Creating a Haven for Al Qaeda

People's distrust of Musharraf, West makes Pakistan ripe for terrorist growth.

LONDON, Dec. 30, 2007— -- The assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto added yet another tragic chapter to the country's turbulent and violent political landscape. Mystery also continues to cloud how exactly Bhutto died.

The fact that the regime of Pervez Musharraf then tried to blame her death on what they described as al Qaeda was met with much scepticism both in Pakistan and throughout the world.

However, whether her tragic demise came at the hands of a terrorist group or -- as her supporters claim -- members of the Pakistan military establishment, there is a fine line that now separates terrorism and elements of the military where there is a degree of ideological sympathy with al Qaeda and affiliated groups.

There has long been a symmetrical relationship between Pakistan's military and the religious extremists. It's important to remember that the military was concerned about the return of Bhutto and her political rival Nawaz Sharif, as they both wanted to limit its overbearing and suffocating influence over Pakistani society. This meant taking away the military's monopoly on counter-terrorism and allow there to be a degree of civillian control where there would be no question of divided loyalties regarding al Qaeda.

Pakistan has become beset with numerous and conflicting security challenges resulting in intractable, and also quite discernible dilemmas. The ongoing conflicts often spill over ethnically and geographically, fuelling ethnic and communal problems and bringing greater misery to the people. The growth of radicalism during the Musharraf years has severely compromised and weakened the position of the Pakistani state and damaged the democracy movement.

Until recently, Pakistan had a strong civil society, an independent judiciary and a vibrant active press. With all these portents, one would assume that the threat of terrorism would not become a feature of the country's political scenery.

However, the continual military interference in the political process under Musharraf has resulted in weakened and almost impotent civilian institutions that have allowed groups like al Qaeda to thrive. The decision by Musharraf to suspend the constitution on Nov. 3, 2007, resulted in the sacking of several Supreme Court judges, muzzling the media, arresting and locking up human rights and civil liberty groups, all of which deepened the erosion of civil society. The great irony was that Musharraf claimed that he acted to protect Pakistan from the threat of terrorism, but the only people who were not being arrested were the terrorists themselves.

Victim of Terrorists From Without and Within

The Musharraf government's policy lies in Pakistan's political history, in which the military has retained state power at the expense of democracy and socio-economic development. To prolong their rule, military governments have formed domestic alliances with the radicals. In this process, civil society has been undermined and bigotry has flourished.

In the past, faced with the threat of military intervention in politics, civilian politicians all too often concentrated on using public office as a positional good to extract resources from the wider society that in turn fuelled popular cynicism and discontent, and created a constituency for the messages of purification that Taliban-like forces set out to articulate in the 1990s.

Today, Pakistan has fallen victim not to terrorism directed against it by external forces, but rather to the corrosive effects of extremist groups, many with a trans-national ideological orientation, that have flourished within its own borders, and often with the tacit support of military intelligence elements. Therefore, the remedy for the security dilemma must and can only lie primarily within Pakistan itself.

The problem of terrorism in Pakistan has a paradoxical character, since its manifestations spring from two seemingly contradictory features of the political system.

On the one hand, the weakness of the state has permitted sectarian terrorism to flourish in recent years. On the other hand, elements of the armed forces have played a role in nurturing terrorist groups committed to advancing Pakistan's geopolitical interests with respect to its eastern neighbour India in relation to Kashmir, and its western neighbor Afghanistan. As a result, the challenge of terrorism in Pakistan is intimately related to the debilitating centrifugal forces that afflict the country more generally.

The same infrastructure that supports regional sectarianism is now being used for the current Afghan insurgency. Pakistan has now become the headquarters for the resurgent Taliban, based in Quetta and Peshawar. It is from here that the Taliban have remerged, become revitalised, and have learnt from the tactics of the insurgents in Iraq and implement them in Afghanistan with deadly effect.

The Threat of 'Talibanization'

Although the West is deeply concerned about the dangers of the "Talibanization" of Pakistan due to the fundamentalists gaining ascendancy in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the fear is that these forces could be more dangerous if Musharraf were to lose his position.

