Next wave of Al Qaeda leadership
As the group's Arab core is captured or killed, a new generation of Pakistanis fills the void
| KARACHI, PAKISTAN
After leaving university, Atta-ur Rehman traded his jeans and T-shirts for a beard and cap, his civil-service aspirations for a martyr's spot in heaven.
He used to spend his time playing cricket, but he is now in a Pakistani jail facing a death sentence on terrorism charges. Mr. Rehman, along with nine other "comrades," is charged with carrying out a deadly June attack against a senior Pakistani Army general in Karachi. The general escaped narrowly but 10 people, including seven soldiers, were killed.
Rehman's circle call themselves Jundullah (God's Army) and have close ties to Al Qaeda. Most are young, educated men, whom Rehman allegedly sent to training camps in Pakistan's remote tribal areas.
Rehman doesn't fit the mold of the typical Al Qaeda leader. Traditionally, most were Arabs who gained status by resisting the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Younger, educated recruits tapped for suicide missions like 9/11 typically came from Middle Eastern countries with long histories of pan-Islamic resistance. What sets this new breed apart is that they are joining from places like Pakistan, where the focus has been on regional grievances, like independence for the disputed area of Kashmir. But as the Al Qaeda leadership ranks begin to thin, men like Rehman are starting to climb the ladder.
"It is a new generation of Al Qaeda," says Riffat Hussain, a leading defense and security analyst based in Islamabad, Pakistan. "These are new converts to Al Qaeda. They may have no links with Al Qaeda in the past, but now they are willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause as they feel Al Qaeda is the name of defiance to the West. They are young and angry, and their number has swelled in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq."
A voice on an audiotape last weekend, purported to be that of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden's deputy, called on young Muslims to continue the global fight even if Al Qaeda's leaders are killed or captured. It is people like Rehman and his colleagues that Mr. Zawahiri could have been talking about.
Police here suggest that Pakistan's newly organized jihadis and educated radicals might number in the hundreds. Police say that more than 600 suspected Al Qaeda militants have been rounded up by security forces over the past three years.
Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, the 28-year-old known as Al Qaeda's computer man, is among them. A middle-class engineering graduate, Mr. Khan is believed to have played an important role in planning terrorist attacks in the US and Britain before he was arrested in Lahore on July 13.
Khan visited Afghanistan during his student days and later became a bridge between Al Qaeda leaders and their operatives. He helped Al Qaeda operatives send encrypted messages over the Internet.
"His journey to Al Qaeda started from outside a mosque in his Karachi neighborhood where he met extremists," says his old friend named Khurram. He watched his friend's transformation but "never imagined that he would become such a man."
Under interrogation, Khan exposed part of Al Qaeda's intricate web of contacts in Pakistan, Britain, and the US. The information led to the July arrest of Tanzanian terror suspect Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani and a top Al Qaeda operative, Musa el Hindi, in Britain.
"There are two types of recruits," says a senior Pakistani counterterrorism investigator. "There are Islamist-educated young men from middle-class and upper-middle-class families whose feelings are ignited in Islamic congregations at private houses, mosques, and madrassahs and are subsequently picked up by Al Qaeda men from there," he says. "Then there are jihadis who were trained by Arabs and Taliban in Afghanistan and have now been approached by Al Qaeda operatives or their trusted extremists."
Some of the jihadis are drawn from the ranks of local militant organizations, including Al-Badr (backed by the extremist religious party Jamaat-e-Islami), the Kashmiri outfits Harakat-ul Mujahideen and Jaish-e Mohammad, and the Sunni group Lashkar-e Jhangvi. Most of these groups have, until recently, focused their energies on Kashmir or sectarian conflicts.
The new independent splinter groups are small, receive funding from Al Qaeda, and attack Western targets using tactics like suicide bombings - once unheard of in Pakistan. Investigators in Karachi say several such groups of around 10 members each are operating in the city alone.
"They [Al Qaeda] are mostly banking on local jihadis," says one police investigator. "They themselves don't want to be seen on the ground as they don't feel safe, so they rely on these brainwashed jihadis."
To recruit, Al Qaeda leaders or operatives rely on trusted contacts, preferably people who have fought with Arabs or have been trained by them, says a senior Karachi police investigator. The go-between appoints a group of leaders, who in turn hires the services of members and assigns tasks mostly on the instructions coming from the go-between. For the jihadis, the work can be lucrative - they are paid $170 to $340 a month.
Amjad Farooqi, a top militant reportedly killed by security forces Sunday, was a main recruiter. A veteran of the Afghan resistance in the early 1990s, he linked up with Al Qaeda operatives following Sept. 11, 2001. Security forces arrested some 10 suspected Al Qaeda-linked Pakistani militants following the interrogation of two arrested accomplices of Mr. Farooqi.
The rise of splinter groups has made the task of investigators much more difficult. The police recently recovered a booklet of instructions from a jihadi in the wake of ongoing crackdown.
"Don't roam around with beard and Islamic dress in fashionable neighborhoods," read the instructions. "Always take out the chip of the mobile [phone] while sleeping to avoid being caught. Use mobile [phone] from a crowded place so police don't locate the positioning. Don't write the original numbers of mujahids in a notebook, try to memorize the last three digits."
To bolster secrecy, group members do not know the real names of their comrades, and only group leaders know the whereabouts of other members, says a police official. Suicide bombers are mostly young and usually live and operate separately, he adds.
The growing influence of militant groups within the law enforcement agencies has also set alarm bells ringing. Three policemen acted as suicide bombers in the Shiite mosques in Karachi and Quetta. Several low-ranking personnel from the armed forces were arrested for their alleged involvement in the foiled assassination attempts against President Pervez Musharraf.
"It is difficult to monitor the profiles of these new recruits and the new groups," says Karachi police chief Tariq Jameel. "If we want to defeat them then there is a need of collective effort from the entire society to eliminate terrorism and extremism. They are chasing us and we are chasing them. The battle is on."