Pakistan: the NY Times spin


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 30, 2007

Local Pakistani Militants Boost Qaeda Threat

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan ‹ The Qaeda network accused by Pakistan¹s government of 
killing the opposition leader Benazir Bhutto is increasingly made up not of 
foreign fighters but of homegrown Pakistani militants bent on destabilizing the 
country, analysts and security officials here say.

In previous years, Pakistani militants directed their energies against American 
and NATO forces across the border in Afghanistan and avoided clashes with the 
Pakistani Army.

But this year they have very clearly expanded their ranks and turned to a direct
confrontation with the Pakistani security forces while also aiming at political 
figures like Ms. Bhutto, the former prime minister who died when a suicide bomb 
exploded as she left a political rally on Thursday.

According to American officials in Washington, an already steady stream of 
threat reports spiked in recent months. Many concerned possible plots to kill 
prominent Pakistani leaders, including Ms. Bhutto, President Pervez Musharraf 
and Nawaz Sharif, another opposition leader.

³Al Qaeda right now seems to have turned its face toward Pakistan and attacks on
the Pakistani government and Pakistani people,² Defense Secretary Robert M. 
Gates told reporters in Washington on Dec. 21.

The expansion of Pakistan¹s own militants, with their fortified links to Al 
Qaeda, presents a deeply troubling development for the Bush administration and 
its efforts to stabilize this volatile nuclear-armed country.

It is also one that many in Pakistan have been loath to admit, but that Ms. 
Bhutto had begun to acknowledge in her many public statements about the greatest
threat to her country being in religious extremism and terrorism.

Those warnings have now been borne out with her death and in the turmoil that 
has followed it and shaken Pakistan¹s political fault lines. Rioting over the 
last two days has left at least 38 people dead and 53 injured, and cost millions
of dollars of damage to businesses, vehicles and government buildings, according
an Interior Ministry spokesman. Protesters have accused the government of 
failing to protect Ms. Bhutto, or even conspiring to kill her.

On Saturday, Mr. Sharif, now the country¹s most prominent opposition figure, 
ventured to the political stronghold of his assassinated rival to lay a wreath 
on her grave, but also to make common cause against President Musharraf and the 
Bush administration¹s support of him.

The government has tried to deflect that anger, blaming militants linked to Al 
Qaeda, specifically Baitullah Mehsud, for having masterminded the attack. But on
Saturday, through a spokesman, Mr. Mehsud denied he was responsible and 
dismissed the allegations, adding fuel to the notion of a government conspiracy.

³Neither Baitullah Mehsud nor any of his associates were involved in the 
assassination of Benazir, because raising your hand against women is against our
tribal values and customs,² the spokesman, Maulavi Omar, said in a telephone 
call from the tribal region of South Waziristan. ³Only those people who stood to
gain politically are involved in Benazir¹s murder,² he said.

One of Pakistan¹s leading newspapers, The Daily Times, noted Saturday that such 
denials were a common tactic used to obscure the origins of the militants¹ 
attacks, and in particular to extend the myth that the bombings are the work of 
foreign elements, rather than of Pakistanis.

Al Qaeda in Pakistan now comprises not just foreigners but Pakistani tribesmen 
from border regions, as well as Punjabis and Urdu speakers and members of banned
sectarian and Sunni extremists groups, Najam Sethi, editor of The Daily Times, 
wrote in a front-page analysis. ³Al Qaeda is now as much a Pakistani phenomenon 
as it is an Arab or foreign element,² he wrote.

Senior American intelligence officials said all credible threat information in 
recent weeks had been passed to Pakistani authorities, mainly through the United
States Embassy in Islamabad. But the officials said they were not aware of any 
specific reports of an attempt on Ms. Bhutto¹s life in Rawalpindi.

A senior American intelligence official said it was clear from his reading of 
recent threat reports that ³the political process was not going to go 
untouched,² adding that militants almost surely would go to any length ³to 
create political disarray.²

And while Ms. Bhutto had perhaps the longest list of enemies among Pakistan¹s 
most prominent politicians, the official said: ³It almost didn¹t matter which 
one was attacked ‹ Musharraf, Bhutto or Sharif. The militants were looking for 
multiple target sets, whether in the capital area, which would carry more 
weight, or in Karachi or Peshawar.²

In the face of that danger, American lawmakers pressed for tighter government 
security around Ms. Bhutto. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat who
heads the Foreign Relations Committee and who is running for president, released
a letter last week that he and two Senate colleagues had written to Mr. 
Musharraf at Ms. Bhutto¹s request, urging him to increase her security.

The letter, written six days after the Oct. 18 bombing attempt on Ms. Bhutto¹s 
life, urged Mr. Musharraf to provide her ³the full level of security support 
afforded to any former prime minister,² including ³bomb-proof vehicles and 
jamming equipment.²

After Ms. Bhutto¹s death, Mr. Biden said in a statement, ³The failure to protect
Ms. Bhutto raises a lot of hard questions for the government and security 
services that must be answered.² But a Defense Department official said 
Saturday, ³I don¹t know how foolproof you can make any security when people are 
willing to kill themselves.²

The tribes on the border have a long history of fighting invading armies. But 
since 2001, when Qaeda and Taliban forces fled the American intervention in 
Afghanistan and took refuge in Pakistan¹s tribal areas, the Pakistani militants 
have steadily grown in strength and boldness.

Today they have been bolstered by the foreigners among them. Those include a 
smaller number of hard-core Arabs, like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri, Al
Qaeda¹s second in command, as well as a larger number of Uzbeks, Tartars and 
Tajiks who have influence them to take on new agendas, Pakistani security 
officials familiar with the region said.

The Arabs in particular have brought money and fighting and explosives 
expertise, as well as ideology that includes religious justifications of tactics
like suicide bombings and beheadings, which Afghans and Pakistanis had not used 
before, they said.

More and more, those tribes and foreign networks have overlapping operations and

³The country is facing the gravest challenge from these terrorists and extremist
elements,² Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, the director of the National Crisis 
Management Cell and main spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said Friday as he 
accused Al Qaeda of Ms. Bhutto¹s assassination. ³They are systematically 
targeting our state institutions in order to destabilize the country.²

Mr. Mehsud, he said, was of the ³same brand of Al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists,²
and was ³behind most of the recent terrorist attacks that have taken place in 

Some security officials in the North-West Frontier Province have warned, 
however, that it has become the norm for the government to blame Mr. Mehsud for 
just about any attack, without providing real evidence.

Mr. Mehsud is in fact one commander in a broader terrorist network who runs just
one of an estimated five groups that train and dispatch suicide bombers from 
Pakistan¹s isolated tribal areas, according to officials.

Another man known to be sending out suicide bombers is Qari Zafar, a militant 
from southern Punjab who was connected to the banned Sunni extremist group 
Sipa-e-Sahaba and then Jaish-e-Muhammad.

Mr. Zafar escaped capture in Karachi and is now based in South Waziristan, where
he trains insurgents on how to rig roadside bombs and vests for suicide 
bombings, a former security official said.

But it is Mr. Mehsud who has emerged this year as the most visible proponent of 
Al Qaeda¹s ambitions in Pakistan, security officials said. He has claimed to 
have hundreds of suicide bombers ready to attack government and military 

Barely two years ago Mr. Mehsud, 32, was just a Pashtun tribesman who did not 
register on the radar screen of the intelligence services or government 
officials. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan in the 1990s, when he 
trained and fought with the Taliban, according to one Pakistani intelligence 

He became a follower of Abdullah Mehsud, the one-legged commander who was 
captured when fighting with the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan and detained by 
the United States at its military base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Abdullah Mehsud 
was later released and took up the fight against American forces in Afghanistan 
from his home base in South Waziristan.

Both Abdullah and Baitullah share the name of the Mehsud of South Waziristan, a 
large warrior Pashtun tribe that is renowned for never being pacified by the 
British forces.

Abdullah Mehsud was killed in July by Pakistani forces in Zhob, a district south
of the tribal areas in the province of Baluchistan. But even before then, 
Baitullah Mehsud had been promoted over him by the Taliban leadership.

Baitullah Mehsud is now believed to be responsible for some of the most 
spectacular and damaging attacks inside Pakistan in recent months, including 
suicide bombings against army and intelligence targets as well as prominent 
politicians like Ms. Bhutto.

He has also been identified by officials in Afghanistan as one of the main 
sources of the suicide bombers who carry out attacks there.

But Mr. Mehsud¹s master strike came at the end of July when he captured nearly 
300 soldiers who were escorting a supply convoy through the Mehsud lands in 
Waziristan. He beheaded three soldiers and demanded that the government withdraw
from his area and cease operations against militants.

It took the government two months of negotiations to win the release of the 
soldiers. Only on Nov. 3 did it do so. As part of the deal the government handed
over 25 of Mr. Mehsud¹s men on the same day that President Musharraf imposed 
emergency rule, saying he needed the extra powers to combat terrorists.

Since then, however, the government, wary of the retaliatory attacks Mr. Mehsud 
can employ, appears to have done little to rein him in. He now leads 
Tehrik-i-Taliban, a newly formed coalition of Islamic militants committed to 
waging holy war against the Pakistani government.

The government has outlawed the group but not moved against it. The army has 
instead concentrated its efforts in recent weeks on clearing militants from the 
Swat Valley. That region is some distance from the tribal areas on the border, 
and the fight there an indication of just how far the militant influence has 

Pakistani officials who have worked in the tribal areas say that it is still 
possible to contain the threat of someone like Mr. Mehsud through tribal 
pressure, if he can be separated from the foreign elements. ³The only problem is
these foreigners,² the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ³You 
remove these foreigners and the rest is no problem.²

Yet to remove the foreigners, namely a small number of Arab leaders, who are 
well protected and well hidden, from among the tribesmen is a task that Pakistan
so far has failed to do and according to some may not be capable of. ³That can 
only be done with an operation,² the official said.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company

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