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Home > News > Columnists > B Raman

Al Qaeda is right under Musharraf's nose

December 28, 2007

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Since 9/11, there has been hardly any jihadi terrorist strike anywhere in the world in which there was no Pakistani connection.

Since 2002, there has been hardly any jihadi terrorist strike in Pakistani territory in which there was no connection of the Pakistan army's general headquarters. By GHQ, one does not mean the entire army; one means some elements in the GHQ.

The first wake-up call about the possible presence of one or more sleeper cells of Al Qaeda [Images] in Rawalpindi came in March 2003. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who allegedly orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was found living in the house of a woman's wing office-bearer of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Rawalpindi. She had relatives in the army, including an officer of a signal regiment.

The second wake-up call came after the two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf [Images] in Rawalpindi in December 2003. Pakistani authorities have not yet taken their public into confidence regarding the details of the two plots. All they admitted was that four junior officers of the Pakistan army and six from the Pakistan air force were allegedly involved.

One of the army officers, Islamuddin, was court-martialed and sentenced to death even before the investigation was complete. Another army officer, Havaldar Younis, was sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. Much to the discomfiture of the authorities, one of the air force officers, a civilian who was being held in custody in an air force station, managed to escape.

There are still many unanswered questions about the conspiracy to kill Musharraf.

  • Who took the initiative in planning this conspiracy? The arrested junior officers of the Pakistan army and the air force or the leaders of the suspected jihadi organisations?
  • When was the conspiracy hatched?
  • How did Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence and the intelligence directorates-general of the Pakistan army and air force remain unaware of this conspiracy, when the conspirators had allegedly held some of their preparatory meetings in their living quarters in military cantonments and air force stations?
  • Was there a complicity of some people in the intelligence establishment itself? If so, at what level?
  • Why was the government unable to identify those in the intelligence establishment involved in the conspiracy?
  • Was there an involvement of the Hizbut Tehrir?

These questions re-surfaced in the wake of the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libi of Al Qaeda and the re-arrest of the civilian air force employee, who had managed to escape from custody in November 2004, while under interrogation about the conspiracy. That there were apprehensions in the minds of those close to Musharraf over the role of sections of the intelligence establishment in the entire conspiracy, and over the failure of the investigating agencies to unravel the entire conspiracy, became evident from an interview given by Dr Aamir Liaqat Hussain, Pakistan's then minister of state for religious affairs to the Daily Times on May 5, 2005 (read interview).

The minister warned that Musharraf had a lot of enemies 'within' who could make another attempt on his life at any time. He said there were certain elements within the Pakistan armed forces who could attack the general. He added: 'No common people could attack President Musharraf, but certainly there are elements in the forces who can launch yet another attack against him. There is an ISI within the ISI, which is more powerful than the original and still orchestrating many eventualities in the country.'

He added that he feared a threat to his life because he supported Musharraf's call for an enlightened and moderate Islam and because he had been given the task of preparing the texts of sermons, advocating an enlightened and moderate Islam, to be used at all mosques used by the armed forces.

Well-informed sources in Pakistan said that, apart from the failure of the intelligence establishment to identify and weed out pro-jihadi elements in the armed forces and the intelligence establishment, another cause for serious concern was the continuing failure of the intelligence establishment to identify all the Pakistani leaders of the highly secretive Hizbut Tehrir and its supporters in the armed forces and arrest them.

The HT ideology and operational methods were imported into Pakistan from the UK by its supporters in the Pakistani community there in 2000. It was said that, within five years, the HT was able to make considerable progress not only in setting up its organisational infrastructure, but also in recruiting dedicated members in civil society as well as in the armed forces. It was also reported that no other jihadi organisation had been able to attract as many young and educated members and as many supporters in the armed forces.

Physical security regulations in an ISI office at Rawalpindi exempt officers of the rank of brigadier and above from frisking at the outer gate if they came in their own vehicle. They undergo frisking only after they have entered the premises, parked their car in the space allotted to them in the garage and entered the building where their office is located.

Officers below the rank of brigadier undergo frisking twice, whether they are in their own vehicle or in a bus, first at the outer gate and then again inside before they enter the building. At the outer gate, they have to get out of their vehicle, undergo frisking and then get into their vehicle and drive in.

Since all officers travel in civilian clothes, in unmarked vehicles that cannot be identified by the army or the ISI, there is a special hand signalling system for brigadiers and those officers ranked above them. This was how the security staff at the outer gate recognised their rank and let them drive in without undergoing frisking. These hand signals were changed frequently.

