The problem of terrorism in Pakistan is so deeply rooted that its internal implications and external fallouts continue to place the country in international spotlight. Some major events occurring in the first week of this month alone, particularly the arrest in the United States of Faisal Shehzad, an American citizen of Pakistani origin, in the foiled terrorist attack at New York City’s Times Square, suggest that al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups in Pakistan continue to pose grave danger to domestic stability and international peace. This is despite the fact that the country has made significant strides in its counter-terrorism campaign in the past over one year.
After his arrest, 30-year old Faisal told US investigators that he had acted alone. Had he been a “lone wolf,” then the issue might be treated as one of home-grown radicalization of Muslim immigrants in the Western world. It is from amongst these radicals that al-Qaeda recruits terrorists for its sleeper cells in the United States and Europe. However, as it transpires through later media reports based on subsequent investigations and arrests of Faisal’s accomplices in Pakistan, his claim of acting alone is questionable.
Faisal's profile is quite troubling. His father Baharul Haq, now in custody of security agencies, is reportded to be a retired Air-Vice Marshal of the Pakistan Air Force, and his uncle is being identified in media reports as Maj. Gen. Tajul Haq, a former Inspector General of the Frontier Corps, which has played a crucial role in the army's counter-insurgency operations in Swat and South Waziristan. He is currently posted as the country's ambassador to Ukraine. Faisal's family hails from Mohib Banda village near Pabbi town in Nowshera district, and owns a house in nearby Peshawar's posh Hayatabad locality.
Reportedly, during the time the alleged plotter of the Times Square attack spent in Pakistan before returning to the United States in early February, he stayed in Peshawar for two weeks in July last year. During this time, he is also beleived to have visited South Waziristan. The bomb he planted in a Nissan Pathfinder was crude, homemade device. However, the manner in which he was arrested while fleeing from New York to Pakistan on board a Dubai-bound flight at the JFK International Airport seems to indicate that he had some solid terrorist contacts in Pakistan, on whom he would have relied for hiding after his return to the country.
Among a handful of arrests made by Pakistani security forces in the case mostly from Karachi, where Faisal's inlaws reside, are Tauheed Ahmed and Muhammad Rauf, one of them is believed to be linked with Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Punjab-based terrorist organization with long-standing track-record of militancy in disputed Kashmir, India and Pakistan. His father-in-law Iftikhar Mian is another person arrested by the authorities from Karachi. Rauf had reportedly accompanied Faisal to Peshawar in July last year.
Other media reports suggest Faisal received training from Qari Hussain, the notorious leader of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) known for training suicide bombers in TTP's former stronghold in South Waziristan now decimated after the army operation. If true, this confirms the claim TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud made in a video message recorded last month that members of his group will undertake revenge strikes in major US cities.
Hakimullah was believed to have been killed in a US drone strike in January—and we, in Pakistan, had then taken a sigh of relief, because the terrorist acts he had orchestrated in major cities were far deadlier than those ordered by former TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone attack last August. Now his alleged re-surfacing is surely a blow to the joint US-Pakistan struggle to decapitate Pakistani Taliban leadership. This common fight by the two countries, shared equally by the international community, continues to face a dilemma, whereby incidents such as the involvement of a US citizen of Pakistani origin reconfirm the country’s status as a nerve-center of international terrorism and, consequently, create justification for greater external pressure on Pakistan to “do more” in the fight against terrorism.
The foiled terrorist attack in New York City somehow coincided with the visit to Pakistan of US Central Command chief, Gen David Petraeus. With a grand counter-insurgency success in the Helmand town of Marjah early this year, the US-led NATO forces intend to launch a resolute military campaign against Afghan Taliban across Kandahar province next month. The United States has long been pressing Pakistan to expand its military campaign against Taliban beyond South Waziristan into North Waziristan, which is a safe haven for al-Qaeda and a host of Taliban groups linked to this international terror network.
Pakistan’s preference, thus far, has been to go after only those terrorist groups which commit terrorism inside its territory, including TTP in South Waziristan and other agencies of the tribal areas, and groups such as Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM) in Swat. In its TTP-specific counter-insurgency campaign, the Pakistan army has sought support from other Taliban groups such as those led by Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir, and it has also overlooked cross-border terrorist activities of the Haqqani Network, led by former Afghan Mujahideen leader Sirajuddin Haqqani.
The United States considers Pakistan’s opening of the North Waziristan front crucial for the US-led NATO success in the impending counter-insurgency operation in Kandahar. Gen. Petraeus’s most recent meeting with Pakistan army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani must be seen in this context. However, while perceiving that the option of delaying action in North Waziristan is fast narrowing down, the army in recent weeks through its intermediaries attempted to reach out to militant leadership in North Waziristan.
The controversial trip to the region by Khalid Khawaja, a Taliban-linked former officer of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and Col. Ameer Sultan Tarrar, another ISI officer known by his nickname as “Colonel Imam” and believed to have founded the Taliban movement under Mullah Umar, were reportedly part of this effort.
