ISLAMABAD – The absolute majority of them come from an authentic United Nations of the Islamic world: Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Chechnya, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Macedonia, Morocco, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Turkmenistan and Yemen. They are the 300-odd foreigners who have been arrested by Pakistani authorities since November 2001, and referred to this week by President General Pervez Musharraf as suspected of being linked with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda.
As soon as the Taliban abandoned Kabul last November, US Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said on the record that America was planning action against “40 to 50 countries.” One wonders which of the above “terrorist exporters” figure in the Pentagon hit list.
The foreigners have been extensively grilled by joint teams of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) operatives. Where are they now? A few dozen have been released – nothing could be proved against them. Another few dozen are still under ISI custody. But most – including 78 Saudis – have been transferred by the Americans as “unlawful combatants” to the infamous Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Among them are plenty of Western passport-holders: Mamdouh Ahmed Habib, an Egyptian carrying an Australian passport; Mehdi Gazali, a Muslim Swede; Melintok James Alexander, a Scotsman converted to Islam; and four Frenchmen – Abdul Wasab, Yusuf, Ali and Abdullah.
Dr. Khalid Wazem Diab, an American of Syrian descent with a PhD in aeronautics, is a case apart. The man, in his late 50s, spent the 1990s in Afghanistan, was arrested in Kurram agency, in the Pakistani tribal areas, and is now being kept at an undisclosed US base in Pakistan. The only other Americans arrested so far in Pakistan or Afghanistan are John Walker Lindh and Yaser Esam Hamdi, both being held in the US.
Rumsfeld claimed last January that the men at Camp X-Ray were “the hardest of the hardcore” of al-Qaeda fighters. They are not. They are the poor souls who assumed the rearguard while al-Qaeda’s leadership and prize fighters escaped unharmed from eastern Afghanistan to the neighboring tribal areas in Pakistan – where they still remain.
It has been widely argued throughout Europe and Asia that the detention of these “unlawful combatants” in Guantanamo is illegal. While being denied prisoner-of-war status, they have been transported without the protection of international law or the Geneva Convention and incarcerated outside US sovereign territory, where they are unprotected by the US constitution. In the event of prosecution – by a military tribunal – they have no rights to a trial by jury.
They have been bound, manacled, hooded, shackled, shaved, sedated, caged and thoroughly humiliated. At least four have tried to commit suicide in the past few weeks. Some have reportedly converted to Christianity. And now they have totally disappeared from media attention – even as, for critics around the world, their treatment represents the epitome of contempt within the Bush administration for civilized international opinion. Five-hundred and ninety-eight prisoners are being held in Camp X-Ray; “Delta,” another camp, was opened in April, allowing the Pentagon to double the number of prisoners during the past four months.
The one and only real hardcore al-Qaeda member to have been arrested in Pakistan so far is Abu Zubaidah, a Palestinian born in Saudi Arabia, described by US National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice as “a highly dangerous character.” He was arrested on March 29 along with 20 other Arabs in Faisalabad, and is still being interrogated by the FBI in an undisclosed location. He is suspected of being connected to all recent major al-Qaeda operations, from the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania to the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 and September 11. He is supposed to have reorganized al-Qaeda in Pakistan following their exodus en masse from the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan last December.
Musharraf has spent some time denying it, but any decent intelligence source in Pakistan confirms that there are at least 300 to 400 al-Qaeda operatives spread around the country. And they are being supported by a cluster of splinter Pakistani jihadi groups. Two particular sensitive areas are the Chitral Valley bordering the mountainous Afghan province of Kunar, and the region of Swat, not far from the Karakoram highway.
Nine German tourists travelling on the highway towards China, along with four tribals, were hurt by a hand grenade attack last July in Mansehra. There were a lot of subsequent arrests at the time, including that of Maulana Nazir Ahmed, the local chief of the Sipah-e-Sahaba jihadi group, now extinct, as well as 13 members of the jihadi group Harakat Mujahedeen, outlawed both by the US and Pakistan. The Harakat Mujahedeen once ran a military training camp close to Mansehra.
Karachi, the capital of Sindh, is nowadays awash with FBI agents. According to Pakistani officials of the Crime Investigation Department, the splinter jihadi groups – now all anti-Musharraf – used to be based in Karachi. When the FBI moved in, they started moving out north to the Punjab. As many as a staggering 130,000 people in the Punjab could at some time have received military training in Afghanistan – or been involved in anti-Soviet jihad and subsequent civil war in Afghanistan that culminated in the Taliban taking over in 1996. The hardcore jihadi group Lashkar-e-Jangvi was recently engaged in a blitzkrieg in the Punjab to recruit new blood – angry young men who received their training in Afghan military camps.
Now the splinter jihadi groups are leaving the Punjab and spreading around selected parts of the tribal areas, where any kind of travelling by foreigners has been strictly prohibited by Pakistani authorities. The Americans have established military bases in four of the eight tribal agencies – including ultra-hardcore and famously pro-Taliban Waziristan agency. Pashtun sources confirm that anti-American sentiment in all agencies is running at fever pitch.
The region of Malakand is also particularly sensitive. Malakand is the headquarters of another banned jihadi group, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM). The TNSM’s chief is none other than the extremely influential black-turbaned Sufi Muhamad – now locked up in a Pakistani jail. In the beginning of the US Afghan campaign last year, Sufi Muhamad persuaded as many as 8,000 tribals armed with Kalashnikovs and little else to march to Afghanistan on a jihad against the Americans. Hundreds of his unprepared followers were captured and maybe a few thousand killed by American bombing; the ones who managed to return were in a state of shock.
Pakistani police don’t have a clue on how to deal with a brand new and obscure jihadi group, al-Saiqa, which is headed by one Inayat Shah, aka Shajee. They have distributed pamphlets warning local police not to try to disturb jihadi groups, and they are suspected of being behind the attack on the German tourists. But there’s absolutely no intelligence about them. They seem to be unreachable. Police sources in Peshawar explain that they are based on the other side of the mighty Indus river – and there’s simply no bridge over the river in Indus Kohistan, a vast and wild area east of the Karakoram highway. Al-Saiqa is strongly suspected of playing a key role in sheltering al-Qaeda operatives and splinter jihadi groups in wild Kohistan.
But the crucial link between jihadi groups and al-Qaeda still seems to point to Lashkar-e-Jangvi. Police experts comment that the group always had a wide knowledge of basic explosives, but that it had never been able to develop car bombs and poison gas. Now they can – which means that they must have received outside support.
Lashkar-e-Jangvi may be outlawed and under pressure, but on a smaller scale than al-Qaeda it seems to be in the process of regrouping. Qari Abdul Hai is trying hard to reunify the leadership – which split basically because of a personality clash. Apart from Hai the other key player is Asif Ramzi – whose main targets are foreigners and western interests. The so-called group from Lahore still prefers to target the Pakistani Shia community.
All of the Lashkar-e-Jangvi factions badly needed cash. So Asif Ramzi took over: he is a man with powerful foreign connections – meaning al-Qaeda and plenty of Arab wealth. In return, the Arabs can now count on Lashkar’s manpower and logistical support.
No wonder that residents say that security in Islamabad has never been so tight, and the police are bracing themselves for a possible slew of car bombings and even poison gas attacks on crowded markets in big Pakistani cities. The hardest of the hardcore are definitely not in Camp X-Ray. They are haunting the streets of Pakistan.