by Ahmar Mustikhan and Jeff Elliott
Osama bin Laden, and who is helping the world's most famous terrorist hide from justice? There are surprisingly few possibilities -- but exploring those questions just may get you killed.
This much is certain: Bin Laden is almost certainly alive. Although many speculated that he had died in the Afghan caves during the U.S. bombings, voice-recognition experts say that an audio tape released in February is authentic. Newly captured al Qaeda leader Khalid Shaikh Mohammed also reportedly told interrogators that he had met with bin Laden a few weeks earlier.
But where is he? Not in Pakistan, insisted army chief-cum-president General Pervez Musharraf. The al Qaeda leader could not be in his country, the General claimed, because such a large group of outsiders could not escape notice. But last week Musharraf finally acknowledged in an interview with the Asian Wall Street Journal that bin Laden is probably somewhere in Pakistan.
That Musharraf appears unable to help the U.S. capture the wanted criminal speaks to the power of the men who likely shield bin Laden -- most likely a cabal of influential retired chiefs of Pakistan's spy agency and transnational smugglers operating from gold-rich free ports of Dubai and Singapore.
The person who probably came closest to exposing the secrets was Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was murdered last year as he was trying to unravel the al Qaeda links to the smuggling rings. Other reporters working on the story also faced dangers. Two well-known Pakistani journalists, who assisted Pearl and uncovered some aspects of this story, were hounded by Pakistan's equivalent to the CIA. One of them fled to safety in the U.S.
is no doubt tht part of the trail to Osama leads to current and former officials in Pakistan's army and government. Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was captured in the upscale home of a leader in Pakistan's most important ultra-religious political party and the same day, an army
major who was another member of the family hiding
arrested for questioning regarding his alleged ties to
But the two men who most likely know bin Laden's whereabouts are former four-star generals who headed the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and who established close links with the fugitive: Mehmud Ahmed and his notorious predecessor, Hamid Gul.
General Mehmud Ahmed was the main architect of the October 1999 coup that catapulted Musharraf into power. Ahmed's reward was promotion to chief of the ISI. Ahmed -- who (incredibly) was in the U.S. on September 11, 2001 -- was in charge of Pakistan's efforts to convince the Taliban to hand over Osama bin Laden in the weeks following the attack on America. Bush had given Afghanistan a deadline to surrender bin Laden, which presented a dilemma for Pakistan. One of only three countries to recognize the rogue Taliban government, Pakistan was not enthusiastic about joining the "War on Terror." But if Pakistan refused, Bush would probably next have turned to Pakistan's old enemy, India, and a U.S.-India alliance would have been bad news for Pakistan's security, particularly its nuclear weapons program.
Ahmed led a team to Afghanistan for talks with Mullah Omar. But instead of persuading the Taliban leader to consider U.S. demands, Ahmed's entourage assured him that the Taliban had Pakistan's full support. With U.S. backing, Musharraf sacked General Ahmed in October 2001.
With the Soviet withdrawl followed by the CIA's departure from Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban regime, Gul was considered an uncrowned prince of Afghanistan, and was one of the most frequent vistors to Mullah Omar and bin Laden. In recent years, he has turned away from the West completely; days after 9/11, he gave an interview to Newsweek insisting that al Qaeda were not involved with the terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon -- that Israel and the Bush administration were responsible.
Most Pakistan observers know one thing for sure: Even if Musharraf knows that these two generals are probably helping shield bin Laden, he can not lay hands on them. Even out of power, Ahmed may be enjoying more clout than Musharraf in the army's rank-and-file. Ahmed comes from the Punjab -- the bastion of the army -- and Musharraf was born in India and is looked upon with disdain by the army's old-boy network.
short list of other possible protectors of bin Laden includes Dawood Ebrahim, the India mafia don who now enjoys a lavish life-in-exile in Pakistan. If Al Qaeda had needed professional help for its smuggling operations, there was no better candidate than Ebrahim, who
rose from the Bombay streets to become a star in
officially-recognized smuggling enterprises in the late
In the months after 9/11, several journalists were working to expose al Qaeda's smuggling operations. One of these reporters was Daniel Pearl, who wrote a November 16 article detailing the smuggling of a blue gem called tanzanite, second only in popularity to sapphire in the U.S. market.
