ISLAMABAD, March 3: After claiming to have re-arrested one of the country’s most mysterious militants, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the interior ministry has started to backtrack on its earlier disclosure, with its spokesman now claiming that there existed no record of his arrest.

According to international news agencies, the re-arrest of the militant leader from Lahore, along with his three sons, was confirmed on Feb 26 by Interior Minister Hamid Nawaz. He was also quoted as saying that the action had been taken in connection with the October 18 suicide attack in Karachi in the initial attempt to assassinate PPP Chairperson Benazir Bhutto.

Quoting interior ministry and intelligence sources, Pakistani television channels had kept reporting his arrest almost the entire day, and it was reported by most of the newspapers on February 27, some quoting the interior minister. And some of the reports had said that he was being questioned for his alleged links with Al Qaeda and the plot to assassinate the former prime minister.

During all this period there was no official contradiction from the ministry of interior, or any security agency. However, when recently contacted by Dawn, the official spokesman for the interior ministry, Brig (retd) Javed Cheema, said he had checked with all the concerned departments, and there was no record of Qari Akhtar’s arrest.

MISSING PERSONS: But this is certainly not the first time that Qari Saifullah Akhtar has been in the midst of such a controversy. In fact, the pro-Al Qaeda militant’s involvement in the strangest of terror-related actions, conspiracies, arrests, quiet releases, deportation, re-arrest from a third country and subsequent release after being kept in detention without trial, have continued to boggle the mind of many observers of militant politics in Pakistan and the region.

The last time Qari Saifullah’s name was heard was when in the midst of a high-profile ‘missing peoples’ case in the Supreme Court, he was mentioned by the campaigners as one of the many people who had disappeared after having been arrested. He was described as an Islamist who was arrested in Dubai two years earlier and handed over to the Pakistani authorities. But Qari Akhtar was never produced before any court of law, and when the Supreme Court, under the former chief justice, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, kept insisting on the status of the so-called ‘missing persons’, the interior ministry last year informed the court that Qari Saifullah Akhtar was among those recently set free by the authorities as there was no case against him.

And then no one heard of Qari Akhtar till the news about his re-arrest was leaked late last month. Perhaps the only other mention of his name was in the late Ms Bhutto’s recently released book, in which she had described him as one of the militants who had been after her life.

DEADLY MILITANT: Though Qari Saifullah Akhtar’s link with the Oct 18 deadly blast in Karachi was yet to be established by the authorities, his earlier involvement in a failed coup plot of 1995 had presented him as one of the most deadly pro-Kashmiri militants who, from the security establishment’s standpoint, had gone astray. The group that was busted by the military intelligence at the time included four military officers, including a major-general, who were accused of plotting to first takeover the army’s headquarters by assassinating top military commanders, and later overthrow the Benazir government and enforce their own brand of Shariah in the country.

Qari Akhtar was among the five top members of the group which was headed by Major-General Zahirul Islam Abbassi, with Brigadier Mustansir Billa having been described as the group’s ideologue. They were formerly charged by the field court martial with conspiring to assassinate military commanders with the help of a group of Kashmir militants from Harkatul Ansar who were to be provided by the Qari, along with arms and ammunition needed for the operation.

However, once the field general court martial formerly started, Qari Akhtar’s name was dropped from the list of accused as he had turned approver. It was later admitted by one of the members of the court martial that without his testimony it would have been extremely difficult to convict the main accused, including the major-general.

AFGHAN CONNECTION: At some stage Qari Akhtar was released and then his name was heard from Afghanistan where after a year’s break he had regrouped his faction of Harkat-ul-Ansar and once again named it Harkat-al-Jihad-al-Islami. The faction that stayed behind on the Pakistani side of Kashmir also revived its original name of Harkatul Mujahideen headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, till it was proscribed by the Americans in the aftermath of Sept 11, 2001, as a terrorist organisation.

Some unconfirmed reports say that around 1996 he was in Kandahar and had the status of an adviser to Mulla Omar. Whether this was true or not, during the Taliban period he had a big group of Pakistani militants in Afghanistan, who were mostly referred to by the locals as ‘Punjabi’ Taliban.

During the American-led attack on the Taliban forces in Afghanistan in late 2001, one of the houses bombed and destroyed belonged to Qari Akhtar’s militants. More than 50 people were killed in the bombing, but the militant leader and several of his associates survived. He later fled to the Gulf, only to be arrested in Dubai in 2004 and handed back to the Pakistani authorities.

Some reports say that during his stay in Afghanistan he had also established links with a group of Pakistani militants, who called themselves members of Harkatul Mujahideen al-Aalami, who were later involved in a number of attacks, including an attempt to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf in Karachi.

Analysts of militant politics in the region say there was a time when Qari Saifullah, along with Fazlur Rehman Khalil and others, formed a formidable group to fight the Indian forces in Kashmir. But over a period of time, differences within the group and frustrations over less-than-expected achievements disillusioned the Qari. And it was at that time that he joined hands with a group of disgruntled military officers to try and eliminate the military and civilian leadership in 1995 to enforce Shariah.

However, his activities since his earlier release from custody remain shrouded in mystery, and so is the reluctance shown by the Pakistani authorities to bring him to justice for alleged unlawful militant activities. Now doubts have been created if he had at all been arrested. And according to some observers, the reason may be that he perhaps knows a bit too much.