By ASIF HAROON RAJA
AS long as Mullah Omar was in power in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden (OBL) enjoyed his patronage and protection. Once his regime was uprooted from power in November 2001 and the Taliban rendered homeless and fugitives, al-Qaeda as an entity also got displaced from Afghanistan to South Waziristan (SW). Ahmadzai Wazirs who had fought alongside Afghan and Arab Mujahideen in the Afghan Jihad against the Soviets and had developed comradeship, provided them shelter. Al-Qaeda helped dislocated Afghan Taliban to regroup. Displacement of Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda and other Arab/African fighters shifted centre of gravity of terrorism from Afghanistan to FATA which lightened the burden of ISAF and tempted the US to open a second front in Iraq in March 2003. Conversely, Pakistan got heavily involved in fighting someone else’s war on its soil.
When Pak Army at the behest of USA launched a major operation in 2004 in SW and the locals joined hands to flush out foreigners, al-Qaeda elements got reallocated to adjacent Mehsud belt where they were welcomed by Baitullah Mehsud since Mehsuds were also their wartime friends. Once another operation was mounted against the Mehsuds in 2005, part of al-Qaeda elements moved over to North Waziristan (NW) where Othmanzai Wazirs and Dawars sheltered them again on the basis of old comradeship. Series of military operations in NW in 2006-07, Lal Masjid fiasco in July 2007 which triggered suicide attacks, breakup of peace deals with Gul Bahadur and Baitullah in July-August 2007 and creation of TTP in December 2007 resulted in gelling of al-Qaeda with TTP. Triangle formed by Srarogha-Ladha-Makin became the strong base of TTP and al-Qaeda. However, after the decisive military operation in SW in October 2009, TTP and al-Qaeda bases were up-stuck and fragmented. Thereon, scattered militants belonging to these outfits took refuge in different agencies of FATA as well as in major cities including Karachi and also got affiliated with several other banned outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harkatul Mujahideen, Ilyas Kashmiri outfit, Punjabi Taliban. Lashkar-e-Islam created trouble in Bara and Tirah subdivisions of Khyber Agency.
While Pak security forces got tied up fighting TTP-alQaeda combine and affiliates, Afghan Taliban in the meanwhile got regrouped and started exfiltrating into southern and eastern Afghanistan from 2003 onwards and in a short span of time made these regions into their strongholds wherefrom they could launch deeper attacks in other parts of Afghanistan. Some elements of al-Qaeda also returned to Afghanistan because of arrest of large number of its key leaders by Pak Army/ISI. By 2008, the two entities had wrested the initiative from ISAF in the Pashtun dominated regions.
Since OBL had gone in hiding and most of key leaders had been arrested by Pak security forces, command structure of al-Qaeda had got decentralized. Massive hunt launched by CIA and its allied intelligence agencies was not to locate OBL who was assumed dead or incapacitated, but for Pak nuclear weapons and delivery means. OBL and other al-Qaeda leaders was a false front to justify hunt inside Pakistan for the real treasure. When the US got frustrated, it ultimately went for the ghost of OBL to kill two birds with one stone. That is, upturning President Obama’s declining political fortunes, putting Pakistan in the dock and thus providing greater justification to intensify activities to locate and destroy the nukes.
Having got the critical lead from ISI about the courier of OBL, CIA started gathering additional information singly and kept ISI in the dark. It gathered that OBL’s three wives (Khairee, Shareeja, Amal) and 11 children were living in a hired house in Abbottabad. CIA then engineered a plan to mount a secret operation in Abbottabad by the US Navy SEALs on 2 May 2011 so as to discredit Pak Army and ISI. The US earned appreciation of the world at the cost of its ally Pakistan. Outrage of Pakistani public was not because of ignorance of Army/ISI about OBL’s presence in Abbottabad, but because of the failure of our Army and PAF to detect and contest the raiding helicopters and letting it escape unscathed. Religious right in Pakistan was of course highly perturbed over killing of OBL, regarded by them as a martyr of Islam and a hero who had stood against imperialist USA. When the debilitating event failed to dip the image of the Army in the eyes of the public, and instead the US image got badly mauled because of Taliban attacks on US Embassy and NATO HQ in Kabul on 13 September 2011, in utter frustration the US targeted Salala in November 2011. This act also proved costly for the US since instead of frightening Pakistan it steeled the resolve of Pakistan.
If the US leadership assumed that al-Qaeda entity would disintegrate after OBL’s death and threat posed by al-Qaeda would evaporate in thin air, ground realities have proved that its assumption was erroneous. OBL is dead but the ideology he left behind is very much alive. Since OBL was the moving force and spirit behind the movement he originated and financed to challenge imperialism of USA, he still lives in the minds of every al-Qaeda member and tens of thousands of his admirers and sympathizers all over the globe and his ghost will continue to haunt the US for times to come.
Al- Qaeda is still in existence and rather than becoming dormant after his death, it has become more vengeful and dangerous under Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri. It has made well over 50 abortive attempts on the US homeland to avenge OBL’s death and would continue to do so. Its mission of delivering a hard blow to its chief tormentor has become relatively easier after the regular inflow of American Muslims in its rank and file, residing inside and outside USA. Sami Osmakac, Amine El Khalafi and Awlaki are cases in point. Given the continuation of Muslim specific brutal and flawed policies of USA, al-Qaeda ideology is likely to grow stronger and wide based. Different forms and shades of al-Qaeda would keep cropping up and battle will continue till one side falls.
It is a well known fact that Egyptian born Zawahiri was number 2 of OBL, but for all practical purposes he was running al-Qaeda after OBL became too sick in 2004. He along with his family shifted to Abbottabad in 2005 on Zawahiri’s advice. There on, Zawahiri took over the reins of al-Qaeda and OBL went into hibernation. It was Zawahiri and not OBL who turned al-Qaeda into an international organization. He recruited hundreds of suicide bombers for the Iraq war of resistance and gave a hard fight to US-NATO forces, compelling them to withdraw from Iraq in December 2011. Zawahitri also has a history of betraying his associates. Essam El-Qamari and Abullah Azam are cases in point. After Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad in July 2007, Zawahari had declared war against Pakistan. Al-Qaeda affiliated with TTP was instrumental in unleashing a spate of suicide attacks in major cities. Reliable sources indicate that his loyalists in Egypt had tipped off CIA about OBL’s whereabouts.
Pakistan as a responsible country has been cooperating in US led war on terrorism and has shown substantial results by killing and apprehending vital Al-Qaeda terrorists. It was not an option for Pakistan to hide OBL, as alleged by USA and others and get embarrassed. Had Pakistani officials / ISI known about the presence of OBL inside Pakistan, they would have reacted positively to apprehend / kill him to save such chaos which led to lingering court probes. The US should be grateful to Pak Army and ISI which because of its pro-active policy forced OBL to lead an inactive life detached from the body of al-Qaeda.
The writer is a retired Brig and a defence and security analyst. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org