Al Qaeda’s Iraq commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi appears fully recovered from the wounds he suffered in US Operation Matador at al Qaim on Iraq’s border with Syria (see DEBKA-Net-Weekly 206 of May 20). In early June, he was sighted in Pakistani Balochistan dashing to and fro between Pakistan and Iran – according to an exclusive report from DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s counter-terror sources.
They placed him near Ras-e-Fastelt in Gawatar Bay on the Arabian Sea coast of Iran and Pakistan – a perfect location for jumping between the two countries.
On the Iranian side, al Qaeda has built a base for smuggled goods from Pakistan and a naval facility. Pakistan intelligence sources say it berths small boats that carry arms to al Qaeda units deployed in the Basra region of southern Iraq. On the return voyage, they transport al Qaeda fighters who fought in Iraq, some injured.
How al Zarqawi reached this remote part of the region is still a mystery. One supposition is that his men extricated him from Iraq after his injury by means of a prepared escape route from al Qaim to Basra and then by boat to Ras-e-Fastelt. There, Sunni Balochi doctors friendly to al Qaeda gave him medical care.
Another is that he managed to cross into western Iran with a small company and made his way overland to Iranian Balochistan. The 1,200-km journey would have been an arduous and dangerous ordeal for a sick man. If he made it, perhaps his wounds were not as serious as reported.
According to the intelligence reaching DEBKA-Net-Weekly, Zarqawi was seen early this month not only in the Gawatar Bay area but also in villages along the Pakistani Dasht River. That is where al Qaeda and Taliban have set up their training bases. He is believed to have kept close to the river bank so that he could escape to Iran if attacked by US or Pakistan intelligence units in the area.
A number of al Qaeda fighters from Iraq have also been spotted lately in the big Iranian port town of Chah-Bahar (Bandar Beheshti) near the Pakistan border. They have been ordered to stay away from the town center and keep to the small surrounding villages.
Zarqawi might have moved on since he was seen in Balochistan or gone to ground in a hideout somewhere in Pakistan or Iran. He may have made his way back to Iraq. But his presence in Balochistan with some of his men signifies that al Qaeda-Iraq is propagating its methods of operation against US troops and actively instilling them in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Balochistan: remote yet strategic
The Balochistan province, Pakistan’s largest, is bordered by Iran (west), Afghanistan (northwest), The North-West Frontier and Punjab provinces (northeast and east), Sindh province (southeast), and the Arabian Sea (south). Taking advantage of this location, the Taliban and al-Qaeda have moved into remote areas of the province. Senior officials of the Hamid Karzai Government in Kabul have been alleging for over a year that Mullah Omar and his associates in the Taliban leadership are now operating from Balochistan. Similarly, there are periodic reports that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri moved over to Balochistan away from the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where there is a strong American intelligence presence.
The intelligence received that Taliban and al Qaeda’s mostly Arab fighters have re-located their clandestine sanctuaries and training infrastructure from Pakistan’s North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) to Pakistani Balochistan prompted a worried warning on June 17 from Afghan defense minister Rahim Wardak.
He voiced the fear that al Qaeda is regrouping for a bloody, Iraq-style offensive in Afghanistan.
While Wardak spoke of half a dozen highly trained al-Qaeda operatives having entered the country, Afghan intelligence sources said openly that they came from Pakistani Balochistan and that more Arab fighters were on the way, helped by regional powers – “not all them neighbors of Afghanistan.”
Two days later, on June 19, 2005, the outgoing US ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, suggested strongly that Taliban leader Mullah Omar was hiding in Pakistan. Referring to a Pakistani TV channel’s interview with a senior Taliban commander, Mullah Akhtar Usmani – who declared that Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are both alive and well – the ambassador asked: “If a TV station can get in touch with the Taliban leaders, how come the intelligence service of a country, which has nuclear bombs and a lot of security and military forces, can’t find them? Therefore, I strongly believe that Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders should have been in Pakistan.”
