in search of al qaeda
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Pervez Musharraf

The president of Pakistan, Musharraf has come under pressure from the U.S. since Sept. 11 to deliver results in the search for Al Qaeda on the ground in Pakistan. Domestically, he faces an increasingly powerful Islamic opposition which sympathizes with Osama bin Laden. He tells FRONTLINE he does not believe that a large number of Al Qaeda fighters are hiding out in Pakistan's tribal areas. This interview was conducted on Sept. 23, 2002.


musharraf photo
musharraf photo

Why didn't you come down and outlaw extremist religious jihadi groups in Pakistan before 9/11?

Well, we were. Before 9/11, I was certainly thinking of cracking down on sectarian extremism. In fact, the strategy was made before -- I had thought of it much before -- that we need to reform our madrassas. That was being thought of. I was dealing with religious groups to bring tolerance into the society. Because sectarian extremism was very much -- in Pakistan, we needed to control that.

But you were going slower. After 9/11, it wasn't until you made a speech in January, which was a bold speech. But many people in the United States thought it's a little late to wait that long to come out and outlaw those extremist groups.

Well, yes. These were the groups, the political parties and certain religious groups which I outlawed. Yes. That was after 9/11. But gradually one had to go and move against these people, if at all they showed any resistance to my program against sectarian extremism. But on 9/11, after 9/11, they happened to be the people who were against our policies and against whatever we were doing when we joined the coalition. So we moved against them.

But the question Americans have, and I've seen it in editorials in The New York Times [is], why did you wait so long?

So long for?

To crack down on those groups.

As I said, because there was no reason. There was no reason before that. We were confronted with one aspect, and that was sectarian extremism within Pakistan. As far as our dealings with Afghanistan is concerned, we had recognized the Taliban government, and they were controlling 90 percent of Afghanistan.

Can you control all the criminals who are killing, mugging in the United States and in the streets? Certainly not. It's just not possible.

Frankly, a year before, a year back, there was no word of Al Qaeda. I mean, Al Qaeda was not a known factor [until] maybe middle of last year. We were only talking of Taliban, and Taliban were the ones we had recognized, because they were holding 90 percent of Afghanistan. This Al Qaeda factor came much later. It wasn't there before. So there was no point in cracking down on anyone. ...

But you knew as far back as 1998, even before you were president of Pakistan, that some of these groups, [including] Harkat-ul-Mujahedeen had taken training in Al Qaeda camps.

No, no. Now as I said, Al Qaeda was not a known factor at all. All that we were talking of were some groups who go to Afghanistan; they have sanctuaries in Afghanistan, and they have the good officers of the Taliban available to them. Our sectarian extremists also used to go and hide in Afghanistan. So we were bothered only about our sectarian extremists, and there was nothing, no talk of Al Qaeda.

The other issue was Kashmir, where India used to say that there is a cross-border terrorism going on. We always said that there's an indigenous freedom struggle, and we never call them terrorists. So this was the issue.

So we moved only on a single track against sectarian extremism. Later on, once the operation in Afghanistan started after 9/11 and this issue of Al Qaeda came up, then we were a part of the coalition, and we moved against the organization who were supportive of Al Qaeda.

But as early as August 1998, President Clinton sent cruise missiles [to] a camp, the Khost camp, where he thought he was going to get bin Laden and Zawahiri. It killed 21 members of a Pakistani jihadi group. You know at that point that they're taking training, had association, and as back as early as 1998 there was talk of Al Qaeda. In 1998, [bin Laden] formed the Islamic Front Against Crusaders and Jews, a front organization that included some Pakistani groups. So you knew back in 1998 that the jihadi groups were strong and were associated with Al Qaeda, bin Laden, Zawahiri.

No. I don't think so. I don't think so at all. No, not at all in 1998. I mean, I've been here since 1999.

Right.

October 1999. And we never spoke of Al Qaeda until this missile attack against Afghanistan, where this Osama bin Laden emerged. That was late in 2000, I think.

The missile attack on him was in 1998 -- Aug. 21, 1998, the Khost camp. There were missiles sent in [that] killed 21 Harkat members.

Harkat members. Yes, well, I'm not very familiar with the dates. But again, yes. This was Harkat all right, but no talk of Al Qaeda. I don't think so at all.

But in February, bin Laden had announced the Islamic Front Against Crusaders and Jews, and signing that was the Pakistani Scholars Association, a Pakistani extremist group. Other ones were not made public until later, but there was an association. From the time that you became president, you knew that there was some affiliation between these groups and bin Laden. There was training going on in Afghanistan, and what Americans are concerned about, they're perplexed. Why didn't you crack down sooner on them?

No. That was not possible. As I said, the environment was totally different. Now when we took over in October '99 the Pakistan government had recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan. And there were certain very definite, positive reasons for that, for any government before us to have recognized the Taliban government. And we continued having recognized them. ...

It was only after the eruption of 9/11 that there came out openly that there is some such organization headed by Osama bin Laden, which is directly against international interests, which is involved in terrorism around the world, which is of that magnitude. It came up only after 9/11.

