “a political statement.”
Earlier on August 12, Pakistani Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat told Al-Arabiyya satellite television in Dubai that the recent capture of top al-Qaeda suspects has brought Pakistan closer to the arrest of Osama bin Laden. However, the following day, an Interior Ministry spokesman denied that Hayat had made that statement.
In the meantime, Pakistani military and paramilitary forces numbering 70,000 are all over the Afghanistan frontier, moving from South Waziristan to North Waziristan and beyond. It is entirely plausible that soon they may enter the formidable territory of Birmal spilling on both sides of the border to the northwest from South Waziristan into Afghanistan. It is widely believed that in this sparsely inhabited tangle of 10,000-feet high mountains, deep forested ravines and jagged cliffs with numerous natural caves – where the author passed through during the mujahideen war against the Soviets in the 1980s – that Osama bin Laden will make his last stand.