Terror Camps Scatter, Persist
U.S. counter-terrorism authorities say that the detention of a Lodi, Calif.-based group of Pakistani men this month underscores a serious problem: the Islamabad government’s failure to dismantle hundreds of jihadist training camps.
Long before the FBI arrested Hamid Hayat and his father, Umer Hayat, and accused the son of attending one of the camps, law enforcement and intelligence officials were watching the Pakistan-based training sites with increasing anxiety.
Technically, they say, the Pakistani government was probably right when it declared this month that the younger Hayat could not have received training at a “jihadist” camp near Rawalpindi since that is the home to Pakistan’s military and its feared intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.
But that’s because the Pakistani officials were referring to the “old” kind of Al Qaeda camp shown endlessly on TV, in which masked jihadists run around in broad daylight, detonating explosives, firing automatic weapons and practicing kidnappings, these officials say.
Since the post-Sept. 11 military strikes on Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal territories, the jihadist training effort has scattered and gone underground, where it is much harder to detect and destroy, U.S. and Pakistani officials said in interviews.
Instead of large and visible camps, would-be terrorists are being recruited, radicalized and trained in a vast system of smaller, under-the-radar jihadist sites.
And the effort is no longer overseen by senior Al Qaeda operatives as it was in Afghanistan, but by at least three of Pakistan’s largest militant groups, which are fueled by a shared radical fundamentalist Islamic ideology. The militant groups have long maintained close ties to Osama bin Laden and his global terrorist network, according to those officials and several unpublicized U.S. government reports.
The groups themselves -- Harkat-ul-Mujahedin, or HuM; Jaish-e-Mohammed; and Lashkar-e-Taiba -- have officially been banned in Pakistan since 2002 and have been formally designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. That has prompted occasional crackdowns by Islamabad, but the groups merely change their names and occasionally their leadership and resume operations, authorities say.
The groups wield tremendous political influence, are well-funded and are said to have tens of thousands of fanatical followers, including a small but unknown number of Americans who have entered the system after first enrolling at Pakistan-based Islamic schools, or madrasas. U.S. officials also accuse them of complicity in many of the terrorist attacks against American and allied interests in Pakistan and other assaults in the disputed Kashmir region.
Many U.S. officials say it’s not surprising that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hasn’t cracked down harder on the militant groups and what they describe as their increasingly extensive training activities.
For years, the ISI itself has worked closely with the groups in training Pakistan’s own network of militants to fight ongoing conflicts in Kashmir and elsewhere, and to protect the country’s interests in neighboring Afghanistan. The militant groups also derive tremendous influence from their affiliations with increasingly powerful fundamentalist political parties in Pakistan.
Until recently, the United States did not press the issue with its ally, believing that those trained in the Pakistani camps would be sent only to fight in Kashmir and other regional conflicts.
But that’s not the case anymore, according to U.S. and South Asian intelligence agencies.
The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bin Laden’s campaign to forge a global jihad have caused many of the Pakistan-based terrorists to redirect their rage toward U.S. targets, both abroad and perhaps even on American soil, according to the intelligence cited by numerous U.S. officials and counter-terrorism experts.
One of the men believed most responsible for this shift is Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, a former leader of HuM, who has been connected to some of the detained men in the Lodi case.
The group previously known as HuM is now called Jamiat-ul-Ansar, and Khalil continues to play an important but less public role in it, U.S. officials said. They also believe Khalil remains closely aligned with Pakistani intelligence services and senior Al Qaeda leaders.
Khalil was one of the original signers of Bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa, or holy decree, in which he told Muslims that it was their religious duty to kill Americans whenever and wherever they could. That same year, Khalil also vowed to attack America in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of two of HuM’s Al Qaeda-affiliated training camps in Afghanistan, which killed dozens of his followers and some Pakistani intelligence officers.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that over the last two years in particular, the three militant groups and some smaller ones have taken in thousands of Al Qaeda soldiers and senior operatives as well as Taliban officials who fled Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border areas to escape the U.S.-Pakistani dragnet.
During that time, the camps have also become magnets for would-be terrorists aspiring to commit attacks against U.S. interests, the American officials and other experts say. The result, they say, is that it has become nearly impossible to get a handle on what they fear is a serious and growing terrorism problem in Pakistan.
“We once knew who the enemy was and what groups were the enemy. And it’s become much more difficult to discern that now,” said Bruce Hoffman, a chairman of the Rand Corp. and a counter-terrorism consultant to the U.S. government.
