Al-Qaeda’s Nerve Center Remains Dangerous

Statistically speaking, August is, indeed, the deadliest month for the US and NATO troops in Afghanistan; sixty-six soldiers, thirty of them American, were killed this month; the previous record for one month of 65 killed was in July last year. That is reason enough for concern but not despair. In this very month, CIA drones delivered another body blow to the al-Qaeda by bombing to death the group’s second-in-command, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman in the Waziristan region of Pakistan. Only last month, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had said al-Qaeda’s defeat was within reach and ‘now is the moment to put maximum pressure on them’.

From a teenage jihadi against the Soviet Red Army, Atiyah Abd al-Rahman, who was born in Libya some thirty years ago, rose to become the operational leader of al-Qaeda. As the close confidant of his master, he served as his emissary to Iran. And after Osama bin Laden was eliminated by the Navy SEALs in May, he took over as organisational coordinator to help the new honcho, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Some hits and some misses are to be expected in an insurgency theatre, which is Afghanistan today, with the two lead players and the supporting local cast often working at cross purposes. The Taliban also has become a little more desperate even as it maintains its bravado. It’s stepped up raids the past two “three months are its way of showcasing its prowess and its relevance since there is the tantalizingly attractive talks offer. Moreover, America’s economic woes, and the publicly announced phased withdrawal of 33,000 extra troops President Obama had dispatched last year are seen in the jihadi circles as American weakness and sure signs of imminent victory of Jihadi forces.

Problem on the war front has as much to do with the Taliban as their patrons and handlers in Pakistan. Osama bin Laden’s phone calls have shown that he had powerful people watching over him. Reports surfaced in the Western and Pakistan media in June that bin Laden was in contact with Harkat ul Mujahideen (HuM) commanders and held consultations regularly with its chief, Fazle-ur-Rahman Khalil. HuM is an ISI creation for Pakistan’s proxy war with India in Kashmir. Its ‘hit parade’ include the 2002 suicide attack on the US consulate in Karachi, and the murder of American journalist, Daniel Pearl by Omar Saeed Sheikh.

The trial of Tahawwur Rana, a Canadian Pakistani in a Chicago court along with Pakistani American David Hadley, has nailed the ties the ISI has with the Lashkar- e- Taiba (LeT), which had carried out 26/11 mayhem in Mumbai after carrying out trail runs at the Karachi harbour under ‘watchful eyes’.

ISI is a part of the army and reports to the army chief. Many heads of ISI have gone on to become army chiefs. Present army chief Pervez Kayani was heading the ISI just before his elevation. And the ISI chief of the day, Lt Gen Pasha, is Kayani’s close confidant and has been rewarded with an extension. So much so projecting the ISI alone as the fall guy is no more than a good academic exercise. It doesn’t whitewash the reality that there is a second front in the war on terror in the heart of Pakistan’s security forces.

Viewed against this backdrop, the US State Department’s 2010 Country Reports on Terrorism adds a new dimension with the remark that Pakistan is ‘incapable’ of prosecuting terror suspects. The country terror reports like the reports on human rights are primarily a compilation of ‘data’ from newspapers of the ‘target’ country. So these reports help to focus on facts that have missed close scrutiny and put the issue in perspective. Based on a study of the rulings delivered by Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Court’s rulings last year, the State Department has officially reached the conclusion that Pakistan’s legal system is ‘almost incapable of prosecuting suspected terrorists’. This assessment is based on the fact that the acquittal rate is approximately 75 per cent. The accused in numerous high-profile terrorism cases involving U.S. victims are among those freed by the courts to the dismay of Washington.

As independent think-tank, Poreg said on Aug 20, 2011, political will and national resolve are not in full display in Pakistan to fight terrorism. For instance, the Anti-Terrorism Bill 2010, proposed on July 28, 2010 with as many as 25 amendments to Pakistan’s original anti-terrorism legislation, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 is still on the backburner. In the prevailing political milieu, it is unlikely to see the light of the day, though the bill seeks to broad base the definition of terrorism, authorize detention up to three months, and allow increased electronic surveillance and wiretapping.

The State Department’s country report says the United States continued to ‘engage Pakistan to ensure that it had the will and capacity to confront all extremist elements within its borders’. If this is, indeed so, the new anti-terrorism law should not have been allowed to be in limbo when the country was witnessing a high frequency of “coordination, sophistication, and frequency of suicide and other bombings”. More than 2000 people were killed and scores injured in mayhem unleashed by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and other militant and sectarian outfits in Pakistan. Several attacks were perpetrated by suicide bombers and remotely detonated explosive devises. Targets were government, police and military facilities besides shrines.

One area of concern is terror financing. Pakistan has precious little to show that it is checking the funds flow to terrorists, says Pranab Dhal Samanta in the Indian Express (Aug 31). And for the first time the US report has slammed Pakistan for not acting against terror financing and, particularly, in the context of LeT, JeM and other terror groups. ‘UN-designated terrorist organisations were able to skirt sanctions simply by reconstituting themselves under different names. They made little effort to hide their connection to the old groups and gained access to the financial system using new names’.

JeM withdrew funds from bank accounts (fearing asset seizure) and invested in legal business such as commodity trading, real estate and consumer goods sector, says the US report. JeM also collects funds with open appeals for donations.

Ramadan is usually the best month for donations. The Express Tribune (TET) reported from Lahore that the police are doing nothing to stop the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), an offshoot of Jamatud Dawa (JuD), from seeking and collecting charity ahead of Eid even though the Jamat has been banned as a terrorist organisation and is forbidden to collect donations. “On August 5, the Interior Ministry issued a list of 25 banned organisations including the JuD that are not allowed to collect donations. As in the past, the JuD has been able to circumvent the ban simply by changing its name. The group is said to be a front for the Lashkar-i-Taiba, which is accused of carrying out the 2008 terror attack in Mumbai”, Rana Tanveer reported in TET on August 31, the day of Eid-ul-Fitr.

The FIF camps fly the black and-white striped JuD flag and sport banners seeking aid for “the flood-affected and other needy people”. The donation chart reads: Rs4,000 to feed a family for one month, Rs50,000 to run a dispensary for one month, Rs700,000 for an ambulance, Rs50,000 for a one-day medical camp, Rs10,000 for a hand pump, Rs3,800 for a sewing machine, Rs3,000 for Iftar, Rs100,000 to build one room, and Rs600,000 to Rs1.5 million for the construction of a mosque.

FIF members are not worried of any police interference. JuD leaders had unofficial permission from the Punjab government to set up these camps, Tanveer says quoting sources in JuD. As Poreg analysis shows, all this public display and al-Qaeda’s cooperation with the militants in Af-Pak region makes the ‘aggregate’ threat in and from Pakistan remain high. American Pakistani Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to stage a car bombing in New York’s Times Square in May 2010, was helped by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which, like the Haqqani Network, and other outfits has been sharing resources and inputs with al-Qaeda. No surprise, Pentagon spokesman, George Little, told reporters during an off-camera news conference in Washington on the eve of Eid that al-Qaeda’s “nerve center” lies in Pakistan and it ‘remains dangerous’.

(* this comment first appeared on Poreg under a slightly different heading)