in search of al qaeda
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Kamran Khan

He is a Pakistani journalist and special correspondent for the Washington Post, based in Karachi. He maintains that Al Qaeda definitely moved into the tribal areas of Pakistan after the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, but that Pakistani officials deny it because they fear U.S. intervention. He argues that at the same time Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has allied himself with the U.S., he also has made an "unwritten compromise" to give more political power to Pakistani Islamist groups. This interview was conducted on Sept. 13, 2002.


Kamran Khan photo
Kamran Khan photo

Let's talk about Al Qaeda since Sept. 11, and what happened to them.

It has been bruised. It has been hurt, definitely. It lost the main hideout it had. It has lost the main sanctuary. There has been a tremendous blow to the prestige of the organization. So it's a wounded tiger, I would say.

[Is it] even still an organization?

I believe that it's an organization, as long as Osama bin Laden is alive, as long as Ayman al-Zawahiri is alive, as long as the other key players are still alive. I think, as an organization, Al Qaeda is still alive.

You think top leaders still in place?

Yes, Ayman al-Zawahiri is alive; Osama bin Laden is alive. If you talk about the cause and the motives of the organization, Mullah Omar is alive. We have new characters, new players in the game. ...

Many think, after 9/11, Al Qaeda went to the tribal areas [of Pakistan]. What you know about that?

Definitely they did. Definitely. The whole of Al Qaeda's moved into Pakistan. First they moved into the tribal areas. Pretty much they are there -- even today they are there. There is pretty strong evidence available to suggest that some of the Arabs who speak local native language, the Pashto, that wear native dresses, they look like native people. They are the guest of tribal people in South Waziristan and North Waziristan. I've been meeting people who know it for sure in their own areas -- there are Arabs living there as guests of some tribal people.

The bottom line with Pakistan is that they don't want to have an armed rebellion in the tribal areas.

I would think that some people in the government may also know, have some ideas. But as long as these people are not creating trouble and they are just sitting quiet, the government are not ready to confront them. They don't want to create a problem for themselves. So they moved into tribal areas, and then they moved into major cities, urban areas.

The greatest manifestation was the arrest in March this year of Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad. The key players of Al Qaeda [were] in Faisalabad -- Abu Zubaydah and at least 11 Al Qaeda-ers. Faisalabad is a place -- it won't strike you at the first place that they are hiding at the central Punjab somewhere. So that shows that, yes, they moved across border into Pakistan. They moved into tribal areas, and from there they are now moving towards the cities. And we have very credible info that many of the Arabs were hiding in Karachi and in Lahore; maybe other places. ...

What is it about the tribal areas? I mean, people watching this program don't know what these tribal areas are or what they represent. What is it about these places that makes them such a good hiding place for Al Qaeda?

They are often categorized as semi-autonomous areas. But for all practical purpose, before 9/11, they were autonomous areas. There was no law there. The law was gun and drugs. These people trade in gun and guns only. There was no other thing. Maybe smuggling. So it was a lawless terrain, completely out of Pakistan's control.

These people don't accept any laws. They didn't even accept the Durand Line, the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They never had any travel documents to go into Afghanistan or coming back from there. So there are tremendous linkages there. These people have no law, no Pakistani law, government.

And they're in the same tribe as the Taliban?

Yes, in most cases. There are different types, but they share the area. They share the terrain. They share the culture, and they all share a very deep, religious leanings. They consider themselves ultra-religious people. Yes, the rest would like to call them the sheer fundamentalists.

We sent someone with a camera and a list of questions into [the tribal areas] recently. He asked questions of tribal leaders and whatnot, on the record, on camera. And they said, "No, we support the government. We are not going to harbor Al Qaeda." Why would they say that to us and say something different?

No, they are very intelligent people; don't consider them a [na‘ve] tribesman and all. They are very intelligent people. They are talking to an American TV crew. They are not stupid. ...

They are serious about the business, what they are doing. There is a fire of remains and settling score with the Americans. Nobody should doubt that at all. That's why you see this activity in the east and in the south and southeast in Afghanistan. It can be that whatever is happening there is not indigenous Afghan reaction. There has to be some sanctuary across the border. There has to be some supplies from across the border. If nothing, some hideouts. ...

The basic thing, the bottom line with Pakistan is that they don't want to have an armed rebellion in the tribal areas. They don't want to take things to a limit where there is an armed rebellion, and there can be, because these people are armed to the teeth. They have heavy machine guns, they have got artillery, they have got light artillery, they have got tremendous amount of firepower with them. So the government of Pakistan is not really to challenge them. ...

