(To be read in continuation of my earlier article titled "The Al Qaeda Striptease" of August 29,2004)
How big a catch is Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a 40-year-old Libyan married to a Pakistani, fluent in Urdu and Arabic and suffering from lucoderma, whose arrest was announced by the Pakistani authorities at Islamabad on May 4,2005?
2.They have not announced how and where he was captured, but reports from non-governmental sources indicate that a Pakistani security patrol near Mardan, 30 miles north of Peshawar, had stopped for identity check a man on a two-wheeler with a person in burqa sitting behind him. The person in burqa opened fire and they tried to escape. They were captured after a chase. The person in burqa turned out to be Abu Faraj. In the wake of his arrest, the Pakistani authorities in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have reportedly arrested seven Pakistanis, three Uzbeks, one Afghan and one Chechen.
3. In the past, Abu Faraj had been described as an operative of Al Qaeda in North Africa, who had shifted to Afghanistan from the Sudan along with Osama bin Laden in 1996 and had been assisting him in his work in Afghanistan. Some reports of the past had described him as his personal assistant and some others as one of his bodyguards.
4.He apparently did not occupy any high place in the Al Qaeda hierarchy as would be evident from the facts that he was not one of the top guns of Al Qaeda for whom the FBI had issued look-out notices after 9/11 and that his name did not figure prominently in the report of the US' National 9/11 Commission, which had at its disposal details of the interrogation of all the Al Qaeda operatives arrested in Pakistan, including that of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, who was arrested at Rawalpindi in March,2003.
5. Nor did his name figure prominently in the reports regarding the investigation into the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, the journalist of the "Wall Street Journal" and other terrorist attacks directed against French and American nationals in Karachi and Islamabad by suspected pro-Al Qaeda jihadi elements in 2002 and the attempt to kill the then Corps Commander of Karachi in June 2004.
6. His name figured for the first time in May,2004, as the suspected mastermind of the two unsuccessful attempts to assassinate Pakistan's President General Pervez Musharraf at Rawalpindi in December,2003.After the two attempts to kill Musharraf, the only other incident in the investigation of which his name figured was the attempt to kill Shaukat Aziz, the present Prime Minister and the then Finance Minister, in July last year. Initially, the Pakistani authorities had described him merely as an Al Qaeda operative, but by September,2004, they started describing him as the successor to KSM as the No.3 in the Al Qaeda.
7. Similarly, initially, they had projected him as the co-ordinator of the Al Qaeda operations in Pakistan, but by October last started describing him as also the co-ordinator of its operations in Europe and the US as well. Shortly after the July,2004, Lahore arrest of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan , a Pakistani, who was said to be the computer expert of Al Qaeda , and the death of Amjad Farooqi, projected as another big fish of Al Qaeda, in an encounter with the security forces at Nawabshah in Sindh in September last, Abu Faraj found himself promoted by the Pakistani and US authorities and the non-governmental Al Qaeda watchers of the world as the No. 3 in Al Qaeda and a vigorous man hunt was launched for him in the South Waziristan area.
8. According to reliable police sources in Pakistan, the US intelligence had been convinced since September last year that Abu Faraj was operating from sanctuaries in the South Waziristan area and kept up pressure on Pakistan's military-intelligence establishment to smoke him out. The same police sources believed that he was operating along with Tohir Yuldashev, the leader of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, who once narrowly escaped capture by the Pakistan Army.
9. It is interesting to note that while all the important arrests and killings of Al Qaeda leaders till now were made in major towns of Pakistan like Lahore,Faislabad and Gujarat in Punjab, Karachi, Rawalpindi and Nawabshah in Sindh, the arrest of Abu Faraj is reported to have been nade in the tribal areas, thereby indicating that he felt himself safer in the tribal areas than elsewhere in Pakistan.
10. The Pakistani authorities have not so far taken their public into confidence regarding the details of the two plots to kill Musharraf in December 2003, in which four junior officers of the Army and six of the Air Force were allegedly involved. One of the army officers named Islamuddin has already been court-martialed and sentenced to death even before the investigation is complete, but the Pakistani authorities have denied media speculation that he has already been executed. Another army officer named Havaldar Younis has been sentenced to 10 years rigorous imprisonment. Much to the discomfiture of the authorities, one of the Air Force officers, who was being held in custody in an Air Force station, managed to escape in November last.
11.In December,2004, the Lahore Police arrested a band of four hoodlums who used to indulge in mugging. The chief investigating officer projected them as the trusted men of Abu Faraj and their arrests as yet another major break-through in the hunt for Abu Faraj , al-Zawahiri and bin Laden. According to the police, one of the hoodlums admitted that Abu Faraj had takem him in his car to the vicinity of a UN vehicle in February,2004, and asked him to throw a hand-grenade at it. Abu Faraj could have thrown the hand-grenade himself. Why should he take an eye-witness in his car and ask him to throw it? What kind of an Al Qaeda top general he is if he did not have the confidence to throw a hand-grenade himself? Other police officers debunked the claim of the investigating officer that the hoodlums belonged to Al Qaeda. The "News", the prestigious daily of Pakistan, reported on January 8,2005, as follows: "In the post-September 11 scenario, Pakistani intelligence agents admit, there are multiple problems in identifying the actual enemy of the State."
12. In the reports relating to the investigation leaking out of the police and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) from time to time, the names of various organisations had figured as the perpetrators of the two plots to kill Musharraf---the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), the Harkat-ul-jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ),the Jundullah and finally Al Qaeda. In August last, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the head of the HUJI, was arrested by the Dubai authorities and deported to Pakistan. One does not have the details of his interrogation.
13. One need not be surprised that President Bush seems happier than even Musharraf over the arrest of Abu Faraj, whom he has described as a top General of bin Laden and whose arrest he has hailed as a critical victory in the so-called war against terrorism. It should help temporarily in drawing attention away from the continuing rampage of the resistance fighters and terrorists in Iraq, who have already killed 12 Americans and about 200 Iraqis, mainly Shia and Kurdish recruits to the Police, since April 29, thereby negating the claims of the US that the resistance movement and the foreign terrorists headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi were showing signs of internal dissension and loss of morale since the elections earlier this year.
14. In my three decades with the Indian intelligence, I have learnt one lesson. Never make a tall claim. Tall claims have a nasty way of coming back to haunt you.
15. Will the arrest of Abu Faraj turn out to be yet one more striptease act in the long show in Pakistan since the beginning of 2002 or will it be the prelude to the ultimate striptease, namely, the arrest or neutralisation of bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri? I wish I had the answer.
16. One does not know when the ultimate striptease will come about. So long as the show lasts, let us not leave the ringside seat. Interesting days and sights ahead.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently Director, Institute for Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )