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Al Qaeda said to operate across Pakistan

Times Staff Writer

Al Qaeda has strongholds throughout Pakistan, not just in the areas bordering Afghanistan that were emphasized in a terrorism assessment this week, according to U.S. intelligence officials and counter-terrorism experts who say Osama bin Laden’s network is more deeply entrenched than described.

The National Intelligence Estimate on the Terrorist Threat to the U.S. Homeland, which reflects the consensus of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, described Al Qaeda as having “regenerated key elements” and freely operating from bases in northwestern Pakistan. But several officials and outside experts interviewed since the document’s release this week say the situation is more problematic.

These analysts said the Bush administration was blaming Al Qaeda’s resurgence too narrowly on an agreement that the Pakistani government struck in September with militant tribal leaders in the country’s northwest territories.

In recent years, U.S. intelligence and counter-terrorism officials who focus on South Asia say they have watched with growing concern as Al Qaeda has moved men, money and recruiting and training operations into Pakistani cities such as Quetta and Karachi as well as less populated areas.

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Militant Islamists are still a minority in Pakistan, commanding allegiance of a little more than 10% of the population, judging by election results. But Al Qaeda has been able to widen its sway throughout the country by strengthening alliances with fundamentalist religious groups, charities, criminal gangs, elements of the government security forces and even some political officials, these officials said.

Bin Laden’s network also has strengthened ties to groups fighting for control of Kashmir, most of which is held by India, a broadly popular cause throughout Pakistan that has the backing of the government and military.

“It is a much bigger problem than just saying it is a bunch of tribal Islamists in the fringe areas,” said Bruce Riedel, a South Asia expert who served at the CIA, National Security Council and Pentagon and retired last year after 30 years of counterterrorism and policymaking experience.

Riedel disagreed in particular with the administration’s effort to blame Al Qaeda’s resurgence primarily on the September peace agreement. Under the terms of that truce, Pakistan pulled its troops out of North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in exchange for promises by tribal leaders that militants affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban would not engage in violent activity, in Pakistan or across the border in Afghanistan.

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The peace accord has been roundly criticized as having backfired, with Taliban attacks and suicide bombings in Afghanistan soaring, and Al Qaeda activity in the tribal areas growing noticeably, according to top U.S. military and intelligence officials. Militants recently renounced the pact and officials are trying to revive it.

The Pakistani government has limited authority in the largely autonomous tribal areas, and has had little success in attacking Al Qaeda there, but it also has refused to allow U.S. forces to go in.

Riedel and others who share his view said the intelligence estimate put too much emphasis on the September agreement.

“By putting it all in the [tribal region] we are trying to downplay this, saying it is all a problem of one cease-fire agreement that was a bad idea, when in fact Al Qaeda has spread throughout Pakistan,” said Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

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One U.S. counter-terrorism official confirmed Riedel’s assessment that Al Qaeda’s influence extended far beyond the tribal areas, but said those areas had become more important to the group in recent years because it faced increased pressure in urban centers.

“As pressure increased in the urban areas, you look for a more permissive environment, and the tribal areas are thought to have provided that. You tend to go to where your opponent isn’t,” the counter-terrorism official said in reference to Al Qaeda. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not allowed to discuss counterterrorism operations on the record, especially regarding the sensitive but fragile U.S. alliance with Pakistan.

But, the official said, Al Qaeda’s presence in the rest of Pakistan remains a problem. “Nobody is looking at one to the absolute exclusion of the other,” the official said. “This is not a one-dimensional problem.”

The signs of Al Qaeda’s spread across Pakistan have been apparent for years. The 15 so-called muscle hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks trained at an Al Qaeda hide-out in the southern port city of Karachi, according to the 9/11 Commission report.

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Husain Haqqani, a former advisor to several Pakistani prime ministers, said that before the Sept. 11 attacks, Al Qaeda had hide-outs and logistical bases throughout Pakistan from where it moved foreign fighters into and out of Afghanistan.

“Once their headquarters in Afghanistan was shattered, they turned to making their logistical bases in Pakistan into operational bases,” said Haqqani, director of the Center for International Relations at Boston University and author of “Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military.”

“Look at the arrests of Al Qaeda in recent years,” he said. “They have been all over the country. People there were providing them with guidance and help.”

Top Al Qaeda operative Abu Zubeida was captured in Faisalabad in 2002 and reputed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who also had close ties to Karachi, was caught in 2003 in the city of Rawalpindi, headquarters of Pakistan’s military. Mohammed’s replacement, Abu Faraj Libbi, was arrested in 2005 in Mardan, about 75 miles northwest of Islamabad, the capital.

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U.S. intelligence officials believe Al Qaeda’s presence throughout Pakistan has enabled it to recruit and train operatives, raise significant sums of money, and to film and disseminate high-quality propaganda videos through its Al Sahab multimedia arm.

Al Qaeda’s No. 2 and chief propagandist, Ayman Zawahiri, has released numerous tapes in recent months, each of them issued with increasing speed after a significant event. After Pakistani troops stormed the Red Mosque in Islamabad, killing and capturing Islamist militants, Zawahiri’s professional-looking video was in cyberspace in a matter of days.

“When you look at the quality of these propaganda tapes, they are not being produced in some primitive area but where you can get access to news media on a regular basis,” Riedel said.

Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Wednesday in response to the U.S. intelligence paper, strongly protesting the conclusion that the government had allowed Al Qaeda a haven in the tribal areas.

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“It does not help simply to make assertions about the presence or regeneration of Al Qaeda in bordering areas of Pakistan,” the statement says. “What is needed is concrete and actionable information and intelligence sharing.”

The Foreign Ministry statement said Pakistan was determined not to allow Al Qaeda or any other terrorist entity to establish a base on its territory, but in an apparent reference to the U.S., said no foreign security forces would be allowed to pursue militants in Pakistan.

Last week during testimony to Congress on global threats, Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, cautioned against an overly aggressive effort to crush Al Qaeda in the tribal areas.

“Part of the dilemma ... here is the risk of taking actions in the less-well-governed areas of Pakistan, the federally administrated tribal areas ... that could lead to developments in all of Pakistan, that would increase the problem,” Fingar told the House Armed Services Committee.

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“There are an awful lot of potential recruits that are being engaged in the struggle in Kashmir that are held in check by the security forces in the rest of Pakistan. So it is not too great an exaggeration to say there is some risk of turning a problem in northwest Pakistan into the problem of all of Pakistan.”

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josh.meyer@latimes.com


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