Sunday, Sep 24, 2023

Right Under Their Nose

Right Under Their Nose

It is high time Musharraf and the US realise that Al Qaeda is not just in the tribal belt. It is right there in GHQ, Rawalpindi.

Since 9/11, there has been hardly any jihadi terrorist strike anywhere in the world in which there was no Pakistani connection. Since 2002, there has been hardly any jihadi terrorist strike in Pakistani territory in which there was no connection of the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan Army. By GHQ, one does not mean  the entire army. One means some elements in the GHQ.

The first wake-up call about the possible presence of one or more sleeper cells of Al Qaeda in Rawalpindi came in March, 2003, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), who allegedly orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was found living in the house of a woman's wing office-bearer of the Jamaat-e-Islami in Rawalpindi. She had relatives in the army, including an officer of a 

Signal Regiment.

The second wake-up call came after the two attempts to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December,2003.The Pakistani authorities have not so far taken  their public into confidence regarding the details of the two plots. All that they admitted  was that four junior officers of the  Army and six of the Air Force were allegedly involved. One of the army officers named Islamuddin  was court-martialed and sentenced to death even before the investigation was complete. Another army officer named Havaldar Younis was sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. Much to the discomfiture of the authorities, one of the Air Force officers,  a civilian, who was being held in custody in an Air Force station, managed to escape.

There are still many unanswered questions about the conspiracy to kill Musharraf. Who took the initiative in planning this conspiracy? The arrested junior  officers of the Army and the Air Force or the leaders of the suspected  jihadi organisations? When was the conspiracy hatched? How did Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Intelligence Directorates-General of the Army and the Air Force remain unaware of this conspiracy despite the fact that the conspirators had allegedly held some of their preparatory  meetings in their living quarters in military cantonments and Air Force stations? Was there a complicity of some in the  intelligence establishment itself? If so, at what level? Why was the Government unable to identify  those in the intelligence establishment involved in the conspiracy? Was there an involvement of the Hizbut Tehrir?

These questions  re-surfaced in the wake of the arrest of Abu Faraj al-Libi of Al Qaeda and the re-arrest of the  civilian employee of the Air Force involved in the conspiracy, who had managed to escape from custody in November,2004, while under interrogation. That there were apprehensions in the minds of those close to Musharraf over the role of sections of the intelligence establishment in the entire conspiracy and over the failure of the investigating agencies  to unravel the entire conspiracy  became evident from an interview given by Dr.Aamir Liaqat Hussain, the then Minister of State for Religious Affairs, to the Daily Times on May 5, 2005.

The Minister  warned that Musharraf had a lot of enemies ‘within’ who could make an attempt on his life again at any time. He said that there were certain elements within the forces who could attack the General. He added: "No common people could attack President Musharraf, but  certainly there are elements in the forces who can launch yet another attack against him. There is an ISI within the ISI, which is more powerful than the original and still orchestrating many eventualities in the country." He added that he feared a threat to his own life because he supported Musharraf's  call for an enlightened and moderate Islam and had been given the task of preparing the texts of sermons advocating enlightened and moderate Islam to be used at all mosques of the Armed Forces.

Well-informed sources in Pakistan said that apart from the failure of the intelligence establishment to identify and weed out the pro-jihadi elements in the Armed Forces and the intelligence establishment, another cause for serious concern was the continuing failure of the intelligence establishment to identify all the Pakistani leaders of the highly secretive Hizbut Tehrir (HT) and its supporters in the Armed Forces and arrest them. The HT ideology and operational methods were imported into Pakistan from the UK by its supporters in the Pakistani community in the UK in 2000. It was said that within five years it was able to make considerable progress not only in setting up its organisational infrastructure, but also in recruiting dedicated members in the civil society as well as the Armed Forces. It was also reported that no other jihadi organisation had been able to attract as many young and educated members and as many supporters in the Armed Forces as the HT.

Physical security regulations in an office of the ISI at Rawalpindi exempt officers of the rank of Brigadier and above coming in their own vehicle from frisking at the outer gate. They undergo a frisking only after they have entered the premises, parked their car in the space allotted to them in the garage and then enter the building in which their office is located. Officers below the rank of Brigadier undergo frisking twice, whether they are in their own vehicle or in a  bus --at the outer gate and again inside before they enter the building. At the outer gate, they have to get out of their vehicle, undergo frisking and then get into their vehicle and drive in.

Since all officers travel in civilian clothes in unmarked vehicles, which cannot be identified with the Army or the ISI, there is a special  hand signalling system for Brigadiers and above by which the security staff at the outer gate can recognise their rank and let them drive in without undergoing frisking. This hand signalling is changed  frequently.

