July 2, 2002


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The Rediff Special/ Mazhar Ahmed

'Musharraf has to make a choice'
'Musharraf has to make a choice'
'Musharraf has to make a choice'

The death of at least 10, maybe more, Pakistani security force jawans (soldiers) at the hands of Osama bin Laden's international terror group last week has proved a shocking eye-opener for the country's military regime regarding Al Qaeda's 'actual strength' and the ground support it enjoys in Pakistan.

It was the first major direct encounter between the two since March, when Pakistani intelligence agencies, with the support of the United States' Federal Bureau of Investigation, arrested Abu Zubyada, one of bin Laden's top lieutenants, in Faislabad, Punjab.

Last week's encounter led to a major operation in the tribal areas of Pakistan, where intelligence agencies believe Al Qaeda members enjoy massive support. Sources indicate the biggest outlawed religious group in the northern areas, the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, may have provided shelter to Al Qaeda.

Earlier this year, TNSM chief Maulana Sufi Mohammad was imprisoned for seven years for instigating people to go to Afghanistan and support the Taliban in the wake of September 11. Some 30,000 TNSM activists responded to his call. "The Taliban hosted Sufi Mohammad and his men there. Now, it is the TNSM's turn. We cannot rule out the possibility that their members have sheltered and fed these foreigners," says a senior police official in Peshawar.

In the last four or five months, say sources, the FBI and the Pakistani intelligence agencies have arrested more than 400 Al Qaeda members, all of whom were foreigners and included citizens of Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Chechnya and Egypt. The authorities, they add, have also identified local Al Qaeda networks having links with the Harkat-ul-Mujhaideen, the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf outlawed all the three organisations in January this year.

"The Taliban had allowed these groups to establish training camps in Afghanistan. Their top leaders have access to Mullah Omar and bin Laden's top lieutenants," say sources.

Last week's incident provoked the government to speed up its anti-terror campaign, and it launched its first-ever advertising offensive. Issued by the federal interior ministry, the first three advertisements were, interestingly, only placed in leading newspapers in Karachi, the southern port city that, over the last two months, witnessed two massive car-bomb attacks which claimed several lives, including that of 11 French nationals.

American reporter Daniel Pearl was also abducted and killed in Karachi in the early part of the year. Police sources indicate these terrorist acts could be the work of local Al Qaeda agents. "I cannot rule out the possibility of an Al Qaeda presence in Karachi and other parts of the Sindh province," says Sindh police chief Syed Kamal Shah.

One of the advertisements, which carries the photographs of 18 Al Qaeda members, including bin Laden, denouncing them as 'religious terrorists,' appeals to the people for information about their whereabouts.

A few days earlier, the Sindh government placed an advertisement seeking information about nine people, mostly Lashkar-e-Jhangvi members, who are wanted for Pearl's murder, the blast outside the US consulate and the suicide bomb attack on the Pakistan navy bus which resulted in French casualties. "There seems to be a link between the two blasts. We cannot rule out the possibility of the people who came from Afghanistan being behind these terrorist activities," says Pakistani Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider.

Haider, who visited Karachi last week, was reportedly informed about the possibility of Al Qaeda providing 'logistic' and financial support for these three incidents. Sources say Haider has also been informed about the possibility of 'more terrorist attacks' in Karachi and other parts of the country, wherein Americans, Britons and even the French could be targeted.

In the last two months, intelligence agencies have arrested 12 foreigners with links to Al Qaeda. Six have already been handed over to the US government, say sources.

Some newspaper managements, particularly the right-wing ones, had refused to publish the advertisements. "They may have been scared; one ad that was supposed to go in colour on the back page of the high circulation Urdu daily, Jang, was instead published on the second page in black and white," says a senior Sindh department home official.

The Urdu paper Ummat, which supports bin Laden and other Islamic extremist groups, rejected the government advertisement and published its own, carrying all the 18 photographs of the Al Qaeda men who were termed mujahideen (holy warriors).

Some right-wing papers also condemned the campaign, saying the government was only seeking to please the US to get more funds. The Musharraf government has so far succeeded in resisting pressure (confined to statements by religious leaders) to reverse its policies and decided to continue with its crackdown on Al Qaeda and its local agents.

However, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an alliance of religious parties except the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and certain jihadi outfits (which, however, provide moral support), has decided to mobilise public opinion once the ban on political activities is lifted in the coming weeks. "We will show our strength at the time of elections," declares Mufti Jamil, central information secretary, Jamait Ulema-e-Islam, a party that supports the Taliban.

Political observers believe the government's policy towards the two former premiers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, may force their parties, the Pakistan People's Party and the Pakistan Muslim League respectively, to reach an understanding with the MMA. Any such understanding could pose a real threat to Musharraf.

"Musharraf has to bury his differences with Bhutto and Sharif if he wants to succeed in his war against terrorism and rid Pakistan of Al Qaeda," warns political analyst B M Kutty. "Any alliance between the religious and popular parties may force Musharraf to postpone the October polls, in which case he would lose more public support and become more insecure."

Thus far, religious parties in Pakistan have failed to get electoral support. This scenario may not change in October but Musharraf's rigid policy may help extremists make inroads in parliament. Sources say Al Qaeda is spreading its network and could provide financial support to extremist groups who consider Musharraf a risk during the October elections.

"The government must clear its policy. If it wants to eradicate extremism and terrorism, it must seek support from the popular parties. Musharraf has to make a choice. He has to select between right and wrong," says Pakistan People's Party leader Raza Rabbani.

Design: Lynette Menezes

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