The fear of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan has been the driving force behind most Western countries' foreign policies toward Islamabad in recent years. The possibility that violent extremists would take over the country and its nuclear weapons and escalate regional and trans-national terrorism has dominated the psychological and political landscape since Sept. 11 2001. Such fears have usually led to support of the Pakistani military as the only institution able to contain the danger.

With Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri still at large in Pakistan, issuing with impunity arrogant, defiant audio and video messages laced with threats against the West and its secular and democratic allies, it crucially serves to encourage and motivate its affiliates to plan and perpetrate more and greater atrocities across the globe.

As the hunt for the al Qaeda hierarchy continues, it is both interesting and worrying that al Qaeda members of all ranks and positions are being captured in major urban heartlands throughout Pakistan and not in the mountainous tribal region along the Afghan-Pakistan border that has become the popular myth for al Qaeda's lair. It is also of some concern that the al Qaeda terrorists feel comfortable residing in large cities, where their activities would be far easier to monitor.

Some of the notable examples include Abu Zubaydah, Ramzi Binalshibh, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh and Abu Faraj al-Libbi. The continuing discovery of key terrorist figures in Pakistan's cities lends credence to rumors that bin Laden and al-Zahawari, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar and others may also be receiving shelter in cities rather then be in hiding in some remote cave. This has led some to suggest that there is a degree of cooperation between elements of Pakistan's security forces and the terrorists.

Al Qaeda Reloading

Al Qaeda is now the strongest that it has been since 9/11. National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) point out that the group has regained the capacity to pull off new attacks. The group is reconstituting itself, replenishing its ranks, rebuilding its resources inside Pakistan and it once again has the ability to directly control and orchestrate terrorists attacks around the world, as we've seen in the case of the U.K., with the July 7 attacks, followed by the failed attack two weeks later and in addition a number of disrupted plots before and after those events.

It is a huge concern that al Qaeda has been able to reload its ranks, train new recruits inside Pakistan and deploy them to carry out new attacks.

A disturbingly large number of major plots that have taken place in Europe emanated from Pakistan, where the plotters were given the ideological guidance and the skills to carry out an attack. In fact, the country now acts as the finishing school of terrorism. For many European-based terror cells, the seeds of radicalism may have been growing in their respective countries but they were cultivated inside Pakistan.

Pakistani authorities have portrayed bin Laden has as some type of James Bond villain, hiding out in a sophisticated underground lair. That theory is possibly both naïve and also highly inaccurate as it runs contrary to realities and known facts.

Bin Laden, the most wanted and active terrorist in the world, needs to have regular access to modern communications and facilities. None of these services are available in a remote cave. He also has a number of wives, children, and a large entourage of bodyguards. Some of the recent videos by al-Zawahiri, appear to have been shot in a studio similar to one of the big news channels, with an autocue, overhead lighting and elaborate graphics in the background. This cannot be easily constructed in a remote isolated area.

Nuclear Worries

With a carefully sculpted public image and the use of Orwellian phrases like "counter-coup" and "dictatorship to restore true democracy," Musharraf has earned a reputation as a straight talker: In effect, what you see is what you get.

His skill and ease with the media has enabled him to project himself as the powerbroker between "Islamists" and "modernists" in Pakistan. The events after 9/11 give an interesting insight to Musharraf's personality. Musharraf comes across as a survivor. From crisis to crisis he appears to make hard choices and live out the consequences. He is keen to portray himself as a liberal with western sensibilities, reassuring Washington and London that his country's nuclear arsenal is safe only in his pro-western hands.

At a time when the international community remains deeply concerned about nuclear proliferation and the prospect of CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) components landing in the hands of terrorists, the obvious absence of safeguards in Pakistan's nuclear infrastructure, or radical fundamentalist elements within it, raises grave concerns.

The fear is that even though Pakistan remains an official U.S. ally in the war against al Qaeda, its nuclear arsenal is without doubt tempting to extremist elements inside and outside Pakistan and leaking like a sieve. This is something Musharraf seems incapable of stopping, especially following the proliferation scandal involving the Pakistani nuclear scientist, A.Q. Khan and the al Qaeda dialogue established with another Pakistani nuclear scientist, Bashiruddin Mahmood, which raised serious questions.

The only member of al Qaeda, aside from its top leaders, who knows the actual strength of its weapons of mass destruction program is an Egyptian chemical engineer called Midhat Mursi. Mursi managed the terror groups' facilities for the development and training of terrorists with chemicals, poisons and other toxins when al Qaeda was based in Afghanistan.

