The Al Qaeda sleeper cells of Karachi

By: Naimat Khan

Affluent, educated terrorist recruits pretend to live normal lives, waiting for orders

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Five years ago, on December 28, 2010, a bomb went off outside a stall run by a Shia student group at Karachi University, injuring three. A top cop in the counter-terrorism department, Raja Umar Khattab, told reporters he had discovered a terrorist cell run by modern university students who had no background of religious training. But a student network was not very high on the priority list of law-enforcement agencies dealing with much more lethal outfits.On March 19 this year, an anti-terrorism court sentenced two men to 14 years in prison for planning the 2010 attack – Muhammad Umar alias Chota, a student of Food Sciences at Karachi University, and Hafeezullah alias Bilal, a student of International Relations. Another accused, Shahid Khan aka Qari Shahid, was killed in a gunfight with the anti-violent crime cell of the police on December 15, 2011. His widow Sabiha told investigators her husband was involved in attacks on the PNS Mehran naval base in May 2011 and the headquarters of what was then called the Crime Investigation Department in November 2010, and a motorcycle bombing targeting Shia mourners in Malir in January 2011.

Shahid Khan played cricket with former Pakistani captain Younis Khan –

Investigators believe Shahid Khan – who had played cricket with former Pakistani captain Younis Khan in the Steel Town grounds before being enrolled at the KU’s department of Political Science in 2000 – had formed a number of Al Qaeda sleeper cells, consisting of “graduates with professional degrees” in urban centers where it could not grow a large presence.

“The idea was conceived by Dr Arshad Waheed, a Karachi-based doctor specializing in neurosurgery,” said a police official currently interrogating the suspects believed to be involved in the Safoora massacre. “After the US invasion of Afghanistan, he moved to Kandahar to help heal the wounded fighters, but was later accepted into the ranks of Al Qaeda, and ultimately tasked to organize groups of young professionals.”

After Dr Arshad Waheed was killed in a drone strike in South Waziristan on March 16, 2008, Shahid Khan took over, and began recruiting young students with religious leanings for initial training at Al Qaeda-run camps in Waziristan. Many of them were killed in drone strikes.

“He was the most appropriate person to infiltrate into the Islami Jamiat Talaba due to his past association with the organization and his prominence among students in general for playing exceptional cricket during the inter-departmental cricket tournaments,” the police officer added. “But the number of recruits could not exceed two dozen, because the IJT leadership retaliated. They did not want to make their organization a springboard for Al Qaeda recruitment.”

Among the students who were inspired was Kalim Farooq (real name withheld on his family’s request), who left his education at KU unfinished to pursue a career in TV production. He produced children’s programs, until “one day he packed his bags and left with his wife and infant son for Waziristan, leaving his family in utter shock,” his brother recalls. “We did not know what happened to him all of a sudden. He just gathered the whole family and announced his final decision.”

Abdul Rehman Shujaat, a graduate of the NED University of Engineering and Technology, followed him. Some of Kalim’s fellows from Karachi University were next to leave. Among them were Zuhair Imtiaz Qidwai – a Geology graduate who had worked at offshore oil rigs abroad, Misbah Usmani – a History drop-out who was running a men’s fashion start-up, Muhammad Shabbir – another History graduate and journalist associated with a local news agency, and Imran Nazeer – a mechanical engineer with a diploma from Pakistan Swedish Institute of Technology.

The identities of these young men became known only after they were killed in various drone strikes in the tribal areas. An “unidentified messenger” came to Kalim Farooq’s house in an affluent Karachi neighborhood and told them Farooq had been killed by a drone-fired missile. They say he was a “normal, fun loving boy”.

“One day he packed his bags and left for Waziristan”

So was Muhammad Azhar Ishrat – one of the suspects in the gun attack on a bus full of Islamili passengers in Safoora area of Karachi – according to his colleagues in a top cellphone company in Pakistan. Azhar is in the custody of police’s counter-terrorism department.

“Azhar never showed any signs of extremist behaviour. He used to meet everyone in a humble manner and was very supportive towards his colleagues,” said one of his friends.

Those who know Saad Aziz – who confessed to killing liberal activist Sabeen Mehmud for campaigning against Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz – such as workers at the high-end restaurant owned by his father, or his fellows at the prestigious Institute of Business Administration, do not understand how the polite person they knew became so ruthless.