So what about the war on terrorism and the coalition and cooperation with the United States?

It will continue. It will continue, but not at the cost of internal strife. Not at the cost of creating anarchy within Pakistan. Not at the cost of creating chaos within Pakistan. Not at the cost of creating the rebellion from the very strong religious lobby in Pakistan.

Mind you, this is the army is half a million, a very, very religious [faction]. I mean, these people are very religious. They cannot stand to any notion that the government or army is challenging the people who are religious people, who are religiously motivated people. So the army and the government, General Musharraf, has to be very cautious. That's why he's walking on a very tight rope. ...

What was [Abu Zubaydah] doing in Faisalabad?

He was just hiding there. They were having a very low profile there. They didn't have weapons, a lot of weapons, with them. They why they wanted to just stay cool there and waiting for their chance to react. ...

They've also come to Karachi, and we had an event here [on Sept. 11. 2002]. What happened?

There were many, many incidents there. The incident two days ago in Karachi, there was an information from neighborhood to the police that there are some suspicious people living here. Police did some reconnaissance, and then they went for a raid early morning Sept. 11. They faced fierce resistance from these guys. They are all definite Al Qaedas in the sense that they are Tajiks and they are Central Asians and two Arabs and all.

And Yemeni, apparently?

Yes. That's an Arab or Yemeni.

Have you received any briefings letting you know what's going on in that case?

They are still questioning these guys. But they have been told that, "We ran from Afghanistan and for the hideout. For us, this is a Muslim country."

Whenever these people are caught, they always play Islamic card. They always play a Muslim card. They like to influence their interrogators, and in many cases, they successfully do that. ...

They say that, "We have devoted our lives to Islam and Quran and Allah. So what problem do you have with us?" They usually ask their interrogators, and these people are very confident.

In most cases, they say, "You can kill us. No problem." That really baffles their interrogators, because if they are questioning a person who is ready to die, who says, "[If] you release me, you leave me, I'll go and I'll hit again." So that really baffled because an interrogator, to go to an extent to use a third degree, which may put some fear in the person he's interrogating that maybe he'll be killed. But these guys say, "Do whatever." These are very, very hard nuts. You can't make them speak without the third-degree measures, which are quite common in Pakistan, you know.

In terms of nationality, who are these people that are coming out of Afghanistan since October and coming to the tribal areas, coming to Faisalabad, coming to Karachi? What nationality are we talking [about]?

Mostly Arabs. Yemenis, I would say, Saudis, some Kuwaitis, some Palestinians.

Gulf Arabs?

Yes, yes, yes. And of course, Pakistanis, and of course, Afghanis, Chechens.

Are they going home? Are they going down to Karachi in order to catch a boat or--

Yes. Basically, it's not stationed to plot more action. These people at the moment who have escaped from Afghanistan -- I'm talking about the Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, which escaped from Afghanistan -- is looking for a hideout. It's on the run.

We can't say that they're sitting quiet and they are plotting, and they have been successful and all. We can't say that. They are on the run. They really fear that they may be caught any days. There is a great degree of mistrust in the ranks, because they think that the information going out, these raids and stuff, these arrests and all, it may be coming in from within their ranks. So there is some mistrust. But it's not a very, very well-entrenched organized force at the moment. ...

Any evidence that they're leaving Pakistan and going back to the Gulf?

Yes, yes, yes. There has been, yes. The some people who have their passports intact and all, these people have left and have gone off to Dubai. I understand that some people took also boats from Karachi and went off to the to U.A.E. There are several ports in the U.A.E. which you can access without being severely monitored.

Also, what about Iran?

Iran, of course. I understand that soon after October raids, there was a request made by some key Arabs to the Iranians in asking for passage. There is a Islamic code under which when some Muslims ask you for passage, you are obliged to provide that passage. I understand through a key U.A.E. diplomat that that passage was provided in the early days, and some people really went out. ...

There is talk we've heard that some of the major madrassas in Pakistan have harbored Al Qaeda -- the Haqqania Madrassa up near Peshawar, but also the Binori Madrassa here in Karachi.

I would think that not in the madrassas premises; there's a major intelligence penetration in these madrassas.

The ISI is in the Binori Madrassa?

Yes, yes, yes. They know what's going on there. But at the same time, you must understand that some of the key people are already with the ISI. I mean, they report back to the ISI. Maybe they are in the forefront of the anti-U.S. campaign or whatever--

So some of the Islamists are inside the ISI? And the ISI is looking--

And they report back to the ISI, yes, yes.

How does that work?

