Pakistani military defectors toughen fight against terrorists

The weekend attack by Al Qaeda and Taliban in Pakistan showed the lethal role Pakistani military defectors play in terrorism.

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Saturday's joint Al Qaeda-Taliban attack on Pakistan's army headquarters, in the middle of one of Pakistan's most heavily fortified cities exposed the capacity of extremists to elude defenses and strike at the heart of the state.

But what is more of a setback for Pakistan's fight against militants is that the mastermind of that attack was an ex-military officer turned extremist: Mohammed Aqeel, also known as Dr. Usman, a nom de guerre he acquired while serving as a nurse in the Pakistan army's medical corps.

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He is not alone. In recent months, as Pakistan's confrontation with extremists has escalated to record levels of violence, US and Pakistani military forces have arrested and killed several former or retired Pakistani military officers who are now aiding extremists. These men, trained by the military and privy to both its tactics and its security protocols, constitute one of the most dangerous threats in Pakistan's battle against militancy, and help to explain why Pakistan's insurgency has proved so lethally skilled and resilient.

Dr. Usman's path and pedigree are a cautionary tale for Pakistan. After a career in the military, he was arrested late last year in connection with the deadly suicide attack on the Marriott hotel in Pakistan's capital. When he was released from police custody remains unclear, as the Long War Journal points out: a court at first rejected Dr. Usman's acquittal plea, suggesting that he remained in custody. But he was either released or escaped.

Dr. Usman then reportedly went on to conduct the attack against Sri Lanka's cricket team in Lahore last March, and the siege of Pakistan's military headquarters on Saturday. It was Dr. Usman's military training that made both those attacks among the most spectacular undertaken by extremists in Pakistan, as Time points out:

"He knew how the Army functions," says Shaukat Qadir, a retired brigadier turned analyst. "That's why he organized this attack better than others could have done."

Dr. Usman is one of a long line of former military officers to side with the extremists. Last month, a suspected US drone strike in North Waziristan killed Ilyas Khashmiri, a retired army commando who was "one of the most dreaded militant commanders," according to the London Times. The Times adds that police recently arrested Major Haroon Rashid, who quit the military in 2001 after Pakistan sided with the US to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. Rashid, who worked with Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, was allegedly involved in the murder of a retired Pakistani special forces general, the Times says.

Pakistan has long maintained that a complex set of safety mechanisms – including electronic locks, frequent background checks and underground bunkers – means its nuclear arsenal is entirely out of reach of extremists. But with ex-military officers embedded within Al Qaeda and the Taliban, many observers are fretting anew that this might not be the case, reports the Associated Press.

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