Saturday, September 10, 2011

Al-Qaeda's roots grow deeper in Pakistan

By Amir Mir
Asia Times
September 10, 2011

ISLAMABAD - Ten years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City's twin World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon and the subsequent "war on terror" launched by United Stated-led forces against al-Qaeda, the terrorist group continues to pose a serious threat to the world as it keeps surviving and thriving mainly on the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt.

In these rugged areas it has established an effective jihadi network that increasingly exploits its Pakistani affiliates to carry on the global jihadi agenda of Osama bin Laden, despite his May 2 killing in a United States military raid in Abbottabad in Pakistan.
Until recently, analysts have been mostly focusing on the dangers posed by the growing Talibanization of Pakistan. Yet, it has now become abundantly clear that the time has come to pay more attention to the bigger dangers posed by the Pakistanization of al-Qaeda.

Since US president George W Bush's declaration of war against global terrorism in September 2001, the US and its allies claim to have killed or captured over 75% of senior al-Qaeda leaders, the latest being Younis al-Mauritania, suspected of directing attacks against the US and Europe, who was arrested on September 5, 2011, during a raid in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province in Pakistan.

Yet, the frequency of terror attacks worldwide being attributed to the al-Qaeda network has increased, as compared to the pre-9/11 period, the latest being the September 7 twin suicide attacks targeting the residence of the deputy inspector general of the Balochistan Frontier Corps in Quetta, which killed 24 people.

Pakistani terrorism experts believe that the current spate of high-intensity attacks, despite Bin Laden's death four months ago, make obvious that al-Qaeda's core elements are still resilient and that the outfit is cultivating stronger operational connections that radiate outward from hideouts in Pakistan to affiliates scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Therefore, as things stand, it appears that al-Qaeda not only remains in business in its traditional stronghold in the Waziristan tribal region on the largely lawless Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt border, it has also clearly advanced to the urban areas in all the four provinces of Pakistan.

This is confirmed by the growing belief of the Barack Obama administration that if there is one country that matters most to the future of al-Qaeda, it is Pakistan.

A solid base
Al-Qaeda, which means "The Base" in Arabic, was founded in 1988 by Bin Laden with the aim of overthrowing the US-dominated world order. The outfit was relatively unknown until the 9/11 terror attacks when its operatives hijacked four US airliners and successfully crashed two of them into the World Trade Center towers in New York, with a third plane hitting the Pentagon building in Washington and a fourth one crashing in Pennsylvania as the passengers attempted to regain control of the plane.

In an exclusive interview with Geo television on July 23, 2008, Mustafa Abu Yazid alias Sheikh Saeed, then the third senior-most al-Qaeda leader after Bin Laden and Dr Ayman Zawahiri, confessed for the first time that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 al-Qaeda operatives.

As US-led forces launched a ruthless military offensive in Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11, the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda leadership started systematically moving its fighters across their eastern border into Pakistan, where they effectively took over the rugged mountainous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) after joining hands with local militants.

The al-Qaeda leadership's choice of using the FATA region, especially the North and South Waziristan tribal agencies as their hideout, has enabled the terror outfit to build a new power base, separate from Afghanistan. As a result, despite Pakistan's extensive contribution to the "war on terror", many questions persist about the extent to which al-Qaeda and its allied groups are operating within Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda's success in forging close ties to Pakistani jihadi groups has given it an increasingly secure haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan. These regions have replaced Afghanistan as the key training and indoctrination grounds for al-Qaeda recruits to be used in operations abroad and for training those indoctrinated and radicalized elsewhere.

The international community continues to portray Pakistan as a breeding ground for the Taliban militia and a sanctuary for fugitive al-Qaeda leaders. Despite repeated denials by Pakistani authorities, the global media keep reporting them having already established significant bases in Peshawar and Quetta, and carrying out cross-border ambushes against their targets in Afghanistan, while al-Qaeda suicide bombing teams target US-led forces from their camps in the mountainous region.

The general notion that al-Qaeda is getting stronger even after the decade-long "war on terror", can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan, despite being a key US ally during all those years, is undergoing a radical change, moving from the phase of Talibanization of its society to the Pakistanization of al-Qaeda.

Many of the key Pakistani jihadi organizations, which are both anti-American and anti-state, have already joined hands with al-Qaeda to let loose a reign of terror across Pakistan. The meteoric rise of the Taliban militia in Pakistan, especially after 9/11, has literally pushed the Pakistani state to the brink of civil war, claiming over 35,000 lives in terrorism-related incidents between 2001 and 2011.