It works quite good, yes. I think that they have a very reliable penetration source of information. The bottom line here is that, "Look. Whatever you are doing, whatever you do, we understand. But mind you, we cannot afford to harbor Arabs here. We cannot afford to harbor non-Pakistanis here. So please, please cooperate with us on that count." There is a very deep connections between the religious madrassas, and the key religious scholars, and the establishment. ...

Doesn't President Musharraf need the Islamists in order to prosecute the Indians? Doesn't he need them to keep pressure on the Indians in Kashmir?

Absolutely.

So he can't offend these groups that are akin to Al Qaeda in their sympathies?

By all means. ... It's also because there are 50,000 strong, militant, armed people. That most of these people have deep connections with the establishment, with the security--

Security -- ISI?

--operators of Pakistan, the security operators, yes. The intelligence agencies. And they just can't do things which may provoke them, and which may create an internal rebellion of sorts. Not only that. Of course, these people have devoted themselves to jihad in India, at least, to jihad in Kashmir. ...

A lot of Pakistani security people say that no country has such a tremendous fifth column. You have 50,000 armed people who are ready to give their lives without asking for any favor or anything. These motivated people are an asset for any country with such a massive, such a big enemy. And with such a major problem boiling there. Of course, yes.

So can Americans trust Musharraf to crack down on his own people to rat out terrorists in Pakistan?

I don't know, because my perception is the Americans are basically interested in Al Qaeda -- people who were in Afghanistan, who have an anti-West, anti-America agenda. I'm not sure if the U.S. is really terribly interested about the people who were fighting in Kashmir. ...

Yes, but the Americans are concerned, [about] if you have good connections inside the ISI, inside this government. And you're telling me that the government or that the Pakistani militant groups, the fifth column, if you will, is serving as a sort of bed and breakfast for Al Qaeda.

In some cases, yes. But there has been a very intense pressure from the government on these groups -- I would say not pressure, but lobbying -- trying to convince these guys that, "Please don't have connections with Al Qaeda. Please don't have ties with Al Qaeda."

We have reasons to believe that the key jihadi organizations at their top level have severed their ties. Or they are not really to have connection, ties, with the Arabs, but maybe some breakaway factions doing this.

Kind of a messy situation to untangle, if you've got Al Qaeda and these jihadi groups being tight before 9/11, and now, after 9/11, the Americans pressure Musharraf to sort of untangle this mess. It's not something that gets done overnight.

It's very complicated. It's very complicated. It's a very difficult message to convey to these jihadis. But for these jihadi organizations, the focus is Kashmir. The agenda is Kashmir. And they have been told that, "If you have the focus on Kashmir, then you better not compromise your cause." ...

I think that the government is really satisfied that those groups now understand the language, and they don't want to be involved in any active anti-U.S. terrorist operation.

So the line is something like this: If you're fighting India, you're a freedom fighter. If you're fighting the Americans, you're a terrorist?

They have been told that you have been fighting as a freedom fighter in Kashmir, then no problem. It all started in 1990. Since 1990 until September 2001, there was no problem. There was no severe pressure on Pakistan to cut ties with these groups, to rein in these groups. There was some whispers here and there. But nothing serious. That's why it all continued here.

Why should the Pakistanis fight America's war for it?

For its own survival, for the economic reasons, to stay viable. If the country is facing economic crunch before 9/11, and also because General Musharraf, a military leader, wants legitimacy. He wants to survive. He wants to continue as the leader of the country. There are plenty of reasons.

I'm surprised that you think that Al Qaeda has any capability. My sense is that there's only a few hundred guys, they're scattered, they're in a defensive position and aren't in any position to be offensive.

That's very correct. But it doesn't mean that it's a dead organization, it cannot react, it will not react or whatever. The people who are on the run are basically who were in Afghanistan. But the sleepers, the sleeper cells all over the world -- it's not a very tightly knitted organization.

We are talking about people who floated around, who went to Afghanistan and returned back to these places. But these are people who are now self-energized, self-motivated. You don't need a central order to act from Osama bin Laden. So we are talking about loose sleeper cells all over the world.

Even before 9/11, I used to talk [to] people who are supposed to know all that. And they used to say very much before 9/11, that these people are not restricted to Afghanistan. ...

We talked to General Taj of the Frontier Corps in Peshawar. He contradicts you on the tribal areas. He says there's no Al Qaeda.

This is his job.

It's his job to say there's no Al Qaeda in tribal areas?

Absolutely. Because if now, the tribal area belongs to Al Qaeda, it means a direct American intervention. Americans would go mad. They'll say that "Yes, but you also agree with us, you must move fast. Otherwise, we'll come. We are coming. We're going to bomb these places out." So this is crucial for Pakistan to negate this impression that there are any Al Qaeda in Pakistan. ...

What do you know about the decision to let the FBI operate in the tribal areas? That must have been a difficult negotiation.

Oh, yes. But they always say that it's part of the 9/11 agreement which Pakistan had with the U.S., which included providing intelligence, allowing intelligence, technical facilities. They say that allowing Americans to have technical access in Pakistan.

But that's what the repeated assertion is from the government of Pakistan and President Musharraf also, that these people -- yes, they are doing something in tribal areas and other areas. But their work is restricted to technical cooperation.

Well, we know that the troops, the [U.S.] Special Forces come across the border, because the border's not demarcated.

That's right, yes.

Clearly, they're patrolling inside the Pakistani [territory].

Special Forces, they come and they say that "We don't know [whether] this was Pakistan or Afghanistan or whatever." They come and go and they come and go. Pakistan also allowed this to happen, because it gives them some leverage against the tribal leaders. They tell them, "Look. If you don't listen to the Americans, I'm going to come."

Three months ago, about four months ago basically, the tribal leaders were called and told that if you don't listen to the Americans, they are going to bomb you out here. And so you must understand this. That's why this very intelligent face from the tribal leaders. "No, no, no Al Qaedas, no, not at all. We do not provide any shelter. There's nothing."

How come reporters can't go into this area anymore?

Reporters can go. But the government says that we cannot guarantee your safety.

But they won't let me past a roadblock.

Yes. They would say that you have to have a government permission, a written government permission to--

A non-objection certificate?

Yes, that's right, yes.

But I can't get a non-objection certificate.

Yes, because they think that if you go inside, you'll be kidnapped, and you'll be made another Daniel Pearl.

You think that's true?

Partly, yes.

You think it's true that if I went into the--

You run a great risk if you go inside there. Sure. ...

No question in your mind that Al Qaeda has used those tribal areas as a sanctuary?

A sanctuary? Yes, absolutely, yes. Definitely. Oh, sure. Yes.

There's this notion that Musharraf is holding onto power. He's quashing opposition parties. At the same time, that's creating a real valid viable opening for Islamist extremists in the country.

Except for very few months just after 9/11, the Pakistani establishment and army had never had a direct confrontation with the religious groups or religious bodies. ...

You won't find now the government having any crackdown against any of the religious groups or any religious political parties. The religious political parties are much freer today than the Pakistan People's Party, or Pakistan Muslims. Their leaders are much freer than the key, say, the former prime ministers and the former ministers of the government. And now, we don't find any fireworks from the religious parts against Musharraf. ...

I have reason to believe, that there is an unwritten compromise between these religious groups -- erstwhile anti-Musharraf religious parties, and the government. The religious group now are back in action and they are moving freely. They are participating in election. There is no restriction. There has not been a single key religious leader who has been debarred from contesting election. ...

You're saying Musharraf has managed to do the impossible -- to cozy up with the Americans, give the Americans want they want, and at the same time, give more political power and more political space to the radical extremist, to Islamist parties?

Excellent job. Excellent job. I'll give him full marks for that. He is an ally to the U.S. and the war against terrorism, and now the religious parties are also not saying anything against him. This is an ideal situation for him.

It sounds like Saudi Arabia. It sounds like the same sort of power-sharing arrangement that the Saudis have worked out -- loyal to the Americans but give the religious extremists full rein over certain parts of society.

It's a good comparison. I would say it's a good comparison. ...

Do you think President Bush knows what kind of arrangement that he's gotten himself into here?

Oh, sure. He does, but I think he cannot afford to disturb the situation. He just cannot afford to, because he doesn't know. Because if Musharraf goes, what comes next?

But if the Islamist parties become stronger, that's going to end up biting them back as well.

My sense is that the Islamic parties, though they have compromised with Musharraf, but they have not lost the focus. And the campaign at the moment is squarely anti-U.S., is squarely anti-war-against-terrorism. It is overwhelmingly pro-Taliban. It is overwhelmingly pro-Al Qaeda. But nobody's touching them. Nobody's questioning them.

So it just gives them time to regroup?

Yes. These rabble rousers are out there. I mean, look at their statements. Look at their public rallies. Yet, there's no restriction.

It's a funny place, this. I go around, I talk to people. They say, "We like the Americans, we like--"

This is the whole issue, you know. How can this work? How can you be an ally with the U.S., and you have the jihadi parties, you don't have that kind of a comfortable tie with the same government?

And who's the architect of this?

General Musharraf himself.

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