Wednesday, August 13, 2008




The current week-long fighting in the Bajaur Agency of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, in which the Bajaur wing of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claims to have inflicted heavy fatalities on the personnel of the Frontier Corps (FC), a para-military unit, and repulsed its attempts to capture the Loyesam area of the Agency, which has been under the control of the TTP, was the outcome of a drive launched by the FC, reportedly under pressure from the US, to clear the area of Al Qaeda and Taliban elements, which had established sanctuaries there.

2. The US intelligence agencies had long suspected that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the No. 2 of Al Qaeda, was living in this Agency under the protection of the local tribals led by Maulana Faqir Mohammad, who is no. 2 to Baitullah Mehsud, the Amir of the TTP. Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the Libyan, who was projected as the No.3 in Al Qaeda and who was arrested by the Pakistani authorities in the Mardan area of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in May, 2005, and handed over to the US, was reported to have been given shelter before his arrest by the Mamond tribe in the Mamond sub-division of the Bajaur Agency .

3. Abu Faraj reportedly stated during his interrogation that Osama bin Laden and Zawahiri were taking shelter in the Bajaur agency. On the basis of his claim during the interrogation, the Pakistani Army, at the request of the US, had undertaken a cordon and search operation in the Mamond sub-division after Abu Faraj's arrest. It arrested one or two Uzbecks and some Afghans in the area, but it claimed that it did not find any Arabs belonging to Al Qaeda.

4. While Pakistani military and intelligence officers discounted Abu Faraj's statement that the members of the Mamond tribe had given shelter to bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, US intelligence and military officers, operating from the adjoining Kunar area of Afghanistan, took Abu Faraj seriously. It was largely on the basis of what he stated during his interrogation, corroborated by other reports from tribal sources, that senior US intelligence and military officers had been saying since July, 2005, that they knew where bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were, but were unable to smoke them out.

5. After the arrest of Abu Faraj, the hunt for the two Al Qaeda leaders was stepped up by the US forces in Afghanistan, narrowing their area of focus to the areas inhabited by the Mamond tribe. Apart from strengthening their electronic intelligence capability in the adjoining Afghan territory and seeking the assistance of heroin smugglers in the area, many of whom come from this tribe, they also mounted special operations inside Pakistan to find out how al-Zawahiri's audio and video messages were being recorded and transmitted to Al Jazeera and other TV channels. This task was facilitated by the increasing frequency with which al-Zawahiri was sending messages.

6. On the basis of information that al-Zawahiri and his body-guards were going to spend the night of January 12, 2006, in the Mamond village of Damadola in the house of a local smuggler of gems and precious stones, US aircraft, believed to be Predators of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), made two strikes with missiles at 3 AM and 3-30 AM on the morning of January 13, 2006, at a cluster of houses belonging to this smuggler in which his family members were staying.

7. Eighteen persons were killed, of whom 14 were identified as members of the smuggler's family. The smuggler himself was reportedly away in Saudi Arabia for Haj. The identities of the remaining four were not established. The local villagers insisted that they too were local residents and not foreigners, but were not able to give their identities.

8. In a video message disseminted on January 30,2006, al-Zawahiri informed his followers that the US air strikes of January 13, 2006, on some houses in Damadola , which were directed against him, could not get him. In a virulent personal attack on President Pervez Musharraf, al-Zawahiri said: "The American planes raided in compliance with Musharraf the traitor and his security apparatus, the slave of the Crusaders and the Jews. In seeking to kill my humble self and four of my brothers, the whole world has discovered the extent of America's lies and failures and the extent of its savagery in fighting Islam and Muslims." He warned Musharraf against cooperation with the Americans, threatening, "Your day of judgement is approaching".

9. In an earlier message disseminated on September 28, 2003, al-Zawahiri had said: : "It is Musharraf who enabled America to topple the (Taliban's) Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. Had it not been for his tremendous help, America would not have been able to do this, nor would it have been able to kill thousands of innocents in Afghanistan. It is Musharraf who is seeking to send Pakistani forces to Iraq so that they, rather than American soldiers, are killed and so that they kill Muslims in Iraq and enable America to control Muslim lands. Muslims in Pakistan must unite and co-operate to topple this traitor and install a sincere leadership that would defend Islam and Muslims. The President would hand you over to the Hindus and flee to enjoy his secret bank accounts if India attacked Pakistan." An earlier video-recorded message of Zawahiri telecast by Al Jazeera on September 10, 2003, had denounced Musharraf as a traitor.