On the morning of November 24, 2007, a car reached the outer gate and the man  inside showed a hand signal, which was in use till the previous day. It had been changed on November 23 and a new signal was in force from the morning of November 24, 2007. He was not aware of it.  The security staff got suspicious and did not allow the car to drive in. They asked the man driving it to get out for questioning and frisking.  He blew himself up.

As he did so, an unmarked chartered bus carrying over 40 civilian and junior military employees of the ISI  reached the outer gate and stopped so that those inside can get out for frisking. The bus bore the brunt of the explosion, which caused  the death of about 35 persons-- from among those inside the bus as well as the security staff. The Pakistani authorities  admitted the death of only 18 persons.

Around the same time, a man driving a vehicle towards the premises of the GHQ in another part of Rawalpindi was stopped by the security staff at a physical security barrier. He blew himself up killing two of the security staff. These two well-synchronised suicide strikes in Rawalpindi, the sanctum sanctorum of Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment, came about six weeks after a similar attack targeting the ISI and the Army at Rawalpindi at the same time. On September 4, 2007. a suicide attacker blew himself up after boarding a bus carrying ISI employees. A roadside bomb went off near a commercial area in Rawalpindi, while a car carrying an unidentified senior Army officer to the GHQ was passing. Twenty-five persons died in the two attacks. The Army officer escaped unhurt. On October 30, 2007, a suicide  bomber blew himself up at a checkpoint several hundred yards from  the GHQ killing seven persons, most of the from the security staff.

The two attacks directed at the ISI  and another at a Pakistan Air Force bus at Sargodha were based on inside information. In the case of the explosion at the outer gate of the ISI complex on November 24, 2007, the suicide bomber was aware of the hand signalling code for Brigadiers and above. However, he was not aware that the signal code had been changed the previous day. Since these codes are communicated personally to Brigadiers and above, their existence is supposed to be known only to Brigadiers and above and the physical security staff. The suicide bomber's inside accomplice was either an ISI officer of the rank of Brigadier or above or a member of the physical security staff.

There are two alarming aspects of the security situation in Pakistan. The first is the upsurge in acts of suicide terrorism directed against security and intelligence personnel and their establishments. These give clear evidence of the penetration of pro-Al Qaeda  jihadi elements inside the Armed Forces, the intelligence agencies and the Police. The second is the inability or unwillingness of the Police to vigorously investigate these incidents, including the attempt to kill Mrs. Benazir Bhutto in Karachi on October 18, 2007. Nobody knows definitively till today who are responsible for these suicide attacks-- tribal followers of Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan or those of Maulana Fazlullah of the Swat Valley or  the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), the anti-Shia sectarian organisation, or Al Qaeda and its Uzbek associates or the angry students of the two madrasas run by the Lal Masjid in Islamabad?

The Rawalpindi cantonment where the headquarters of the Army and other sensitive units of the Pakistan Army and the ISI are located, and the adjoining Islamabad, the capital, where the headquarters of the federal Government and the National Assembly are located, had seen terrorist strikes even  in the past. Amongst them, one could mention the 1989 explosion in the Rawalpindi office of Dr. Farooq Haider, the then President of one of the factions of the  Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), which was attributed to a rival faction led by Amanullah Khan; the explosion outside the Egyptian Embassy at Islamabad  in the 1990s, which was attributed to some Egyptian opponents of  President Hosni Mubarak; the grenade attack inside an Islamabad  church frequented by the diplomatic community in March 2002 in which the wife of a US diplomat and their daughter were killed;  the unsolved assassination of Maulana Azam Tariq, the Amir of the Sipah-eSahaba, Pakistan, the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, at Islamabad  in 2003,  the terrorist attack on a a group of workers of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) of Benazir Bhutto in Islamabad earlier this year, the alleged firing of a rocket on Musharraf's plane from the terrace of a house in Islamabad again earlier this year and the alleged firing of rockets by unidentified elements from a park in Islamabad last year.

If one leaves aside the JKLF factional politics, the only terrorist organisations which had operated in the Islamabad-Rawalpindi area  in the past (before July 2007) were the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ),  which was blamed for the church grenade attack; the Sipah Mohammad, the Shia terrorist organisation, which was suspected in the murder of Azam Tariq; and Al Qaeda.  Many Pakistani and Kashmiri jihadi organisations such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba, the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM) etc have their offices in Rawalpindi, but do not indulge in terrorist activities there.