“There is tremendous overlap, and that is the problem, between Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, the Pakistani authorities and the Kashmiri groups,” said Hoffman, who has observed the Pakistani militant groups for decades. “The overt connections may have been broken but there are wheels within wheels, and who the group actually is affiliated with is hard to tell.”
Hoffman and several U.S. officials said the groups frequently splinter and re-form, but that increasingly, “it doesn’t matter which group they join because they are all feeders to each other [and many have] bought in completely to Bin Laden’s ideology” of waging war against the United States and its allies.
In the Lodi case, the Hayats have been indicted on charges of lying to federal agents and are being held without bail in Sacramento County Jail. Their lawyers and relatives have said the two, who are U.S. citizens, had nothing to do with terrorism.
Three other local men have been detained on immigration charges, including Muhammad Adil Khan, who some U.S. officials said was the original subject of the long-standing investigation because of his suspected ties to Pakistan-based militant groups.
While authorities have said little about the case publicly, a detailed affidavit accidentally released by the Justice Department goes into great detail about the younger Hayat’s time spent training at a camp described only as Tamal on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, which itself is just a few miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
In an affidavit, FBI Special Agent Pedro Tenoch Aguilar said that after the younger Hayat arrived in San Francisco on May 29 after two years in Pakistan, he was interviewed at length and eventually admitted attending “a jihadist training camp in Pakistan.”
Hayat, who was born in San Joaquin County in 1982, described to agents how he trained for six months in 2003 and 2004 in a camp run by Al Qaeda, and how he was taught paramilitary training, “ideological rhetoric” and “how to kill Americans.”
Hayat’s father, Umer, who drives an ice cream truck in Lodi, told agents that on a visit to Pakistan, a relative who is connected to the camps arranged for him to tour several of the training facilities. Authorities also contend the father provided funding for his son’s attendance at the camps.
The federal complaint identified the head of the camp as Maulana Fazlur Rehman, which is the name of a Pakistan government opposition party member. But several U.S. officials said that most likely, the leader of the camp is the similarly named Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, the longtime Bin Laden associate and former leader of HuM, who Pakistani authorities said has gone into hiding after news of the Lodi case broke.
Despite the affidavit, the indictments returned last week against the two men do not actually charge them with attending the camp or with any terrorism-related charges, prompting speculation in the Lodi community that the FBI was backing away from allegations contained in the draft affidavit.
The U.S. counter-terrorism officials said there were many unanswered questions in the Lodi case, including who -- if anyone -- intended to commit a terrorist attack on U.S. soil.
A senior FBI official said he could not comment on the specifics of the case but did say, in an interview, that the constantly shifting nature of jihadist training networks at various locations overseas had made the FBI’s job exponentially harder than it was even just a few years ago.
“The lines are blurred, there is a lot of crossover” between Al Qaeda and the other [militant] groups, he told The Times. “There is a lot of like-mindedness, a lot of like-minded individuals who see this as a means to an end and [this commonality of purpose] is what makes it less blurry. We have to look across group lines.”
The existence of the camps and their ties to Pakistan’s militant organizations pose delicate diplomatic problems for the Bush administration.
Publicly, the administration has praised Musharraf for his help in the U.S.-led fight against terrorism, particularly for helping to apprehend more than 700 suspected Al Qaeda members, including some of the group’s most senior leaders.
But privately, some U.S. officials and counter-terrorism experts say Musharraf has not done enough to clamp down on militant organizations and that his government’s reliance on those groups for support has allowed the camps to flourish as never before.
“The Pakistan military and intelligence [agency] are well-aligned with the radical fundamentalists,” said a senior U.S. counter-terrorism official. “Musharraf, he’s in [a] pickle ... he’s trying to play it at both ends.”
The officials spoke only on the condition of anonymity, given the sensitivity of U.S.-Pakistani counter-terrorism efforts.
One Washington-based senior Pakistani official complained about such criticism.
“We’ve lost more people in the war on terrorism than anybody. We’ve suffered badly in taking these people on and continue to do so,” the official said. “So why would we play a double game?”
The Pakistani government official conceded, however, that the militants are so much a part of society that it is hard to combat them, both logistically and politically. “If you go in guns blazing or bomb them from 30,000 feet, we can’t do that,” said the official. “It is so difficult to get these people.”
Special correspondent Mubashir Zaidi in Islamabad contributed to this report.