Pearl wrote, "U.S. law-enforcement officials have identified Dubai as a haven for al Qaida business interests. The FBI and the Treasury Department are currently trying to help the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a part, to crack down on the abuse of Dubai's free-trade zones by terrorists and criminals.
"While this effort mainly focuses on gold smuggling, the U.S. also has reports that al-Qaida uses tanzanite as a way to move funds around the world, says a U.S. government investigator familiar with Dubai."
In a follow-up Dec. 10, 2002 report in the WSJ, Robert Block points out that agents also are investigating leads that militant Islamist groups are smuggling gold, diamonds and cash through South African ports to Dubai and Pakistan.
According to reporter Robert Sam Anson, Pearl was eager to cram in a piece on Dawood Ebrahim after reading a story by Ghulam Hasnain, one of Pakistan's most successful journalists who was working for a number of international outlets including the CNN and TIME.
The U.S. journalist made a fatal mistake: He did not seem to be concerned that Hasnain had disappeared the day before, presumably picked up by the ISI. Hasnain was released two days later (reportedly after he gave them a signed suicide note).
Another journalist who played a crucial role at this time was Shaheen Sehbai, who was one of the few Pakistani journalists that dared to challenge the ISI. He revealed that one of Daniel Pearl's killers, Omar Ahmed Saeed Sheikh, was also involved on the terror attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, 2001.
These journalists were chasing three different aspects of the same story -- the ties between al Qaeda and the ISI and India mafia. As noted in an important report from The Washington Institute For Near East Policy, "Criminal enterprises have also serviced the spread of terrorism. Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh -- convicted of the abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl -- linked up with Aftab Ansari, a prominent figure in the Indian mafia, to provide al Qaeda with recruits, false documents, safehouses, and proceeds from kidnappings, drug trafficking, prostitution, and other criminal activities."
So tight are the ties between the groups that roles blur. Mafia boss Dawood Ebrahim has been linked with global Islamic militancy since the 1993 blasts in Bombay that left 300 dead. India mafioso Ansari was also involved in last January's terrorist attack on the American Centre in Calcutta that left five dead. Ansari is also linked to al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed.
And always, there are links to the ISI. Both Omar Ahmed Saeed Sheikh and Ansari are believed to be ISI moles, and Shaheen Sehbai said the common denominator in the attacks on journalists -- Pearl's death and the persecution of Ghulam Hasnain and himself -- is the ISI protection of the religious extremists. "Of course, it was the ISI who came after me," he said, in a phone interview from Virginia.
The ISI physically threatened Sehbai, then the editor of The News in Islamabad, to stop him from publishing his report about Sheikh, but failed. Amid growing security concerns, Sehbai fled to U.S. safety, but his family members are still being persecuted in Pakistan.
Asked if General Pervez Musharraf does not know were bin Laden is or whether he was powerless to capture him, Sehbai said, "As head of state, he is making a fool of himself in front of the world. One day he says bin Laden is dead, on another he says he is alive. It shows he is not in control."
Sehbai adds, "It is absolutely undeniable there was a big portion of the army that is extremely sympathetic to the religious extremists. Whenever Musharraf says or does anything, he has to keep this factor in mind."
Sehbai believes that bin Laden has powerful sympathetic elements within Pakistan army and concurs it was well neigh impossible for the terrorist mastermind to hide in Pakistan without their support. "Whether bin Laden is in any remote area or in a Pakistan city, an army camp or fort, none can protect him better than the soldiers."
March 28, 2003 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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