Al-Qaeda aims at Pakistan's
heart By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - As the shockwaves continue to
reverberate across Pakistan following the
assassination of former premier Benazir Bhutto on
December 27, and political parties declare their
intention to contest national elections scheduled
for January 8, the threat to the country's
political system remains as dire as ever.
Following the killing of Bhutto -
considered by her al-Qaeda killers to be an
"American asset" - al-Qaeda can be expected to launch
suicide attackers on those considered a part of
the United States plan to establish a broad
coalition government comprising secular and
liberal elements that would change the political
and social dynamics of the country and the region.
At stake is the very soul of the country
and how it should be governed.
On the one
side are US-backed President Pervez Musharraf and
political parties such as Bhutto's Pakistan
People's Party (now headed by her 19-year-old son
Bilawal) and Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim
Against them are al-Qaeda
ideologues such as Egyptian scholar Sheikh Essa,
who are determined to stamp their vision on the
country and its neighbor, Afghanistan.
Prior to 2003, the entire al-Qaeda camp in
the North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal
areas of Pakistan was convinced that its battle
should be fought in Afghanistan against the
foreign troops there, and not in Pakistan against
its Muslim army.
That stance was changed
by Sheikh Essa, who had taken up residence in the
town of Mir Ali in North Waziristan, where his
sermons raised armies of takfiris (those
who consider all non-practicing Muslims to be
infidels). He was convinced that unless Pakistan
became the Taliban's (and al-Qaeda's) strategic
depth, the war in Afghanistan could not be won.
In a matter of a few years, his ideology
has taken hold and all perceived American allies
in Pakistan have become prime targets. Local
adherents of the takfiri ideology, like
Sadiq Noor and Abdul Khaliq, have grown strong and
spread the word in North Waziristan. Former
members of jihadi outfits such as
Jaish-i-Mohammed, Laskhar-i-Toiba and
Lashkar-i-Jhangvi have gathered in North
Waziristan and declared Sheikh Essa their
This is the beginning of the
new world of takfiriat, reborn in North
Waziristan many decades after having first emerged
in Egypt in the late 1960s. On the advice of
Sheikh Essa, militants have tried several times to
assassinate Musharraf, launched attacks on the
Pakistani military, and then declared Bhutto a
This nest of takfiris and
their intrigues was on the radar of the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the day after
Bhutto's killing Sheikh Essa was targeted by CIA
Predator drones in his home in North Waziristan.
According to Asia Times Online contacts, he
survived, but was seriously wounded. Sheikh Essa
had only recently recovered from a stroke which
had left him bedridden.
dampened the jubilation in the jihadi camps over
Bhutto's death and al-Qaeda members had to flee to
safe havens. Nevertheless, their intention to
carry out more attacks is as steadfast as ever.
Bhutto's assassination was without doubt
al-Qaeda's most successful operation in the
region, even if there is some dispute over exactly
how she died. The Pakistani government claims she
hit her head on a lever of the sun visor of the
car in which she was travelling in Rawalpindi when
she ducked on hearing a suicide bomb go off
nearby. Her family and party members vigorously
dispute this claim, saying she was shot twice.
Al-Qaeda tried to kill Bhutto on October
18 on her return to Pakistan from years of exile.
Nearly 200 people were killed in that bombing, but
she was unhurt. In November, a close aide of
Musharraf and president of the then-ruling
Pakistan Muslim League, Amir Muqam, was attacked
by a suicide attacker. His brother was killed but
This month, former interior
minister Aftab Shepao was targeted at a prayer
congregation. His son and nephew were injured but
he survived. Shepao was a key figure in
orchestrating the storming of the radical Lal
Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad in July. The
mosque was pro-Taliban and a haven for militants.
Similarly, on Sunday, former minister of religious
affairs Ejaz ul-Haq, another central figure in the
Lal Masjid operation, was attacked by a suicide
bomber, but survived.
Musharraf has always
been at the top of al-Qaeda's hit list, but he is
a difficult target so his close allies are being
In this context it is expected
that Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the head of a faction
of the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam and former leader of
the opposition in the National Assembly, will be a
target. Like Bhutto he has been a part of the
opposition, but he is also considered a part of
the bigger US scheme for a post-election national
coalition government to support Musharraf and
provide a popular base for the US-led "war on
terror" in the region.
in the wake of Bhutto's death eased on Sunday
after destruction that killed at least 44 people
and caused tens of millions of dollars in damage.
Since the angry mobs could not get at the shadowy
figures of al-Qaeda, they vented their frustration
by attacking the offices of the former ruling
Pakistan Muslim League and its loyalists.
The Pakistani Taliban, raised under
al-Qaeda's ideology, are geared to set up an
"Islamic Emirates" in defiance of the state of
Pakistan and Afghanistan. The first shots have
already been fired in the restive Waziristans,
where emirates were recently declared.
Baitullah Mehsud, a warlord from South
Waziristan and the chief of the emirates,
subsequently declared a boycott of January's
elections. Although he withdrew the announcement
when he was pressed by senior clergy and local
political leaders, the withdrawal was only
superficial as the real ideologues of the
emirates, like Sheikh Essa, want to discard
Pakistan's political system.
As a result,
it now emerges that the Pakistani Taliban have
suspended the election campaign in Dara Adam Khail
in North-West Frontier Province and other tribal
areas and towns.
In the coming days,
al-Qaeda's takfiri ideologues have a dotted
line to follow and that dotted line clearly aims
to frustrate American designs.
Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan
Bureau Chief. He can be reached at