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Pakistan's President Could Confront Axis of Extremists

Asia: Under a worst-case scenario, three militant groups could link up to try to topple Musharraf.

June 25, 2002|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — President Pervez Musharraf faces an ominous new challenge to his rule from three Islamic militant groupings that now stand against him, each clearly capable of using violence to bring him down, diplomats and others following developments in Pakistan believe.

The presence of an undetermined number of fighters from Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network who fled to Pakistan last winter after the Taliban regime's collapse in neighboring Afghanistan merely adds to the volatile brew.

Those who track Pakistan's turbulent domestic political environment worry openly about a nightmare scenario--one in which elements from the three diverse strains of militancy set aside their individual causes, link up with Al Qaeda members and unite around a set of shared objectives: removing Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the war on terror; destabilizing the country; and driving the United States from the region.

Two of these groups--one consisting of Pakistanis who fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan, the other made up of Muslim holy warriors dedicated to capturing all of the disputed Kashmir region for Pakistan and the Islamic cause--were once de facto allies of Musharraf's government.

The third--extremists from Pakistan's majority Sunni sect who have waged a bloody, mafia-style war against the minority Shiites--was already at odds with him.

The dangers posed by these extremist groups have increased sharply in recent weeks because of steps taken to ease the crisis with India over Kashmir, diplomats and others following developments in Pakistan believe.

To reduce those tensions, Musharraf intensified a crackdown on militants whom the Pakistani government had for years trained for attacks on Indian-controlled areas of Kashmir.

With this crackdown coming just nine months after Musharraf withdrew his government's support for the Taliban, angry and disillusioned sympathizers of both the Afghan and Kashmiri causes view the president, a general who took power in a coup, as a traitor to militant Islam.

There are about 1,000 uniformed Americans and a large FBI contingent based here as part of the war on terrorism, so the United States has a large stake in Pakistan's internal stability.

At a different level, Americans also have a stake in a political struggle being watched across the Muslim world--that of a leader who cast his fate with the West in the wake of Sept. 11 and is now locked in a battle to survive the backlash.

Some observers believe that informal linkups between militant groups may already have begun.

Communications Minister Javed Ahraf Qazi, the former head of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI, said that this month's bombing at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi had the earmarks of cooperation between local religious extremists and Al Qaeda refugees believed to be in the rough port city.

"My suspicion is that sectarian elements did this at the behest of Al Qaeda," he said. "They are [both] ruthless murderers."

Presidential spokesman Rashid Qureshi acknowledged, "Some [Pakistani] groups may have developed Al Qaeda links."

So far, there is no hard evidence that followers of the three militant causes have entered into any formal agreement or established anything as structured as a common underground network to pursue their shared goals.

With Al Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban fighters in disarray, the heads of several large Sunni groups in jail and many Kashmiri militants only now beginning to contemplate an alternative future, organizational leadership is in short supply, according to those who monitor militant activities.

They believe that, instead, little more than a camaraderie among individuals attracts the militants together as small groups explore possible cooperation.

"Al Qaeda elements and others are now in the process of coming together to find a specific-oriented agenda," said Aamer Ahmed Khan, editor of the Herald, a Karachi-based monthly that closely follows the activities of Islamic militant groups. "Some leaders haven't even met yet, but groups are starting to work together."

A previously unknown group calling itself Al Qanoon--"The Law"--claimed responsibility for the consulate attack. In a note faxed to local newspapers, it described the bombing as the beginning of a campaign against "America, its allies and its lackey Pakistani rulers."

Although no one has claimed responsibility for a bombing last month outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi that killed 11 French defense contract workers, authorities talk privately of a possible similar nexus in that attack.

Musharraf's government pressed its search for Al Qaeda remnants in the wake of the U.S. Consulate attack.

Last week, precinct-level police officers in all four provinces were called to urgent meetings where superiors ordered them to search for possible links between known Sunni militants in their areas and Al Qaeda members who might have found refuge there.

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