March Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 18 years ago

It was 2:30 am on March 1 as sleuths of Pakistan’s security agencies prepared for a raid on a double-storeyed house in the Westridge neighbourhood in the heart of Rawalpindi, surrounded by military establishments. Wearing bulletproof vests and armed with automatic weapons they drove to the house in a convoy of vehicles. They knew they might face resistance from one of the deadliest Al-Qaeda agents, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, who had been hiding in that house for almost two weeks.

The security officials broke the door down and entered the house swiftly, catching Khalid and an Al-Qaeda associate sleeping. Khalid was in disguise, clean-shaven and wearing a shalwar and a T-shirt. He looked heavier, much grayer and had a changed hairstyle at the time of capture, in contrast to pictures taken earlier, showing a fresh and relaxed man with a trim beard, bespectacled .

“We had solid information. He (Khalid) was sleeping and did not offer any resistance,” a security official said. The house was searched by the security officials and in no time they had Khalid, his associate and Pakistani host, Abdul Qudoos — from a family supportive of the Jamaat-e-Islami — blindfolded and whisked away.

“It is a prize catch and a major breakthrough in the ongoing war against terrorism,” boasted the DG, ISPR, General Rashid Qureshi. “He was a kingpin of the Al-Qaeda.”

If Osama bin Laden was the Alladin of Al-Qaeda, Khalid was his magic genie. The 38-year-old Kuwaiti of Pakistani ancestry, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, is considered number three in the Al-Qaeda hierarchy after Osama and his deputy, Ayman Al Zawahiri. The American intelligence agencies, FBI and CIA, believed that Khalid’s arrest could break the back of Osama’s organisation and trigger the collapse of Al-Qaeda’s formidable network. He had a tag worth 25 million dollars on his head.

On the FBI list of 22 most wanted terrorists worldwide, Khalid is alleged to have been an architect of the September 11 attacks in the US. He was accused of masterminding the US embassy bombings in East Africa in 1998, which killed more than 250 people. He is also believed to be behind the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen on October 12, 2000 that killed17 US sailors and injured 39. Terrorism experts believe he has been linked to most anti-American attacks carried out by Islamic militants over the past decade.

Pakistani police investigators were told by the under custody extremist, Fazal Karim, during interrogation, that it was Khalid who slit the throat of American journalist, Daniel Pearl, a year ago in Karachi. “He was a shrewd and very dangerous person. He was the brain behind Al-Qaeda operations after the Taliban’s ouster from Afghanistan. Since Osama and Zawahiri were literally confined to a cave, Khalid served to re-establish the organisation and plan the deadly attacks against America,” a local police investigator said.

“He was known as a planner and a cool-minded, ruthless guy. He was a master of disguise and would exploit his contacts in the Persian Gulf and among pro-Taliban and Pakistani followers of bin Laden,” he said.

From America to Qatar, Yemen to Manila, from Afghanistan and Rio de Janeiro to Karachi, Khalid dodged American intelligence agencies for years. His shrewdness and skilled disguise helped him to evade the authorities until a tip-off finally gave him away. Khalid’s name hit the headlines after Arab television channel Al Jazeera telecast Khalid and his associate Ramzi bin-al Shibh’s interview in which they proudly spoke of Al-Qaeda and lauded the September 11 attacks.

Only a few days later, Pakistani police, acting on an FBI tip-off, raided their hideout in an apartment building in Karachi’s Defence Housing Authority on the first anniversary of the Twin Towers tragedy. Ramzi was arrested after a gun battle between his Al-Qaeda operatives and the police, in which two Al-Qaeda men were killed.

However, Khalid narrowly eluded Pakistan and US intelligence agencies that day. The day before, they had raided another apartment on Khalid bin Walid road in Karachi. According to some sources, they found Khalid’s wife, Karima, and their two sons, Hamza,10, and Zaid, 7, there. Khalid used to visit the family frequently, police were told. Sometimes he would come in a burqa and sometimes attired in western clothes.

Following the arrest of Ramzi and his associates, Khalid hid in different places, while trying to re-establish Al-Qaeda’s network in Pakistan. In January this year, Pakistan’s security agencies raided a house in Gulshan-e-Maymar, on the outskirts of Karachi, hundreds of yards away from a plot where Daniel Pearl was slaughtered. They arrested two prominent Al-Qaeda operatives, Abu Omer, a 32-year-old Yemeni, and 21-year-old Abu Hamza from Morroco, after a shootout. Their third associate was injured but managed to escape. He was later identified as Amir Muwiyah by the arrested Al-Qaeda men. Police investigators say it could have been the hitherto elusive Khalid.

The three men were living on the first floor of the house, the ground floor of which was occupied by Sabiha Shahid, a member of the Jamaat-e-Islami women’s wing, and her husband, ex-national hockey player, Shahid Ali Khan.

