Al Qaeda thriving in Pakistani Kashmir
Sheltered by Pakistani intelligence, officially banned Islamic militants are moving freely near the Indian border.
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The terse comments from the Pakistani official highlight long-standing Western concerns that Islamic radicals hold sway within the ISI, an agency that rose to prominence with CIA funding during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some of Musharraf's own intelligence officials, like Mr. Muslim, are now scoffing at the Pakistani president's professed new pro-Western, "anti-terrorist" stance here in Kashmir.Skip to next paragraph
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Asked if he agreed that Al Qaeda was a terrorist group, Muslim chuckled and said that Osama bin Laden has been wrongly vilified through CIA-produced fake videos of him talking about the World Trade Center attack. He added: "We don't have to agree with Musharraf here. He is the leader of our country, but he is not an elected leader."
Pakistan has not been completely inactive against Al Qaeda and its affiliates. Near the Afghan border last week, 10 Pakistani soldiers were killed in a firefight with Al Qaeda troops, and over the weekend, the government claimed to have nearly 3,000 troops combing the area for bin Laden's men.
But with "banned" militant groups operating in the open in Kashmir, it is increasingly clear that there are limits to the crackdown.
For Mr. Musharraf, reversing past government policies may prove easier said than done. Since 1989, the Pakistani government has openly helped the uprising against government forces in Indian Kashmir. In the '90s the ISI paid for Kashmiri guerrilla training camps to be moved into Afghanistan with the help of groups like Harakat ul Mujahideen.
Now, these same jihad fighters are flocking back to Kashmir. Some of the best guerrillas, say Kashmiri locals, are Arabs and other foreign nationals in bin Laden's group. "They are the most courageous fighters," says an unemployed local tour guide, speaking at the base of the 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat mountain. "They will ford a rushing stream at the risk of drowning."
Nasir Ali, the jeep driver, agrees. "They are the bravest. They are the elite warriors. If you talk with the most devoted fighters, most of them will tell you that the only way to deal with the kafirs [infidels] is to sacrifice yourself by strapping on bombs. This, they say, is the way of the true jihad fighter."
The Harakat and other Islamic jihadi groups also continue to staff offices in Pakistan proper near the Karakoram Highway which covers a stretch of the ancient "Silk Road." The road runs from Abbottabad along the western perimeter of Kashmir and into China.
Near the town of Besham in the Alai valley, the "School for the Revival of Islam" advertises on a large billboard that instructors provide Koranic studies and "military lessons." Students said the guerrilla tactics have proven useful in Kashmir.
Across the countryside, the Islamabad government is facing protests against its efforts to register and reorganize religious schools that foster a culture of militancy.
Leaders of these schools have strongly criticized President Musharraf for supporting what they call Western "infidel powers" and have vowed, along with the militant groups they nurture, to resist what they see as government interference in their activities.
Shabir Ahmed Madani, an armed activist with Harakat ul Mujahideen, whose own mountain redoubt is reached by a small cable car that swings precariously across an immense gorge, says his organization has played a vital role in moving thousands of Afghan and Arab fighters across northern Pakistan and into Kashmir.
"We have sent all of our Afghan friends to Kashmir," he says. "The army won't dare come across this valley and try to close us down. We have guns and we won't let his forces across this ravine." Mr. Madani readily provided a bank account and name for anyone interested in donating to his group's holy war.