The Pentagon finally seems to be convinced that al-Qaeda was not dead and buried in Afghanistan, and that they are in fact now running the show in Kashmir.
Things, however, are not quite as black and white. A high-level source linked to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) dismisses the notion that al-Qaeda are deeply involved in the Kashmiri freedom struggle – or what India regards as terrorism.
“I think it is mostly [US Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld nonsense. Al-Qaeda always has had connections with the jihad in Kashmir through Deobandi organizations such as Harakat-ul-Mujahideen and Jaish-I-Mohammad. But al-Qaeda has never been directly involved in the jihad in Kashmir. Some al-Qaeda members have taken refuge in Kashmir. But they are not involved in the jihad because the pattern of jihad has not changed since September 11. Rumsfeld and the CIA are talking about it now because the US is pressing Pakistan to close shop in Kashmir. The Americans’ assertions are over-exaggerated.”
The source also confirms that al-Qaeda fighters now “are everywhere in Pakistan. But they are not visible. And it would be almost impossible to talk to them, even with those who are in jail.” This widespread “mini-invasion” of Pakistan by al-Qaeda operatives is just one facet of the insurmountable problem faced by President General Pervez Musharraf. Taliban and al-Qaeda operatives are everywhere. A plot was hatched – and aborted – to kill Musharraf himself at the end of last year. India and Pakistan are again on the brink of war along the Line of Control.
But Musharraf still has not solved the really nuclear question: what does it take to satisfy the harsh anti-terrorist demands of the mighty US while mollifying increasingly angry Islamists in Pakistan and also appeasing Indian hawks?
The struggle in Kashmir is the raison d’etre of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment. For a few months now Musharraf has been directly involved in stopping official Pakistani support for jihadi groups operating in Kashmir. So no wonder that the ISI formally warned Musharraf that his government faced a kind of terrorist conglomerate composed of hardcore Islamist groups peppered with al-Qaeda. The conglomerate translates into action a perception widely shared among some sectors of Pakistani society that Musharraf is “an American lackey, although for the moment he is being relatively firm against the Indians,” in the words of a moderate observer in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar.
The terrorist conglomerate is the Lashkar-e-Omar – formed in January after the arrests of several prominent hardcore Islamist leaders. Most of the leaders – and militants – are now free. The name Lashkar-e-Omar is a direct homage to Ahmed Omar Sheikh – the former leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad, the group accused of kidnapping and murdering Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Lashkar-e-Omar blends three main organizations: Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The first two – both in the US black book of terrorist organizations – are jihadi groups, deeply involved in Kashmir, while Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is an ultra-sectarian Sunni organization engaged in murderous attacks against Shi’ite groups. But now they are acting together as a “loose coalition of jihadis” according to an ISI operative. “And of course they have links with al-Qaeda. But there is no substantial proof that the end of Indian rule in Kashmir is now part of al-Qaeda’s agenda. Musharraf is al-Qaeda’s enemy, not India.”
Most of the key members of the conglomerate are veterans of the 1980s jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets, or were at least trained in Afghan camps. Their version of Islam is as hardcore as the Taliban’s. And their track record already boasts – according to Pakistani investigators – the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl; the suicide bombing in Karachi in May that killed 12 French engineers; and last week’s attack against the US consulate in Karachi that claimed more than a dozen lives.
A key to understanding what is happening would be a visit to Waziristan – still a Taliban stronghold and arguably the toughest and the most religiously hardcore of the tribal areas in Pakistan. Waziristan was the destination of hundreds of key Taliban at the end of the Afghan war last December. The high-level source with ISI links says, “Waziristan is now the launching pad of the Americans. They have set up a listening post there. Taliban and al-Qaeda members, though, are everywhere in Pakistan, not just in Waziristan. It is almost impossible for foreigners to go to Waziristan because the Americans under any circumstances do not want to see foreign journalists.”
Of course, the small matter of the whereabouts of al-Qaeda’s supremo, a certain Osama bin Laden, still remains. It’s a mystery of sorts for the ISI-related source. “I wish I knew where bin Laden is. But wherever he is, he is playing games with the Americans; I mean mentally.”