Then the linkages in Pakistan came out clearly; otherwise their linkages in Pakistan were not at all clear. They were not clear at all. The clarity came after 9/11, because then a line was drawn -- whoever is with Osama bin Laden, or now the Taliban, quite clearly were with Osama bin Laden, and they were protecting them. So I think lines were drawn after that, and we moved in accordance with that.

When you cracked down, there was criticism after the January speech. You were applauded for the bold move of outlawing these groups. But then The New York Times writes, "General Musharraf has quietly released most of the 2,000 militants he arrested as part of his much publicized anti-terrorist crackdown." They include leaders of two Pakistani outfits tied to Al Qaeda.

Now a lot of people have cast [aspersions] on this. We banned Jaish-e-Muhammad. We banned Lashkar-e-Taiba and a few more organizations. Having done that, we moved against them. We cracked down.

In a crackdown, you round up all suspected people, and we rounded up over 2,000 people. But having done that, does that mean that we've given them life imprisonment? Certainly not; does that happen in any country? We then, through intelligence, examined each individual on its own merit, each case on its own merit. We [cleared] certain people, and released them. ...

Let's skip to the tribal areas. After the battle of Tora Bora, it's known that a lot of the Al Qaeda fighters came across into the tribal areas. This is a part of the country that you don't entirely control. It was allowed that they could come through there, settle there, or go on and settle in your cities.

It was allowed. Who allowed them?

Well, you don't control that part of the country.

Well, these are weaknesses in the law enforcement agency, one can say, and certainly it's just not humanly possible. Any law enforcement agency cannot control a border belt which is so mountainous, treacherous. And then they're coming into the cities. Nobody's allowing them. I took a strong exception to it. Nobody allowed them. They went in unnoticed, and they went into the cities.

But it's a weakness of Pakistan that it doesn't control its territory, which allows this sort of space for Al Qaeda to find safe haven.

Yes. Can you control every terrorist act in United States? I don't think so.

Apparently not.

Everything that is happening in New York, can you control all the criminals who are killing, mugging in the United States and in the streets? Certainly not. It's just not possible. So therefore these people did cross the border. If you've seen the border, then you've been to the tribal area. If you see the mountains, it's just not humanly possible.

There are 700,000 Indian troops, in Kashmir. Are they able to control and seal off the borders? Seven hundred thousand people are unable to seal off the borders. So therefore no amount of effort put in can ensure 100 percent sealing of borders and 100 percent ensuring that nobody can trickle into our cities. So, certainly it's a possibility.

When it comes to the hunt for Al Qaeda, there seems to be an ongoing debate between the Americans and the Pakistanis as to who is responsible for the intelligence that leads to these major busts. In Abu Zubaydah's case, it's been reported that it was a satellite phone call that was intercepted by the Americans, although I hear other versions from other people in Pakistan. Similarly, with this recent operation [the capture of Ramzi bin al-Shibh], it's been reported in the U.S. press that this was a CIA intercept, an NSA intercept that led to this.

I think we should not get involved in a competition of who initiated the report. But the last one, that I am very sure that it's our own intelligence organization, the much-maligned ISI, who gave the information, who got the leak, who got the information and moved against them. It was our law enforcement agency who moved against them. The previous ones I do not get involved. The information may have come from anywhere. I'm not very sure. I'm very sure of this. ...

The reason I press on this is because there's Americans who would like to think that you are effective in fighting what is essentially an American battle, an American war against Al Qaeda.

As far as my information is concerned, the action in Lahore and Faisalabad, the tip-off was from an American intelligence agency. But this one in Karachi was certainly our own intelligence agency. ...

There's been some editorials here and there. But there seems to be a sort of pervasive criticism that Americans are perplexed by President Musharraf. See, on the one hand, they see somebody who risked his life in coming out against jihadi groups. On the other hand, they see you as a dictator, who's reneged on promises of democracy. You were an ally of the Taliban. You flip-flopped on that. Why should the average American trust you?

First of all, with the Taliban, obviously there was a reason, as I said. Why Pakistan had recognized the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, even the governments before me, because we have ethnic linkages with them. We have a common border with the Pashtuns living on that side, Pashtuns living on this side. With Taliban being Pashtuns, there was a compulsion, certainly, and that had to continue. ...

Has the ISI supported the Taliban more than just through diplomatic recognition? There was quite a bit of training, advising?

No, no, no. That is absolutely overstated. That is absolutely overstated. We had definite linkages, and I can't say anything for what was happening before my government. But certainly when my government came in, we were not supporting them at all.

We had recognized them. Yes, we had diplomatic relations with them. Yes, but to that extent. Otherwise, they had their own reservoir of arms and ammunition. Even now, if you see what the Taliban had, you think Pakistan was providing? You think we were providing them all the arms and ammunition? With all the arms and ammunition tanks, guns, aircraft -- all those [were] Russian-made. You can see what they had, the Taliban. Certainly they are not of Pakistan origin at all. They were not the mix that we hold.