In another interview that day, Porter Goss, US Central Intelligence Director (CIA), said: “When you go to the very difficult question of dealing with sanctuaries in sovereign states, you're dealing with a problem of our sense of international obligation, fair play.” Asked if he knew where bin Laden was hiding, he said, “I have an excellent idea of where he is”.
Washington tip-toes diplomatically around Musharraf
He was careful not to mention Pakistan by name, but the implication was clear. On the Afghan side of the border, 16,000 US troops lead the hunt for bin Laden. His reference to sanctuaries in sovereign states and weak links was hardly applicable to Afghanistan.
Two days later, on June 21, 2005, Afghan President Hamid Karzai again accused Pakistan of interference in his country’s affairs. Speaking to an assembly of ulema, he claimed Pakistan was blackmailing the Taliban to make them fight the Afghan government.
This week too, Kabul claimed a group of Pakistani Talibans had infiltrated Afghanistan to murder ambassador Khalilzad before he left to take up his new posting in Baghdad. The Americans attached little credence to the tale.
The White House, the State Department and the Pentagon are generous with praise for the efforts made by President Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment in the war against terrorism. This positive perception is not shared by US officers at the field level – by American army officers deployed in Afghan territory across the Pakistani border, by US diplomats in Kabul, or by US intelligence officers posted in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
This disapproval underlies the careful Khalilzad and Goss statements.
The Americans on the spot are particularly critical of the virtual suspension of Pakistani security forces’ operations to locate and root terrorists out of the Waziristan tribal area. Pakistan officials say that most foreign fighters have been killed, captured or driven out to Afghanistan. US intelligence officers ask: What about Balochistan? They say the Pakistan army has not lifted a finger to nab Taliban chief Mullah Omar, who has been operating from Pakistani Balochistan since the end of winter in conjunction with al Qaeda.
It has been recently reported that the United States has asked Islamabad for permission to build two new military outposts in Pakistan Balochistan – one in the vicinity of the Khuzdar airbase, the second closer to the border with Iran, at Dalbandin
Chinese and Uzbek fundamentalists join two-way terror traffic to Iraq and Afghanistan
American intelligence experts stationed in the area have told DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Pakistan sources that, in addition to the Arab fighters, al Qaeda has moved some 600 Uzbek, Chechen and Uighur (Chinese Muslim fundamentalists) from their former bases in South Waziristan to the remote areas of Balochistan. The important operational training facilities established there select fighters for infiltration via Iran to Iraq to join the guerrilla war against American troops.
These intelligence sources say the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has set up its own training camps in Balochistan. The Uzbek Muslims brought in via Turkmenistan and Iran are sent after training in these camps either to Uzbekistan by the same route or smuggled into Iraq via Iran. The Chinese Uighurs do not so far seem to have set up their own training installations. Instead, they use the Uzbek camps. They too send some of their adherents to Iraq.
Interestingly, the Musharraf regime has held back from any action against the al-Qaeda and Taliban operations bases in Balochi territory. Instead, Islamabad is pursuing a military campaign against the Baloch nationalists in the area, even though they are strongly opposed to the Islamist terrorist and Taliban presence on their soil.
The situation is reversed in Iranian Baluchistan. The Baluchis are Sunnis and therefore persecuted by the ayatollahs of Tehran. US intelligence agencies once maintained close ties with this Iranian minority. In the days when Saddam Hussein was the frontline ally of the US in its attempts to destabilize the Islamic regime in Iran, Iranian Baluchs were wooed by the intelligence agencies of both the US and Iraq.
But things have changed since then.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Pakistan, many of Iran’s Sunni Baluchs have thrown in their lot with al-Qaeda and are harboring its leaders. This province has therefore become an important transit point through Iran for the underground movement of al Qaeda combatants heading for Iraq to fight the Americans there.
They are joined by Pakistani jihadists, members of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), the Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM), Hizbul Tehrir (HuT) and a few others, who are eager to fight under the al Qaeda flag.