LAHORE: A decade after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US and the subsequent war on terror launched by the US-led allied forces against al-Qaeda, the global terrorist organisation remains a potent threat as it keeps surviving and thriving mainly on the Pak-Afghan tribal belt.
In these rugged areas, the al-Qaeda leadership has established an effective militant network that increasingly exploits its Pakistani affiliates to carry on the global militant agenda of Osama bin Laden, despite his May 2 killing in a US military raid in Pakistan. Until recently, analysts have been mostly focusing on the dangers posed by the growing Talibanisation of Pakistan. However, it has now become abundantly clear that the time has come to pay more attention to the bigger dangers posed by the Pakistanisation of al-Qaeda.
Since the former US President Bush’s declaration of war against global terrorism in September 2001, the United States and its allies have claimed to have killed or captured over 80 percent of senior al-Qaeda leaders, especially from Pakistan, the latest being Younis al Mauritani, who is suspected of directing attacks against the United States and Europe. Mauritani was arrested on September 5, 2011 from Quetta.
Yet, the frequency of the al-Qaeda-sponsored terrorist attacks has increased, as compared to the pre-9/11 period, the latest being the September 7, 2011 twin suicide attacks targeting the residence of the Deputy Inspector General of the Balochistan Frontier Corps in Quetta, which killed 28 people.
The Quetta attack was reportedly carried out in retaliation to the arrest of Younis al Mauritani. The current spate of high-intensity terrorist attacks, despite Osama’s elimination months ago, makes it obvious that al-Qaeda’s core elements are still resilient and the outfit is cultivating stronger operational connections which radiate outward from their hideouts in Pakistan to affiliates scattered throughout the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.
Therefore, al-Qaeda not only remains in business in its traditional stronghold in the Waziristan tribal region on the largely lawless Pak-Afghan tribal belt border, but has clearly advanced to the urban areas in all the four provinces of Pakistan.
However, the most worrying aspect of the prevalent situation remains the growing belief of the Obama administration that if there is one country in the world that matters most to the future of al-Qaeda, it is none other than Pakistan.
Al-Qaeda, which means “The Base” in Arabic, was founded way back in 1988 by Osama bin Laden, and seeks to overthrow the US-dominated world order. The outfit was relatively unknown until the 9/11 terror attacks when its operatives hijacked four US airliners and crashed two of them into the World Trade Centre towers in New York.
A third plane hit the Pentagon building in Washington and a fourth one crashed in Pennsylvania after the passengers attempted to regain control of the plane. In an exclusive interview with Geo Television on July 23, 2008, Mustafa Abu Yazid alias Sheikh Saeed, then the third senior-most al-Qaeda leader after Osama bin Laden and Dr Ayman Zawahiri, had confessed for the first time that the 9/11 attacks were carried out by 19 al-Qaeda operatives, most of whom were Saudi nationals.
As the US-led allied forces launched a ruthless military offensive in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the Afghanistan-based al-Qaeda leadership started moving its fighters across their eastern border into Pakistan, where they have now taken over the control of the mountainous Fata after joining hands with the local Taliban militants. The Al-Qaeda leadership’s choice of using the Fata region, especially the North and the South Waziristan tribal agencies as their hideout, enabled the terrorist organisation to build a new power base, which is separate from Afghanistan. Therefore, despite Pakistan’s extensive contribution to the global war on terror, many questions persist about the extent to which al-Qaeda and its allied groups are operating within Pakistan.
In fact, al-Qaeda’s success in forging close ties to Pakistani militant groups has given it an increasingly secure haven in the mountainous tribal areas of Pakistan, which has replaced Afghanistan as a key state for the training and indoctrination of al-Qaeda recruits for operations abroad and for training of those indoctrinated and radicalised elsewhere. Therefore, the international community continues to portray Pakistan as a breeding ground for the Taliban militia and a sanctuary for the fugitive al-Qaeda leaders.
Despite repeated denials by Pakistani authorities, the international media keeps reporting that al-Qaeda and Taliban have already established significant bases in Peshawar and Quetta, and carrying out cross-border ambushes against their targets in Afghanistan, while the suicide bombing teams of al-Qaeda target the Afghanistan-based US-led allied forces from their camps in the mountainous region.