On the morning of November 24, 2007, a car reached the outer gate; the man in the car showed a hand signal that had been in use till the previous day. It had been changed on November 23 and a new signal was in force from the morning of November 24. The man in the car was not aware of it. The security staff got suspicious and did not allow the car to drive in. They asked the man to step out of the car for questioning and frisking.

The man blew himself up.

As he did so, an unmarked chartered bus carrying over 40 civilian and junior military ISI employees reached the outer gate and stopped, so that those inside could get out for frisking. The bus bore the brunt of the explosion. Thirty-five people, including some of those who were inside the bus as well as some members of the security staff, died. The Pakistani authorities, however, admitted the death of only 18 people.

Around the same time, a man driving a vehicle towards the premises of the GHQ in another part of Rawalpindi was stopped by the security staff at a physical security barrier. He blew himself up, killing two of the security staff.

These two well-synchronised suicide strikes in Rawalpindi, the sanctum sanctorum of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment, came just around six weeks after a similar attack simultaneously targetted the ISI and the army at Rawalpindi.

On September 4, a suicide attacker blew himself up after boarding a bus carrying ISI employees. A roadside bomb went off near a commercial area in Rawalpindi, while a car carrying an unidentified senior army officer to the GHQ was passing by. Twenty-five people died in the two attacks. The army officer escaped unhurt.

On October 30, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint several hundred yards from the GHQ. Seven people, most of whom belonged to the GHQ's security staff, died.

The two attacks directed at the ISI, and another at a Pakistan air force bus at Sargodha, were based on inside information. In the case of the explosion at the outer gate of the ISI complex on November 24, the suicide bomber was aware of the hand signalling code for senior officers. However, he was not aware that the signal code had been changed the previous day. Since these codes are communicated personally to the concerned officers, their existence is supposed to be known only to them and to the physical security staff. This means the suicide bomber's inside accomplice was either an ISI officer of the rank of brigadier or above or a member of the physical security staff.

There are two alarming aspects of the security situation in Pakistan.

The first is the upsurge in acts of suicide terrorism directed against security and intelligence personnel and their establishments. These give clear evidence of extent to which pro-Al Qaeda jihadi elements have penetrated inside Pakistan's armed forces, the intelligence agencies and the police.

The second is the inability or unwillingness of the police to vigorously investigate these incidents, including the attempt to kill Benazir Bhutto [Images] in Karachi on October 18. Nobody knows definitively till today who are responsible for these suicide attacks -- the tribal followers of Baitullah Mehsud of south Waziristan or those of Maulana Fazlullah of the Swat valley or the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the anti-Shia sectarian organisation, Al Qaeda and its Uzbek associates or angry students of the two madrassas run by the Lal Masjid in Islamabad?

The Rawalpindi cantonment where the headquarters and other sensitive units of the Pakistan army and the ISI are located, and the adjoining capital city of Islamabad, where the headquarters of the federal government and the national assembly are located, had seen terrorist strikes even in the past. Amongst them, one could mention:

  • The explosion, in 1989, in the Rawalpindi office of Dr Farooq Haider, then president of one of the factions of the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front. This was attributed to a rival faction led by Amanullah Khan.
  • The explosion outside the Egyptian embassy at Islamabad in the 1990s, which was attributed to some Egyptian opponents of President Hosni Mubarak.
  • The grenade attack inside an Islamabad church frequented by the diplomatic community in March 2002 ,in which the wife of a US diplomat and their daughter were killed.
  • The unsolved assassination of Maulana Azam Tariq, the Amir of the Sipah-eSahaba, Pakistan, the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi at Islamabad in 2003.
  • The terrorist attack on a group of workers belonging to Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party in Islamabad earlier this year.
  • The alleged firing of a rocket on Musharraf's plane from the terrace of a house in Islamabad again earlier this year.
  • And the alleged firing of rockets by unidentified elements from a park in Islamabad last year.

If one leaves aside the JKLF factional politics, the only terrorist organisations which had operated in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area in the past (before July 2007) were the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which was blamed for the church grenade attack; the Sipah Mohammad, the Shia terrorist organisation, which was suspected in the murder of Azam Tariq; and Al Qaeda. Many Pakistani and Kashmiri jihadi organisations like the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, etc, have their offices in Rawalpindi, but do not indulge in terrorist activities there.