However, both Mr Khawaja and Colonel Imam, along with a British Pakistani journalist Asad Qureshi, were kidnapped by a hitherto unknown terrorist group called ‘Asian Tigers,’ which is said to be a cover name for Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade—a Punjabi Taliban group and an offshoot of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian militant outfit, which is directed by al-Qaeda. In the past week, Khalid Khawaja’s bullet-ridden body was found in Mir Ali in North Waziristan. His killers, the self-proclaimed ‘Asian Tigers,’ accused him of masterminding the humiliating escape and capture in burqa of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Imam of Lal Masjid moments before surgical security operation at the mosque in Islamabad began in July 2007.
Khalid Khawaja was the main defender—both in courts and in the street—of the cause of terror suspects in state custody, including dozens of Missing Persons, the five US citizens from the state of Virginia captured last year from Sargodha and Afghan Taliban leaders like operational commander Mullah Baradar captured early this year. He was killed by Punjabi Taliban, despite the fact that Mullah Umar had sent emissaries to secure his release from the group.
This clearly suggests that it is al-Qaeda that really calls the shots in North Waziristan. Punjabi Taliban have created independent fiefdoms with support from al-Qaeda, and all of the other Taliban groups engaged in Afghan insurgency have limited say in the region. In the past couple of years, the Punjabi Taliban are believed to have played a major role in some of the most spectacular TTP-claimed terrorist attacks in the country, including the attack on the Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi in October last year.
With the Afghan leadership willing to reconcile Taliban leadership and the Obama Administration willing to re-integrate low-level Taliban insurgents, Pakistan’s security establishment perceives that a rare window of opportunity may have opened for the country to play an instrumental role in the internationally-backed process to political resolve the conflict in Afghanistan.
Now if at all the two former intelligence officers well known for their links with Afghan Taliban went to North Waziristan to bring about some sort of reconciliation between the country’s military and insurgent-terrorist organizations based in the tribal areas, minus al-Qaeda and TTP, then the outcome of this important bid in the shape of one of them killed must be worrisome for the army leadership.
That North Waziristan is effectively under the control of al-Qaeda and Punjabi Taliban Ilyas Kashmiri's 313 Brigade linked to it is gory reality from where there is no escape—except to undertake as decisive a military action as the army has taken against TTP in South Waziristan and TNSM in Swat. How far has this unpleasant reality dawned upon the army’s leadership in Pakistan? As for Pakistan’s civilian government, its leadership, laced with an increasingly anti-Taliban public opinion, seems to be fully resolved to root out the evil of terrorism from the country.
Given that, it can be argued that it is only a matter of time when the army, after having lost 2,700 precious lives of his its own soldiers in the fight against terrorism, takes the battle to the terrorists’ last tribal den. Does the speech that Gen Kayani delieverd at a gathering at GHQ on the occasion of the Martyrs Day on May 1 suggest anything?
The army chief said the country’s armed forces were ready to render sacrifices to preserve the country’s independence and to face all external and internal challenges. “No power on earth can cause harm to a country with its troops having the strong backing of 170 million people,” he said, adding that Pakistan was “not only a geographic reality but was also a recognized ideology. Defense of the country was, therefore, a professional as well as religious obligation.”
It is clear that al-Qaeda, with the help of Punjabi Taliban terrorists as its local foot-soldiers, is leaving no option for the Pakistani security establishment to reconcile Afghan Taliban groups in North Waziristan as a means to facilitate Pakistan’s instrumental role in future political conflict resolution in Afghanistan. It is also clear that the United States is getting impatient with Pakistan insofar its complementary role in combating Taliban in North Waziristan during the impending US-led NATO’s counter-insurgency campaign in Kandahar is concerned. The foreseeable pressure from the United States on the country after the foiled terrorist bid in New York City, even if the lone accused is a US citizen of Pakistani origin, is aside.
In retrospect, in coming weeks, the country will be left with no option but to start a full-throttled military effort to crush al-Qaeda, Punjabi Taliban and other recalcitrant insurgent terrorist groups in North Waziristan, that has seen an increasing wave of US drone attacks since August last year. If the country does not act decisively now in the last remaining hub of international terrorism in the country’s tribal belt bordering Afghanistan, this will only mean further intensification in domestic terrorist backlash, with all of its political, economic and social consequences, as well as simultaneous increase in external pressure on the country to “do more” in the international fight against terrorism.
While on the North Waziristan front, the option for Pakistan not to act decisively may have narrowed down, the same does not appear to be the case with regard to bringing the culprits of the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai to task. On May 3, the Indian court indicted Muhammad Ajmal Qasab, the lone survivor of these terrorist attacks, on several charges of terrorism. On May 6, he was awarded death penalty.