Terrorism experts believe that the Pakistanization of al-Qaeda is rooted in decades of collaboration between elements of the Pakistani military and the intelligence establishment and extremist jihadi movements that birthed and nurtured al-Qaeda, which has evolved significantly over the years from a close-knit group of Arab Afghans to a trans-national Islamic global insurgency, dominated by more and more Pakistani militants.

American intelligence agencies believe that with a surge of motivated youth flooding towards the realm of jihad and joining al-Qaeda cadres, Pakistan remains a potential site for recruitment and training of militants as the fugitive leadership of the outfit keeps hiring local recruits with the help of their local affiliates in Pakistan. This is to bolster the manpower of al-Qaeda, which has grown from strength to strength despite the arrest and killing of hundreds of its operatives from within Pakistan since 2001.

These experts believe, despite the physical elimination of al-Qaeda founder Bin Laden, that his terrorist outfit remains a potent threat to global peace as it keeps blooming in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt. They say al-Qaeda, for all practical purposes, is now a Pakistani phenomenon as a good number of the anti-American sectarian and jihadi groups in the country have joined the terrorist network, making Pakistan the nerve center of al-Qaeda's global operations.

Investigations into the May 22, 2011, fidayeen (suicide) attack on the Mehran Naval Base in the southern Pakistani port city of Karachi have revealed that it was a coordinated operation involving al-Qaeda's Waziristan-based chief operational commander from Egypt, Saif Al Adal, the outfit's top military strategists from Pakistan, Ilyas Kashmir, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban - TTP) and the Punjabi Taliban, a term used to describe the Punjab-based jihadi organizations that are opposed to, and fighting, the Pakistani state as well as the United States.

The Pakistani intelligence findings on the Mehran attack clearly demonstrate that al-Qaeda and the TTP have teamed up with the Punjabi Taliban in recent years to form a triangular syndicate of militancy, with the aim to destabilize Pakistan, whose political and military leadership has been siding with "the forces of the infidel" in the "war against terror".

Therefore, the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance has gained an edge in Pakistan because of the support the local jihadi groups provide. Ideological ties bind al-Qaeda, the TTP and the Punjabi Taliban to throw out international forces from Afghanistan. These three jihadi entities share intelligence, human resources and training facilities, and empathize with each other as American and Pakistani forces - however strained the relationship between the two countries may be - hunt and target them. This was proven recently with the arrest of Mauritania, which was the result of collaboration between US and Pakistani intelligence agencies.

The three organizations initially came together at the time the US invaded Afghanistan post-9/11, prompting al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban to rely on local partners such as Pakistani pro-Taliban tribes, anti-US and anti-Shi'ite groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and jihadi mercenaries in Pakistani religious seminaries and jihadi groups for shelter and assistance.

The ties between local militant groups and al-Qaeda were cemented further as the Afghan Taliban's astonishing successes against the US-led allied forces prompted the US to increase drone attacks in the tribal areas and turn the heat on Pakistan to crack down on the TTP and others.

However, this "axis of evil" remains an informal alliance that is mainly meant to protect and support each member. What gave the alliance a fillip was the migration of battle-hardened Pakistani commanders from the battlefront in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir to the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

As things stand, the violence-wracked Waziristan region has become the new battlefield for the pro-Kashmir militants, who have already joined hands with the anti-US al-Qaeda elements. Information collected by Pakistani agencies shows the presence of fighters belonging to several pro-Kashmir jihadi groups, many of which have fallen out of favor with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which is under tremendous pressure to stop harboring al-Qaeda-linked elements.

These groups, which include the Harkatul Jihad-al-Islami, al-Badar, Jamaatul Furqaan and renegade elements of the Jaish-e-Mohammad and the Lashkar-e-Toiba, have strong connections with al-Qaeda in terms of operational collaboration and logistical support.

Veteran jihadi commanders like Kashmiri, who was reportedly killed in June in a US drone attack, were the first to adopt al-Qaeda's ideology - that the weakening of the world's only superpower, the United States, is essential for the survival of the Muslim world.

The death of Bin Laden was unquestionably a major blow to al-Qaeda. Yet, terrorism experts say long before he was killed, al-Qaeda had adapted itself to survive and operate without him, ensuring that the threat his terror network posed lived well beyond his demise.

Therefore, a decade after the US unleashed its much-trumpeted "war on terror", and despite the death of Bin Laden, there is no reason to believe that the terrorist outfit he launched more than two decades ago is anywhere near defeat.

Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.

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