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Pakistan: Islamabad Hoping Arrests Will Show It's Serious About Terrorism

By Mark Baker

Recently, Pakistan has announced some major arrests in the international fight against terrorism, including some suspected Al-Qaeda members on the U.S. most-wanted list. Officials are reluctant to divulge all of the names, but the list includes a Tanzanian man said to be heavily involved in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa. Pakistan says the arrests highlight its commitment to fighting terrorism. But just this week, "The New York Times" reported that elements in Pakistan continue to aid remnants of the Taliban militia in Afghanistan. Pakistani officials deny those allegations, but the report raises suspicions that no matter how many terrorists it arrests, Pakistan's involvement in the war on terror is half-hearted at best. RFE/RL spoke to a terrorism expert to gauge the significance of the captures and to assess Pakistan's progress in the antiterror effort.

Prague, 5 August 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In the past three weeks, Pakistan says it's arrested at least 18 militants, including high-ranking members of Al-Qaeda. Among those apprehended is a key suspect in the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani.

Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said on 3 August that the arrests show police have managed to penetrate the web of terrorist groups that operate inside the country. "We have entered the network of terrorism. We shall be successful," he said. "There will be a reaction; there will be repercussions, but in the end [the terrorists] will be defeated."

Ghailani was arrested on 25 July at his home in the central city of Gujrat. He'd apparently been hiding in Pakistan since before the 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. Reports say police were led to Ghailani's house following the arrest two weeks earlier of Mohammad Naeem Noor Khan, a 25-year-old computer expert and suspected Al-Qaeda member.

The arrests have already brought results. Information found at Khan's house is believed to have convinced U.S. authorities in the past week to raise the security alert for the New York and Washington areas. The information apparently was also used by British officials this week in the arrests of 13 suspected militants.

Pakistani officials have been quick to identify the major captures, but the identities of the 12 or so other suspects remain unclear. This has made it difficult to gauge how significant the arrests are.

Speaking to RFE/RL today by telephone, Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistan-based writer and expert on terrorism, said he believes the arrests are important. "This was an important Al-Qaeda cell [that was broken up], which was manned both by Arabs and by Africans, as well as by Pakistanis," he said. "I think one of the reasons for the reluctance of the Pakistani government to admit they provided all this information is that they are also subject to attack. We just had an attack against the finance minister a few days ago by Al-Qaeda, in which his driver was killed. So I think the government is anxious to distance itself from any information it is providing the Americans and the British about this cell."

In spite of the arrests, suspicions remain widespread that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight extremism. The country was a leading backer of the Taliban in Afghanistan before the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States. Since then, Pakistan has come under strong international pressure to crack down on Pakistan-based groups that support the Taliban, which has long sheltered Al-Qaeda members.

This week, in a story appearing in "The New York Times," reporter Carlotta Gall alleged that Taliban remnants in Afghanistan still receive much of their support from militant groups in Pakistan. Pakistani officials in the report denied that Pakistani militants were operating in Afghanistan.

Rashid told RFE/RL that, in his opinion, Pakistan is not doing enough against the Taliban. "Pakistan has not arrested a single leader of the Taliban since [the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States]," he said. "[As a matter of fact] I was in Kabul just a few days ago and [Afghan leader] Hamid Karzai told me that 60 to 70 percent of the Taliban attacks inside Afghanistan are coming from bases that are in Pakistan."

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, in an interview in the "Dawn" newspaper today, sought to underscore his commitment to fighting terrorism. He said the arrests show Pakistan had intensified its efforts and that it's winning.

But Rashid, for one, said the way forward will not be easy. He said Musharraf has increased pressure on Arab and other foreign militant groups in Pakistan, but has been wary to crack down on Pakistani militants. He said Musharraf, the subject of several assassination attempts in recent months, may fear for his own safety.

Rashid said, however, this strategy of "compartmentalization" has not been effective, as Pakistani and non-Pakistani groups have blended together. "This [strategy of only going after foreign militant groups] is clearly not working, because what we're seeing is that these groups are clearly now working very closely together," he said. "You can't differentiate now between Arab Al-Qaeda and Pakistani extremism and the Taliban. They are all working closely and helping each other."

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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