Sources say after the September 11 shootout in Karachi’s Defence society, Khalid might have lived in this house. This time around, Khalid sensed that Karachi had become unsafe for him and apparently visited Balochistan in search of a safe haven.

From Balochistan, it is believed Khalid moved to Rawalpindi in the third week of February. But luck did not favour him. Sources say police arrested an Egyptian, who identified himself as Abdur Rehman, from Quetta’s Wahdat Colony, a working class neighbourhood, on February 14. It is believed that Khalid might have stayed with him for a few days. The Egyptian is reported to be associated with Egypt’s Islamic group, the Muslim Brotherhood, Khalid Shaikh’s former organisation. Shaikh had developed a friendship with Abdur Rehman during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The capture of the Egyptian led to the arrest of Khalid Shaikh in Rawalpindi, sources said, as Abdur Rehman passed on “valuable” information to the investigating agencies about Khalid Shaikh’s whereabouts.

According to officials, Khalid, along with his associate, lived with Qudoos’s family in Rawalpindi. Hailing from an educated and religious family, the unemployed Qudoos is the son of a microbiologist. Qudoos’s father has served international organisations abroad and his mother is an active member of the Jamaat-e-Islami womens’ wing.

“My son is innocent,” she wept. “Only my son was arrested from the house. There was nobody else,” she said, denying that Khalid and his associate were arrested from the house. Some local newspapers speculated that Khalid may have been arrested in another raid, apparently carried out the same night in a different area of Rawalpindi.

Qudoos’s brother, Major Adil, an army officer, was also picked up from Kohat for questioning. “We want to know whether Adil had any links with Qudoos or Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and Al-Qaeda,” an official said.

However, Jamaat leaders see the developing situation as a “conspiracy” and an attempt to link the Islamic party with Al-Qaeda. “It is a serious situation that Al-Qaeda’s leaders have recently been arrested from the houses of Jamaat activists. The Jamaat leaders should clarify their position, whether they have links with Al-Qaeda or not,” said interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat.

Investigators are probing the past links of the Jamaat, at a time when its activists were waging jihad with the mujahideen against the Soviets in Afghanistan and enjoyed good relations with the Arab holy warriors, who later formed Al-Qaeda. The evolving situation poses a threat to the Jamaat, Pakistan’s biggest religious organisation, of being declared a terrorist organisation by the US.

Khalid’s capture is the biggest coup of the 18-month-old war on terrorism led by US coalition forces. Just after the arrest, phone calls were made from Islamabad to Washington and there was a great sense of jubilation in the headquarters of the CIA, FBI, White House and Camp David where President Bush was staying.

Investigators believe that Khalid’s capture could lead to the arrest of the most wanted person of Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden.

Khalid was interrogated by the FBI and Pakistan’s ISI at an unknown place in Pakistan. “He definitely knows about Osama. Initially, he said Osama was alive. But he later changed his statement and said he had no contact with Osama for the past six months and that he might be dead,” an official said. However, authorities say that letters from Osama bin Laden have been recovered from Khalid’s possession.

Observers familiar with the hunt for Al-Qaeda believe that in the light of new evidence emerging after Khalid’s arrest and preliminary interrogation, US and Pakistani security officials may spread their search for Osama and his comrades to areas in Balochistan bordering Afghanistan.

Sources in the town of Spin Boldak, a border town near Chaman, say that two days after Khalid’s arrest, helicopters dropped leaflets urging the local population to help in the arrest of Osama and Mullah Omar. The leaflets included two pictures of Osama and announced a reward of 25 million dollars. They also warned that anyone providing shelter would be treated as part of the Al-Qaeda organisation.

After initial interrogation, Khalid was flown in a special flight to Bagram air base, constructed during the Soviet era, outside Kabul, which is the centre of the US military-led operations in Afghanistan, where top Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders have been held. He will be kept in isolation and will face intense interrogation by the FBI and CIA officials. The interrogation might enable them to break the Al-Qaeda network, which President Bush deems his mission.

“Khalid’s arrest is significant, as it came at a time when thousands of US troops have been deployed in the Persian Gulf for a possible war against Iraq. And it was feared that Khalid could activate sleeper Al-Qaeda cells in the Persian Gulf against US interests,” a western diplomat said. “It is a blow to Al-Qaeda and a big achievement for US and Pakistani forces. It is going to give them a boost.”

But observers warn that support for Osama and his Al-Qaeda is increasing among Pakistani extremists, who had fought in Afghanistan in the past. The ghosts of the CIA and ISI-backed mujahideen of the Afghan war in the 80s may keep on haunting US and Pakistan forces in the future. Khalid’s arrest is significant but the war on terrorism is far from over.

Al-Qaeda seems to be a resilient organisation and it is entirely possible that another leader may rise like a phoenix from the ashes of Westridge. Many believe that the only way to eradicate Al-Qaeda permanently is to eliminate all support for the organisation. As one extremist puts it, “You can kill one Osama but a hundred Osamas will surface.”