Pakistan releases top al Qaeda-linked terrorist leader


Qari Saifullah Akhtar.

A senior Pakistani terrorist linked to al Qaeda and the country’s intelligence service has been released from “protective custody.”

Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI, or the Movement of Islamic Holy War), was released in early December after being taken into protective custody in August 2010. HUJI is closely linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Ilyas Kashmiri, the operational commander for HUJI, also serves as al Qaeda’s military commander and is a senior leader on al Qaeda’s external operations council. HUJI is also supported by Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Akhtar’s release was first reported in The News on Dec. 28, 2010. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that they believe the report is accurate.

Pakistani intelligence officials took Akhtar into custody in August after he was supposedly wounded in a US Predator strike in North Waziristan, The News reported. He traveled to Peshawar and then Rawalpindi, where he was taken into custody and then moved to Lahore for treatment and subsequently placed in an ISI safe house.

A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that it is thought that Akhtar was was not arrested, but “placed in protective custody so he can be treated for his injuries and debriefed.”

Akhtar was placed into custody at the same time that five Americans who were recruited by the HUJI leader were convicted in a Pakistani court of attempting join al Qaeda to carry out attacks for the terror network. The five Americans were recruited by Akhtar via the Internet and traveled to Pakistan in November 2009. They were arrested by police in Sargodha before they could travel to North Waziristan to join al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, Top al Qaeda leader linked to 5 Americans on trial in Pakistan.]

Another US intelligence official said that the timing of Akhtar’s detention and the conviction of the five American jihadis was “no coincidence.”

“Pakistan’s ISI often brings in its top assets when the heat is turned up; they are placed in safehouses to avoid being targeted, or to get them out of the limelight,” the official told The Long War Journal.

“This has happened in the recent past, with LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] emir Hafiz Saeed and JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammed] emir Masood Azhar after Mumbai in 2008,” the official said, referring to the deadly terror assault on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

Both Saeed and Azhar were identified by the Indian government as being involved in the Mumbai attacks. Both were placed under house arrest and freed months later by the Pakistani government.

Background on Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami

Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Harakat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami 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 that the evidence was insufficient to link him to recent attacks. Akhtar is believed to have fled to 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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of The Long War Journal.

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  • Villiger says:

    This country has gone to the dogs.
    Its untrue that the ISI is running the Taliban. Its the Taliban that is running the ISI.
    Today it was Taseer killed by an Islamist security guard. Tomorrow it could be Kayani by one of his own. They seem so inebriated on US dollars, they are willing to play this dangerous game. In the end they are all bound to come out losers, if not dead.
    But what about their nukes?
    Pakistan is on a path of self-destruction, but who/what else will they take with them?

  • Nic says:

    And how much United States tax money is being spent to help Pakistan, our ally?

  • natej740 says:

    Hope to see him in the cross hairs of a Reaper soon. Pakistan is not an ally on the “War on Terror”.

  • Mike. says:

    Pakistan, the best frenemy the US ever had. Is continuing to support this country worth the potential chaos and realignment caused by our shutting off the faucets?

  • JRP says:

    It’s getting worse and worse over there and more and more commentators are focusing, as they should, on the nuclear security issue vis-a-vis Pakistan’s significant nuclear arsenal. I’ve said before that by Gift, Purchase, or Theft (GPT Theory) Al Qaeda and The Taliban are intent on acquiring A-Bombs and detonating them against the West and probably India too. I sure hope that our Government is viewing what’s going on over there with the same sense of urgency as is being displayed by LWJ commentators.

  • Charu says:

    In order to understand how someone who attempted to assassinate Pakistani military leaders is also being provided sanctuary by the Pakistani military, one needs to read up on the twisted and sordid history of the Mughals. The Mughal court was filled with deadly intrigue and double-dealings and back-stabbing betrayals just as in Pakistan today. Rulers came into power by killing off their siblings and killing or maiming and/or imprisoning their fathers. Fundamentalist Islam was wielded then as in now to suppress non-Muslims and to justify attacks on less fanatical Muslims, and the silent urbane minority (who our politicians, spooks and military are in love with today), remained on the sidelines playing chess and writing poetry while consequential battles over their existence raged around them; as brilliantly captured by Sathyajit Ray in his movie, The Chess Players.
    We are watching in real time the breakdown and fall of the second (mimic) Mughal empire that is Pakistan, and the sooner this happens the better it will be for the GWOT and for Afghanistan. Just as in Iraq and in the Balkans, regional autonomy for individual tribes/ethnicities in AfPak will promote peace and stability in the region once the dominant war-mongering ethnicity (Sunnis/Serbs/Punjabis) are cut down to size and militarily crushed.

