Friday, Oct 07, 2022

The King Pin Of Al Qaeda?

The arrest of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad would not cause any major disruptions in the operations of the dregs of the IIF spread out in Asia. Any claims that his arrest could deliver a serious blow to terrorist operations are unduly over-optimistic and u


Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, described by Maj. Gen.Rashid Qureshi, the media spokesman of Gen.Pervez Musharraf, as "the kingpin of Al Qaeda", was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence officials from the house of  the son ( Abdul Qadoos) of a local women's leader  of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), at Rawalpindi on March 1,2003, and handed over to the officials of the US intelligence community based in Pakistan.  The latter immediately air-lifted him to the US naval base in Diego Garcia for interrogation.

It is understood that an Arab and the Pakistani son of the JEI leader were also arrested by the Pakistani authorities during the raid.  While the arrested Pakistani has not been handed over to the US officials, it is not clear as to whether the  Arab is also now in US custody.

According to details available so far, during the interrogation of two members of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) arrested in Karachi last month on a tip-off from some members of the Kashmiri Shia community of Karachi hailing from Gilgit, the intelligence officials came to know of the whereabouts of another wanted LEJ terrorist, who had taken shelter in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan.  He too was then arrested and questioned.  He is reported to have revealed that Khalid was staying with him, but had managed to escape just before the raid.  He gave the address of the JEI leader's son in Rawalpindi as one of the likely places where he might have taken shelter.

The house in Rawalpindi was raided thereafter and Khalid and the Arab were arrested.  Khalid had first come to notice in 1995 when he was reportedly involved, along with Ramzi Yousef,formerly of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, the political wing of the LEJ, in a plot for a series of terrorist attacks directed against US airlines and other American interests.  Khalid and Ramzi Yousef, described as Khalid's nephew, had drawn up the plot from a hide-out in Manila where they had taken shelter after the involvement of Ramzi in the explosion at the World Trade Centre at New York in February, 1993. 

Following an accidental fire in their hide-out, which drew the attention of the Filippino authorities to their presence and activities in Manila, they escaped to Pakistan.  While Ramzi was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to US officials for trial in the World Trade Centre explosion case in which he was convicted along with others and sentenced to life imprisonment, Khalid had been absconding since then.

Accounts emanating since 9/11 from US intelligence officials and some non-governmental counter-terrorism experts known for their proximity to the US intelligence agencies, who generally reflect in their analyses the views of the US intelligence, have been projecting Khalid as the real action man of Osama bin Laden and as the man who orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US.  In an interview to the Al Jazeera TV in the last week of August, 2002, Khalid and Ramzi Binalshibh, a Yemeni member of Al Qaeda, had bragged about their role in 9/11 and Khalid, during his talk with Al Jazeera correspondent, was reported to have introduced himself as the head of Al Qaeda's Military Committee.  The correspondent had reported that he interviewed them in a hide-out in Karachi.

US Intelligence officials then organised a hunt for them in Karachi and, through electronic intercepts, managed to locate their hide-out, which was raided by the Pakistani authorities on September 11, 2002. During an exchange of fire lasting about four hours, Khalid managed to escape, but Ramzi Binalshibh was captured and airlifted to Diego Garcia for interrogation. According to US officials, he was also to have joined in the hijacking of the aircraft in the US on 9/11, but could not do so since he could not get a US visa.

Since then, US officials have been hunting for Khalid.  Since 1995, the following six terrorists, involved in acts of terrorism against US nationals and interests, have been among those  arrested in Pakistan:

  • Ramzi Yousef, involved in the World Trade Centre explosion of February,1993.

  • Mir Aimal Kansi, involved in the murder of two officers of the CIA outside their office in Langley, USA, in January,1993.  He has since been executed in the US after his conviction in the case.

  • Sheikh Omar, involved in the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the US journalist in January-February-2002.  He actually surrendered to a former official of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), who was then posted as the Home Secretary of Punjab in Lahore.

  • Abu Zubaidah, described by US officials, as the No. 3 man in Al Qaeda, after the death of Mohammed Atef during the US air strikes in Afghanistan.  He was arrested from a hide-out of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) of Pakistan at Faislabad in Punjab on March 28,2002, and flown to Diego Garcia.

  • Ramzi Binalshibh arrested in Karachi on September 11, 2002.

  • Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
Under the Pakistani laws, anyone arrested in Pakistani territory for a criminal offence has to be produced before a local court, tried for any offence pending against him in Pakistan and then only deported or extradited to any foreign country for facing trial in that country. 

The Pakistani authorities strictly followed this procedure in the Daniel Pearl case  and have till now refused to hand over Sheikh Omar to the US authorities.  He has been sentenced to death by a Pakistani court, but his appeal against the death sentence has not yet been disposed off.  Their refusal to hand him over to the US for interrogation and trial in the US is due to his past linkages with the ISI, his self-confessed  role as the king-pin of the ISI's terrorist operations in Indian territory and his reported claim, as made to the Karachi Police during his interrogation, that during a visit to Kandahar before 9/11 he had come to know of Al Qaeda's plans for the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US and had passed on the information to Lt. Gen. Ehsanul Haq, the present Director-General of the ISI, who was then the Corps Commander in Peshawar. 

The Pakistani authorities were worried that if he made these disclosures to the US interrogators, the US might be constrained to act against Pakistan.

In the case of the other five, the Pakistani authorities had no hesitation in informally handing them over to US officials without following the due process of law since they were apparently confident that these five were unlikely to implicate Pakistan in any acts of terrorism during their interrogation by US agencies. 

Sheikh Omar was an UK resident of Pakistani origin and Abu Zubaidah, a Palestinian.  Binalshibh is a Yemeni and the other three are stated to beYemeni-Balochis, of mixed Yemeni-Balochi parentage.  There is considerable confusion about the nationalities of Ramzi Yousef and Khalid.  Some past reports that they were Kuwaiti nationals had been denied by the Kuwaiti authorities. Pakistani authorities had denied that they were Pakistani nationals. 

Ramzi Yousef entered the US as an Iraqi national fleeing persecution from the Saddam Hussein Government, participated in carrying out the explosion and fled the US with a Pakistani passport issued by the Pakistani Consulate in New York. From this, sections of the Pakistani media used to refer to him and Khalid as Pakistani nationals of Iraqi origin.

When Abu Zubaidah was arrested, US officials had projected him as the most significant catch which was likely to disrupt future Al Qaeda operations.  Their claims were belied by the series of terrorist strikes thereafter in Pakistan and othert countries.  Similar claims made after the arrest of Binalshibh were belied by the terrorist strikes in Bali and Mombasa.

The fact that neither of them could help in the prevention of the terrorist strikes that followed showed that while they might have been knowledgeable about the acts of terrorism of the past in which they had participated, they had little knowledge of the operations planned for the future.  This is because the operations of bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) after 9/11 are being planned and carried out by the dregs of the various components of the IIF acting autonomously without any central planning and co-ordination.

Even though bin Laden had claimed responsibility for these terrorist strikes in his Al Jazeera broadcast of November 12, 2002, it is uncertain  whether he himself had any advance knowledge of these strikes by different local units of the IIF.  It is doubtful whether the  arrest of Khalid would cause any major disruptions in the operations of the dregs of the IIF spread out in Asia.  Claims that his arrest could deliver a serious blow to terrorist operations in S. E. Asia are unduly over-optimistic and unwarranted.

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, and, presently, Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai, and Convenor, Advisory Committee,Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Chennai Chapter)