Qari Saifullah Akhtar.
Pakistani prosecutors claim that five Americans currently on trial for attempting to join al Qaeda were in contact with a top leader of the terror group.
The five Americans are said to have made contact with Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of the radical Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami and the commander of al Qaeda’s Brigade 313. Prosecutors presented evidence, including phone calls, emails, and other documents that linked Akhtar and the five would-be terrorists, according to Dawn.
Akhtar recruited the five Americans after watching their videos posted on YouTube, according to Pakistani police officials. Akhtar was able to obtain emails through the YouTube postings and encouraged the men to travel to Pakistan to join the jihad.
The five American Muslim men were detained in the city of Sargodha in Punjab province in December 2009 after a family member discovered they were missing and contacted the FBI. The five Americans have been identified as Umar Farooq, Waqar Hussain, Rami Zamzam, Ahmad Abdullah Mini, and Amman Hassan Yammer.
The Americans were attempting to enter North Waziristan to join al Qaeda. They arrived in Karachi in November 2009; their passports stated they entered the country to attend a wedding. They traveled to Lahore to meet their al Qaeda contact, but he never appeared. The five men then traveled to Sargodha in an attempt to reestablish contact and make their way into North Waziristan. The men stayed at a home owned by Farooq’s uncle. Pakistani police arrested the five Americans after being tipped off about their whereabouts.
Al Qaeda has sought to recruit operatives holding Western passports, which enables the men to move more freely to carry out activities in the West. These recruits are trained in camps operated by al Qaeda’s external operations network, which is tasked with carrying out attacks in the US and other Western countries.
Other high-profile al Qaeda operatives detained over the past year who have trained in al Qaeda camps in Pakistan include Bryant Neal Vinas, David Coleman Headley, and Najibullah Zazi.
Vinas is a convert to Islam who is also known as Bashir al Ameriki. He trained in al Qaeda camps in North Waziristan in 2007 and helped the group plot an attack on a train inside Penn Station in New York City. He was detained by Pakistani troops in November 2008 and pled guilty in January 2009 to the charge of providing material support to al Qaeda. He has since cooperated with the FBI by divulging information on al Qaeda’s activities.
David Coleman Headley is a Pakistani American who worked closely with al Qaeda and the Lashkar-e-Taiba. He had direct contact with Ilyas Kashmiri, Akhtar’s former deputy who is now the head of the Lashkar al Zil, or Shadow Army, al Qaeda’s military wing. Headley acted as a scout for the 2008 terror assault in Mumbai, India, which resulted in the deaths of 165 Indians and foreigners after the city was under siege for 60 hours. Headley also plotted to kill a Danish cartoonist who had drawn an image of the Prophet Mohammed.
Zazi traveled to Pakistan in August 2008 to join the Taliban, but was recruited by al Qaeda in Peshawar. After spending nearly four months in an al Qaeda camp in Miramshah in North Waziristan, Zazi returned to the US to carry out suicide bombings on New York City trains with two accomplices in September 2009. Zazi was arrested and pled guilty to plotting to carry out attacks in the US and aiding a terror group.
Background on 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 by Islamist extremists inside Pakistan’s Punjab province in the early 1980s to help battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, HUJI turned its focus to fighting the Indian Army inside Jammu and Kashmir. The group maintained camps throughout Pakistan. The largest camp, in Kotli in Azad Kashmir, had “a capacity for training 800 warriors.” As of 2002, more than 650 HUJI fighters had been 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 offices 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 leader of 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 he 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. Akhtar has been 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, and 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 attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Omar moved his operations to Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Akhtar took shelter in South Waziristan, where he was born, and established links with Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who was killed in a US Predator strike in August 2009.
After being implicated in two attempts to assassinate Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, Akhtar fled to Saudi Arabia, ultimately taking 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 about 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 2007 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. Akhtar is believed to be in North Waziristan.
Akhtar is one of the main leaders of the September 2008 suicide attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Akhtar acted in concert with Qari Zafar, the leader of the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Fedayeen-i-Islam. Zafar was killed in the Feb. 24, 2010, airstrike in the town of Dargi Mandi near Miramshah in North Waziristan.