Asia Times : Al-Qaeda plays dealbreaker in Pakistan

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Al-Qaeda plays dealbreaker in Pakistan

By Syed Saleem Shahzad | December 19, 2007

KARACHI - The extraordinary "escape" from police custody of Rashid Rauf, a British subject of Pakistani origin, points to a deal between the authorities in Islamabad and militants in an effort to ensure smooth national elections on January 8, but al-Qaeda remains a threat to this seemingly inventive initiative.

Police reported on Monday that Rauf, 26, had disappeared a day earlier while returning from court to Adiala jail, a high-security prison in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad. He is said to have asked his two police guards for time to say afternoon prayers at a mosque. He went in handcuffed, and never came out.

Rauf was raised in Britain and returned to Pakistan in 2002, where he married and settled. He was arrested by Pakistani authorities in August 2006 in connection with a plot to use liquid explosives to blow up aircraft flying from Britain to the United States. This led to scores of arrests in Britain - the suspects are still to be charged - and prompted a major security alert at airports worldwide. Stiff restrictions on passengers' carry-on items also resulted.

But Rauf was cleared in Pakistan of terrorism charges last December and only faced charges relating to possessing chemicals that could be used in making explosives and with carrying forged travel documents.

These charges were dropped, but Rauf remained in custody over an extradition request from Britain in connection with the killing of his maternal uncle, Mohammed Saeed, who was stabbed to death in Birmingham in April 2002.

Pakistani Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz is reported to have told British Ambassador Robert Brinkely that Rauf's recapture is a "priority". It could be, though, that his release was more of a priority.

Islamabad, with Washington's support, is determined to stage credible elections next month to usher in a pro-West liberal democratic administration. President Pervez Musharraf has shed his military uniform after eight years of presidency, which has gone some way to improving the country's military dictatorship image, and the main political parties have gone back on their threats to boycott the polls.

This leaves the Pakistani Taliban militants, whose base is in the tribal areas of the country on the border with Afghanistan and who are calling for a boycott of the elections. This area, which includes North and South Waziristan and is for all intents and purposes beyond the writ of the federal government, has been proclaimed by the militants to be Islamic emirates.

The top leader of the Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, has vowed to struggle for the enforcement of Islamic law, to wage a "defensive" jihad against Pakistan, and to support the war against occupying troops in Afghanistan.

And importantly, he called for a boycott of the elections, a move that could seriously disrupt voting and undermine the credibility of the polls. Fearful of this, the authorities have tried to build bridges with the Taliban - once again - and recently bowed to their demands that scores of militants be released and that the security forces curtail their operations against militants in the tribal areas.

As a result, Baitullah reversed his demand for an election boycott. Contacts familiar with security issues who spoke to Asia Times Online are convinced that Rauf's "escape" can be seen in the context of this reversal.

The contacts point out that while Rauf might have been cleared in Pakistan of terrorist charges, he is potentially a high-value prisoner and should have been guarded by a much bigger security detail, including personnel from at least three intelligence agencies, beside the police.

It was Baitullah who announced in October that he would have former premier Benazir Bhutto killed on her return from exile. Baitullah subsequently backtracked and issued a denial of his statement after negotiating with the authorities. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda launched its own attack on Bhutto's convoy after her arrival in Karachi, with suicide bombers killing 136 people and injuring at least 450. Bhutto was unhurt.

In the same same vein, the real instigator behind the establishment of Islamic emirates in the border areas is al-Qaeda, and it will not sit idly by as the Pakistani Taliban strike deals with the establishment.

Al-Qaeda has learned from Iraq, where Baghdad made deals with Sunni militants at al-Qaeda's expense, that any peace initiatives are not in its best interests.

It is no coincidence, then, that since Baitullah's agreement not to call for an election boycott, there have been three major suicide attacks on the armed forces. In the latest incident, on Monday at least nine soldiers were killed and four wounded in an attack in the garrison city of Kohat in North-West Frontier Province. The attack is also the third since Musharraf lifted the state of emergency at the weekend, saying that "militant violence has been stopped".

The result is that the armed forces will be forced to remain proactive over the coming weeks. This is doubly troubling for them. Firstly, their efforts will be hampered as North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces across the border traditionally scale down their activities at this time. This will allow militants to easily seek haven in Afghanistan.

Secondly, as per the understanding with Baitullah, the military is meant to be backing off. The last thing Islamabad wants in the runup to the elections is highly unpopular operations in the tribal areas.

But from al-Qaeda's perspective, continued military operations are essential to keep this "war on terror" theater open and undermine any Iraq-like concessions to local militants so as to isolate al-Qaeda.

In al-Qaeda's favor, Pakistan has tried this solution many times, but it has always come to nothing. Unlike in Iraq, al-Qaeda's roots run deep in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Hundreds of Pakistani jihadis were trained in al-Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan before September 11, 2001, and al-Qaeda members have a decades-old understanding with veteran Afghan Taliban commanders.

Al-Qaeda relocated to the Waziristans after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and immediately focused on the ideological grooming of local youths, besides introducing training programs. In the past few years, scattered Pakistani jihadis have been reorganized in al-Qaeda's camps in the Waziristans. This has led to the emergence of the neo-Taliban, a far different group from the traditional Taliban who took over Afghanistan in 1996. The neo-Taliban are strongly behind al-Qaeda and will not allow its isolation.

Al-Qaeda will continue to nurture the neo-Taliban, and the establishment of the Islamic emirates, announced by Baitullah but prompted by al-Qaeda, is an effective buffer against any Washington-backed bids to initiate peace dialogue with Taliban commanders.

Thus, the release of militants and the contrived release of Rauf hardly matter in the bigger picture of al-Qaeda's do-or-die battle in Pakistan's tribal areas and beyond.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at

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