Al Qaeda-linked suspects emerge in Islamabad Marriott attacks
Qari Mohammad Zafar, a leader of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi who is thought to be behind the Marriott bombings. Photo from AKI
Two senior al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Pakistani terrorists are suspected of being behind the Sept. 20 bombing at the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. The deadly attack killed more than 50 Pakistanis and foreigners and wounded more than 270, and destroyed the once-popular hotel.
In recent press reports, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Qari Mohammad Zafar, a leader of the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, have both been implicated as being the mastermind of the Marriott bombing. Both men have extensive ties to al Qaeda and the Taliban, and have been in Pakistani custody until recently.
Akhtar is believed to be behind the attacks because "the method of the bombing and the nature of explosives resemble four previous vehicle bomb attacks, carried out by suicide bombers [from the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami] in Lahore, Islamabad and Rawalpindi" earlier this year, The News reported. Several of the bombing are thought to have been conducted to secure the release of Akhtar, who was in Pakistani custody at the time.
Zafar has been implicated by Pakistani intelligence after some of his operatives were detained in Punjab and interrogated. The connection to Zafar was established from phone numbers found on the mobiles of some of those arrested in Punjab," Adnkronos International reported. "Zafar is behind the planning, arrangement of transportation and procurement of explosives for the attack against the Marriott Hotel on 20 September," an anonymous security official told the news service.
US intelligence believes both Akhtar and Zafar are involved in the operation. "Akhtar is the operational leader while Zafar is the tactical commander," a senior US military intelligence source told The Long War Journal on the condition of anonymity. "We believe Akhtar chose the target and provided the expertise for the bomb, while Zafar provided the muscle" to carry out the operation. US intelligence considers both men to be dangerous and effective leaders.
Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other Pakistani terror groups have used the Laskhar-e-Jhangvi to execute operations inside Pakistan for years, the source stated. "Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, and other Pakistani terror groups merged with al Qaeda years ago," the source stated.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar, and the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami
Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI or the Movement of Islamic Holy War) have worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda for more than a decade. In 2002, The Friday Times described the HUJI as "the biggest militia we know nothing about."
HUJI was formed Islamist extremists inside Pakistan's Punjab province the early 1980s to help battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, HUJI turned its focus on fighting the Indian Army inside Jammu and Kashmir. The group maintained camps throughout Pakistan. The largest, in Kotli in Azad Kashmir, had "a capacity for training 800 warriors." As of 2002, more than 650 HUJI fighters were killed fighting the Indian Army.
Like many Pakistani-based jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir, the HUJI received support from Pakistan's military and the Inter-Services Intelligence. The group has officed in more than 40 locations inside Pakistan and maintained "organized seminaries in Karachi, and Chechnya, [Xinxiang], Uzbekistan and Tajikistan." Its members have participated in attacks and fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The Bangladeshi branch of HUJI was one of the original signatories of Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the West. This fatwa, or religious ruling established the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders and officially incorporated various Islamic terror groups such as Ayman al Zawahiri's Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
Akhtar took control of the HUJI after the group's leader was killed fighting the Soviets in 1985. He expanded HUJI's infrastructure throughout Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Akhtar largely stayed off the radar until he emerged as being part of a plot to overthrow the Pakistani government in 1995, when he was implicated along with Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and three other senior officers in an attempt to assassinate senior military leaders during a Corps Commanders Conference at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Charges against Akhtar were dismissed after he testified against his conspirators. Abbasi was released from detention after President Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999.
The Pakistani government released Akhtar in 1996 and promptly fled to Afghanistan, where he became a close confidant and adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Three members in the Taliban's cabinet and 22 judges were members of HUJI. The group was affectionately called the "Punjabi Taliban." Akhtar is also described as a "crucial figure" in the efforts to unite Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.
HUJI established training camps in Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost. Taliban military and police forces were also trained at HUJI camps. HUJI became a critical force in the Taliban's efforts to consolidate power in Afghanistan in the 1990s. More than 300 HUJI fighters were killed fighting against the Northern Alliance. HUJI also used its bases in Afghanistan to conduct operations in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.
Akhtar accompanied Mullah Omar as he fled the US onslaught during Operation Enduring Freedom after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Akhtar took shelter in South Waziristan, where he was born, and established links with Baitullah Mehsud. Omar moved his operations to Quetta in Pakistan's Baluchistan province.
After being implicated in two assassination attempts of Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, Akhtar fled to Saudi Arabia and then finally took refuge in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE arrested Akhtar in August 2004 and deported him to Pakistan, where he was held for more than two years without trial. The Pakistani security services released Akhtar in May 2007 after the Supreme Court began inquiring on a number of missing persons.
Pakistani security forces detained Akhtar once again in February 2008 after he was implicated in several bombings, the most prominent being the October suicide attack in Karachi that aimed to assassinate former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned from exile to begin her political campaign.
Bhutto, who was later assassinated in an attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007, implicated Akhtar in her posthumously released book. "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," Bhutto wrote. "Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted jihadi terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in the 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one."
The Pakistani government released Akhtar from jail on bail in June 2008 after claiming insufficient evidence existed to link him to recent attacks.
Qari Mohammad Zafar and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ or Army of Jhangvi) was formed in 1996 after splitting with the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a radical Sunni group behind sectarian attacks against Shia throughout Pakistan. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi expanded its activity to include terror attacks against the Pakistani state. After Sept. 11, 2001, LeJ was one of two Pakistani terror groups banned by the Musharraf regime.
The size of the LeJ is unknown, but it is believed to have hundreds of members dispersed in small cells throughout Pakistan. The group maintains camps in South Waziristan, under the protection of Baitullah Mehsud.
Pakistani police began to openly admit the LeJ began forging close ties with al Qaeda and the Taliban after a string of attacks during the winter and spring of 2006. The most high-profile attack was the March 3 bombing outside the US Consulate in Karachi. A US diplomat was killed in the suicide car bombing.
LeJ foot soldiers carried out the attack, while the bomb was assembled in Abdullah Mehsud's territory near Wana in South Waziristan. "Police have come to the conclusion that terrorist groups with different priorities have ganged up," Daily Times wrote in 2006. "They are specifically worried about the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Al Qaeda and the Abdullah Mehsud-led group of Afghanistan." Abdullah Mehsud was a Waziri tribesman who was based in South Waziristan and killed by Pakistani forces in Zhob in 2007.
Baitullah Mehsud, Abdullah's cousin and the leader of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, is known to have absorbed elements of the LeJ in Karachi and placed them under the command of a leader named Raheemullah.
Qari Mohammad Zafar is wanted by the US government for the Karachi Consulate bombing. "Zafar is suspected of being a key figure involved with this attack," the Rewards for Justice website states. A $5 million reward has been offered for information leading the capture of Zafar.
Zafar escaped from Pakistani custody in 2007 and is known to shelter in South Waziristan.
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