But the Indian court has also indicted banned Lashkar-e-Tayyiba's founder Hafiz Saeedand operations chief Zaki-ur Rahman Lakhvi of master-minding the Mumbai attacks. Both of them also led Lashkar’s charity, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which was not banned at the time of Mumbai attacks. Lakhvi, along with six other members of the Jamaat, are under arrest and facing court trial in Pakistan, while Hafiz Saeed was released from prison last year in a Lahore court verdict which dismissed all charges against him due to lack of evidence.
The evidence on the basis of which the Indian court seems to have indicted Hafiz Saeed and Lakhvi is based on the confessional statements of Ajmal Kasab. At the recent summit of the Association of South Asian Regional Cooperation (SAARC) in Bhutan, India and Pakistan decided to resume the peace process. Cooperation between the two countries on terrorism is one important subject in the peace process, as originally structured in the shape of a Composite Dialogue. However, the lack of evidence and Pakistan's legal technicalities may hinder progress on bringing the alleged masterminds of Mumbai attacks to task in Pakistan.
All depends upon whether India agrees to seriously negotiate with Pakistan the lingering unresolved issues such as Kashmir as part of the peace process, if and when it is resumed at the level of foreign secretaries or foreign ministers. If it does, then we can expect simultaneous progress on the issue of terrorism in Mumbai, including the start of credible legal proceedings against the alleged plotters of Mumbai attacks based in Pakistan.
What to Do?
While progress on issues of cross-border terrorism in India-Pakistan relations are essentially linked to the effective pace of the peace process between the two countries, the country’s internal reality constituting a grave external terrorist threat will remain in international spotlight—until a credible, all-encompassing national effort, utilising both the military instrument and the civilian components of counter-insurgency, is made to eradicate the cancer of terrorism from the country. Pakistan has already suffered irreparable loss from terrorism, which includes the tarnishing of its international image as well as that of the religion of Islam—the faith of majority Pakistanis.
It is about time we, Pakistanis, seriously asked ourselves as to what is so wrong with our country, or what has gone wrong with us as a nation, which encourages young expatriates like Faisal Shahzad to plan the killing of innocent civilians and tourists in the very country where they acquired the best of education and whose nationality they voluntarily opted for. Why there has to be an indirect or a direct Pakistani connection whenever a terrorist attack occurs or is foiled in a Western country? Why do most international terrorist trails end up in the country's notorious tribal areas?
Faisal belonged to a respectable middle class family in Pakistan, which could afford his education in the United States. He earned a Masters degree in Business Administration from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and subsequently served as a budget analyst at an international marketing firm for some years in Connecticut. His wife Huma Mian, who now lives in Karachi with two children, also graduated in Accounting from the University of Colorado. What is it that led him to quit a decent job and a promissing career in business, and leave his wife, children, parents and parents-in-law in a misreable, uncertain situation?
Imagine also the sort of fear and embarrasment terrorists like him create for fellow Muslim immigrants in Western countries. What service did he do for Pakistan through such potentially deadly act? His conscience was certaily clear for what he did, as a well-educated person--and this is perhaps the most worrying aspect of this latest case of international terrorist attempt in which Pakistan is again being indirectly implicated.
The fact is that there is almost a serial pattern in global terrorism in which Pakistan remains in international limelight for all the wrong reasons. So much so that the country has become a pariah for international cricket. If the civilian government and the security establishment of the country did not seriously tackle home-grown terrorism and let al-Qaeda to spread its tentacles in border regions with Afghanistan and among terrorist insurgent forces in the provinces of Khyber-Paskhtunkhwa and Punjab, then future economic and political viability of the state will continue to hang in the balance.
Whatever gains Pakistan has made in its international standing in the past over a year as a nation which means business when confronted with the danger of terrorism will also have gone wasted. Pakistan is, therefore, in dire need of radical social and cultural transformation, without which recent successes achieved against terrorism through resolute military actions will be meaningless.
The international community expects Pakistan to make a credible effort to end all terrorist sanctuaries and to spare no insurgent-terrorist group in the country’s counter-terrorism campaign, however strategically significant it may be in its security establishment’s perception. The world is willing to help Pakistan militarily and economicaly to combat the sources of terrorism located inside its territory.
In recent months, largely responding in kind to the country's recent counter-terrorism successes, the world community has prefered to politically engage its government, rather than diplomatically pressure it, for playing a more proactive role in internaitonal counter-terrorism campaign in the region. This is a rare window of opportunity that we must exploit fully to get rid of what has become an existential threat for us, and a potent danger of the rest of the world. We must understand that if international terrorist trails kept ending in Pakistan, then Western governments will be under tremendous pressure from their people not to help us in future the way they are willing to assist us until now.
We no more have the luxury of making empty promises and adopting half-hearted measures when it comes to going beyond the military effort against terrorism. Credible madrassah reforms, complete overhaul of the education system, and a visible process to secularize the state on the basis of parameters laid down by our founding father Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah are essential ingridients of a religiously tolerant and pluralistic societal setup. In the absence of that, the country will continue to generate jihadis like Faisal abroad and remain a victim of al-Qaeda's deadly ambitions at home.