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Terror Camps Scatter, Persist

Recent arrests in Lodi, Calif., illustrate what authorities say is the failure of Pakistan to halt elusive militant training groups.

June 20, 2005|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — U.S. counter-terrorism authorities say that the detention of a Lodi, Calif.-based group of Pakistani men this month underscores a serious problem: the Islamabad government's failure to dismantle hundreds of jihadist training camps.

Long before the FBI arrested Hamid Hayat and his father, Umer Hayat, and accused the son of attending one of the camps, law enforcement and intelligence officials were watching the Pakistan-based training sites with increasing anxiety.

Technically, they say, the Pakistani government was probably right when it declared this month that the younger Hayat could not have received training at a "jihadist" camp near Rawalpindi since that is the home to Pakistan's military and its feared intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI.

But that's because the Pakistani officials were referring to the "old" kind of Al Qaeda camp shown endlessly on TV, in which masked jihadists run around in broad daylight, detonating explosives, firing automatic weapons and practicing kidnappings, these officials say.

Since the post-Sept. 11 military strikes on Al Qaeda strongholds in Pakistan's tribal territories, the jihadist training effort has scattered and gone underground, where it is much harder to detect and destroy, U.S. and Pakistani officials said in interviews.

Instead of large and visible camps, would-be terrorists are being recruited, radicalized and trained in a vast system of smaller, under-the-radar jihadist sites.

And the effort is no longer overseen by senior Al Qaeda operatives as it was in Afghanistan, but by at least three of Pakistan's largest militant groups, which are fueled by a shared radical fundamentalist Islamic ideology. The militant groups have long maintained close ties to Osama bin Laden and his global terrorist network, according to those officials and several unpublicized U.S. government reports.

The groups themselves -- Harkat-ul-Mujahedin, or HuM; Jaish-e-Mohammed; and Lashkar-e-Taiba -- have officially been banned in Pakistan since 2002 and have been formally designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. government. That has prompted occasional crackdowns by Islamabad, but the groups merely change their names and occasionally their leadership and resume operations, authorities say.

The groups wield tremendous political influence, are well-funded and are said to have tens of thousands of fanatical followers, including a small but unknown number of Americans who have entered the system after first enrolling at Pakistan-based Islamic schools, or madrasas. U.S. officials also accuse them of complicity in many of the terrorist attacks against American and allied interests in Pakistan and other assaults in the disputed Kashmir region.

Many U.S. officials say it's not surprising that Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf hasn't cracked down harder on the militant groups and what they describe as their increasingly extensive training activities.

For years, the ISI itself has worked closely with the groups in training Pakistan's own network of militants to fight ongoing conflicts in Kashmir and elsewhere, and to protect the country's interests in neighboring Afghanistan. The militant groups also derive tremendous influence from their affiliations with increasingly powerful fundamentalist political parties in Pakistan.

Until recently, the United States did not press the issue with its ally, believing that those trained in the Pakistani camps would be sent only to fight in Kashmir and other regional conflicts.

But that's not the case anymore, according to U.S. and South Asian intelligence agencies.

The U.S. military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and Bin Laden's campaign to forge a global jihad have caused many of the Pakistan-based terrorists to redirect their rage toward U.S. targets, both abroad and perhaps even on American soil, according to the intelligence cited by numerous U.S. officials and counter-terrorism experts.

One of the men believed most responsible for this shift is Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, a former leader of HuM, who has been connected to some of the detained men in the Lodi case.

The group previously known as HuM is now called Jamiat-ul-Ansar, and Khalil continues to play an important but less public role in it, U.S. officials said. They also believe Khalil remains closely aligned with Pakistani intelligence services and senior Al Qaeda leaders.

Khalil was one of the original signers of Bin Laden's 1998 fatwa, or holy decree, in which he told Muslims that it was their religious duty to kill Americans whenever and wherever they could. That same year, Khalil also vowed to attack America in retaliation for the U.S. bombing of two of HuM's Al Qaeda-affiliated training camps in Afghanistan, which killed dozens of his followers and some Pakistani intelligence officers.

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