10.There was an air strike on a madrasa at Chenagai in the Bajaur Agency on October 30, 2006, in which 80 students studying in the madrasa were killed. There was considerable controversy regarding the origin of the air strike and the background of the students killed. The local villagers claimed that the attack was made by an American Predator aircraft, which flew into the area from Afghanistan. A US TV channel quoted unidentified Pakistani intelligence officials as saying that the attack was carried out by an American Predator aircraft because the Americans had information that al-Zawahiri was in the madrasa at that time. However, the Pakistani authorities denied the presence of any high-level Al Qaeda personality in the madrasa when it was attacked. They claimed that it was they who carried out the attack because they had received reliable intelligence that the madrasa was training suicide bombers for operations in Afghanistan. The attack on the madrasa led to a wave of anger and demonstrations all over the FATA. Nearly 15,000 persons demonstrated repeatedly for a week in the Bajaur Agency.

11.Forty-five Pakistani army recruits undergoing training at a Punjab Regimental Centre training school at Dargai, 100 kms north of Peshawar in the NWFP, were killed and many others were injured early on the morning of November 8, 2006, when a suspected suicide bomber ran towards them and blew himself up. The investigation into the suicide attack could not make any progress. The presumption in official and non-governmental circles was that the suicide attack was, most probably, in reprisal for the Chenagai air strike.

12. Despite the failure of their past attempts to get at al-Zawahiri, the Americans seem convinced that the TTP elements in the Bajaur Agency are protecting him. Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani and Rehman Malik, his Internal Security Advisor, came under pressure from the US officials to take action to trace and kill or arrest al-Zawahiri. On their return from their recent visit to the US, an operation by the FC was mounted from August 6 to trace al-Zawahiri. The Air Force was asked to provide air cover to the operation. Helicopter gunships of the Army were pressed into action to support the FC's ground operation.

13. As part of this operation, the FC set up an advance post in the Loyesam area to collect intelligence and mount special strikes. The TTP, which has allegedly been protecting al-Zawahiri, fiercely reacted against the advance of the FC into this area. Armed Taliban militants, led by Maulana Faqir Mohammad, , ambushed an FC convoy on August 8 near Sadeeqabad village and inflicted heavy losses on the forces. The next day,they handed over to the local authorities the dead bodies of 22 FC personnel, including a Major. Following fierce fighting in this area, in which Mehsuds from South Waziristan and Uzbecks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic jihad Union (IJU) joined the TTP in attacking the FC personnel, the FC decided to withdraw from this area to Khar, the headquarters of the Agency. The Army apprehended that the TTP, the IMU and the IJU might attack Khar also, but this has not happened so far.

14. While the ground fighting decreased after the withdrawal of the FC, the Pakistan Army kept up its air strikes and attacks by helicopter gunships in which it claimed to have inflicted heavy fatalities on the jihadis.There was even speculation that among those killed by the air strikes was the Egyptian-born Abu Saeed al-Masri alias Mustafa Mohammad Ahmad, a member of the Majlis-i-Shura of Al Qaeda and its financial chief, but this has not been confirmed. Another unconfirmed claim by Pakistani sources has stated that Mustafa abu al Yazid, an Egyptian who was in charge of Al Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, was killed in an air strike. Al Qaeda, which normally admits the deaths of its senior operatives, has not commented on these reports so far.

15. In retaliation for the widespread air strikes in the Bajaur Agency, the TTP blew up a bus of the Air Force on the Kohat Road in the NWFP on Auguast 12 in which 13 persons, including seven administrative personnel of the PAF, were reported to have been killed. The TTP has warned of more such attacks even in non-tribal areas, including Karachi, if the air strikes did not stop. Despite this, the Army has kept up with its air strikes. According to reliable police sources, Asif Ali Zardari has been keen to oblige the US by continuing with this operation. He is hoping that as a quid pro quo, the US could be persuaded not to come in the way of the proposed impeachment of President Pervez Musharraf. He seems to be convinced that if the US stops supporting Musharraf, the Army and the Inter-Services Intelligence will take the hint and will not come in the way of his impeachment.

16.Coinciding with the fighting in the Bajaur Agency, a Pakistani TV channel claimed to have received an audio message from Zawahiri on August 10 in which he said:"Musharraf has insulted and compromised Pakistan's sovereignty by allowing the CIA and FBI to operate freely in Pakistan and arrest, interrogate, torture, deport and detain any person, whether Pakistani or not." Zawahiri appealed to Pakistani soldiers to rethink their role in the fighting that has often pitted them against their countrymen, especially in the tribal regions. He urged Pakistanis to rise up and fight the US and support the Taliban. He apologised for speaking in English, "the language of the Muslims' enemies". He explained this by saying that he does not speak Urdu and that most Pakistanis cannot understand Arabic. .(13-8-08)

( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: )