A big fish in the net

Published : Mar 28, 2003 00:00 IST

The arrest from Rawalpindi of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a key planner of the September 11 attacks in the United States, has raised uncomfortable questions for President Pervez Musharraf, who has consistently denied the existence in Pakistan of Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives.

in Islamabad

PAKISTAN Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed was on the state-run television live, exactly 24 hours after the `sensational' capture of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the suspected planner of the September 11 attacks in the United States, from a house in Rawalpindi in a joint Pakistan-Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) operation.

The Minister normally has an answer for any question on anything under the sun. But on this occasion, he was hedging and humming. As viewers bombarded him with questions on whether the arrest was indeed the handiwork of Pakistani agencies and Mohammed, a Kuwaiti national, would not be handed to Americans as asserted by some of the senior functionaries, the Minister gave up. "Please understand, while in government one cannot speak about everything freely. The matter is simple. The Americans have the technology and communications network to track down militants. But when it comes to action on the ground, it is our poor constables who are in the forefront. So, don't press further on the subject," he pleaded.

Two days later all became clear. It was indeed a `joint' operation by the U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies, perhaps dominated by the former. All the posturing by the Musharraf regime on the custody of Mohammed was aimed at the domestic audience. With the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), an alliance of six religious parties, running a full-throated campaign that foreign intelligence agencies have turned Pakistan into a `colony', those little posturings were part of the game.

This is beside the point. Going by the accounts from Washington, Mohammed is a `big fish'. In the U.S. the arrest was compared to the liberation of Paris in Second World War! He has long been on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) most wanted list, and the U.S. had recently increased the reward for his capture to $25 million. Washington has described him as one of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's "most senior and significant lieutenants".

Apart from facing the charge of being a key planner of the 9/11 attacks, Mohammed has been indicted in the U.S. for plotting to blow up American commercial airliners in the Philippines in the mid-1990s.

Understandably, there was much joy, both in Islamabad and Washington, over what was described as a `major breakthrough' in targeting the Al Qaeda network. Major-General Rashid Qureshi, a spokesman for Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, described Mohammed as "the kingpin of Al Qaeda". U.S. President George W. Bush was quoted as having exclaimed that was "fantastic".

But is it really a case for such rejoicing? U.S. intelligence agents have been hunting for the remnants of Afghanistan's former Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network since the U.S.-led military action in Afghanistan in late 2001, that is, for nearly 18 months. It is indeed a telling commentary on the military operations of the U.S. in Afghanistan that it could not capture any significant Al Qaeda operative.

There have been wild speculations about the fate of bin Laden and the Taliban chief, Mullah Omar. It is presumed that hundreds of Al Qaeda operatives and former Taliban leaders have fled into Pakistan since U.S.-led forces launched the strikes.

There are good reasons to believe that a number of Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives have made their way into Pakistan. Islamabad is on record as having said that it has given custody of over 430 Al Qaeda suspects to America. It should be a matter of serious concern to the Musharraf regime that these figures have not only managed to cross over but also find shelter in different parts of Pakistan.

Senior Al Qaeda suspects arrested in Pakistan in recent months include Ramzi bin Al-Shibh, a Yemeni national, who is allegedly one of the main planners of the attacks in Washington and New York and is now in U.S. custody. Abu Zubaydah, thought to have been bin Laden's field commander, was handed over to the U.S.

The arrest of Mohammed confirms widely expressed fears that the leaders of the Taliban might have found safe havens across the border in Pakistan. With support from local people, Al Qaeda operatives were thought to have built up a tight network in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. If Mohammed's arrest brought relief in Washington, it also brought into sharp focus the dilemmas and challenges facing Pakistan today.

On the positive side in the global fight against terror, the arrest demonstrated the oft-repeated resolve of the Musharraf government to be an active partner in the U.S. campaign in the so-called war on terrorism. Doubts had been raised about the genuineness of Musharraf's promised crackdown on Al-Qaeda elements in the wake of continuing terrorist incidents in the region.

Reports in a section of the U.S. media about the alleged help provided by Pakistani intelligence agencies to the renegade Afghan leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar, and other opponents of the Hamid Karzai administration, constitute a case in point. Some of this scepticism may end with the latest arrest.

But more worrisome for Musharraf must be the political fallout of such operations against Al Qaeda carried out in conjunction with U.S. agencies such as the FBI and the CIA. The role of these agencies is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. The resurgence of Islamic hardliners following their showing in parliamentary and local elections late last year has, if anything, made it an explosive issue and reinforced doubts about the capacity of the government to keep its promise to the international community, especially the U.S., to maintain the pressure on Al Qaeda.

In a brief but telling editorial the Pakistani English daily, Daily Times, summed up the implications of Mohammed's capture for the country. Titled "What we don't (want to) know" it read:

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was a key person in the trauma of 9/11. That is why President George Bush has compared his recent arrest in Rawalpindi to the liberation of Paris in the Second World War. But there has been conspicuous speculation about his detention by Pakistan and why he was dangerous enough to merit arrest.

"First we were told that he had been handed over to America, then the Interior Minister said that he was being held in Pakistan. However, what is discomfiting is the thought that whenever we have denied the presence of big Al Qaeda terrorists in Pakistan, they have been arrested from our cities. Abu Zudaida was arrested from Faisalabad (Punjab) and spilled the beans on several local `doctors'. We similarly denied the presence of Khalid Mohammed but when the FBI led our agencies to his flat in Karachi we ended up catching Ramzi from the adjoining rooms. Now only days after press reports claiming that he had escaped via sea to the Gulf, he is caught barely a mile away from the army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

"The world has always known that Khalid Sheikh masterminded the attack on the World Trade Centre and beheaded Daniel Pearl. But we Pakistanis refused to focus on this. Now, once again, the world may be hoping to catch the remaining two top Al Qaeda leaders, Aiman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, from our big cities. But we are oblivious of such perceptions taking root. Indeed, General Pervez Musharraf continues to claim that they are not in Pakistan."

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