March 08, 2021
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Where Are Bin Laden And Al Qaeda?

Does the USA continue to be as ill-informed about Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (ISI) as it was about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the alleged links of Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda?

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Where Are Bin Laden And Al Qaeda?

After the recent disastrous hunt for Osama bin Laden, his No.2 Ayman Al-Zawahiri and other dregs of Al Qaeda by the Pakistan army, under pressure from the US, in South Waziristan in the Federally-Administered Tribal areas (FATA) of Pakistan, which led to no Al Qaeda survivor being caught  despite 70 fatal casualties suffered by the Army, there has been an intense debate in the Pakistani media and in the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan about the accuracy of US information and assessments about Al Qaeda and bin Laden.

Many have come to believe that despite some successes scored by the US in the arrests of Abu Zubaidah, Ramzi Binalshibh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, Walid bin Attash and Hambali and their subsequent interrogation, it continues to be as ill-informed about Al Qaeda and the International Islamic Front (ISI) as it was about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the alleged links of Saddam Hussein with Al Qaeda.

Junior and middle level officers of the Pakistan Army have been accusing the US of having sent the Army on a wild goose chase in South Waziristan on the basis of inaccurate information about the presence of Al Qaeda dregs in the area. At the prodding of the US, the Pakistan Army undertook a combing of the South Waziristan area right upto the Afghan border. If the US information was correct, the dregs of Al Qaeda, who had allegedly taken shelter in South Waziristan, should have either fallen into the net of the Pakistan Army or fled into Afghanistan and fallen into the waiting hands of the US Special Forces who were waiting for them in Afghan territory. Neither happened.

According to Gen. (retd)Mirza Aslam Beg, Pakistan's former Chief of the Army Staff (1988 to 1991), this was because many of the dregs of Al Qaeda are no longer either in Pakistan or Afghanistan. They have  moved over to Iraq where they have been fighting against the US-led coalition troops there. Only a small number are in the Waziristan area.

Writing in the daily Nation of March 14, 2004, even before the South Waziristan operation ended in a flop, Beg, who as the No.2 to Zia-ul-Haq was closely involved in organising the jihad against the Soviet troops in Afghanistan, traces the jihadi career of bin Laden right from the day he landed in Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia, according to him, in 1986. It is generally believed in Pakistan that Beg,Lt.Gen. (retd) Hamid Gul, Gen.Pervez Musharraf and Gen. Mohammad Aziz Khan, presently, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, are the most knowledgeable about the jihadi career of bin Laden. His account, therefore, has some credibility. To quote him:

"In 1982, the number of Soviet soldiers had reached the level of 150,000 whereas that of the Afghan forces were approximately 40,000. That was the time when the USA and Pakistan came out in open support of the Mujahideen and planned a comprehensive strategy to resist the occupation. A fairly large number of Mujahideen were encouraged to join the resistance. The jihadi fervour was so overwhelming  that Muslim religious leaders, namely Omar Abdur Rahman and Farah Khan in USA, motivated the youth to join the Afghan resistance.

"To build an ideological wall against the Communists in Afghanistan, a chain of madrasas was established on the Pakistan-Afghan borders jointly by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia with the full support of the USA. These institutions were also to serve as nurseries for jihad. The Taliban, therefore, were the end-product of these madrasas, which were single-mindedly committed to end the Soviet occupation.

"Dr.Abdullah Azam, who belonged to Jordan, established an educational-cum-military institution at Ghunda Shahadat, naming it as Ghunda-e-Jadeed, located beyond Parachinar, in the Afghan territory.

Arab philanthropists were the main financiers of this institution. It was in 1986 that Osama bin Laden got integrated into this institution.

"As he was a wealthy man, he was able to construct roads in the far-flung areas and build sanctuaries in the mountains, so that the mujahideen and their weapons and equipment could be protected from the Soviet air strikes. Abdullah Azam used to visit his family in Hayatabad near Peshawar where he was assassinated in 1987.

