Police believed they had a good bust: members of an outlawed group allied with Al Qaeda who were caught with a cache of assault rifles, pistols, explosives and two CDs featuring Osama bin Laden.
When the 11 suspected militants from Harkat-ul-Moujahedeen, the Pakistani group with the longest and most direct ties to Bin Laden, were locked up, the charge sheet landed on the desk of Sher Mohammed Khan, an anti-terrorism prosecutor working from a cubbyhole of an office.
The case promptly hit a wall.
Within days, the arrests were shrugged off as a setup by overzealous cops. Khan agreed bail was appropriate, and a special anti-terrorism court granted it about a month after the August arrest. The two leaders of the 11 were quickly back on the street.
One step forward in the war on terrorism became two steps back.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who was sworn in Saturday for five more years, is working closely with the U.S. in the roundup of foreign terror suspects. But his government’s record against home-grown militants, many of them allies of Bin Laden, looks less resolute.
Security forces have detained about 3,300 Pakistanis in sweeps against local extremist groups. At least 1,300 have been released, often after signing promises of good behavior. Among those released in recent weeks are leaders of groups accused of killing hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims and of launching terrorist attacks against neighboring India. Musharraf has banned both groups.
Authorities are still holding 1,982 without charge, according to confidential government figures. Musharraf issued a decree last month extending the detention limit from 90 days to a year. In trials that have reached a verdict, 41 people have been convicted and 21 acquitted.
Critics maintain that, at best, Musharraf is warehousing some extremists and leaving others untouched for fear of alienating the religious right whose support he needs.
A pattern of well-publicized arrests followed by quiet releases also feeds suspicion that extremists are being protected, raising doubts that Pakistan can get rid of terrorist networks by pruning them back instead of cutting them off at the root.
The contradiction is born of Musharraf’s struggle to hold on to power, said Samina Ahmed, Pakistan project director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization of security and foreign policy analysts.
“The main focus of the Musharraf government seems to be much more on its own survival than eradicating terrorism on a systematic basis,” said Ahmed, a former researcher at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Musharraf’s maneuverability also is limited by the conflict over Kashmir. He was able to break with Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, but denouncing militants fighting Indian rule in Jammu and Kashmir state would betray a struggle that began with Pakistan’s birth 55 years ago. And Kashmir has long been a rallying point for terrorists.
Prosecutor Khan, an obliging man with a bushy handlebar mustache, insisted that the nine men and two teenagers arrested in Peshawar were not terrorists.
“They were people from the laboring class residing together in a house,” he said. “During the investigation, one or two Kalashnikovs were recovered, and the accused said someone had put these in their house, and they had not searched the bag.”
He accused the police of framing the men, something that he says happens all the time. “As far as our people are concerned, I can clearly say that they show suspects are guilty by planting things,” he said. “It gets more attention from the government.”
The prosecutor said the police didn’t allege that the suspects were part of a terrorist group, even though the charge sheet clearly does. Police said they found more than a couple of assault rifles: six pistols, four hand grenades, four detonators, 100 rounds of different types of ammunition, 60 national identity cards in various names and two Harkat membership cards.
In a report filed the night of the arrest, police said they had received a tip that Harkat, the Taliban and Al Qaeda were regrouping in a Peshawar house.
“These persons are engaged in terrorist activities and spreading disinformation against the government,” Assistant Inspector General Abdul Majeed Marwat alleged. “It is presumed that these persons were planning for mass destruction in Peshawar, and some VIPs were also on their hit list.”
Khan made clear, however, that he doesn’t intend to prosecute the nine members of the group still in jail and trying to make bail of about $5,000 each.
Meanwhile, one of the two men released admitted in an interview at his home in Hayatabad, near Peshawar, that he and the group’s leader are Harkat members. And he confirmed that police found explosives in the house. The man spoke on the condition he not be identified because his superiors hadn’t approved the interview.
Three of the 11 had returned recently from fighting Indian forces in Jammu and Kashmir state, he said, adding that two members of the group were Afghans.
Despite Musharraf’s promises to stop infiltrations into the Indian-held portion of Kashmir, India and the United States say the incursions continue.
Sabir Hussain Awan, a Peshawar-area commander of Hizbul Moujahedeen, a group fighting Indian rule in Kashmir that remains legal in Pakistan, said Musharraf is facing domestic pressure to stop restraining the militants.
“People have lost patience already, and they can hardly wait another seven or eight months,” said Awan, who was elected to Pakistan’s National Assembly from a coalition of right-wing Islamic parties. “After that, this issue will go out of control.”
The quiet release of the Harkat members in Peshawar is not the only case in which efforts to crack down on terror suspects have been thwarted.