“That is the strategy of sleeper cells – they never let anyone read what is going on inside their minds,” says another police official involved in the investigations of the Safoora massacre. “They kept visiting South Waziristan, lying to their family, friends and bosses about their absence, to undertake short but extensive training in propaganda, militancy and subversive attacks.”

When they were back in Karachi, they kept low profile. “They continued to carry out propaganda work for Al Qaeda, using their ability to write well in both English and Urdu, and also conducted brainwashing sessions for potential recruits in suburban areas like Gulshan-e-Maymar and Gulshan-e-Hadeed,” the investigator said, “until they would receive directives to execute an attack.”

They were not even interested in taking credit for their attacks. On the contrary, they left leaflets that seemed to belong to rival terrorist network, the Islamic State, after the gun attack on American professor Debra Lobo in April. The handbills said she was “killed” to avenge the death of five “Mujahideen” in the city’s Keamari coastal town, earlier in April. Police had identified them as operatives of Al Qaeda. But why would the IS want to avenge the death of operatives of Al Qaeda?

“This must be an attempt to dodge law enforcers,” Raja Umar Khattab had told me in April. “The attack has similarities with four previous acts of terrorism, which later proved to be the handiwork of Al Qaeda.” He was referring to two attacks on Rangers and police, a motorcycle bombing outside a Bohra community mosque, and a grenade attack on a shop of a Bohra trader earlier this year.

Similar IS handbills were found from the site of the Safoora bus massacre.

The Bin Laden documents recently released by the US reveal that Al Qaeda chief was annoyed that his fighters were careless and left trails behind. After the Safoora massacre, it was their extra carefulness that made them conspicuous. The suspects were all using a newer, safer android application Talkray.

It was their extra carefulness that made them conspicuous –

The police managed to locate and arrest the man who printed the handbills, who led them to Saad Aziz, Hafiz Nasir and Azhar Ishrat, and eventually to Tahir Minhas from Punjab, a terrorist mastermind who had been orchestrating such attacks since 1998. He is said to have met Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri. Tahir’s brother was arrested soon after in a raid on a house in Hyderabad. Karachi police chief Ghulam Qadir Thebo said on Sunday that four more suspects had been arrested, but declined to reveal their identity saying it could hurt the investigations.

Educated men from affluent families being involved in terrorist activities is not a new phenomenon, according to Muhammad Amir Rana, a security analyst and director at the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS) in Islamabad. He says there is a long list of high-profile terrorists hailing from Pakistan’s educated middle-class, which includes Daniel Pearl’s murderer Omar Saeed Sheikh, Al Qaeda IT expert Naeem Noor Khan, Times Square bombing planner Faisal Shahzad, Danish Embassy bomber Hamad Adil, and hijacker of a navy frigate at Karachi dockyard Owais Jakhrani. Jakhrani was the son of an additional IG of Sindh police, Ali Sher Jakhrani.

Initially, organizations like Al Qaeda and Hizbut Tahrir worked only on the already-Islamized workers of religious parties, turning them against their own organizations especially for participating in the electoral process. “After the early recruitment in 2007, religious parties began to disown those working with Al Qaeda, and support for the group declined sharply,” says Noman Ahmed, a journalist closely watching activities of religious groups. The Jamaat-e-Islami even developed a counter-narrative to what Al Qaeda was preaching, he says. As a result, Al Qaeda resorted to recruiting middle and upper class youth from the city’s top colleges and universities.

But that does not undermine the role of some madrassas as the motivating force behind such terrorist attacks. “Tahir Minhas, the mastermind of the recent massacre of Ismailis, went to a madrassa,” says Munawar Burki – a security analyst belonging to the Kaniguram town of South Waziristan. “Hafiz Nasir, on the other hand, had a master’s degree in Islamic Studies from the University of Karachi.”

“While these educated men carried out propaganda for Al Qaeda, the radical content they used was already available in Urdu,” says Noman Ahmed, a journalist who interviewed students who were exposed to the propaganda, being deemed ‘potential recruits’.

In his media briefing, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah said the Al Qaeda cell they busted consisted of 30 militants. Police officials say the total number of operatives linked with Al Qaeda may be more.

The arrested suspects have told interrogators that the recruits in South Waziristan were told to return to their hometowns after the Operation Zarb-e-Azb began, and carry on with their “normal lives” until further orders. Some went abroad. Others found jobs in local as well as large multinational companies. Yet others resumed their education in the country’s prestigious colleges and universities.

The report was originally published in The Friday Times Lahore

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Author: Naimat

Karachi based journalist, writing on national and international issues.

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