Al Qaeda firmly rooted in Pakistan tribal fiefdom

Published: August 26, 2011
Since fleeing the invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda bosses have carved out a new haven in Pakistan's northwest. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

Since fleeing the invasion of Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda bosses have carved out a new haven in Pakistan's northwest. PHOTO: AFP/FILE

PESHAWAR: With his well-groomed hair, shaven face and delicate hint of aftershave, al Qaeda logistician Abu Salman has operated for years in Pakistan’s badlands with little fear of detection. A decade after fleeing the US invasion of Afghanistan, al Qaeda bosses have carved out a new haven in Pakistan’s lawless northwest, recruiting a fresh generation of footsoldiers well versed in how to escape capture.

Despite the long years of conflict, the terror network’s reign of fear is too rooted for the Pakistani army or US missiles to dislodge. When Abu Salman nears a checkpoint on the way to the group’s premier bastion of North Waziristan, he turns up the music on the car stereo and lights a cigarette. And with this simple indulgence of vices denounced by extremist adherents of Islam, he evades suspicion. Another trick is to leave an English-language newspaper- the ultimate trapping of a secular-minded Pakistani gentleman- lying on the passenger seat.

In his 30s, the al Qaeda operative speaks to AFP under a fake name in the suburbs of Pakistan’s largest northwestern city, Peshawar. Officially he is a car dealer. The cover story allows him to swap vehicles without suspicion and so escape detection by Pakistani security forces and the American drones trying to eliminate al Qaeda in the frontline state in the war on terror.

A university-trained engineer, Abu Salman signed up in 2008 while working in Afghanistan. “I saw the pain inflicted by the Americans. I realised that I hadn’t done anything with my life up till then,” he said. He was given basic military training in eastern Afghanistan in late 2008 but has been integrated into the network as a logistics man, fetching food and medicine.

He personifies the success that al Qaeda has found in Pakistan, exploiting a mosaic of overlapping extremist networks of foreigners and locals dating back 30 years to the mujahedeen resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan. “Al Qaeda has been pretty much driven out of Afghanistan, but it got stronger in Pakistan,” surfing on a wave of anti-American sentiment, says Pakistani journalist and al Qaeda expert Zahid Hussain.

North Waziristan has an estimated several hundred foreign al Qaeda fighters, mostly from Arab countries and Uzbekistan, with a smattering of Africans, Chechens and Westerners, the latter mosly dual nationals. Most arrive overland through central Asia and Afghanistan. A minority, often the most inexperienced, fly in, running greater risks of being arrested as with two French jihadists picked up this year in Lahore.

Abu Salman criss crosses between Peshawar, Lahore, Islamabad and the tribal belt. “We avoid the telephone and the Internet to avoid being detected and being killed by a drone,” he said. Responsible for providing food and medication, he shops for energy drinks such as Red Bull, which he claims are “very popular” among fighters.

But if most are foreign, Abu Salman claims that “more and more Pakistanis want to join up”.

“Al Qaeda rents homes for its fighters as well as local Taliban who are less well off, basically getting funds from kidnapping for ransom,” says one regular visitor to the main market in the North Waziristan capital of Miranshah, who gives the name of Ahmad Jan.

Wearing traditional Pakistani clothes, long hair and beards, turbans and a Kalashnikov slung over their shoulder, the foreigners are almost indistinguishable from the tribesmen whose daughters they marry. Only the locals can tell the difference. “Their skin is often lighter, thinner and taller if they’re Arabs and they walk differently” says Jan.

There may be no trace of Osama bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri, but ordinary footsoldiers take few precautions, other than avoiding restaurants for fear of being a sitting duck for a drone strike.

According to statistics compiled by American website The Long War Journal, drone strikes have killed nearly 2,000 Taliban and al Qaeda fighters. Abu Salman claims that most of those killed are Taliban.

Visitors say that the turnover is rapid, that the dead are quickly replaced by new arrivals. Al Qaeda enjoys the protection of Afghan warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani whose relationship with Pakistan’s intelligence agency ISI and own stronghold in North Waziristan has effectively ruled out any ground offensive.

“Everything has changed in 10 years: most of the tribal leaders have been killed and the tribal system destroyed by the extremists. We can’t dance any more, or play music at weddings,” said Miranshah shopkeeper Qader Gul, 56. “Anyone who protests risks having a member of his family kidnapped, beaten or killed,” agreed Jan.

“The young generation is destroyed. It sees nothing except the drones and armed groups… In these conditions, I don’t see how the young will become anything other than Taliban,” said Fayaz Dawar, 30, a doctor in Mir Ali.

Facebook Conversations

Reader Comments (9)

  • Cautious
    Aug 26, 2011 - 5:47PM

    Nice article —- explains the foundation of the dispute between Pakistan and the World — you allow Al Qaeda to operate freely — you facilitate terrorism.


  • guest worker
    Aug 26, 2011 - 6:32PM

    What the man is saying is– All well to do and secular people are Al-Qaeda because they place an English newspaper on the dashboard to intimidate the police. Otherwise its a great article


  • Khalid Rahim
    Aug 26, 2011 - 7:35PM

    In Pakistan both State and Corporate terrorism either work hand in hand or in the opposite direction. none of this would have happened had the neocons not created the Kuwait fiasco
    and started the ”Desert Storm” Al Qaida would have remained stagnant in Afghanistan. Even
    though Osama bin Laden had his popularity as Mujahideen his new outfit Al Qaida was not
    popular among the Afghans in late 80s when it was established to liberate Palestine. The 90s took a different turn and today that turn of the screw keeps digging deeper into the psyche of the masses.


  • Faction
    Aug 27, 2011 - 2:03AM

    Always engineers if their educated. Never philosophy or liberal arts. Sick, close minded, murderous automotons.


  • MK
    Aug 27, 2011 - 6:06AM

    Educated, clean shaven and music playing “extremist” ????? To me it looks like, an alliance has been formed between Religous outfits and non religious nationalists or anti American forces. Altough it is convinient for Americans or pro America liberal extremists to call all of them terrorists and/or Al Qaeda for their own covinience. My enemy’s enemy is a friend doctrine at work here.


  • John
    Aug 27, 2011 - 8:26AM

    So why then Pakistan politicians oppose drone operations?

    The story is known for some time and refreshing to read it in PAK newspaper. If PAK does not curb them now, PAK will loose its NWFP soon or it will be a costly affair for PAK to regain whatever minimal hold she has now.

    Today it is Americans and NATO. Tomorrow?


  • Raies Ahmad Shah
    Aug 27, 2011 - 10:36AM

    the only difference being that you create them.


  • Timour
    Aug 27, 2011 - 4:08PM

    To use an example, what difference does it make how a cancer is caused….lead in the paint, smoke from cigarettes or even genetic the important thing is how to treat it through drugs and surgery and radio/chemotherapy….

    Similarly who cares what the neocons or zeocons did in the 90’s the time is now and the place is here and we need to sort these “jahilan” and “al-qaedians” out ourselves…Recommend

  • Ahmer Ali
    Aug 28, 2011 - 10:16AM

    Assalam-o-Allaikum Warahmatullah.This is totally impossible to understand that when the civilized and modernized world shall stop to play the old blame game against Pakistan that they are hidden in Pakistan so that a well-planned attack could be prepared against Pakistani tribal areas whereas the world knows that Alqaeda/Taliban were used against the USSR supported by USA and now when Alqaeda/Taliban are operating against USA then they are called the most dangerous terrorists and are danger for the whole world’s peace and tranquility.What the theory and definition of terrorism in the eyes of modern and civilized world!!!!!


More in Pakistan