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Home > News > Columnists > B Raman

How significant is Khalid Sheikh's arrest?

March 03, 2003

Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, described by Major General Rashid Qureshi, General Pervez Musharraf's spokesman, as 'the kingpin of Al Qaeda,' was arrested by Pakistani intelligence officials from the home of a local Jamaat-e-Islami lady leader's son in Rawalpindi on March 1. He was handed over to US intelligence officials based in Pakistan. The latter immediately airlifted him to the US naval base in Diego Garcia for interrogation.

It is understood an Arab and the Jamaat-e-Islami leader's Pakistani son were also arrested by Pakistani authorities during the raid. While the arrested Pakistani has not been handed over to US officials, it is not clear whether the Arab is also in US custody.

According to details available so far, during the interrogation of two members of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi arrested in Karachi last month, after a tip-off from some members of the Kashmiri Shia community of Karachi hailing from Gilgit, the intelligence officials discovered the whereabouts of another wanted Lashkar-e-Jhangvi terrorist who had taken shelter in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.

He too was arrested and questioned. The Laskar man reportedly revealed that Khalid was staying with him, but escaped just before the raid. He gave the address of the Jamaat-e-Islami leader's son in Rawalpindi as one of the likely places where he might have taken shelter.

The house in Rawalpindi was raided thereafter and Khalid and the Arab arrested. Khalid had first come to notice in 1995 when he was reportedly involved, along with Ramzi Yousef, formerly of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in a plot for a series of terrorist attacks directed against US airlines and other American interests.

Khalid and Ramzi Yousef, described as Khalid's nephew, had drawn up the plot from a hideout in Manila where they had taken shelter after Ramzi's involvement in the explosion at the World Trade Centre in New York in February 1993. Following an accidental fire at their hideout, which drew the Filipino authorities's attention to their presence and activities in Manila, they escaped to Pakistan.

While Ramzi was arrested by Pakistani authorities and handed over to US officials for trial in the World Trade Centre explosion case in which he was convicted along with others and sentenced to life imprisonment, Khalid has been absconding since then.

Accounts emanating since 9/11 from US intelligence officials and some non-governmental counter-terrorism experts known for their proximity to US intelligence agencies have been projecting Khalid as the real action man of Osama bin Laden, the man who orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.

In an interview to the Al Jazeera network in August 2002, Khalid and Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni member of Al Qaeda, bragged about their role in 9/11. Khalid introduced himself as head of Al Qaeda's military committee. The Al Jazeera correspondent reported he interviewed them in a hideout in Karachi.

US intelligence officials then organised a hunt for them in Karachi and, through electronic intercepts, located their hideout, which was raided by Pakistani authorities on September 11, 2002. During an exchange of fire lasting about four hours, Binalshibh was captured and airlifted to Diego Garcia for interrogation.

According to US officials, he was to have joined in the hijacking of the aircraft on 9/11, but could not do so because he could not get a US visa.

Since 1995, the following six terrorists, involved in acts of terrorism against US nationals and interests, have been among those arrested in Pakistan:

  • Ramzi Yousef, involved in the World Trade Centre explosion of February 1993.
  • Mir Aimal Kansi, involved in the murder of two CIA officers outside the agency's headquarters in Langley in January 1993. He has since been executed after his conviction in the case.
  • Sheikh Omar, involved in the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist in January-February 2002. He actually surrendered to a former official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, who was then posted as Punjab home secretary in Lahore.
  • Abu Zubaydah, described by US officials, as the No 3 man in Al Qaeda, after Mohammed Atef's death in the US air strikes in Afghanistan. He was arrested from a hideout of the Lashkar-e-Tayiba at Faislabad in Punjab on March 28 2002 and flown to Diego Garcia.
  • Ramzi Binalshibh arrested in Karachi on September 11, 2002.
  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. 

Under Pakistani laws, anyone arrested in Pakistani territory for a criminal offence has to be produced before a local court, tried for any offence pending against him in Pakistan and only then deported or extradited to any foreign country to face trial in that country.

Pakistani authorities strictly followed this procedure in the Daniel Pearl case and have till now refused to hand over Sheikh Omar to US authorities. He has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court, but his appeal against the death sentence has not yet been disposed off.

Their refusal to hand him over to the US for interrogation and trial in the US is due to his past linkages with the ISI, his self-confessed role as the kingpin of the ISI's terrorist operations in Indian territory and his reported claim, as made to the Karachi police during his interrogation. He claimed that during a visit to Kandahar before 9/11 he had come to know of Al Qaeda's plans for the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and had passed on the information to Lt Gen Ehsan-ul Haq, the present director general of the ISI, who was then the corps commander in Peshawar. The Pakistani authorities were worried that if he made these disclosures to US interrogators, the US might be constrained to act against Pakistan.

In the case of the other five, the Pakistani authorities had no hesitation in informally handing them over to US officials without following the due process of law since they were apparently confident that they were unlikely to implicate Pakistan in any acts of terrorism during their interrogation by US agencies.

Sheikh Omar was an UK resident of Pakistani origin and Abu Zubaydah, a Palestinian. Binalshibh is a Yemeni and the other three are stated to be Yemeni-Balochis, of mixed Yemeni-Balochi parentage. There is considerable confusion about the nationalities of Ramzi Yousef and Khalid. Some past reports that they were Kuwaiti nationals had been denied by Kuwaiti authorities. Pakistani authorities had denied they were Pakistani nationals. Ramzi Yousef entered the US as an Iraqi national fleeing persecution from the Saddam Hussein government, participated in carrying out the explosion and fled the US with a Pakistani passport issued by the Pakistani consulate in New York.

From this, sections of the Pakistani media used to refer to him and Khalid as Pakistani nationals of Iraqi origin.

When Abu Zubaydah was arrested, US officials projected him as the most significant catch which was likely to disrupt future Al Qaeda operations. Their claims were belied by the series of terrorist strikes thereafter in Pakistan and other countries. Similar claims made after Binalshibh's arrest were belied by the terrorist strikes in Bali and Mombasa.

The fact that neither of them could help in the prevention of terrorist strikes that followed showed while they might have been knowledgeable about acts of terrorism in the past in which they participated, they had little knowledge of operations planned for the future.

This is because the operations of bin Laden's International Islamic Front after 9/11 are being planned and carried out by various components of the IIF acting autonomously without any central planning and coordination. Even though bin Laden claimed responsibility for these terrorist strikes in an Al Jazeera broadcast on November 12, 2002, it is uncertain whether he had any advance knowledge of these strikes by different IIF units.

It is doubtful whether Khalid's arrest will cause any major disruptions in the IIF's operations. Claims that his arrest could deliver a serious blow to terrorist operations in Southeast Asia are unduly over-optimistic and unwarranted.

B Raman

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