Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the No. 3 leader in Al Qaeda, was captured in a joint US-Pakistani operation in the eastern Pakistani city of Rawalpindi. Mohammed had been implicated in the 9/11 attacks, as well as other terrorist operations, including the Bali disco bombing last year. Mohammed’s capture may result in the arrest of more Al Qaeda operatives and it may interrupt at least some of the anti-U.S. terrorist plots assumed to be under various stages of planning.
While Mohammed’s arrest fulfills an important objective of the anti-terrorism war, there is little reason to become complacent. Even as American guns turn towards Iraq, and U.S. attention is likely to be diverted towards that country for the near future, it would be a folly to overlook three points pertinent to Mohammed’s capture and the circumstances preceding it.
First, Pakistan is the new command center of Al Qaeda’s operations. Three of the top Al Qaeda leaders — Mohammed, Abu Zubaidah, and Binalshibh — were arrested in different urban centers of Pakistan. But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of Al Qaeda operatives have found refuge in different parts of Pakistan. Many have regrouped in the North West Frontier Province, Baluchistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and for the past several months have regularly crossed over into Afghanistan to attack U.S. and Afghan forces.
There are reports that other important terrorist figures such as Osama Bin Laden, Tohir Yuldeshev of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and possibly even Hambali of Indonesia may be hiding in Pakistan. Dawood Ibrahim and Hafiz Sayeed, wanted in India, operate out of Pakistan. In addition, several leading Taliban figures are also suspected of having found refuge in Pakistan. Given the strong control of President Musharraf’s military in the nation, and the extensive links of Pakistan’s intelligence agencies with the Al Qaeda and Taliban, it is a stretch to believe that the Pakistani establishment, at certain levels, is not aware of the sanctuary provided to known terrorists.
Second, it is clear that Pakistan’s support for the anti-terror war is half-hearted, and it tends to cooperate only when under tremendous external pressure. Abu Zubaidah was nabbed in the weeks after the brutal murder of Daniel Pearl exposed the extensive Pakistani ties of the Al Qaeda network. In the months preceding Mohammed’s arrest last weekend, numerous reports in major U.S. newspapers put the spotlight on Pakistan’s diminishing support for the anti-terror war. Some Pakistanis had even postulated that their nation would be next in U.S. crosshairs after Iraq. Similarly, faced with an imminent attack by India in June of last year, Pakistan reined in terrorist incursions into Jammu and Kashmir state. When it became apparent that India was not going to attack, the cross-border incursions quickly rose again.
In the past year, there have been many instances when Al Qaeda suspects escaped just before U.S. raids in Pakistan, apparently having been tipped off. When President Musharraf ostensibly banned Al Qaeda-related groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, the groups withdrew funds from banks due to prior knowledge of the actions. These groups have simply changed names, moved offices, and continue to operate terrorist camps in Pakistani-controlled territory, which act as reservoirs of jihadis headed to places like Washington and Kashmir.
Third, unlike Iraq, Pakistan has dozens of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to long distances. Pakistan is now known to have supplied nuclear technology to North Korea, and may also have supported the nuclear programs of Myanmar, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Top Pakistani nuclear scientists are known to have maintained contacts with the Al Qaeda leadership. A nation that has clearly been loose with its nuclear know-how, has Taliban supporters in its military and intelligence wings, and two of its four provinces are ruled by pro-Taliban Islamic groups, is arguably the most dangerous place in the world today.
As the war on Iraq looms, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s capture reminds us that the anti-terror war is unfinished business, and will continue long after Saddam Hussein is ousted. The anti-terror war is unlikely to be won unless Pakistan’s many links to terror are severed. Perhaps U.S. counter-terrorism objectives would have been better served if the Bush administration had paid more attention to the dangers emanating from Pakistan instead of becoming obsessed with Iraq.