On Oct. 31, the government of Punjab province said it was allowing Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, leader of the militant Lashkar-e-Taiba group, to go home under a house arrest order that would expire in a month. Saeed, whom India accuses of launching many terror attacks including an assault on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi last December, had last been seen more than five months ago when security forces detained him.
His wife said she was withdrawing a court petition asking for his release because officials of the military’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, had assured her he would be freed soon.
The leader of another banned group was freed from prison the day before, shortly after he was elected to the National Assembly. Azam Tariq heads the Sipah-e-Sahaba, which Musharraf outlawed in January because it was accused of killing hundreds of minority Shiite Muslims. A court ordered Tariq released because the government had not filed any charges.
In another case, police arrested 12 members of Harkat and a local leader of another banned group in North-West Frontier Province after terrorists bombed a bus, injuring nine foreign tourists, most of them Germans. Harkat once had a training base in the region.
An ISI colonel pressured police to release the men, said a local police official who spoke on the condition he not be identified. The suspects were sent to Peshawar for interrogation by a team that included ISI agents, he added. They were cleared and released, and the bombing remains unsolved.
The ISI’s close ties to Harkat stem from the militant group’s founding in 1985 as one of the moujahedeen forces fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. When the Soviet army pulled out of Afghanistan four years later, Harkat shifted its jihad, or holy war, to Kashmir.
In 1998, Harkat leader Fazlur Rehman Khalil joined Bin Laden in signing a religious edict declaring it the duty of all Muslims to wage holy war against Americans and Jews.
Pakistani authorities have handled senior Harkat members very carefully. Unlike other militant leaders, Khalil was not detained when Musharraf banned Harkat and other groups in January. A high-ranking anti-terrorism official said last spring that Khalil was in an ISI “safe house.” Another source said in October that his whereabouts were unknown.
Maulana Masood Azhar, another former Harkat leader, was moved from jail to house arrest this year so that he could be with his family, which is receiving about $170 a month in government support payments because he can’t work. Azhar has not been charged with any crime even though he is suspected of having been involved in terrorism for a decade.
One of Azhar’s disciples, Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, was convicted of masterminding the kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl this year. Sheikh is in prison awaiting the appeal of a death sentence.
Musharraf rejected Washington’s request to extradite Sheikh, but he did hand over two high-profile suspects caught in Pakistan: Al Qaeda operations chief Abu Zubeida, who is thought to be a Palestinian, and Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni believed to have had a major role in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Pakistan says it has turned over to the U.S. more than 420 Al Qaeda suspects, most captured as they crossed from Afghanistan after the Taliban collapsed last year. A list of 299 of them obtained from a Pakistan government source includes citizens of 27 countries, including an American of Syrian descent identified as Khalid Wazem Diab, believed to be an aeronautical engineer. The Pakistani official said Diab was interrogated and released, and his whereabouts were unknown.
The list includes citizens of Australia, Britain, Germany, France and Denmark. The majority are Afghans, Saudis and Yemenis.
Meanwhile, some of Pakistan’s home-grown radicals are branching out, including a Harkat splinter group operating in Karachi that added “al-Almi,” or “international,” to the name. Police blame the group for a May suicide bombing that killed 11 French naval engineers and a car bombing near the U.S. Consulate in Karachi that killed 11 Pakistanis, including the bomber.
The Harkat member interviewed in Hayatabad said he believed that the Al-Almi faction had about 100 members and that only about 24 had been arrested.
When Pakistan’s 32 special anti-terrorism courts do attempt to put suspects on trial, other problems occur. Raja Queshi, who won the conviction of Pearl’s killers, resigned this month as chief prosecutor of Sindh province. No reason was given, but he previously had said that he was getting constant death threats and that he had moved his family out of Pakistan.
Prior to his resignation, he failed to turn up repeatedly for the trial of five suspects in the consulate bombing, forcing its postponement.
Other anti-terrorism courts have concentrated on cases not normally considered terrorism.
Khan, the Peshawar prosecutor, doesn’t include the case of the 11 alleged Harkat members on his docket of seven anti-terrorism cases. Among those he does include are the rape of a 12-year-old girl and the killing of a dentist. Four of the seven cases date to 1992.
While he focuses on those cases, several men are living in the house where the 11 were arrested, behind a wall topped with barbed wire in a neighborhood of Afghan refugees.
Police say the compound was sealed, but several people still live there. A young man who answered the bell said they had nothing to do with Harkat. But he glowered at a foreign visitor and angrily spit as he walked back through the gate, next to a sign that warned: “Outsiders not allowed without permission.”
Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad and Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar contributed to this report.