Di Qaim Moini
THE death of Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden in a fortified compound in the scenic city of Abbottabad has perhaps raised more uncomfortable questions than it has answered. For one, the narrative that the terror outfit`s key minds are in hiding in the inaccessible badlands of the tribal areas that straddle Pakistan and Afghanistan has been seriously challenged.Osama`s death in an urban centre deep inside Pakistan is the most high-profile scalp that has been claimed in the battle against transnational Islamist militancy. Yet there are quite a few examples from the past that show that while the tribal areas of Pakistan may be where militants are most visible, it is in the country`s cities and towns where militant leaders often choose to lie low to avoid detection.
Al Qaeda`s attacks of Sept 11, 2001 prompted America to take action against the terror network based in this part of the world. Several key operatives of the global jihadi network have been picked up from Pakistan`s urban areas. Perhaps the first of such high-profile catches was Abu Zubaydah, picked up by American and Pakistani intelligence operatives from a `safe house` in Faisalabad in March 2002.
Other raids netted Ramzi Binalshibh, who was apprehended in September 2002 following a shoot-out in Karachi`s Defence neighbourhood, while in March 2003 Khalid Shaikh Mohammad was picked up from Rawalpindi. Later in the same year, Khalid`s relative and fellow Al Qaeda operative Ammar Al Baluchi was arrested from Karachi. In 2005, Abu Faraj Al Libi was seized in Mardan while more recently Umar Patek, a suspected member of the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah, was captured in Abbottabad.
This is not to say the militant presence in Fata is minimal. Rather, it would be fair to assume that Al Qaeda`s and its allied concerns` presence in the tribal belt mainly consists of foot soldiers and second- and third-tier leaders. Though US drone strikes in Fata — along with causing considerable `collateral damage` — have managed to take out some major militant names such as Abu Hamza Rabia, Usama Al Kini and Baitullah Mehsud, most of militancy`s big guns have been picked up, dead or alive, from this country`s urban areas.
And now, with the death of Osama, the international spotlight is shining quite harshly on Pakistan, mainly because of the fact that the country`s security apparatus failed to pick up the scent of the world`s most wanted man a few hours` drive from the federal capital. Though suspicion will always remain of the security establishment`s connivance with a section of the militants, a more balanced analysis of the situation shows that tracking down terror operatives in cities is not an easy undertaking.
No doubt, it is a huge intelligence failure on part of the Pakistani security establishment. Simply denying the fact that operatives of Al Qaeda or other militant outfits are hiding in Pakistan will not change the fact that they are, while the claim that Al Qaeda`s back has been broken also remains to be tested.
The challenge now for Pakistan`s security establishment (and one repeatedly mentions the establishment as there is little the political government can apparently do in this matter), should it choose to accept it, is to track down the cells of both foreign and local militant outfits operating in the nation`s cities and towns and neutralise them. The consequences of not doing so will be grave, as will be discussed later.
This is a challenging proposition. As security analysts have observed, it is easy for militants to blend in in the cities where they can potentially become invisible. For as past incidents have shown, neighbours have had no idea of who was living next to them until after the suspects were whisked away by intelligence personnel, often after violent exchanges. As opposed to this, the activities of militants are much more visible in areas like Fata, hence members of the militant leadership escape to the cities.
The other issue is that many local groups have ideological or religious links to concerns like Al Qaeda. Hence members of these groups can provide food, shelter and medical help to incognito militants. Then, of course, the fact that the jihadis may have sympathisers within the security and intelligence communities must be considered.
Yet it is clear that after the Osama episode Pakistan`s intelligence apparatus will need to work overtime in trying to dismantle the networks of both foreign and local militant groups, as well as keeping better tabs on suspected terrorists seeking refuge in the country`s cities and towns. Strategic doctrines of `good militant, bad militant` should also be discarded, as militants can turn their guns on the state anytime.
That the country will now face immense pressure to root out militancy goes without saying. Yet there is another factor the security establishment must consider. It has been confirmed by the government that the Osama operation was a solo American outing. If the Americans or anybody else makes a habit of launching these types of operations within Pakistan, without joint cooperation or while bypassing Islamabad, to take out suspected militants, it can have unsavoury consequences for Pakistan internally and abroad. Within the country, there will be questions about Pakistan`s `sovereignty` being violated. Internationally, the impression that Pakistan is a safe haven for global terror and that the Pakistani state is incapable of tackling militancy will be strengthened.
The security establishment, taking along the political government, must do what needs to be done to clean house and prevent militants of all stripes from using Pakistan both as a staging ground as well as an R&R stop for recuperating jihadis.
The writer is a member of staff.