As the head of al Qaeda's CBRN committee, Mursi reported directly to al-Zawahiri. It was al-Zawahiri, who in 1998, put together documents on a floppy disk detailing his plans for a biological and chemical program, which he code-named "Zabadi" (Yogurt). Although al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan are no longer occupied, the group still operates in Pakistan and like bin Laden and al-Zawahiri, Mursi remains at large.

Following in the footsteps of his military predecessors Musharraf has tried to justify authoritarian rule by maligning Pakistani politicians and to consolidate his regime by marginalising opposition parties. Pakistan's moderate opposition parties are under siege. The assassination of Benazir Bhutto has merely highlighted this problem.

Keep Pressure on Islamabad

Western governments should not let fear of an Islamist threat distort their dealings with Islamabad. Changes in policy merely reflect changes within the army and are not related to domestic pressures or Islamist influences. It is unwise and unnecessary to heed arguments that one should not press Musharraf to crack down on the terrorist infrastructure for fear of causing his overthrow by extremists.

Strong internal and external political pressures will be necessary to reform the regime, because the army will not voluntarily empower civilian institutions. Countries whose financial assistance, arms and political counsel Pakistan needs should condition economic and military aid on steps toward genuine democratization and development. Such conditionality is often claimed but rarely enforced.

As irksome, as protracted and as expensive as this strategy may sound, it is important to remember that constant support to the Pakistani army and to regimes whose legitimacy is questioned by Pakistan's population has led to resentment and suspicion of the West and has not significantly improved either Western or South Asian security.

What the West perceives as threats to the regime in Pakistan are in reality manifestations of the army's strategy to maintain total political control. The military's monopoly of power is preventing the emergence of a truly democratic and economically stable Pakistan. By focusing on only Islamist militancy, Western governments confuse the consequence and the cause, which is that the army is central to what transpires in Pakistan.

The experiences of Pakistan is that terrorism is a complicated phenomenon. It can be home-grown or imported, and a major threat to the authority of the state or merely a manageable source of sorrow for ordinary people. The idea that a "War on Terror" is a simple struggle runs the risk of abstracting dangerously from this complexity.

Western governments undermine their own interests by invoking the Islamist threat to justify support of military regimes. This approach has contributed to the perception in the Muslim world in general -- and in Pakistan in particular -- that democracy is something to be applied selectively and this has led to resentment and suspicion of the West and has not significantly improved either Western or South Asian security. Restoring genuine democracy in Pakistan should be a priority.

The various extremist and terrorist groups that exist in Pakistan have paralysed the nation and held it hostage as well as creating an environment ripe for al Qaeda to sustain its activities and conduct its global agenda while continuing to bleed Pakistan.

Without compliance from military elements within Pakistan, al Qaeda would be in a far weaker position and its global reach would be severely curtailed. The United States cannot begin the process of shutting down al Qaeda globally until its organization inside Pakistan is broken. Unless Pakistan goes through radical and urgent reforms for its own sake, the country will continue to be in the service of al Qaeda and with that the fear of terrorism will continue to haunt the world.

A Part of the Problem

While the country buckles under the pressure of assassinations, suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, and with the pervading presence of al Qaeda and the Taliban, both of which have made Pakistan their home, Musharraf's main concern remains his own survival.

Pakistan is at the crossroads. There is a battle ensuing for the heart and soul of the country.

Ironically, today, in that battle, Musharraf is on one side and the mass movement for the restoration of democracy is on the other. Musharraf has lost credibility within Pakistan, and increasingly with the international community. He has not delivered domestically, and has not been effective in the war on terror. He was seen as part of the solution to the problems of terrorism, but the reality is that Musharraf himself is part of the problem.

In 2005, a joint security assessment by the CIA and the U.S. National Intelligence Council predicted Pakistan would become "a failed state, ripe with civil war, bloodshed, inter-provincial rivalries and a struggle for control of its nuclear weapons and complete Talibanization" by 2015.

Worryingly, while Musharraf remains at the helm, that scenario appears ahead of schedule.

Sajjan Gohel is the Director for International Security, Asia-Pacific Foundation