Asia Times : Al-Qaeda aims at Pakistan's heart

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Al-Qaeda aims at Pakistan's heart

By Syed Saleem Shahzad | January 1, 2008

KARACHI - As the shockwaves continue to reverberate across Pakistan following the assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto on December 27, and political parties declare their intention to contest national elections scheduled for January 8, the threat to the country's political system remains as dire as ever.

Following the killing of Bhutto - considered by her al-Qaeda killers to be an "American asset" - al-Qaeda can be expected to launch more suicide attackers on those considered a part of the United States plan to establish a broad coalition government comprising secular and liberal elements that would change the political and social dynamics of the country and the region.

At stake is the very soul of the country and how it should be governed.

On the one side are US-backed President Pervez Musharraf and political parties such as Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party (now headed by her 19-year-old son Bilawal) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League.

Against them are al-Qaeda ideologues such as Egyptian scholar Sheikh Essa, who are determined to stamp their vision on the country and its neighbor, Afghanistan.

Prior to 2003, the entire al-Qaeda camp in the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan was convinced that its battle should be fought in Afghanistan against the foreign troops there, and not in Pakistan against its Muslim army.

That stance was changed by Sheikh Essa, who had taken up residence in the town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, where his sermons raised armies of takfiris (those who consider all non-practicing Muslims to be infidels). He was convinced that unless Pakistan became the Taliban's (and al-Qaeda's) strategic depth, the war in Afghanistan could not be won.

In a matter of a few years, his ideology has taken hold and all perceived American allies in Pakistan have become prime targets. Local adherents of the takfiri ideology, like Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq, have grown strong and spread the word in North Waziristan. Former members of jihadi outfits such as Jaish-i-Mohammed, Laskhar-i-Toiba and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have gathered in North Waziristan and declared Sheikh Essa their ideologue.

This is the beginning of the new world of takfiriat, reborn in North Waziristan many decades after having first emerged in Egypt in the late 1960s. On the advice of Sheikh Essa, militants have tried several times to assassinate Musharraf, launched attacks on the Pakistani military, and then declared Bhutto a target.

This nest of takfiris and their intrigues was on the radar of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the day after Bhutto's killing Sheikh Essa was targeted by CIA Predator drones in his home in North Waziristan. According to Asia Times Online contacts, he survived, but was seriously wounded. Sheikh Essa had only recently recovered from a stroke which had left him bedridden.

This somewhat dampened the jubilation in the jihadi camps over Bhutto's death and al-Qaeda members had to flee to safe havens. Nevertheless, their intention to carry out more attacks is as steadfast as ever.

Bhutto's assassination was without doubt al-Qaeda's most successful operation in the region, even if there is some dispute over exactly how she died. The Pakistani government claims she hit her head on a lever of the sun visor of the car in which she was travelling in Rawalpindi when she ducked on hearing a suicide bomb go off nearby. Her family and party members vigorously dispute this claim, saying she was shot twice.

Al-Qaeda tried to kill Bhutto on October 18 on her return to Pakistan from years of exile. Nearly 200 people were killed in that bombing, but she was unhurt. In November, a close aide of Musharraf and president of the then-ruling Pakistan Muslim League, Amir Muqam, was attacked by a suicide attacker. His brother was killed but he survived.

This month, former interior minister Aftab Shepao was targeted at a prayer congregation. His son and nephew were injured but he survived. Shepao was a key figure in orchestrating the storming of the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July. The mosque was pro-Taliban and a haven for militants. Similarly, on Sunday, former minister of religious affairs Ejaz ul-Haq, another central figure in the Lal Masjid operation, was attacked by a suicide bomber, but survived.

Musharraf has always been at the top of al-Qaeda's hit list, but he is a difficult target so his close allies are being targeted.

In this context it is expected that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of a faction of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam and former leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, will be a target. Like Bhutto he has been a part of the opposition, but he is also considered a part of the bigger US scheme for a post-election national coalition government to support Musharraf and provide a popular base for the US-led "war on terror" in the region.

Meanwhile, rioting in the wake of Bhutto's death eased on Sunday after destruction that killed at least 44 people and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage. Since the angry mobs could not get at the shadowy figures of al-Qaeda, they vented their frustration by attacking the offices of the former ruling Pakistan Muslim League and its loyalists.

The Pakistani Taliban, raised under al-Qaeda's ideology, are geared to set up an "Islamic Emirates" in defiance of the state of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The first shots have already been fired in the restive Waziristans, where emirates were recently declared.

Baitullah Mehsud, a warlord from South Waziristan and the chief of the emirates, subsequently declared a boycott of January's elections. Although he withdrew the announcement when he was pressed by senior clergy and local political leaders, the withdrawal was only superficial as the real ideologues of the emirates, like Sheikh Essa, want to discard Pakistan's political system.

As a result, it now emerges that the Pakistani Taliban have suspended the election campaign in Dara Adam Khail in North-West Frontier Province and other tribal areas and towns.

In the coming days, al-Qaeda's takfiri ideologues have a dotted line to follow and that dotted line clearly aims to frustrate American designs.

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

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