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Militant's Case Casts Doubt on Pakistan's Resolve

Asia: Authorities have allowed a Bin Laden ally to go underground, critics contend, saying a government crackdown is mostly tough talk.

April 06, 2002|PAUL WATSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — One of the four men who added their signatures to Osama bin Laden's 1998 edict declaring it a Muslim's duty to kill Americans has mysteriously gone underground in Pakistan.

Officially, the government says it doesn't know the whereabouts of Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil. However, a senior military officer said privately that the longtime Bin Laden ally is "in the custody of the government" at a military intelligence safe house.

Khalil has not been charged with any crime, or interviewed by any of the FBI agents tracking suspected terrorists here, according to army Brig. Javed Iqbal Cheema, coordinator of a crackdown on Islamic radicals announced by President Pervez Musharraf in a Jan. 12 speech.

A leading Pakistani human rights activist says cases such as Khalil's illustrate the hollowness of Musharraf's tough rhetoric against Islamic militants. The Pakistani president refuses to challenge army generals who still support and protect key radicals, said Afrasiab Khattak, head of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

"The government is, unfortunately, turning a blind eye because even in his so-called historical speech, which was also praised by President Bush, Musharraf blamed misguided clerics," Khattak said. "But he failed to mention misguided military officers, so there has been a kind of impunity. There have been 'holy cows.' It is a taboo subject."

Musharraf's government has detained more than 2,000 suspected militants. But police have released hundreds of them on promises of good behavior, and some of their leaders are held in what authorities call protective custody in comfortable government guest houses.

"The protection is not for society. It is for the person who is in custody," Khattak said.

The human rights advocate says he in unsure whether Musharraf is unable to move more forcefully against the radicals, or whether the president has secretly approved a policy that contradicts his public commitment to bring all terrorists to justice.

Khattak said there had been irresponsible conduct by "certain elements," a common euphemism in Pakistan for the military's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI. Musharraf, an army general who seized power in a 1999 coup, insists that the ISI is fully under his control.

Khalil is secretary-general of the outlawed Harkat Moujahedeen, or Movement of the Holy Warriors, guerrilla army, which has been described by the State Department as a terrorist organization.

Branching Out After Fight Against Soviets

Like many of the groups linked to Bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, Harkat has its roots in the 1980s war against the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan. But by the early 1990s, Harkat also claimed to have militants in countries ranging from Egypt to Bosnia-Herzegovina and Myanmar.

In 1993, the group merged with another Afghan guerrilla faction to form Harkat Ansar with the aim of driving Indian troops from the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. When the State Department put Harkat Ansar on its list of terrorist organizations, the group simply reverted to its previous name.

Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft noted in January that a federal indictment against Californian John Walker Lindh alleges that he "joined a paramilitary training camp run by the terrorist group Harkat Moujahedeen" in May 2001.

Ashcroft said that after Lindh finished his training, he was given a choice of fighting with Harkat in Kashmir or joining the Taliban forces in Afghanistan. Lindh chose the Taliban.

In addition, Indian investigators suspect that a faction of Harkat was behind the July 1995 kidnapping and killing of Western hikers--an American, two Britons, a German and a Norwegian--in Kashmir. Another American escaped.

In another case, Pakistani militant Maulana Masood Azhar told Indian police after his arrest in Kashmir in 1994 that Khalil had instructed him to travel to Kenya in 1993 to support Somalis organizing attacks against U.S. and other international forces in Somalia.

The Kenya-based terror organization was identified in U.S. court last year as the cell responsible for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, the capital, and in Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.

India released Azhar from jail in December 1999 along with Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh in order to free the passengers of an Indian airliner that was hijacked to Afghanistan.

Sheikh appeared Friday in a court in Karachi to stand trial as the chief suspect in the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl this year. But the closed trial in Karachi's central jail was adjourned until April 12.

Khalil signed Bin Laden's February 1998 fatwa, or religious edict, that called on Muslims everywhere to kill Americans and their allies, whether military or civilian. It was declared under the banner of the "World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders," with the goal of driving the U.S. and its allies from the Arabian Peninsula.

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