  • Bungo says:

    The U.S. is trying to finesse this situation with a variety of low-level operations such as psy ops, counter-terrorism initiatives, diplomacy, pay-offs and internal political persuasion to reverse the terror trend in Pakistan. Some actually say progress is being made even if it doesn’t seem like it right now. NO ONE wants to “blow up” Pakistan and be responsible for picking up the shattered pieces. The CIA and State Department have a long range plan in place that is in it’s early phases. Now is not the time to panic. You will know, for sure, when that time comes.

  • paul says:

    Pakistan is up with Somalia,Sudan and Yemen as failed states.
    In Iran there is hope if we get rid of the Govt but Pakistan is a lost cause.The Religious Mullahs carry too much power!

  • Ben says:

    Bill –
    Excellent post; I’d not heard about his release at all. I wonder what the ISI’s reason for releasing Akhtar is; he would seem to be about as bad a specimen of the Punjabi Taliban as one could hope to find.

  • tc says:

    The country of Pakistan is going on the wrong path.
    Our issues in the ME are nothing to what the future will bring. My prediction is that Pakistan govertment will collapse and a Jihadist mad General from the Army or ISI will take over the country.

  • gary siebel says:

    Afghanistan is landlocked. We are stuck with Pakistan whether we like it or not.
    Obama took a trip to Pakistan when he was younger. It would be interesting to hear what he has to say about the country. It seems likely that, according to the timeline he has since offered, and from comments by others, that it was shocked into seriousness as a result of that trip.

  • steve m. says:

    “Its members have participated in attacks and fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.” I wonder how China is escaping their wrath?

  • Jimmy says:

    @ steve.m
    In 2009, Jamaat-i-Islami had a meeting with China:
    Where they decided not to attack each other’s interest. This means the Pakistani Jihadi dogs would not harm Chinese commercial interests in Afghanistan (or elsewhere) and will not help Uighur nationalists. In return China will block all efforts to castrate these Jihadis in the UN. Perhaps this is not widely known but China has vetoed EVERY resolution India has brought up in the UN against Pakistan based terrorists and their organizations!!! LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Hafiz Saeed (Pakistani terrorist attack on Mumbai), Daood Ibrahim etc. China is the main financier of terror operations worldwide through their cash, diplomatic, missile, nuclear help to rougue countries such as Pakistan, Iran, N.Korea, Venezuela, Suda etc. That is why China is untouched by Islamic terror.
    What the chinese don’t realize is that this is a momentary truce selfishly arranged by the Jihadis to fight NATO and India NOW. Once these countries are ‘finished off’ (they wish!!), similar to the soviets, the very same Jihadis will next go behind China like mad dogs!

  • Sportsisfun says:

    Pakistan appears to be such a screwed up place to exist. I don’t even feel sorry for the people of Pakistan anymore. I couldn’t even bring myself to send aid money last summer. I’ve always assumed most of them are brain washed by the religious idiots who bloviate how evil the west is. But, to let somebody as dangerous as this be released. It only makes me shake my head in wonderment. Amazing…simply amazing…I wonder what distaster is in store for this country next.

  • Zarin says:

    I agree with Charu but the problem is the attitude of American. British were clever because they invaded India through company with wise agenda. They brought system based on justice and knowledge and succeeded to rule more than 300 hundred years. Americans failed to stay or rule Veitnam Iraq and the same they are doing in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are unable to differentiate between their friends and foas. I am not sure they know or not that ISI and Taliban are 2 sides of a coin. They trust and install rulers who have no roots. They just rule on necks not on hearts. They must chand attitude, otherwise their days are numbered in area. You see a fanatic guard killed his boss, it proves that Pakistani security forces and intellegence agencies are full of such fanatics. They are products of Zia ul Haq real black rule.

  • Mike. says:

    @Charu – I also had thought of a comparison to the Mughal empire when reading a history of India – and how it slowly and inexorably lost central control. I was wondering if there are any good articles/books comparing this. Will have to look for the Chess Players as well.
    Also interested in any good articles on the political ramifications of the US turning off the money faucets. Where would Pak turn?