"After his death, Osama took charge of the Ghunda Shahadat training centre. Arab mujahideen formed the bulk of this institution, which was augmented by fighters from other countries like Chechnya, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, India etc. Due to increasing resistance by the mujahideen, the Soviets began to use their elite commando brigades called Spitnaz. In spite of pressures, the Ghunda Shahadat  training centre continued to provide well-trained manpower to resist the aggressor.

"It was about this time that Prof. Abdul Rauf Saif (Sayyaf) established a military academy at Sadda, near Tat city, where over 5,000 Mujahideen were trained at a time, while Osama founded the International Islamic Front (IIF) and developed relations with Islamic movements working at the global level.

"The USA was not only aware of all these activities of Osama, but it also provided all necessary support to achieve the objectives. Osama bin Laden was acclaimed as a symbol of resistance against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan and was highly respected. According to a press report, Adil Aljabir, the present advisor to the Saudi Government, has disclosed that Osama and his outfit were paid by US Government over $ 500 million annually for waging jihad against the Soviets, but he was declared a terrorist when the Soviets retreated.

"In 1989, a combined attack was launched on Jalalabad held by Afghan forces (My comment: of the then President Najibullah ), but it did not go well. (My comment: At the instance of Lt.Gen.Hamid Gul, the then Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Osama's men, the Afghan Mujahideen and Pakistani commandos  attacked an Afghan army post at Jalalabad, but after severe fighting, Najibullah's men managed to repulse the attack. Mrs.Benazir Bhutto, the then Prime Minister, took advantage of the fiasco to remove Hamid Gul as the ISI chief. She brought out of retirement Maj.Gen.Shamshur Rahman Kallue, a close friend of her father, and appointed him as the ISI chief, overriding the protests of Beg over the appointment of a retired officer as the ISI chief.

Kallue prepared a report for reducing the powers of the ISI and increasing the powers of the Intelligence Bureau, then largely a Police organisation. Her insistence on implementing this report despite strong opposition from Beg was one of the factors that led to her dismissal in August,1990, by the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan, at the instance of Beg ).

"When the operation (at Jalalabad) prolonged, some differences erupted between the Afghan mujahideen and bin Laden, which considerably damaged his clout, consequently affecting co-operation with the global Islamic movement. The Pakistan Government too exercised its pressure.

" In 1992, Prof.Rabbani's Government was installed.Osama along with his compatriots wanted to return to their homeland (Saudi Arabia), but, unfortunately, the Saudi Government deprived them of their citizenship, thus rendering them international nomads. Being helpless, Osama opted to land in Sudan where he made substantial investments. An air base was constructed besides several roads and a pharmaceutical plant.

."It was during this period that the Taliban came into the limelight and established their hold on Kabul, which compelled Prof.Rabbani to leave the country. Osama deemed it expedient to return to Afghanistan in 1996 and to re-organise the International Islamic Front. The Taliban, recognising the immense sacrifices made by Osama for the Afghan jihad, provided him shelter in Afghanistan.

"Al Qaeda was founded by Osama during the period 1996-97. Between the years 1997 and 2001, Al Qaeda was organised at the international level and old associations with Islamic organisations were revived. During this period, several terrorist attacks took place in Africa and elsewhere, which introduced Al Qaeda to the international media.

"As a reaction to Al Qaeda's growing activities, the USA launched Cruise missile attacks on the sanctuaries of Al Qaeda at Jalalabad in 1998 and the pharmaceutical plant in Sudan. Sanctions were imposed on the Taliban Government.

."As a consequence, Al Qaeda had to encounter great loss and it was forced to shift its base from Jalalabad to a place near Kandahar. Because of sanctions, the Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan were reduced to less than a thousand and its international support considerably dwindled.

" There is no doubt that Al Qaeda, after experiencing considerable set-back after the occupation of Afghanistan by the coalition forces, has moved to Iraq, where it was much easier for it to operate due to linguistic and cultural affinities.

In Afghanistan, their strength has considerably reduced  and there are remnants only taking refuge in the adjoining areas of Angur Adda and Wana (South Waziristan).

" Whether Osama is dead or alive is difficult to say, but it cannot be denied that because of massive media exposure, Osama has become a legend and a symbol of defiance of the weak and the oppressed. This image is much larger than life." (Citation ends).

