Bin Laden’s gone, but where are al-Qaida leaders?

  • By Muatasim Qazi Herald Writer
  • Monday, May 9, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

Abbottabad is in a beautiful valley in the north of Pakistan, barely 30 miles away from the capital, Islamabad. The city was as tranquil as it could get when I visited it during a scorching summer to spend my school holiday in 2006.

People from the plains, where it gets unbearably hot, norma

lly go there until summer withers away.

The tranquility of Abbottabad didn’t last long in the years following my trip. Islamic militants in the northwest tribal areas soon turned their guns eastward — towards Islamabad — aiming to impose Shariah, the legal code of Islam, in the country, and

possibly capture country’s nuclear arsenal.

The valley lost its tourist attractions. But for someone like Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist who was shot dead in Abbottabad on May 1 during a U.S. military operation, the town’s lost tranquility wasn’t a problem. He found safe

haven in a place more beautiful than the dry, rugged and mountainous terrain of Afghanistan.

It’s a hard fact to digest that bin Laden could have been living in his compound without going unnoticed in a police state like Pakistan, where intelligence agencies hold sway over almost every living soul.

Bin Laden’s compound was very close to country’s largest military academy, the Kakul Academy: Pakistan’s West Point.

This is a man who launched the attacks that have killed 30,000 Pakistanis.

How could bin Laden be hiding in a compound that close to the military academy? How did the country’s premier spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, not notice his presence?

Americans and Pakistanis are asking whether bin Laden had a secret support system, and whether the ISI was a part of it. Now the question is, where are al-Qaida’s and the Taliban’s top brass hiding? Somewhere in Pakistan, like bin Laden? Or in Afghanistan?

It’s thought that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed spiritual cleric and elusive leader of Taliban, could be hiding somewhere in or around Quetta, the capital city of the southwestern Pakistan province of Balochistan. Like Abbottabad, Quetta also is home to the Pakistan military with a big military garrison called the Quetta Cantonment.

In the garrison rests the oldest and most prestigious institution of the Pakistani army, the Command and Staff College, Quetta. Located at the northern tip of city, the garrison is home to top officers of the military.

Balochistan is Pakistan’s largest province, and covers nearly 45 percent of the country’s total land mass. Rich in mineral resources and gas and oil, the province has a scattered population of seven million, less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 170 million people. It’s home to ethnic Balochs, who are comparatively secular Muslims and don’t buy the ideology of radical Islamists.

The province has a secessionist movement that’s been growing for decades, since its Khan — or king — was forced to annex his land to Pakistan in 1948 under threat of military invasion.

Insurgent Baloch groups are fighting for independence from Pakistan and claim they will establish a liberal and democratic welfare state based on the wealth of their considerable natural resources.

For the Pakistani military in general and the ISI in particular, Baloch nationalism contradicts the core ideology of the country, which was created in the name of Islam. Thus, the military has been using brute force in the province to quell a popular movement led by secular nationalists.

The Balochistan imbroglio has diverted much of the military’s efforts on the war on terror.

Instead of fighting al-Qaida and the Taliban in the region, Baloch nationalists allege the army has been using U.S. military hardware, including F-16 jets, Cobra helicopters and CIA listening devices, to kill ethnic Balochs.

According to a report by Amnesty International released in February, more than 90 Baloch activists, teachers, journalists and lawyers have disappeared or been killed.

In a statement issued last week, the Asian Human Rights Commission said 25 Baloch journalists, writers, human rights activists, students and others have been killed so far this year. As of today, the number stands close to 150. The nationalists blame the Pakistani army and intelligence agencies for the killings.

Force has not been the only tactic the Pakistan military has used to crush the movement.

To deprive the province of its secular, Baloch majority, the ISI and its affiliates have helped a large number of Afghan refugees resettle in the province. The refugees were given Pakistani citizenship overnight.

There’s also a huge presence of Afghan refugees at the northern tip of the province close to the Pakistan-Afghanistan border that share a predominant ethnic Pashtun tribal population. Taliban fighters use these areas as hideouts and can easily slip through the porous border into Afghanistan to carry out attacks on US and NATO forces, then retreat to safety in Pakistan.

The change in demographics has helped politicians with a pro-Taliban bent to get seated in the provincial legislature and the government, which controls the bureaucracy and all decisions made in the legislature.

For instance, Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, one of the main religious political parties active in areas where it is believed the Taliban have a large presence, has been a part of every provincial government since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

On May 2, one day after bin Laden’s killing, hundreds of part activists held a protest in Quetta, the first in Pakistan, to honor the world’s No. 1 terrorist.

Baloch nationalists also claim the ISI has helped Taliban elements buy land worth billions of Pakistani rupees in Quetta and other parts of north Balochistan bordering Afghanistan. These are places where Taliban and al-Qaida elements have been evading U.S. troops for years.

When the U.S. threatened to extend drone attacks to Balochistan, the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam helped pass an anti-drone-strike resolution in the provincial legislature in October 2009, eliminating any prospect of getting rid of the Taliban’s and al-Qaida’s top brass who might be hiding in the province.

Baloch insurgent groups have been fighting for independence for years, but they have never utilized suicide attacks in order to make the state more vulnerable in the province. The Taliban’s followers have made suicide bombings in the province commonplace.

Balochistan also serves as an alternate and shorter route to ship supplies to NATO and allied forces in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters easily target oil tankers and container trucks taking supplies to the troops.

It’s in the realm of possibility that Mullah Omar, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other top Taliban or al-Qaida leadership could be hiding close to the military garrison in Quetta or in adjacent areas that border Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, expecting the ISI to produce Omar and al Zawahiri is as futile an effort as hoping that a spayed cow will give birth to two calves.

Herald reporter intern Muatasim Qazi is an exchange student from Pakistan attending Everett Community College on a Fulbright Scholarship.

Muatasim Qazi: 425-339-3453; mqazi@heraldnet.com.

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