June 2002 News

Al Qaeda in Pakistan: The 'guests' who stayed on

14 June 2002
The Indian Express

New Delhi: Five Arab militants stole into Pakistan through Khyber Agency in the third week of May, blindsiding army troops that have been watching out for Al Qaeda infiltrators in Tirah region since last December. The militants trekked up the Susobi Kandao smuggling route to teach the Bazaar town in Tirah. They then drove up to Akora Khattak where travel arrangements were finalised for their onward journey to Muzaffarabad in PoK. "Abu Talib and his four companions had been hiding in Jalalabad," informs source privy to the itinerary of the Al Qaeda operatives. "When they moved to Akora Khattak, they were led by two ex-Taliban officials, Malik Jajan and Commander Shiraz". Curiously, no Pakistani agency moved to apprehend them. This is the latest in the continuing influx of Al Qaeda militants that started with the US bombing of the Tora Bora caves last December and accelerated after the fighting in the Shahikot mountains of Paktia province in March. Ironically, it was to prevent just such an influx that Pakistan had thrown a security cordon along its border with Afghanistan. In May Islamabad reluctantly deployed troops in north and south Waziristan to help western forces encircle militants dispersed by the Shahikot fighting. Some 8,000 Pakistan army troops are presently deployed on the border in the tribal areas. Thousands of Arab and Chechen militants have crossed into Pakistan over the last five months. Most went to Karachi, Lahore and other does in the Punjab while others reportedly travelled to Kashmir. Anywhere between 100 and 1,000 militants are said to be present in the highlands of north and south Waziristan, where US-led forces impatiently await the start of a combing operation code named Mountain Lion. The Pakistani position is enigmatic. "We are here to arrest Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, not local smugglers," argues an army officer in Landikotal, headquarters of the Khyber Agency. "Because if we do, the local tribesmen may retaliate." In other words, Al Qaeda militants disguised as camel drivers may get across the border without hindrance. Then there is the question of legality. "The writ of the political administration only nuns along the main roads, therefore we cannot set up check points on unfrequented route", says a senior official in Wana, headquarters of South Waziristan Agency. "So an al Qaeda member can leave his mountain hideout, drive a pickup right into Wana town, buy provisions and go back without anyone attempting to arrest him." Where does that leave the intelligence network? "Most intelligence agencies do not have full-fledged units in Waziristan," explains an official of the department of home and tribal affairs. "The intelligence network in Khyber Agency is better but is more focused on Torkham border crossing perhaps because there is more money to be made there." Even in cases where credible information does become available, authorities have tended to look the other way. For example, authorities knew about the itinerary of the group led by Abu Talib. They are also said to be the aware of the activities of an Arab militant who handles Al Qaeda s money transfer operations named Abdullah, who was reportedly present in Khyber Agency until as recently as mid-May. Against this backdrop, some Al Qaeda members nabbed by Pakistani forces have been rounded up, to quote one analyst, "under duress". According to him, some 120 members of the al Qaeda that escaped from Tora Bora were arrested in Kurram Agency last December only after their presence became common knowledge. While descending on the Pakistani side of the White Mountain, these men were robbed of their guns and communication equipment by Mengal tribesmen in Kurram Agency's Parachamkani area. The majority Parachamkani tribe, which ultimately offered refuge to the men, was up in arms when it came to know about their story and raised lashkar to punish the Mengals for their "un-Islamic" act. In the resulting commotion. one of Parachamkani's own maliks to succumbed to political pressure and gave up the wanted men. In the second incident, more than 50 Al Qaeda men including Abu Zubaydah, a top Osama aide were arrested in Faisalabad in March when the US FBI intercepted their communications leaving local authorities with little or no excuse for refusing cooperation. The Herald has been able to confirm the presence in Peshawar of former Taliban finance minister Maulvi Abdul Kahir. Recently the Associated Press agency twice interviewed the Taliban's ex-deputy chief of intelligence, Qari Obaidullah, in Peshawar. The western media has in fact speculated that Osama may he hiding in Peshawar. Down south, Taliban and Al Qaeda activities have been more visible. "Hordes of them passed here to reach Tank and Deralsmal Khan enroute to the Punjab and Karachi," says Sailah Mahsood, a veteran journalist based in Wana. "The traffic continued for almost a month during April and May." Official sources confirm this view. They were mostly Arabs and Chechens. They initially came in small numbers, riding in hired double-cabpick-up trucks. Later they started arriving in large cargo trucks. Some of them just transited through Wana while others made a stop here, putting up in madaris or in houses belonging to known Taliban sympathisers." But the administration is apparently pursuing a different agenda. Before the launch of Operation Mountain Lion, agency authorities met with separate jirgas of Wazir and Mahsood tribesmen. "They told the tribesmen that harbouring Taliban and Al Qaeda members and their families could not be tolerated," an official source confides. And that it could lead to the carpet-bombing of their homes and villages. But instead of making it mandatory for them to hand the wanted people over to the government, the authorities simply asked them to 'tell those people to leave'. This is a strange policy. Leaving one home means that they will move to another". Under such circumstances. Operation Mountain Lion is understandably proceeding at a snail's pace. The terrain is decidedly tough, with elevations ranging nom 4,000-11,000 feet and thick forest cover stretching from Shawal valley in the north to the Khimran Mountain range in the south. Also, the al Qaeda operatives reportedly possess satellite phones and other wireless equipment which they use to communicate with each other as well as with their friends in the towns-of Waziristan. They also face sympathy and face no shortage of money to buy protection. The real problem, however, lies in the modalities of the operation itself. "The western forces have the entire Afghan side of the Wizirstan border owned. As such a combing operation from the north would compel Al-Qaeda elements to descend either to Razmak in the east or Wana in the south." explains an official familliar with the terrain. But Pakistani troop result of endless negotiations between the North Waziristan administration and the Madakhel Wazirs who appear reluctant to let the troops in. Analysts are convinced that the prevailing deadlock is a hoax. Besides, even if the dispute is resolved to the advantage of the Americans, chances are, the Al Qaeda fugitives will have by then slipped away yet again, this time into Pakistan. As one observer puts it, "Afghanistan's demons are crossing over to posses the exorcist."


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