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Updated: August 19, 2009 03:16 IST

Pakistan arrest holds clues to fate of Mumbai case

Praveen Swami
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Pakistani police officers assist injured militant commander Qari Saifullah Akhtar, centre face covered, as he exits following a court appearance in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Tuesday.
AP Pakistani police officers assist injured militant commander Qari Saifullah Akhtar, centre face covered, as he exits following a court appearance in Rawalpindi, Pakistan on Tuesday.

Early this week, the Pakistani police arrested one of the founding fathers of the terrorist campaign that now threatens to tear the country apart.

Qari Saifullah Akhtar has been held by the Pakistani authorities before, in connection with two attempts to assassinate the former President, Pervez Musharraf, and an October 2007 bombing targeting the assassinated Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto.

Each time, he succeeded in walking free — allegedly with assistance from Pakistan’s intelligence establishment.

Held on Monday from an Islamabad hospital where he was being treated for injuries sustained in an attack by a Predator drone, Akhtar has long been wanted by the United States for his role in equipping Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

New Delhi is watching Akhtar’s case closely, aware that its course could indicate just how serious Pakistan is about cracking down on terrorist groups.

“If the United States yet again proves unable to ensure Akhtar’s prosecution,” a senior Union Home Ministry official told The Hindu, “we have almost no reason to expect there will be credible action against anti-India groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba.”

HUJI story

Born in Pakistan’s Waziristan province in 1958, Akhtar studied religion at Karachi’s Jamia Binoria. The institution produced many jihadist leaders, including Harkat-ul-Mujahideen leader Fazl-ur-Rehman Khalil, Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar and Taliban’s emir Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Like many of his contemporaries, Akhtar was drawn to the Saudi Arabia-funded, United States-backed jihad against the Soviet Union’s troops in Afghanistan. He later helped to found the Harkat ul-Jihad-e-Islami, or HuJI, which emerged as a favoured child of Islamists in the Pakistani Army.

In 1995, Akhtar was arrested on the charge of attempting to organise a coup against Ms. Bhutto. Among those later convicted was Brigadier Zahir-ul-Islam Abbasi, who had served as the New Delhi station chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence’s Directorate in 1988.

Despite the gravity of the charges against him though, Akhtar’s patrons were able to ensure he stayed out of prison. He returned the favour by focussing HuJI’s operations on Jammu and Kashmir. To optimise the effectiveness of these operations, HuJI was ordered to merge with Fazl-ur-Rahman Khalil’s Harkat-ul-Mujahideen.

However, following the exposure of its role in the kidnap and murder of four European and U.S. nationals in Jammu and Kashmir in 1995, their new organisation, Harkat-ul-Ansar, was proscribed.

By some accounts, Akhtar was then recruited by the head of the Binori Town seminary, Maulana Nizamuddin Shamzai, to bring together Al-Qaeda’s Osama-bin-Laden and Mullah Umar. The effort paved the way for Osama to shift base to Afghanistan at the end of 1996. Later Akhtar left Karachi and moved to southern Afghanistan. More than 3,500 cadre are thought to have received combat training at a camp he ran at Rishkor. But after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Akhtar’s armies were decimated —and he fled to Dubai.

Pakistan did little to secure Akhtar’s extradition, until his name surfaced during the investigation of the December 2003 assassination attempts on President Musharraf.

Deported from UAE

In October 2004, the police in the United Arab Emirates arrested Akhtar and deported him to Pakistan. For the best part of the next three years, the Pakistani authorities held Akhtar in prison — but chose not to prosecute him.

In May 2007, the Pakistan government said the jihadist commander was no longer in its custody. “He is engaged in jihadi activities somewhere in Punjab,” the government said in a report to the Supreme Court. Weeks later, Akhtar resurfaced at his home in Mandi Bahauddin.

In her posthumously published biography, ‘Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West,’ Prime Minister Bhutto said the ISI had then retained Akhtar’s services to stage an October 2007 attempt on her life. She wrote: “I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar.”

President Musharraf’s regime once again arrested Akhtar on February 26, 2008, a fortnight after the book was released. He was, however, released from a Karachi jail on bail three months later.

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