There was no evidence to show that the Egyptians responsible for the explosion outside the Egyptian embassy were then the followers of Osama bin Laden. The first indication of some local support for Al Qaeda in Rawalpindi came in March 2003, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, supposedly the man who coordinated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was arrested from the house of a women's wing leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Rawalpindi by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was living in Karachi till September 2002. He fled to Quetta in Balochistan following the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh, another Al Qaeda operative there. From Quetta, he shifted to Rawalpindi at the beginning of 2003, fearing betrayal by the Shias of Quetta.

After his arrest, no thorough enquiries would appear to have been made either by the ISI or the police to determine why he took shelter in Rawalpindi, a highly guarded military cantonment. Did he and/or Al Qaeda have any other accomplices in Rawalpindi, in addition to the Jamaat-e-Islami leader and members of her family, which included a junior army officer belonging to a signals battalion, who was also detained for interrogation?

Did Al Qaeda or the Pakistani organisations allied to it through the International Islamic Front have a sleeper cell/ cells in the cantonment? If they had, the sleeper cells could have functioned undetected only with the complicity of at least some member of Pakistan's armed forces.

After Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was arrested and handed over to the US, anti-Musharraf and pro-jihadi pamphlets typed on the official letterhead used in GHQ army offices in Rawalpindi started circulating in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The ISI and police were unable to determine who was circulating these pamphlets. No arrests were made in this connection. Instead, Musharraf ordered the arrest, on charges of treason, of a leader of the Nawaz Sharif-led faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, who drew the attention of Parliament and the public to these pamphlets.

After the April 2003 arrest in Karachi of Waleed bin Attash of Al Qaeda, one of the suspects in the case relating to the Al Qaeda attack on the US naval ship USS Cole at Aden in October 2000, many Al Qaeda members living in Karachi were reported to have shifted to the North-West Frontier Province, Balochistan, the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas and Rawalpindi.

Their shifting to Rawalpindi and taking shelter there would not have been possible without the complicity of not only the Pakistani jihadi groups, but also their supporters in Pakistan's armed forces and the police. The Pakistani security agencies have not been able to identify and dismantle Al Qaeda and IIF cells in the Rawalpindi cantonment.

Then there is the fact that the perpetrators of the two attacks on Musharraf in December 2003 -- whether they belonged to Al Qaeda or to any of the Pakistani components of the IIF -- chose to act on both occasions from Rawalpindi instead of Karachi where Musharraf was before the first attack on December 14. This showed their confidence in being able to operate undetected from Rawalpindi rather than from Karachi.

I do not believe Musharraf had prior knowledge of the plot to kill Benazir in Rawalpindi. But he has to be held responsible for failing to provide her with effective physical security. Musharraf and his officers kept disregarding her growing fears about threats to her security. He failed to ensure a vigorous investigation of the first attempt to kill her at Karachi on October 18.

The infiltration of traditional fundamentalist political parties into the GHQ started under the late Zia-ul Haq. Since Musharraf took over, there has been an infiltration of Al Qaeda into the Pakistani armed forces and into their sanctum sanctorum in Rawalpindi.

These elements are against Musharraf too, but they were against Benazir much more because she was a woman. Besides, she had been saying openly that she would allow the US to hunt for Osama bin Laden in Pakistani territory and that she would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna to interrogate nuclear scientist A Q Khan. Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda jihadis wanted to eliminate both Musharraf and Benazir because they were seen as apostates and as US collaborators.

They have succeeded in killing Benazir. They will now step up their efforts to eliminate Musharraf. Whoever was responsible for killing her could not have done it without inside complicity. If Al Qaeda already has sleeper cells in the GHQ, there is an equal danger that it already has sleeper cells inside Pakistan's nuclear establishment too.

Musharraf is either knowingly dishonest or is living in a make-believe world, where he is unaware of the ground realities. Only a few days before Benazir's assassination, he was bragging to officer trainees at the Defence Services Staff College in Quetta that he had defeated the terrorists outside the tribal belt and would soon defeat them in the tribal belt too.

His reluctance to order an enquiry into the extent of Al Qaeda's infiltration of into GHQ is disturbing. He has convinced himself that he was not only the most popular leader of Pakistan, but also that the entire armed forces of Pakistan is devoted to him. Anybody who says otherwise is treated by him as a traitor, arrested and harassed.

It is time that both Musharraf and the US realise that Al Qaeda is not just in the tribal belt. It is right under their noses in Rawalpindi itself.


B Raman




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