JAMMU, India — A Pakistani terrorist who Indian police say admitted to aiding the 1993 street war against U.S. forces in Somalia may be the long-suspected link between Osama bin Laden and the killing of 18 U.S. soldiers in Mogadishu.
Evidence of the Al Qaeda connection to the fighting in the Somalian capital has been sitting in an Indian police file in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1994, when Indian police arrested Maulana Masood Azhar. His supporters have been accused of kidnapping and killing Americans in India and Pakistan during at least the past seven years.
Azhar, leader of the banned militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, also is the mentor of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, whom Pakistani authorities arrested as the lead suspect in the kidnapping and killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
In a prison diary on file in an Indian court, Sheikh also admitted to kidnapping Californian Bela Josef Nuss and three British backpackers in October 1994 in a failed bid to spring Azhar from jail. And FBI agents questioned Azhar in connection with the 1995 kidnapping in Kashmir of an American hiker, who is presumed to have been killed.
Azhar told Indian police after his arrest in Kashmir that he traveled to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1993 to meet with leaders of the Somalian group Al-Ittihad al-Islamiya, which the U.S. accuses of receiving Al Qaeda's help to train Somalian fighters for attacks on U.S. forces.
Azhar said the Somalis asked for assistance and got recruits and money from the ranks of a Pakistani militant group that Washington later named as part of Bin Laden's terrorist network.
According to the confession, Azhar was dispatched to meet with the Somalis by another Pakistani militant, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil.
U.S. Suspected Somalis Were Al Qaeda-Trained
The Somalian group surfaced again after the Sept. 11 attacks, when U.S. officials identified it as a possible target for airstrikes.
U.S. officials have long suspected an Al Qaeda connection to the 1993 Somalian conflict. The alleged link was central to the prosecutors' case in the trial of four men convicted last year of the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. The attacks killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
Prosecutors argued that members of the same Kenya-based cell that helped train Somalis to kill U.S. soldiers in 1993 went on to carry out the 1998 embassy bombings, which have been blamed on Bin Laden. At least one of the four men convicted in the embassy bombings was a member of the Somalian group, FBI special agent John Anticev testified.
Indian intelligence officials claim Azhar not only traveled to Kenya but made as many as three journeys to Somalia and was a key player in the Al Qaeda operation there.
Azhar told Indian police that in his meetings, Al-Ittihad leaders complained that Pakistan's army, which was taking part in the international mission in Somalia, "is working in favor of America and America is trying to establish its rule in Somalia."
Al-Ittihad benefited from Pakistan's decision in 1993, under international pressure, to expel between 400 and 500 foreign veterans of the Afghan war, according to Azhar's confession.
Most did not go home, either because they weren't allowed to or because they feared persecution, Azhar said. Instead, the majority went to Sudan, where Bin Laden was then based, and from there to Somalia, Azhar said. The "militants continued the correspondence with us from Somalia," he said.
Senior Indian intelligence sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the clandestine nature of their work, say they also believe Azhar helped bring mercenaries from Yemen to Somalia with the help of Yemeni militant leader Tariq Nasr Fadhli.
Tariq is said to have fought under Bin Laden's command in Afghanistan's guerrilla war against Soviet troops in the 1980s. Tariq, reportedly at Bin Laden's bidding, then led a guerrilla war against the Marxist government of South Yemen, which collapsed in 1994 and once again became part of Yemen.
Yemeni authorities identified Tariq as a suspect in two December 1992 hotel bombings in Yemen that targeted U.S. Marines headed for Somalia. The explosions killed a tourist and a hotel worker.
Indian authorities arrested Azhar in Kashmir in February 1994, after he arrived from Karachi, Pakistan, on a fake Portuguese passport. They say he was headed to Kashmir on a mission to unite militants fighting Indian rule in the Himalayan region.
But during interrogation, Azhar also provided information on the Somalian operation, which just four months earlier had inflicted the heaviest casualties U.S. forces had suffered in a single battle since Vietnam.
The apparent Somalian link takes up less than two typed pages in a confession of more than a dozen pages. Azhar also spoke about his interest in the Somalian conflict as a magazine editor, fund-raiser and traveling spokesman for Harkat Ansar, one of Pakistan's most ruthless terrorist groups.