LAHORE: The Pakistani authorities investigating the March 25, 2010 abduction and subsequent murder of the former ISI official Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, commonly known as Colonel Imam believe that the little known militant group called Asian Tigers, which had demanded $10 million and the custody of some key Afghan Taliban commanders in exchange for the release of the hostage, was actually a cover name for the Lashkar-e-Zil (LeZ), a loose alliance of al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked anti-American militia, led by the North Waziristan based Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, who also heads Brigade 313 and the Azad Kashmir chapter of the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI).
According to well-informed sources in the security establishment, Ilyas Kashmiri is currently based in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan from where the body of another former ISI official, Khalid Khawaja, was recovered on April 30, 2010, almost a month after his abduction. They pointed out that almost nine months after the abduction, on January 23, 2011, the body of Khalid Khawaja’s aide, Colonel Sultan Amir Tarar, has also been found in the Danday Darpakhel area of Miramshah, which is the capital of North Waziristan.
Both Khawaja and Imam had stated in a video dispatched by the kidnappers and released by the Geo TV in April 2010 that they had travelled to Waziristan after being asked by the former Army Chief General Mirza Aslam Beg and former ISI Chief Lt Gen Hameed Gul. But apparently, Khawaja and Imam had travelled to North Waziristan to assist a British journalist, who wanted to interview some Taliban commanders for a documentary. The three, who were last seen in Mir Ali area, were in touch with one Usman Punjabi before they went missing and the authorities probing the case believe that Usman was actually a mole of Kashmiri to hook Khawaja and Imam.
An email sent along with a video footage of the abducted persons had demanded an immediate release of Mulla Abdul Ghani Baradar, the second in command of Mulla Mohammad Omar. Baradar was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in February 2010, just a week after the holding of the US-sponsored London conference on Afghanistan. The mail sent by the Asian Tigers had further demanded a $10 million ransom for journalist Asad Qureshi. In the video clip, Colonel (R) Imam is heard saying that his real name is Sultan Amir and he served in the Pakistan Army for 18 years, 11 of them in the Inter Services Intelligence. “I had consulted with Gen Aslam Beg (former army chief) about coming here,” Col Imam said. In the same video, Khalid Khawaja had said that he had served in Pakistan Air Force for 18 years and in the ISI for two years. “I came here on the prodding of Lt Gen Hameed Gul, General Aslam Beg and ISI’s Colonel Sajjad.” Both Imam and Khawaja were shown in the video holding a copy of a Peshawar-based newspaper while recording their statement before the camera. In the video, the group called itself “Asian Tigers” and said the hostages would be killed if its demands were not met within 10 days. The email, which was originally in Urdu language, stated while charge sheeting the former ISI officials: “Khalid Khawaja and Colonel Imam are in the Taliban custody. Both ISI persons are the enemy of Islam and Muslims. We demand release of all Taliban leaders, Mullah Baradar, Mullah Mansoor Dadullah and Mullah Kabir. We will send a list of other mujahideen within a few days. We give ten days time. If the government failed to release mujahideen, we will kill ISI officers.”
However, well informed sources in the security establishment say the Asian Tigers’ demand for the release of key commanders of the Afghan Taliban was motivated by the hate factor and designed to get their custody from the Pakistan government. According to them, the abductors were somehow convinced that both the former ISI officials, who were considered close to the Afghan Taliban, had been working against the interests of Punjabi Taliban since the Lal Masjid military operation of 2007. Therefore, the Punjabi Taliban belonging to several Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-jihadi groups which are working in tandem with the Pushtun-dominated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan used to despise Khawaja and Imam for their support to the Afghan Taliban and opposition to the Pakistani Taliban.
Muhammad Omar, a spokesman for the Taliban Media Centre, being operated by the Punjabi Taliban, had stated soon after Khawaja’s murder that he was executed because he used to call the Punjabi Taliban terrorists and refer to the Afghan Taliban as mujahideen.
Explaining their decision to execute Khawaja, the spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban, further said that all major militant organisations operating in the Waziristan region unanimously agreed to punish him and everybody wanted him to be executed as he had confessed of all the charges levelled against him. He alleged that during his previous visit to North Waziristan, Khawaja brought a list of 14 senior Punjabi Taliban commanders and told TTP leaders, Commander Hakimullah Mahsud and Commander Waliur Rahman, to hand them over to the Pakistani authorities because they were getting financial assistance from Indian intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Mohammad Omar even mentioned names of jihadi commanders who were identified as Indian agents by Khawaja. Important among those mentioned in the list were Qari Hussain Mahsud, an anti-Shia close aide of Baitullah Mahsud and commonly known in the TTP circles as Ustad-e-Fidayeen or the teacher of suicide bombers, Qari Mohammad Zafar, the acting ameer of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan on February 24 and Matiur Rehman, a bomb making expert of the LeJ, who is believed to be using drug money to fund the recruitment drive and reorganization of the LeJ.
Therefore, those investigating the abduction and subsequent slaughter of Khawaja and Imam further believe that these acts had something to do with the rift among the various pro-Kashmir jihadi groups currently operating from the Pakistani soil. They cited Khawaja’s remarks in the video that certain jihadi commanders such as Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil, Maulana Masood Azhar and Abdullah Shah Mazhar and jihadi groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkatul Mujahideen, Lashkar-e-Toiba and Al Badr are still operating as ISI proxies and allowed to collect funds in Pakistan.
To tell the truth, while the leaders of the three mainstream pro-Kashmir jihadi groups - JeM, LeT and HuM - are still allowed to move freely across Pakistan despite being proscribed by the Pakistan government, Commander Ilyas Kashmiri has already been declared as one of the most wanted fugitive commanders.