Al Qaeda thriving in Pakistani Kashmir

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

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."

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'

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.

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."

A limited crackdown

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.

School for Islamic fighters

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.

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