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Al Qaeda thriving in Pakistani Kashmir

Sheltered by Pakistani intelligence, officially banned Islamic militants are moving freely near the Indian border.

By Philip SmuckerSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 2, 2002



TARSHING, KASHMIR

Nasir Ali, a wiry jeep driver, says Al Qaeda fighters from Afghanistan have arrived here in large numbers. He should know, he says, because he was the one who gave them a lift in from northern Pakistan after their escape from Afghanistan. "I, myself, drove three Arab fighters into the center of Kashmir," says Ali. "I carried them only part way in and their own jeeps met us and drove them the rest of the way. Hundreds have entered Kashmir in the last several months."

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Mr. Ali, an employee for a private transport company, described in detail subsequent meetings with Middle Eastern fighters he admires. Ali's account, and several others gathered this week, of how groups of Al Qaeda fighters have infiltrated Kashmir present a harrowing prospect for Washington. Strategic analysts have long warned that Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network is keen to exploit tensions between the two nuclear powers of India and Pakistan, whose governments both claim full rights to divided Kashmir.

A week-long investigation uncovered evidence that Al Qaeda and an array of militant affiliate groups are prospering inside Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, with the tacit approval of Pakistani intelligence. The evidence comes after recent statements by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that he had "seen indications that there are Al Qaeda operating near the [UN] Line of Control" that separates Indian and Pakistani Kashmir, but that he had no hard evidence on numbers or location.

Senior officials in Pakistan called Mr. Rumsfeld's statements inaccurate and stressed that he had no real evidence. But the Pakistani military, which has begun to chase stray Al Qaeda elements in its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, has been unwilling to crack down in Kashmir on Islamic militant groups that it has been pledging to eradicate since January.

Militants out in the open

Near the town of Astore, the gateway to northern Kashmir, sledgehammer blows echo across the steep valley walls as villagers break boulders and lay gravel for a new strategic road. Pakistani army engineers and villagers, drenched in perspiration and the light patter of early monsoon rains, look up as a shiny new jeep passes them with a bearded mullah smiling in the back seat. The vehicle bears a banner proclaiming the arrival in Kashmir of Harakat ul Mujahideen, an organization high on the US government's list of terrorist groups.

The Pakistani government has banned the group, which has intimate ties to Al Qaeda and suffered heavy losses while fighting the Western antiterror coalition last year in Afghanistan. The group, which wants Kashmir to be ruled by strict Islamic law, lost 22 fighters in a single US airstrike last year in Kabul. After the deaths, senior officials in Peshawar said that they would avenge the killings and continue their holy war.

The group now operates with impunity in this remote part of northern Kashmir. Fighters for several like-minded Pakistani "jihad" groups stream up and down a road leading to the Line of Control near Kupwara.

Pakistan's guerrilla war to liberate Indian Kashmir has been largely delegated to an array of holy warriors. Critics say that this "privatization" of the war allows the Pakistani government to continue to support its interest in recapturing Kashmir while denying any official government responsibility for armed attacks inside Indian Kashmir.

Mohammad Muslim, the regional chief of Pakistan's powerful Interservices Intelligence (ISI) agency, says there are no Al Qaeda cells operating inside Kashmir. But he bitterly denounces what he calls the US government's "war against Islam."

"The US government destroyed the World Trade Center so that it would have an excuse to destroy Afghanistan," he says, drinking tea in the office of the regional police chief, who nods in full agreement. "After that, the US military killed tens of thousands of women and children in Afghanistan."

Bin Laden 'wrongly vilified'
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