All the ammunition that they had, they were in caves left by the Russians when they went and stored there and stacked there when the war against the Soviets were fought for 10 years. So all that ammunition armament was with the Taliban and they used that. And there was no need. They could sell -- in fact, the Kalashnikov culture that came into Pakistan was because of all the arms and ammunition freely available through Afghanistan. ...

The other question that you asked about why the people of United States should not trust me or something, there was one more aspect--

The American people see you as a dictator who has reneged on democracy.

"Reneged on democracy." How do they see me reneging on democracy?

[You] extended your term by five years.

Well, that is a different shoe. Whatever timetable that I have given, we are following exactly that timetable. The Supreme Court decision had given me certain authority. I'm following strictly whatever the Supreme Court decision was, and I am handing over and bringing democracy or establishing real democracy, having elections strictly in accordance with the road map that I have given. Why, I haven't violated a single -- in fact, I've been following every promise I've made to the day.

Where is Al Qaeda today?

Well, what is Al Qaeda? If you mean Al Qaeda is Osama bin Laden? I don't know where he is.

You've said that you think he's dead.

Possibly, yes. I have been saying it.

You've also said that you don't think he was capable of pulling off 9/11. Who could've been?

We have to differentiate. Now we must know, what did I say? One, a person, he's a motivator; financial maybe. I think Osama bin Laden was a motivator and financial.

I am 200 percent sure that he didn't have the capacity to plan such an action. I mean, was he familiar with the United States? Was he familiar with aviation rules and regulation in the aviation procedures, now, the security arrangements at the airports? I don't think he was the kind of person who knew all that. So therefore I thought that maybe he's not the man who has planned the action. ...

Do you have any sense yourself as to where Al Qaeda is going? They're moving through the tribal areas. They're moving into Faisalabad and some were caught. They are moving into Karachi. Some have been caught. Beyond that, do you have a sense of where they're going? Iran? Yemen?

First of all, I'm very doubtful about -- you seem to be implying that there's a regular chain and channel of people going through. I have my doubts.

No. I'm not saying that. I'm saying that we know that they have gone to these places.

Yes. Some of them.

Where are they going now? Where is your sense--

One can't say.

You're getting high-level briefings. You know where people are going.

One really can't say whether they are using Pakistan as a transit to other places. I'm not very sure. But the reports are, yes, that they may be going from Pakistan to Iran or directly into Iran, and then using Pakistan for transiting elsewhere. Now, I don't know where elsewhere. I can't say.

Certainly they'll move to places where they'll have sanctuaries, where they can have safe havens. Those are the places that they can to go to. But the figures, whether there's a constant flow now with all the action that we've taken on the border belt in the tribal areas where the army has gone in, and a civil armed forces are operating and the action that we've taken in these cities -- I'm reasonably sure that these are now small packets or small numbers who may be hiding in one of these places. Yes. Maybe in our cities. Maybe in the tribal areas. Some. But large numbers I don't think are possible.

So, effectively, they've been dismantled?

Probably. It's a guess. Because one can't guess how many, what number of people were there. It's just a guess. I don't know what the population of Al Qaeda [was]. But I can only guess that because of the action and because the tribals are cooperating with the army now. Initially they were apprehensive when we moved in. But now they are cooperating.

All the tribals have reached an agreement that they are going to guide us [where] we want to go in the tribal area, and they are doing that, because the army is building roads and dispensaries and schools for them. Therefore they think that the army is doing a lot of welfare work. They have even accepted that they will get a penalty from anyone who harbors any terrorist, any non-Pakistani, any Al Qaeda. So therefore I'm reasonably sure that this is a small number who may be sympathizing with Al Qaeda.

Your government doesn't allow us, as journalists, to go in and take a look at the tribal areas to see for ourselves what's going on. Why not?

That is purely for your own security, I think. ...

As far as we are concerned, there's no problem. It is just that this area -- for 100 years it was inaccessible. Nobody went in. So they wouldn't accept even Pakistani army moving inside. We never went in there. For more than a century, nobody went in there. So therefore it was very difficult for them to even accept Pakistanis there. So therefore to accept a foreigner, and least of all, may I say, an American, is going to be a difficult. They are not going to like it.

Has the war on terrorism given your government an excuse or an opportunity to go into the tribal areas and take control?

Yes. Yes, it did. It did, because we moved in a little more boldly and renegotiated with them. We argued with them, and they accepted.

We filmed a bunch of it [at a] loya jirga in Jenna Park in Peshawar yesterday, and there's still a few who don't want you there.

Yes.

They don't want your roads. They don't want your schools. They don't want your hospitals. But they want your free electricity.

Yes. Yes. (Laughter) You're right. Probably you met the leaders. I wonder whether you went to the lower people? If you go to their masses, they want us. It is the tribal leaders who have been gaining from this isolation. All the money used to go through them. They all use misuse all the money. They were all rich themselves, and their people were kept in absolutely state of deprivation. They are the people who don't want the army to come in. It's the elders. It is the tribal [elders]. Maybe you met them.

Interesting.

Yes. There's a difference between tribal [elders] and the people. People want the army there. They want education. They want help. They want roads.

Like people everywhere. Thank you very much.

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