The general notion that al-Qaeda is getting stronger even after a decade-long war against terror can be gauged from the fact that Pakistan, despite being a key US ally during all those years, is undergoing a radical change, moving from the phase of Talibanisation of its society to the Pakistanisation of al-Qaeda. Many of the key Pakistani militant organisations, which are both anti-American and anti-state, have now joined hands with al-Qaeda to let loose a reign of terror across Pakistan. The meteoric rise of the al-Qaeda-linked Taliban in Pakistan, especially after the 9/11 attacks, has literally pushed the Pakistani state to the brink of civil war, claiming over 35,000 civilian and khaki lives in terrorism-related incidents between 2001 and 2011.
In fact, the Pakistanisation of al-Qaeda is rooted in decades of collaboration between elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment and the extremist militant movements that birthed and nurtured al-Qaeda, which has evolved significantly over the years from a close-knit group of Arab Afghans to a trans-national Islamic global insurgency, dominated by more and more Pakistani militants. US intelligence agencies say a gush of motivated youth is flooding towards the realm of militancy and joining the al-Qaeda cadres, and thus Pakistan remains a potential site for recruitment and training of militants as the fugitive leadership of the terror outfit keeps hiring local recruits with the help of their local affiliates in Pakistan, in a bid to bolster the manpower of al-Qaeda that has grown from strength to strength despite the arrest and killing of hundreds of its operatives from within Pakistan since 2001.
To tell the truth, al-Qaeda has literally become a Pakistani phenomenon now for all practical purposes, given the fact that a good number of anti-American sectarian and militant groups in the country have joined the terrorist network, making Pakistan the nerve centre of al-Qaeda’s global operations. For instance, investigations into the May 22, 2011 terrorist attack on the Mehran naval base in Karachi had revealed that it was a coordinated operation involving al-Qaeda’s Waziristan-based chief operational commander from Egypt, Saif Al Adal, top military strategists of al-Qaeda from Pakistan, Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Punjabi Taliban, a term used to describe the Punjab-based militant organisations which are opposed to, and fighting the Pakistani state as well as the United States.
Pakistani intelligence findings on the Mehran naval base terrorist attack clearly demonstrated that al-Qaeda and TTP have teamed up with the Punjabi Taliban in recent years to form a triangular syndicate of militancy, chiefly to destabilise Pakistan, whose political and military leadership is allegedly siding with “the forces of the infidel” in the war against terror.
Therefore, the al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance has gained an edge in Pakistan because of the support the local militant groups provide. Ideological ties bind the al-Qaeda, the Tehrik-e-Taliban and the Punjabi Taliban to throw out international forces from Afghanistan. These three militant entities share intelligence, human resources and training facilities, and empathise with each other as the American and Pakistani agencies — however strained the relationship between the two countries may be — hunt and target them, as proven recently with the arrest of Younis al Mauritani, which became possible due to the collaboration between US and Pakistani intelligence agencies.
These three outfits initially came together at the time the US-led allied forces invaded Afghanistan post-9/11, prompting the al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban to rely on local partners such as the pro-Taliban tribes in Pakistan, anti-US and anti-Shia groups like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), militants in religious seminaries and extremist groups for shelter and assistance. The ties between local militant groups and al-Qaeda cemented further as a result of the Afghan Taliban’s astonishing successes against the US-led allied forces, which prompted the US to increase the drone attacks in the tribal areas and turn the heat on Pakistan to crack down on the TTP and others.
However, this axis of evil remains an informal alliance which is mainly meant to protect and support each other. But what gave the alliance an impetus was the migration of battle-hardened Pakistani commanders from the battlefront in the Indian administered Jammu & Kashmir to the Waziristan region in Fata. As things stand now, the trouble-stricken Waziristan tribal region has become the new battlefield for the pro-Kashmir militants, who have joined hands with the anti-US al-Qaeda elements. Information gathered by the Pakistani agencies shows the presence of fighters in Waziristan belonging to several pro-Kashmir militant groups, many of which have fallen out of favour with the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, which are under tremendous pressure to stop harbouring al-Qaeda-linked extremist elements.
In a nutshell, the death of Osama bin Laden was unquestionably a major blow to al-Qaeda. Yet, there are clear indications to imply that long before he was killed, al-Qaeda had adapted itself to survive and operate without him, ensuring that the threat his terror network poses lives well beyond his demise. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the terrorist outfit Osama bin Laden had launched more than two decades ago, is anywhere near defeat.