Already, though, under intense pressure from the US, Pakistan has handed over as many as 350 suspected al-Qaeda operators into US custody. Most have been low-ranking, but some important names are, according to Asia Times Online contacts, being held in Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) safe houses to be presented at the right moment.
The contacts say that Pakistan’s strategic circles see the high-value al-Qaeda operators as “bargaining chips” to ensure continued US support for President General Pervez Musharraf’s de facto military rule in Pakistan. Had Pakistan handed over top targets such as Osama bin Laden, his deputy Dr Aiman al-Zawahir, Tahir Yuldash (leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) and others – assuming it was in a position to do so – the military rulers would have lost their usefulness to the US in its “war on terror”.
Information accessed by Asia Times Online traces the arrest of Ghailani to the earlier apprehension of one Mohammed Naeem Noor Khan, alias Abu Talha. Khan, a computer engineer in his mid-20s, was arrested in Lahore. He had been wanted for some time and was thought to have been hiding in South Waziristan.
Documents, computers and reports allegedly uncovered in Khan’s arrest led US officials this week to warn against a possible al-Qaeda attack against financial institutions in the US. However, subsequently some analysts in the US have claimed that much of the information that resulted from the arrest was compiled before the September 11, 2001, attacks.
Frances Fragos Townsend, the White House homeland security adviser, said Monday in an interview on PBS that surveillance reports apparently collected by al-Qaeda operatives had been “gathered in 2000 and 2001”. But she added that information may have been updated as recently as January.
As one observer in Karachi commented, “Every second jihadi I know has a computer and is always busy checking information on buildings in the US – their height and width and their possible vulnerable areas – and it is their routine practice to make plans with computer graphics to bring down US buildings to the ground.”
Nevertheless, in response to the perceived threat, US authorities have launched a huge search for terrorist operatives who might have helped conduct surveillance of the five main financial institutions in New York City, Newark, and Washington – Citigroup, the New York Stock Exchange, Prudential, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
According to news reports, tens of thousands of delivery records to the buildings in question will be scrutinized. Investigators also will question those who have had access to the architectural plans of the institutions’ largest buildings, and former employees.
Khan, from Karachi, initially belonged to the banned Jaish-i-Mohammed, a militant outfit fighting in Kashmir. As a Jaish member, he went to Afghanistan during the Taliban period (1996-2001), where he acquired extensive military training in Arab camps and became acquainted with several prominent Arab fighters. He also met Amjad Hussain Farooqui, a member of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a banned group of sectarian assassins who target Shi’ite Muslims. At this point Khan entered the underworld.
After the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, many foreign al-Qaeda members such as Ghailani fled to Pakistan’s tribal areas, where they either made their way on to their home countries or decided to stay.
Ghailani ended up in South Waziristan, where he remained, but in the face of the two Pakistan army operations there, he was forced to flee, and with the help of Khan and others ended up in Gujrat. Khan’s attempts to contact a travel agent in Lahore to smuggle Ghailani and his family out of the country apparently led to his arrest – his satellite telephone calls were intercepted by intelligence agencies. After two weeks of interrogation, Khan pointed the way to Ghailani’s hideout.
The next ‘target’?