Saturday, May 8, 2010

Pakistan Taliban's nefarious reach

THE Pakistan Taliban, which American investigators suspect were behind the attempt to bomb Times Square in New York, have in recent years combined forces with al-Qaeda and other groups, threatening to extend their reach and ambitions, Western diplomats, intelligence officials and experts say.

Since the group's formation in 2007, the main mission of the Pakistani Taliban has been to maintain their hold on territory in Pakistan's tribal areas to train fighters for jihad against American and Nato forces in Afghanistan and, increasingly, to strike at the Pakistani state as the military pushes into these havens.

Pakistan's military offensives and intensifying American drone strikes have degraded their capabilities. But the Pakistan Taliban have sustained themselves through alliances with any number of other militant groups, splinter cells, foot soldiers and guns-for-hire in the areas under their control.

A senior US intelligence official said that in recent years the overall ability and lethality of these groups had dropped, but that the threat to countries like the United States had increased somewhat because the groups cooperated against a range of targets.

"The Taliban is the local partner of al-Qaeda in Pakistan," said Amir Rana, the director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, who has tracked militant networks for years. "It has no capacity for an international agenda on its own."

Al-Qaeda was one of a number of groups, including the Afghan Taliban, that relocated across the border to Pakistan's tribal areas after the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The Pakistan Taliban had tried to instil unity among the tribal and criminal militant groups that sprang up in the border regions. That has met with limited success. But they facilitate all the groups in that they hold territory where they run training camps and provide sanctuary.

The various tribes and clans within the Pakistani Taliban tend to be tied to their local areas and do not have the broad reach to recruit and run operatives beyond their territory.

"Even Tehreek-e-Taliban is divided into many factions, or every faction has at some level collaboration and coordination," Rana said. The Pakistani Taliban are formally known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.

Still, leaders within the Taliban run training camps in many places along Pakistan's western border area, and it is possible that the bombing suspect, Faisal Shahzad, received instruction there with any one of the groups, analysts said.

"There are training camps all over North and South Waziristan," the Western diplomat said.

The ties between the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda stretch back to the Pakistani Taliban's earliest leaders, said Brig Mahmood Shah, who served as the senior security official in the tribal areas until 2005. One of the first, Nek Muhammad, who was killed in an American airstrike in 2004, was known to be an al-Qaeda facilitator, providing logistics and lodging for Arabs in Waziristan.

In 2008, Shah said, the Pakistani Taliban leader, Baitullah Mehsud, and al-Qaeda's No. 2, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, met in Makeen, South Waziristan.

That meeting represented an important shift for the Pakistani Taliban, which had until then answered to the Afghan Taliban and militant commanders loyal to Pakistan.

"Pakistan told the US that Baitullah Mehsud came directly under al-Qaeda," Shah said. "The Pakistani government was very sure that he was al-Qaeda."

The Afghan Taliban leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who controls a large fiefdom in North Waziristan, also recently indicated support for al-Qaeda's agenda when answering questions in an open forum on a jihadist website, praising jihadi fighters in Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

Adding to the mix, these groups have been fortified by a growing number of militants who have moved to the tribal areas from Pakistan's largest province, Punjab. The Punjabi groups were originally founded and sponsored by the Pakistani military to support the fight with India over the control of Kashmir. But many have turned against the Pakistani state since the army's siege against militants at the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007.

The Punjabi groups have surpassed many of their peers in the technical ability and viciousness of their attacks. But members can often move among the groups or be members of groups simultaneously, Rana said. They cross-fertilise each other.

Indeed, it is possible that the Times Square bombing suspect, Shahzad, began his journey to the tribal areas for training by making contact first, possibly in the southern port of Karachi, with militants from one of these groups, Jaish-e-Muhammad.

On Thursday, a Pakistani security official said that four Jaish militants, whom he did not name, had been picked up and were being interrogated by American and Pakistani officials in Islamabad. Yet Shahzad could easily have been recruited -- or sought out -- by any one of the Punjabi groups, which use the education system, mosques and religious parties to recruit for al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

"The kind of knowledge that he demonstrated in his bomb making is very simple knowledge, so how did he come by that? He could have interacted with some militant; it does not need long training," said Hasan Askar Rizvi, a military analyst.

"He may have gone to Waziristan for inspiration or motivation, but did not necessarily get the training there," he added.

The Pakistani military has said for months that it has broken the back of the Pakistani Taliban since it began operations in the Swat Valley, Bajaur and South Waziristan, among other places.

On Thursday, Maj Gen Athar Abbas, the military spokesman, said he did not believe that the Pakistani Taliban were capable of the Times Square bomb plot, and that their claim on videos posted on the Web was "bravado".

The Pakistani Taliban have since disavowed responsibility.

"The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has had no links with Shahzad whatsoever," a spokesman, Azam Tariq, said in a phone call to reporters in Peshawar from an undisclosed location. "We never imparted training to him, nor had he ever come to us."

But he did reiterate the claim of the Pakistani Taliban leader that the group had suicide bombers in the US, who, he said, would carry out their mission at an opportune time. – NYT by Carlotta Gall and Sabrina Tavernise

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