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Pakistan remains terror hub with US effort { July 25 2005 }

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Despite US effort, Pakistan remains terror hub
Monday, July 25, 2005


Despite US effort, Pakistan remains terror hub

Eds: Via AP

(AP) - In March 2004, al Qaeda leaders gathered at a mud hut in Pakistan's remote tribal regions for a summit meeting. Among those who attended, according to senior Pakistani intelligence officials, was a Libyan operative described as Osama bin Laden's top operational planner. Another attendee, Abu Issa al Hindi, now faces terrorism-related charges in the U.S.

On the agenda that day were plans to carry out attacks in Britain, say Pakistani officials involved in the capture of al Qaeda members in recent months. British and Pakistani intelligence officials are now exploring whether there's a link to the July 7 London bombings.

Thursday, explosions shut down three London subway stations and blew out the windows of a double-decker bus. One casualty was reported. The bombs appeared to be weaker than those used two weeks earlier.

Al Qaeda's possible role in the July 7 bombings and the latest attacks remains murky, but one thing is clear to South Asia analysts and Western intelligence officials: Pakistan continues to be a principal recruiting ground and logistical center for global terrorists. This is despite three years of military operations by the U.S. and Pakistan to root out al Qaeda and Taliban members in the remote tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a U.S. ally, has banned many militant Islamic organizations and tightened regulations on religious seminaries, or madrassas, that have provided recruits to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Thursday, Gen. Musharraf, in a televised speech to the country, issued a fresh ban against militant Islamic groups and their fund-raising activities. He gave madrassas a December deadline to register with the government.

Gen. Musharraf's moves to date have had little effect, say South Asian and Western officials. Among the reasons: Pakistan's armed forces have been reluctant to crack down on militias that have helped Pakistan defend its claim on Kashmir, a territory it disputes with India, even though those militias also may be connected with terrorist elements. Also, Gen. Musharraf's government relies on support from political parties that are often sympathetic to the aspirations of Islamic militants. These militants hold influence within the Pakistani army, making it hard for the president to implement a thorough crackdown.

Pakistan emerges as a common thread in recent terrorism investigations. Three of the four suspected London suicide bombers apparently traveled to Pakistan within the past year, where they are believed to have met militant groups and possibly trained with them, Pakistani officials say. Last September, Spanish police broke up a cell of Pakistani nationals in Barcelona who police say had sent alding in Washington and other places.

Some of Pakistan's most active Islamist militias, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, continue to operate openly in parts of Pakistan, even though Gen. Musharraf banned their activities in 2002. U.S. and British authorities are concerned that Lashkar is allying itself with al Qaeda and recruiting members from the Pakistani diaspora.

"Since 9/11, there are only really two prominent places in the world where you can train for jihad: Iraq and Pakistan," says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan federal think tank in Washington. "If you're a young Muslim male looking for training, Pakistan is where you're likely to find the opportunity, particularly if you have family and ethnic ties there."

In his speech Thursday, Gen. Musharraf expressed displeasure with the criticism of Pakistan following the July 7 London bombing. While three of the bombers' parents are of Pakistani descent, he said, the men were products of Britain, not Pakistan. "We certainly have a problem here which we are trying to address very strongly. May I say England also has a problem that needs to be addressed," Gen. Musharraf said. Extremist groups "operate with full impunity" in Britain including ones that "had the audacity to pass an edict against my life," said the Pakistani president, who has been the target of assassination attempts.

The arrest last year of Mr. Khan, the computer expert, was critical in helping authorities link al Qaeda's senior commanders in Pakistan to terrorist cells in Europe and the U.S. Mr. Khan, then 28, is the son of a Pakistan International Airlines pilot and traveled often to Europe and the Middle East when he was young.

According to multiple officials involved in the investigation, Pakistani agents traced Mr. Khan's emails and found he was communicating both with suspected al Qaeda operatives in the U.K. and with commanders in the South Waziristan district of Pakistan's tribal areas. In interrogations, Mr. Khan said he sent encrypted messages of terrorist plots, sometimes by couriers on mules, to operations commanders based in caves, according to these officials.

U.S. and British authorities ultimately were forced to cut short a surveillance operation on the British cell after concerns mounted that an attack could be imminent. Investigators in Pakistan had found specific "targeting sites" on Mr. Khan's computer, including pictures of London's Heathrow Airport and British mass transit systems. In London, British authorities, using leads from Mr. Kahn's arrest, found photos on suspects' computers of the World Bank headquarters in Washington and the Prudential Corporate Plaza building in Newark, N.J.

That caused the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to raise its terror alert to orange in August 2004. While some experts at the time played down the likelihood that these U.S. buildings could be targets, it remains unclear what the users of these computers were planning.

Among those arrested in sweeps inside Pakistan and Britain following Mr. Khan's arrest were Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian al Qaeda member indicted by the U.S. for the bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. The most prized catch for the U.S. was Mr. Hindi, the man reported to have been an attendee at the March 2004 summit meeting. He is believed to have been a senior al Qaeda operative in Europe and is linked to alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Mr. Hindi was indicted by the U.S. in April on charges of conspiring to use weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to destroy buildings.