 The following interesting points emerge from Beg's narration: 

  • The International Islamic Front (IIF), a united front of jihadi organisations of different countries, has been in existence since the late 1980s, whereas Al Qaeda came into existence only in 1996-97 after bin Laden had shifted to Jalalabad from Khartoum in Sudan. Till now, the belief has been that whereas Al Qaeda has been in existence since the late 1980s, the IIF came into existence in February 1998 when Osama issued his first fatwa against the US and Israel in the name of the International Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People. Beg describes the events of 1998 as the "re-organisation" of the IIF, which had come into existence earlier. Between 1992 and 1996, Osama's contacts with the various jihadi organisations from other countries, which had participated in the jihad against the Soviet troops, had become dormant. He revived them after forming Al Qaeda in 1996-97.

  • Contrary to earlier belief that Osama had left Afghanistan after the Jalalabad fiasco of 1989, Beg indicates that he left Afghanistan only in 1992 when the Najibullah Government fell and the Afghan Mujahideen captured power in Kabul.

  • Beg refers to the training of Malaysians, Indonesians and Filippinos in bin Laden's training camp in the late 1980s, but there is no reference to Thais.
While Beg claims that the majority of Al Qaeda dregs has shifted from the Pakistan-Afghanistan region to Iraq, other accounts in the Pakistani media speak of their continued presence in this region. Thus, the Nation reported in an article on March 29,2004, as follows:

"Young smugglers say their best customers of late are the armed militants whom they can charge 10 times more than refugees or drug runners. The smugglers say that since the start of operation Anaconda in March (2002), when the USA and its allies battled Al Qaeda forces in the Shah Kot Valley, many of the Al Qaeda fighters have shifted quietly into Pakistan's Pakhtun tribal areas, where the Government of Gen.

Musharraf does not exercise full control.

" Intelligence sources say that just over the border in Pakistan, most of the top Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden himself, have been seen moving into northern Pakistan from the tribal belt south of the Afghan town of Tora Bora. Osama, the top Al Qaeda leader, was last seen three weeks ago in the Pakistani tribal city of Dir, about 45 miles east-north-east of Asadabad.

"Osama's top lieutenant Ayman Zawahiri  is now thought to be directing operations from Al Qaeda's newly built base in the village of Shah Salim, about 30 miles west of the Pakistani city of Chitral, near the border of Afghanistan's Kunar province. The other base is in the Pakistani village of Murkushi on the Chinese border, about 90 miles north of the Pakistani city of Gilgit.

"While it is conceivable that at least some, if not many, of these survivors might have dispersed in the Afghan mountains and countryside and might be lying low for the time being, there are credible reports that a large number of the survivors managed to enter Pakistan. With the complicity of serving and retired personnel of the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, the fugitives have taken shelter in the FATA, in the Provincially-Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) of the North-West Frontier Province and in the mosques/madrasas, which had been providing the recruits for these organisations---particularly in the Binori complex in Karachi, in the Darul Uloom Akora Khattak in the NWFP and in the Jamia Ashrafiya in Lahore. The ISI always maintains a strict surveillance over these three principal mosque/madrasa complexes of Pakistan and they could not thus have taken shelter there without its knowledge, if not complicity."

(Citation ends)

The important points emerging from this article are as follows: 

  • The dregs of Al Qaeda are widely dispersed inside Pakistan--some in the tribal areas near the Afghan border and others in the three principal madrasa/mosque complexes of Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore.
  • Al Qaeda has set up two operational bases in the Pakistani territory---one in the Chital area near the Afghan border and the other near the Gilgit area on the Chinese border. Gilgit is part of the Northern Areas of Jammu & Kashmir and has been under Pakistani occupation since 1948.It is directly administered from Islamabad like the FATA.
Nek Mohammad, one of the five important tribal leaders of South Waziristan, with whom the Musharraf Government signed a peace agreement last month after having accused them of sheltering the dregs of Al Qaeda and the Taliban, has strongly denied the presence of any dregs of Al Qaeda or the Taliban in the Waziristan area.

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