| A Pakistani rides past the house of recently arrested al Qaida suspect Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan in Karachi. (Reuters)
Islamabad, Aug. 8 (Reuters): The recent arrests of a senior Pakistani al Qaida operative in Dubai and the head of a banned radical Islamic group have sent a strong signal to the terror network and its local allies — no one is safe.
The capture of Qari Saifullah Akhtar was the first time Islamabad had coordinated with a foreign country to nab a senior al Qaida suspect abroad, officials said.
Akhtar, suspected of involvement in plots to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf and who earlier ran an al Qaida training camp in Afghanistan, has been returned to Pakistan.
And the separate arrest of Fazal-ur Rehman Khalil, head of the banned Harkat-ul-Mujahideen group, is a sign that the often cosy relationship between the Pakistani military and radical outfits it once used as proxy fighters is turning ever sourer.
The arrests were the latest breakthrough in a month-long crackdown on al Qaida and local Pakistani groups that have linked up with the global network of Osama bin Laden.
Over 20 suspects have been caught, including Tanzanian Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a top al Qaida member, and Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, a computer engineer whose information led to a US terror alert and the arrests of 12 al Qaida suspects in Britain.
“He (Akhtar) was arrested in Dubai,” said Pakistani information minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed.
“We were trying to get hold of him for a quite a long time. He was wanted in several important cases,” he said. “It is a big success.
“If we are in a position to arrest more people, four or five important people, I think this will be a great breakthrough and we’ll have the edge on these terrorist groups. This also shows that we are entering their network.”
Al Qaida has suffered one of its biggest setbacks since being forced to flee Afghanistan in late 2001 by the US-led war, launched against the ruling Taliban for sheltering the network that carried out that year’s September 11 attacks.
Intelligence sources said Akhtar was with al Qaida chief Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in southern Afghanistan around the time US bombers attacked nearly three years ago, and fled to Dubai via Saudi Arabia.
Akhtar, seized in Dubai on Friday and flown to Pakistan yesterday, was the latest terror suspect to be caught with the help of information gleaned from Ghailani and Khan, intelligence sources said. Ahmed denied the link.
Akhtar was described by one of the sources as an “operational head of al Qaida in Pakistan”. He was also the leader of the radical Pakistani Islamic group Harkat-ul-Jihad-e-Islami, underlining the complex web of ties between local militant outfits and al Qaida woven in the 1990s when they trained together at camps in Afghanistan.
Amjad Hussain Farooqi, of the same Harkat group, is suspected of coordinating two failed attempts to kill Musharraf in December as well as involvement in the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Musharraf has infuriated militants for supporting the US war on terror. His Prime Minister-designate, Shaukat Aziz, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in July.
Khalil’s arrest was another indication that Pakistan is more serious about rooting out Islamic militancy than ever before. Musharraf banned several militant groups in the wake of the September 11 attacks, but many re-emerged under new names and their leaders were allowed to go free.
Some of the groups are widely reported to have been used by the Pakistani military in the 1980s and 1990s to wage a proxy war in Kashmir, although Islamabad says it does not directly support such activities. Ahmed declined to comment on Khalil’s arrest.
Local private television channel Geo said he was being questioned by authorities for sending trained militants from Pakistan to Afghanistan to fight alongside Taliban insurgents.
The government in Kabul blames Pakistan for turning a blind eye to Taliban guerrillas using its soil to cross over the border and wage attacks on foreign troops, government officials and aid workers in Afghanistan.