Al Qaeda-Pakistani ties deepen

Khalid Sheik Mohammed was nabbed at the home of a parliamentary official.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

This week's arrest of Al Qaeda's third-in-command was at once a tremendous coup for Pakistan's oft-maligned government and also a stunning embarrassment.

Officials here are quick to brag that local security forces nabbed Khalid Sheik Mohammed, along with another senior Al Qaeda leader, on their own. What they aren't crowing about is that Mr. Mohammed's arrest exposes a link between Al Qaeda and Pakistan's largest Islamic political party, Jamaat-e Islami.

The emerging connection highlights the political risks the Pakistani government faces as it hunts Al Qaeda leaders. It also implies a greater order of difficulty in rooting them out if thousands of Jamaat party members are willing to harbor terrorists in their homes.

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Ahmed Abdul Qadoos, a Jamaat party member, was arrested alongside the two Al Qaeda terrorists. They had been holed up in the home of his mother, Farzana Qadoos, who is an elected district counselor for the conservative Islamic party.

Her residence, where the three men were arrested, is just five minutes from Army headquarters in this twin city to the nation's capital, and tucked in a guarded community that's home to top military officials. Officials say Mohammed had been coming and going from the home, apparently with little notice.

The party has also been implicated in other recent terror arrests. A Jamaat member was in the Karachi apartment where police found Al Qaeda leader Ramzi Binalshibh, and a doctor arrested in Lahore several months back for Al Qaeda ties was also linked to the party.

That's an uncomfortable fact for Pakistan, since Jamaat is a leading member in a coalition of hard-line Islamic parties that won control of two of Pakistan's four provinces in November elections and commands a sizable block in the National Assembly.

Senior Jamaat officials have variously insisted that Ahmed Qadoos was wrongly arrested or not a party member, and even claimed that the arrest actually took place at another location. They say their party is being targeted for political reasons.

"We have never supported violence or terror," says Jamaat leader Qazi Hussein Ahmed. "It is not in the good of the country."

Some government officials, too, have played down the link in Saturday's arrest, saying that Mrs. Qadoos and her husband may not have been aware that their houseguest was the chief architect of the Sept. 11 attacks, or even that there were guests staying at their home at all.

Gen. Rashid Quereshi, the spokesman for President Pervez Musharraf, says the couple was not in residence at the time, but adds that all the family members are all being interrogated by security forces here to determine their level of involvement.

But senior officials here are starting to admit that they are finding growing links between the Jamaat and Al Qaeda terrorists on the run. "All of the activists and terrorists who have been apprehended in recent months have had links to the Jamaat-e-Islami, whether we have arrested them in Lahore or here or Karachi...." says Pakistan's Interior Minister Makhdoom Faisel Saleh Hayat. "They have been harboring them."

Pakistan's religious parties themselves are a reflection of official ties to terrorism here - which Mr. Musharraf insists have been severed since Sept. 11, 2001. Past administrations here nurtured and funded extremists groups both to wreak havoc in Kashmir, the neighboring state which both India and Pakistan claim, and also during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the CIA and Britain's MI6 funded the mujahideen to fight a holy war against the communist invaders.

Some of that extremism took root here. Though the fundamentalist parties in the past had more success organizing street protests than getting into Parliament, a five-party coalition of Islamic parties, known as the United Front, made stunning gains in last October's election, and now commands the third-largest block in the National Assembly.

Jamaat is the largest and most popular party in the group. It had focused most of its attention on Kashmir, not Afghanistan or the Taliban. But yesterday, a spokesman for the party told Reuters that Al Qaeda's third-in-command was "a hero to Islam."

"The Jamaat has never condemned 9/11, and denies that Al Qaeda is a terrorist organization. This is a group that believes 9/11 was carried out by Jews in America," says Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani author on terror issues. "The really scary thing is that this is also the most moderate Islamic party in Pakistan."

Members of the coalition have sparked fears they are trying to "Talibanize" Pakistan's frontier states. Among other things, they have moved to ban movie houses, which they deem un-Islamic, and have sent police to raid wedding parties where music was playing.

Some have even more direct links to terror. Many Front leaders run religious schools that sent young Pakistanis to fight alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The man who owns the Islamic school where so-called "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh studied, for example, is now a United Front senator.

As members of Parliament, these fundamentalist leaders enjoy immunity, though experts say they would have little access to sensitive information about the hunt for terrorists here or the political power to change Mr. Musharraf's policy to support the US war on terror.

But government officials still say they are concerned about the pattern of members of these groups harboring terrorist fugitives. "We certainly are," says Interior Minister Hayat. "Any Pakistani should be."

He and other analysts add, however, that they do not believe there is an official policy to support Al Qaeda fugitives by the Jamaat or other United Front members.

"Still, it poses a very serious question," says Ismael Khan, a senior columnist with the News newspaper in the Northwest Frontier Province. "The party leadership needs to answer why this is a recurring theme."

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