Pakistan’s intelligence services have a notorious reputation for being indistinguishable from the hoodlums they chase in the name of preserving national security for the country’s 155 million citizens. So it was in the wee hours of last Saturday morning that a masterful raid on an al Qaeda safe house near Islamabad by Inter-Services Intelligence officials netted one of the world’s most dangerous men, Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. He left behind a veritable gold mine of information about al Qaeda’s current and future terrorist operations.
In the process, the ISI may have recast its tarnished image as a stalwart in the global war against terrorism and strengthened Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s hands in rooting out terror cells on his soil.
The raid was a product of months of patient and deliberate planning in close coordination with U.S. intelligence and law-enforcement authorities to unearth terrorist hideouts throughout the region. It marked the first time since September 11, 2001 that ISI had used strategic surveillance and stalking techniques to flush out an al Qaeda bigwig.
And while U.S. signals intelligence and other monitoring equipment were crucial in expanding the scope of the operation and gleaning vital statistics prior to the arrests last Saturday, there was a marked shift inside ISI to employ its cultural expertise and deep knowledge of Pakistan’s underground in order to bring down senior al Qaeda leaders.
The trail got hot after Osama bin Laden’s spokesman, Abul Baraa Qarshi, issued instructions in code over the terror group’s underground Internet system, which revealed in some detail the next “big operation” against the United States and its allies. Reference was repeatedly made to follow the path of “Mukhtar” (translated: the “authorized one”) amid Qarshi’s bin Laden-inspired exhortations to heed calls for jihad.
Mukhtar is the codename of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed (“KSM”).
Armed with this finding, Pakistani authorities immediately started tracking known KSM associates and found a stunning correlation between the coded underground message and activities of al Qaeda operatives above ground. KSM and his key al Qaeda cells around the world were planning significant new attacks against the United States, with never-before-employed terror tactics.
That is why the Bush administration’s Homeland Security Department raised the terror alerts three weeks ago. My intelligence sources confirm that the planned attacks were on the order of magnitude of a September 11 operation, with nearly as many cells involved in various parts of the United States as were recently uncovered in Europe. Weapons of mass destruction were not contemplated for use in these acts on U.S. soil.
As tracking and surveillance continued, a little help from lady luck entered the equation. In the al Qaeda-infested border town of Quetta, an elderly couple motivated by large offers of reward money reported unusual movements of young Arab men into and out of what turned out to be an al Qaeda safe house next door to their home. Hours later, Pakistani police officials and the ISI had a pretty clear idea that KSM was in residence.
Rather than swoop in and capture him then, a strategic decision was made by ISI chief Gen. Ehsan ul Haq to blanket KSM’s entourage with surveillance and stalk them to see how far and wide the network was operational inside Pakistan. KSM was flushed out of the safe house in such a way that his computers and other evidence would be left behind.
On the hard drive of KSM’s Quetta safe-house computer, Pakistani police officials found a goldmine of information — names of other senior al Qaeda operatives, e-mails, telephone numbers, wire-transfer information (KSM is also Chief Financial Officer for all al Qaeda operations around the world), travel itineraries, future terror scenarios — the list goes on.
One e-mail was addressed to Abdul Qadoos, the son of a microbiologist in Rawalpindi and resident of the house where a haggardly but clean-shaven KSM was nabbed on Saturday morning when ISI, CIA, and FBI officials had concluded the stalking and surveillance was no longer yielding sufficient data to warrant the risk of losing him. A series of lightning raids followed, netting KSM, an as yet unidentified Egyptian man known only as “Ahmed” (and some suspect, possibly a relative of Egyptian-born al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri), and Abdul Qadoos in round one, and seven Arab and Pakistani men, as yet unidentified, in round two. More arrests of significant al Qaeda operatives are expected in the coming days.
So unaware was KSM that he was being stalked that even his cell phones and audiotapes, some reportedly with instructions from bin Laden, were found amid the mess in his uptown flat. The data his computers, audiotapes, and handwritten notes yield will in all likelihood supersede in importance what we get from his hardened criminal mind, even under the most severe interrogation. As Husain Haqqani at the Carnegie Endowment has articulated with great clarity, KSM is not chief executive officer of a corporation called al Qaeda. He is a franchise owner who knows all the other franchisees. Or at least his computer knows where the key ones are.
And that’s just fine for U.S. purposes, because a lesser al Qaeda operative found through decoding the franchise network may yield more important and highly localized data about the next planned attacks than a hardened senior leader would. This is precisely how the poisons network was dismantled in Europe, a network whose chief franchise owner was an Iraqi resident and a key evidentiary link between Iraq and al Qaeda, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
So, what does the arrest of this terror mastermind mean for America’s war on terror?
When Osama bin Laden spoke from the ether three weeks ago, the Islamist phraseology and verses of the Koran he chose to convey his jihadist message demonstrated, for the first time since September 11, a growing sense of urgency and fear about al Qaeda’s ability to retaliate in the event of a U.S.-led war to disarm Iraq. His original thinking (my hypothesis) was to use the event of U.S. troops storming Baghdad as justification for a series of retaliation strikes around the world, starting in Europe and the Middle East (to effect political divides within NATO and between the U.S. and its stalwart Arab allies), and then later in the U.S. and possibly even Canada.
The retaliation infrastructure al Qaeda had set in place was extensive, very hard to build up with the proper expertise (for biological and chemical weapons), and increasingly more expensive to maintain as the U.S. succeeded in progressively shutting down sources of financing available to bin Laden.
With much of bin Laden’s European network systematically dismantled by Western intelligence and bin Laden himself trying to nebulously link al Qaeda to Iraq in order to provoke the “Islam vs. West” confrontation, retaining whatever was left of the terror group’s retaliation infrastructure in the Middle East and North America became a paramount concern in recent weeks.
Musharraf also apparently felt bin Laden’s anxiety, and ISI profilers sensed an opportunity to get an upper hand in their own backyard against al Qaeda’s hidden cells. This, coupled with a little well-timed pressure from Washington about towing the line in rooting out senior al Qaeda cells before the military campaign against Iraq was to start (a message delivered by our able Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca on her recent trip to Islamabad), sparked the sea change inside ISI about the emerging national-security threat posed by nuts the agency had once helped to create.
KSM’s arrest therefore represented an opportunity, if done right, to dismantle the Middle East retaliation infrastructure before launching the war to disarm Saddam. Pentagon planners have long fretted about the cauldrons of fire al Qaeda’s Saddam-enabled retaliation cells could unleash on weak Middle East governments if and when the U.S. decided to move against Iraq.
Decapitating al Qaeda’s nerve center with KSM’s capture could lead to a collapse of its Middle East cells, much the same way one intercepted phone call between al Qaeda biochemical czar Zarqawi and one of his Jordanian operatives led to the dismantling of much of the ricin-poison network throughout Europe.
Musharraf should now seize on the success of this capture to squeeze the warlords in his ungovernable tribal regions to cough up what remains of al Qaeda’s senior leadership in their midst, including bin Laden. He could easily choke economic supply routes into the areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border, thereby raising the cost of harboring terrorists there, as well as conduct repeated lightning raids in border towns such as Quetta and Peshawar, where lesser al Qaeda leaders are still hiding, to send a message that Pakistani soil is no longer available for terrorist planning.
Maintaining the vigil in large, densely populated urban centers where al Qaeda is known to have safe houses is also an imperative.
The ISI should effect a veritable quarantine on Pakistan’s rivers and exits at Karachi’s seaports to insure al Qaeda is not able to use its sea vessels to get key leaders, including a possibly disguised bin Laden and Egyptian mastermind Ayman Zawahiri, out of the country.
With KSM’s capture and all that it implies for war in the Middle East, Musharraf may have delivered an invaluable gift at an opportune time to his embattled friend, U.S. President George W. Bush — the possibility that a U.S.-led strike on Iraq can no longer be met with large-scale al Qaeda reprisals. He must not let that message be diluted by either abstaining or voting against the U.S. in upcoming deliberations on Iraq at the United Nations Security Council.
It cannot be overstated how the operation to capture KSM demonstrates the Bush administration’s deliberate and calibrated efforts to root out those responsible for murdering 3,000 of our fellow citizens on that bright September morning.
Rooting out Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction so they never make their way into the hands of people like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed is not a separate task or detour along the way in fighting terror. It is the next most important step.
America must not let its guard down in the understandable need to rejoice in this major triumph of good over evil. We are finally ahead of the terror curve aligned against us — it’s time to get on with finishing the job.
— Mansoor Ijaz, chairman of Crescent Investment Management in New York, negotiated Sudan’s offer to provide terrorism data on al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to the Clinton administration in 1997. He also proposed the blueprint for the July 2000 ceasefire in Kashmir between Muslim separatists and Indian security forces.