PESHAWAR, Aug 12: Al Qaeda’s ability to continue to draw international Jihadis to Pakistan, thus creating a sort of nexus, has once again put the country under the spotlight.
A British national told Pakistani interrogators last year that he had trained at a terrorist camp in Pakistan with one of the suicide bombers who carried out last year’s suicide attacks in London and had met there two senior leaders of Al Qaeda, an intelligence official said in a recent interview.
Though American officials expressed some scepticism about the claim, the Pakistani official said the account suggested that even if Al Qaeda leaders were not directly organising attacks from their hiding places in the tribal border land between Pakistan and Afghanistan, they may play a coordinating or at least an inspirational role by meeting with militants from places like Britain.
It also showed that Al Qaeda remained a significant draw for militants from abroad, said the security official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the news media.
“Al Qaeda is not a corporate organisation,” the official said. “People of this calibre go looking for these leaders.” The official said the claims had come from the interrogation of Zeeshan Siddique, 25, a British national of Pakistani origin. Mr Siddique, too, had been planning some kind of attack in Britain, the official said, but his arrest in NWFP in May 2005 prevented him. After being arrested, Mr Siddique was held for eight months and eventually cleared by a Pakistani court of charges of visa violations and possessing a fake Pakistani identity card. He was deported back to London on Jan 11.
The British police and the Pakistani Embassy in London have refused to comment on Mr Siddique or his whereabouts. But in an interview with the BBC in March, Mr Siddique, a former student at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, forcefully denied any link with Al Qaeda and claimed to have suffered a string of abuses while in custody. He told BBC that his interrogators threatened to pull his fingernails out, put him up on meat hooks and skin him. He claimed to have been drugged, force fed and chained to a bed for 11 days. “They were trying to force me to make a false confession — which I couldn’t do,” he said.
Pakistani intelligence officers fabricated the account, he said, to prove they were cooperating with the United States by producing terrorist suspects. The official said Mr Siddique made the torture allegations to avoid questioning, and that a personal diary and telephone numbers found with him were sufficient evidence of his involvement with Al Qaeda.
The question that whether Osama bin Laden and his network might have given direction to the London bombers in the attack last year is still being analysed by British and American intelligence officials and remains unresolved; The New York Times quoted an American counterterrorism official as saying.
But both British and American officials agree that at least one and possibly two of last year’s London bombers travelled to Pakistan went to a training camp and may have sought out Qaeda leaders.
“What actually happened there, we’re still not sure we know,” the American official told the NYT. The bombers had several telephone conversations with individuals in Pakistan in the last days before the attacks, which suggests they may have had advice or direction, according to a British parliamentary report on the bombings released in May. The Pakistani security official said the bombers had telephone contact with two or three public telephone numbers in Rawalpindi but said it had been impossible to trace who had used the public telephone on those days.
Mr Siddique, the Pakistani official said, claimed to have trained with eight or nine other Britons of Pakistani descent, including at least one of the London bombers who killed 52 people when they blew themselves up on the subway and a public bus. He told his interrogators that the training lasted about three weeks in July 2003 and that it took place in the mountainous district of Upper Dir, some 300 miles north of Peshawar, the official said.
He identified Mohamed Siddique Khan, one of the London suicides bombers, as one of the participants from a photograph shown to him by British investigators after the London bombings, the official said.
The men travelled to the training camp in two separate groups, the officials said, and were instructed in how to use assault rifle. Mr Siddique told interrogators the training was arranged by Mohammed Junaid Babar, a Pakistani American computer programmer from Queens, N.Y., according to the Pakistani official. Mr Babar is now in United States custody after pleading guilty in June 2004 to supplying military equipment to a Qaeda training camp in Pakistan and helping to plan another bomb plot in Britain.
He is cooperating with American authorities and has appeared as a witness at the trial of seven Britons in London accused of training in Pakistan to prepare bomb attacks in Britain more than a year before the London bombings.
After his training, Mr Siddique travelled with Mr Babar to Angor Adda, a town on the border with Afghanistan, near where American and Afghan forces have repeatedly clashed with militants, including foreign fighters, according to the official. They also visited Shakai, a village in South Waziristan, and then Sedgi, in the Shawal valley of North Waziristan, an area known for sheltering foreign militants and where Pakistani forces have mounted operations, the official said.
Mr Siddique said he met two senior Al Qaeda figures during the trip, the official said. One was Abu Munthar al-Maghrebi, who has since reportedly been detained by Pakistani security forces. The other was Abdul Hadi al-Iraqi, a former Iraqi army officer who has been described as Al Qaeda’s No 3 leader. He remains at large.
At the end of the trip, a man called Obaid, probably an alias for Mr Maghrebi, arranged Mr Siddique’s transport out of the region to Peshawar, the official said.
Mr Siddique was arrested on May 18, 2005, in a small house outside the city. There, investigators recovered an electrical circuit that could be used as a detonator and a desktop computer that contained aeronautical mapping.
He was also found with telephone numbers of known Al Qaeda members and 35-page diary, typed in English, covering March 2 to April 6, 2005.
The official said he believed that Mr Siddique was waiting to be dispatched as a suicide bomber, and that the diary made cryptic reference to some kind of operation.
The British parliamentary report concluded that two of last year’s four suicide bombers — Mr Khan and Shahzad Tanweer — had terrorist training in Pakistan and that it was “likely that they had some contact with Al Qaeda figures.” But the report did not provide details and said that the extent of Al Qaeda involvement remained unclear and under investigation. With the latest report that a key Al Qaeda suspect, Rashid Rauf, directed and served as a contact for those attempting to blow up transatlantic flights, has once again brought the nexus between Islamic Jihadis and Pakistan to the fore, commented an analyst.
Whereas Pakistan can pride itself by claiming to have broken up the network, it should also be worried about the seemingly unending nexus, the analyst said.
Carlotta Gall worked on the story for the NY Times.