  • Farooq says:

    The fact of the matter is the US and the West are in a bit of a pickle with Pakistan and the Pakistanis fortunately know this. They’ve been used and abandoned before and it’ll happen again, so good on them for looking out for their own interests, why shouldn’t they. Thank the Almighty they have nukes to keep the war-mongerers at bay. No-one will ever take them on and frankly want to be responsible for the country. The sooner the war-mongerers leave the entire area the better for everyone – just watch some sense of peace decending unlike the mess there is now. My view is Pakistan should somehow disengage its gut-wrenching dependency from the US in whatever way possible and throw itself in the lap of the Chinese – at least they know where they stand with them!

  • madashell59 says:

    Farooq: I tend to think that Pakistan is in a pickle. The more that the US and the world sees that the ISI and the Pak government is so corrupt with direct ties to fanaticals they will be more concerned about the nukes. As for the Chinese. Of course they are working with the terrorist groups just like Iran is and Russia. Their main goal is to bring down the US and they are utilizing the little terrorists as puppets while they think they are fighting a religous war.
    As for calling US war-mongers. How much peace has Pakistan seen internally? How safe do their citizens feel against the fanatical groups. How much peace has the Middle East internally seen? From chaos will come order and I bet it will not be Islamic fanatical order.
    Pakistan has been left behind before. Well maybe it is because the Pakistans do not realize a good thing when they have it. And/or they have been so morally and physically opressed by the government and the fanatical groups they do not have the strength or the will to turn on them and create a better nation.
    Nukes to keep the war-mongers at bay.: What happened when the taliban was getting close to the nukes? Nothing. Because both the Taliban and the Pak government were warned what would happen if they got any closer. The nukes are not a deterent against the US but against a Taliban take over. Because if that happened I can just imagine the wrath that would come down on Pakistan.

  • Infidel4LIFE says:

    well, they are being protected, are they not?

  • Russ says:

    Pakistan could maybe go to the Chinese, but it’d be like jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. Besides, how would the extremists react to befriending such an anti-Islamic country?

  • Villiger says:

    Farooq: “….and throw itself in the lap of the Chinese – at least they know where they stand with them!”
    Are you speaking from personal experience? Have you thrown yourself in the lap of a Chinese recently?
    Don’t get me wrong, i think the Pakistanis and the Chinese deserve each other.
    Overall, i have much greater sympathy and trust for Zarin above than your highly-educated remarks (“Thank the Almighty they have nukes to keep the war-mongerers at bay.”)
    The truth actually is that Pakistan has become, and so is, such an odious pickle of a country, no one would want to touch it with a 10-foot chopstick, apparently not even the Almighty.
    Pakistan is no longer the seductive young damsel, that the US courted in the ’60s and ’70s and used in the ’80s. She is instead now lame and ridden with galloping cancer. Know yourself before you throw yourself in the lap of the Chinese for you never know quite what may be on offer!

  • Villiger says:

    Mike., you might find this interesting. The writer is a credible expert on security matters re: Pakistan.

  • Chris says:

    If we “turn off the taps” of money ISI will turn to China. But they are already in with the Chinese big time, and they know it even if we don’t. Might as well have the Chinese paying for all the ISI toys and graft since the Chinese are getting the benefits from the ISI (Pakistan) that exists today to shelter the fanatics who are keeping the US and our allies busy spending lives and so much money. The Chinese like this as it is now because not only are we tied up with the fanatics, but we are paying the Pakistanis (ISI) to continue doing this. It is a disaster moving toward its eventual conclusion.
    I used to think the nukes were the reason we needed to stay close to ISI but I wonder if this is really a logical approach. If ISI allows the fanatics to get their nukes, ISI will disappear as the fanatics will not need them anymore. If this is correct, then ISI has every interest to keep control of the nukes and therefore stay in power. We don’t need to be paying ISI for them to want to stay in power.
    China has manipulated North Korea against us for years to destabilize the Korean situation. They are doing the same now with Pakistan via ISI. As one commentor said above, the Chinese are the real enablers of terrorists because terrorism ties us up and stretches our ecomomy and our military. China’s reason for doing this is to strecth US power and the US economy. They have been successful at this because we are stuck in Afghanistan continuing to try and solve a situation that cannot be solved as long as ISI (Pakistan) provides a refuge for the fanatics. China loves this situation.

  • Villiger says:

    Bungo, you’re right to bring in that calm voice. Still a long way to go, given that in the river of time, we have only just reached consensus that Pakistan needs to be sorted, is not helping herself, and needs to be sorted before anything of a semblance of security is achieved on the sub-continent.
    I grant you there is a longer plan. But i think we are delaying the inevitable and thereby massively increasing the cost of the project.


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