The young computer expert, Mr. Khan, was also connected to the cell of Pakistani nationals in Barcelona. He was one of the recipients of the money the Spanish cell sent to Pakistan. In April of this year a Spanish investigating magistrate described the 11-man cell in a writ seeking to keep the men imprisoned until trial. The writ says the cell provided funding and a possible escape plan to one of the alleged masterminds of the March 11, 2004, bombings in Madrid, Rabei Osman Said Ahmed, a k a Mohamed the Egyptian, who is now facing trial in Italy over separate terrorism charges. Another member of the cell was allegedly in charge of establishing sleeper cells in Scandinavia.

To raise funds for a "global jihad," the cell got involved in drug trafficking, credit-card fraud and extortion, the writ says. Police found 141 grams of heroin, precision scales and machines used in making fake credit cards in one of the houses used as a meeting place by cell members, in addition to the equivalent of $22,000 in cash.

European law-enforcement agencies are taking a harder look at Pakistani militant groups that traditionally were thought to have at most loose ties to al Qaeda. One of these groups is Lashkar-e-Taiba, or "Army of the Pure," an Islamist militia that has long trained Pakistani recruits for fighting in Kashmir. It also has a long relationship with the Pakistani military and intelligence services.

In March of this year, British police arrested Palvinder Singh, a 29-year-old British national of Pakistani descent, in Coventry for alleged links to Lashkar. The group is outlawed in Britain. Mr. Singh and two others were charged with conspiracy to fund terrorism and conspiracy to acquire equipment for terrorism. Law-enforcement officials say the arrests are part of a major, previously undisclosed operation by Scotland Yard to roll up Lashkar's British cells.

Some officials say Gen. Musharraf has put less emphasis on dismantling home-grown Pakistani militant groups, even though he banned many of them in 2002. On one subject the government and the militants have traditionally been in full agreement: Kashmir, control of which is split between India and Pakistan. Pakistani government propaganda distributed at some overseas embassies depicts the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir as a horror zone in which Indian-sponsored terrorists rape and kill Muslims.

Western experts say that if Gen. Musharraf is taking a soft line toward domestic militant groups because he wants their help in Kashmir or Afghanistan, it is a flawed strategy because the line between al Qaeda and these groups has increasingly blurred.

Pakistan "cooperated rigorously in going after al Qaeda, but went very slow in going after Taliban and groups operating inside Kashmir," says Ashley Tellis, who was senior director for Southwest Asia at the National Security Council during President Bush's first term and now is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "This works in theory but not in practice."

A visit to an Islamic center just outside Lahore, called Marzak-Dawa-al-Rasad, or MDI, is indicative of how Pakistan's militant culture continues to thrive. MDI is the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, and its founder, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, was previously the militia's chief before it was banned in 2002. Today, Mr. Saeed and his religious colleagues actively preach the necessity for jihad.

Mr. Saeed, a 60-year-old former university professor, proudly recounts attacks his army led on India as recently as 2001. The killing of "infidels" and the destruction of the forces of "evil and disbelief" is the obligation of every pious Muslim, says Mr. Saeed. He calls Mr. bin Laden "a man of extraordinary qualities," but Lashkar leaders have denied that the group is part of the al Qaeda network.

The compound houses an Islamic university, a farm, a clothing factory and a carpentry workshop. The university promotes the austere Wahabi version of Islam and offers students boot-camp-like physical training, according to university officials.

Meanwhile, Lashkar has changed its name to Jammat-ul-Dawa, or Islamic "Preaching Core," and solicits new recruits for the Kashmir conflict in Lahore and other cities. The group continues to publish magazines and operate a Web site. Currently there is an official cease-fire in Kashmir as the Indian and Pakistani governments conducts peace talks, but Indian officials claim that recent attacks in Kashmir have been supported by militant groups inside Pakistan.

In Pakistan's tribal areas of Baluchistan and the Northwest Frontier Province, the Taliban still train and recruit without government interference. In the Baluch cities of Quetta and Chaman, the Taliban's presence is particularly strong, and U.S. and Afghan military commanders complain that Pakistan is providing sanctuary and aid to the militias they're fighting. Pashtunabad, a congested slum district in Quetta, is a hotbed of former Taliban activists. Several exiled former Taliban leaders are believed to have taken refuge there.

The main madrassa in the neighborhood is run by Maulana Noor Mohammed, a member of Pakistan's national assembly, who belongs to an alliance of conservative Islamic parties allied with Gen. Musharraf's government. Mr. Mohammed believes the Taliban's version of political Islam will flourish again someday across South Asia. "The Taliban will ultimately triumph," he said in an interview at the madrassa, the majority of whose students are Afghan refugees.

Efforts by Gen. Musharraf's government to regulate the more than 10,000 madrassas in Pakistan have stalled in part because they continue to get support from Pakistanis overseas and foreign Islamic charities. A report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group says that Pakistan's madrassas and mosques receive $1.1 billion dollars in domestic donations every year, but the number is believed to be significantly higher when foreign contributions are included.

Since the July 7 London bombings, Pakistani security forces have rounded up nearly 300 suspected militants in raids on homes and madrassas. The government has pledged again to weed out the militancy taught in the madrassas. Gen. Musharraf, in his speech Thursday, said he would act against newspapers that spread hatred and told the nation it was at a crossroads in choosing between progressive or "retrogressive" Islam.


David Crawford in Berlin contributed to this article.

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