There was no evidence to show that the Egyptians responsible for the explosion outside the Egyptian Embassy  were then the followers of Osama bin Laden.  The first indication of some local support for Al Qaeda in Rawalpindi came in March, 2003, when Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), supposedly the man who co-ordinated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was arrested from the house of a women's wing leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) in Rawalpindi by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the USA's Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

KSM was living in Karachi till September, 2002, when he fled from there to Quetta in Balochistan following the arrest of Ramzi Binalshibh, another Al Qaeda operative there. From Quetta, he shifted to Rawalpindi  in the beginning of 2003,  fearing betrayal by the Shias of Quetta.  After his arrest, no thorough enquiries would appear to have been made either by   the ISI or the  Police to determine why he took shelter in Rawalpindi, a highly guarded military cantonment.  Did he and/or Al Qaeda have any other accomplices in Rawalpindi, in addition to the JEI leader and the members of her family, who included one junior Army officer belonging to a signals battalion, who was also detained for interrogation? Did Al Qaeda or the Pakistani organisations allied to it in the International Islamic Front (IIF) have a sleeper cell or cells in the cantonment? If they had, the sleeper cells could have functioned undetected only with the complicity of at least some in the Armed Forces.

After the arrest and the handing-over of KSM to the US, anti-Musharraf and pro-jihadi  pamphlets typed on the official letter-head used in the army offices in the General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi started circulating in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.  The ISI and the Police were unable to determine who was circulating these pamphlets and no arrests were made in this connection. Instead, a leader of the Nawaz Sharif-led faction of the Pakistan Muslim League, who drew the attention of the Parliament and the public to these pamphlets, was ordered to be arrested by Musharraf on a charge of treason.

After the April, 2003, arrest in Karachi  of Waleed bin Attash of Al Qaeda, one of the suspects in the case relating to the Al Qaeda attack on the US naval ship USS Cole at Aden in October, 2000, many of the Al Qaeda members living in Karachi were reported to have shifted to the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), Balochistan , the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Rawalpindi.

Their shifting to Rawalpindi and taking shelter there would not have been possible  without the complicity of not only the Pakistani jihadi groups, but also supporters in the Armed Forces and the police. The Pakistani security agencies have not been able to identify and dismantle  Al Qaeda and IIF cells in the Rawalpindi cantonment. The fact that the perpetrators of the two attacks of December,2003, on Musharraf , whether they belonged to Al Qaeda or to any of the Pakistani components of the IIF, chose to act on both the occasions from Rawalpindi instead of Karachi where Musharraf was before the first attack on December 14 showed their confidence in being able to operate undetected from Rawalpindi rather than from Karachi.

I do not believe Musharraf had prior knowledge of the plot to kill Benazir in Rawalpindi. But he has to be held responsible for failing to provide effective physical security to her. He and his officers kept disregarding her growing fears about threats to her security. He failed to ensure a vigorous investigation of the first attempt to kill her at Karachi on October,18, 2007.

The infiltration of traditional fundamentalist political parties into the GHQ started under the late Zia-ul-Haq. Since Musharraf took over, there has been an infiltration of Al Qaeda into the Pakistani Armed Forces and into their sanctum sanctorum in Rawalpindi. These elements are  against Musharraf  too, but they were much more against Benazir  because of the fact that she was a woman  and she had been saying openly that she would allow the US to hunt for bin Laden in Pakistani territory and the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna to interrogate A.Q.Khan, the nuclear scientist. Al Qaeda and the pro-Al Qaeda jihadis wanted to eliminate both  Musharraf and her because they were seen as apostate and as collaborators of the US.

They have succeeded in killing her. They will now step up their efforts to eliminate Musharraf. Whoever was responsible for killing her could not have done it without inside complicity. If Al Qaeda already has sleeper cells in the GHQ, there is an equal danger that it already has sleeper cells inside Pakistan's nuclear establishment too.

Musharraf is either knowingly dishonest or is living in a make-believe world of his own, unaware of the ground realities. Only a few days before Benazir's assassination, he was bragging to officer trainees in the Defence Services Staff College in Quetta that he had defeated the terrorists outside the tribal belt and would soon be defeating them in the tribal belt too. His reluctance to order an enquiry into the extent of infiltration of Al Qaeda into the GHQ is disturbing. He has convinced himself that not only he is the most popular leader of Pakistan, but also that the entire Armed Forces are devoted to him. Anybody who says otherwise is treated by him as a traitor, arrested and harassed.

It is high time he and the US realise that Al Qaeda is not just in the tribal belt. It is right under their nose in Rawalpindi.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.


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