PAKISTAN RELEASES TOP AL QAEDA-LINKED TERRORIST LEADER

A senior Pakistani terrorist linked to al Qaeda and the country’s intelligence service has been released from “protective custody.”

Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the leader of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI, or the Movement of Islamic Holy War), was released in early December after being taken into protective custody in August 2010. HUJI is closely linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban. Ilyas Kashmiri, the operational commander for HUJI, also serves as al Qaeda’s military commander and is a senior leader on al Qaeda’s external operations council. HUJI is also supported by Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate.

Akhtar’s release was first reported in The News on Dec. 28, 2010. US intelligence officials contacted by The Long War Journal said that they believe the report is accurate.

Pakistani intelligence officials took Akhtar into custody in August after he was supposedly wounded in a US Predator strike in North Waziristan, The News reported. He traveled to Peshawar and then Rawalpindi, where he was taken into custody and then moved to Lahore for treatment and subsequently placed in an ISI safe house.

A US intelligence official told The Long War Journal that it is thought that Akhtar was was not arrested, but “placed in protective custody so he can be treated for his injuries and debriefed.”

Akhtar was placed into custody at the same time that five Americans who were recruited by the HUJI leader were convicted in a Pakistani court of attempting join al Qaeda to carry out attacks for the terror network. The five Americans were recruited by Akhtar via the Internet and traveled to Pakistan in November 2009. They were arrested by police in Sargodha before they could travel to North Waziristan to join al Qaeda. [See LWJ report, Top al Qaeda leader linked to 5 Americans on trial in Pakistan.]

Another US intelligence official said that the timing of Akhtar’s detention and the conviction of the five American jihadis was “no coincidence.”

“Pakistan’s ISI often brings in its top assets when the heat is turned up; they are placed in safehouses to avoid being targeted, or to get them out of the limelight,” the official told The Long War Journal.

“This has happened in the recent past, with LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba] emir Hafiz Saeed and JeM [Jaish-e-Mohammed] emir Masood Azhar after Mumbai in 2008,” the official said, referring to the deadly terror assault on the Indian city of Mumbai that killed more than 170 people.

Both Saeed and Azhar were identified by the Indian government as being involved in the Mumbai attacks. Both were placed under house arrest and freed months later by the Pakistani government.

Background on Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami

Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami have worked with the Taliban and al Qaeda for more than a decade. In 2002, The Friday Times described the HUJI as “the biggest militia we know nothing about.”

HUJI was formed by Islamist extremists inside Pakistan’s Punjab province in the early 1980s to help battle the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. After the defeat of the Soviets in 1989, HUJI turned its focus to fighting the Indian Army inside Jammu and Kashmir. The group maintained camps throughout Pakistan. The largest camp, in Kotli in Azad Kashmir, had “a capacity for training 800 warriors.” As of 2002, more than 650 HUJI fighters had been killed fighting the Indian Army.

Like many Pakistani-based jihadi groups fighting in Kashmir, the HUJI received support from Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence. The group has offices in more than 40 locations inside Pakistan and maintained “organized seminaries in Karachi, and Chechnya, [Xinxiang], Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.” Its members have participated in attacks and fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. The leader of the Bangladeshi branch of HUJI was one of the original signatories of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa against the West. This fatwa, or religious ruling, established the International Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders and officially incorporated various Islamic terror groups such as Ayman al Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad.

Akhtar took control of the HUJI after the group’s leader was killed fighting the Soviets in 1985. He expanded HUJI’s infrastructure throughout Pakistan and in Afghanistan. Akhtar largely stayed off the radar until he emerged as being part of a plot to overthrow the Pakistani government in 1995, when he was implicated along with Major General Zahirul Islam Abbasi and three other senior officers in an attempt to assassinate senior military leaders during a Corps Commanders Conference at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. Charges against Akhtar were dismissed after he testified against his conspirators. Abbasi was released from detention after President Musharraf took power in a coup in 1999.

The Pakistani government released Akhtar in 1996, and he promptly fled to Afghanistan, where he became a close confidant and adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Three members in the Taliban’s cabinet and 22 judges were members of HUJI. Akhtar has been described as a “crucial figure” in the efforts to unite Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden.

HUJI established training camps in Kandahar, Kabul, and Khost. Taliban military and police forces were also trained at HUJI camps. HUJI became a critical force in the Taliban’s efforts to consolidate power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and more than 300 HUJI fighters were killed fighting against the Northern Alliance. HUJI also used its bases in Afghanistan to conduct operations in Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan.

Akhtar accompanied Mullah Omar as he fled the US onslaught during Operation Enduring Freedom after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Omar moved his operations to Quetta in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province. Akhtar took shelter in South Waziristan, where he was born, and established links with Baitullah Mehsud, the former commander of the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan who was killed in a US Predator strike in August 2009.

After being implicated in two attempts to assassinate Pervez Musharraf in December 2003, Akhtar fled to Saudi Arabia, ultimately taking refuge in the United Arab Emirates. The UAE arrested Akhtar in August 2004 and deported him to Pakistan, where he was held for more than two years without trial. The Pakistani security services released Akhtar in May 2007 after the Supreme Court began inquiring about a number of missing persons.

Pakistani security forces detained Akhtar once again in February 2008 after he was implicated in several bombings, the most prominent being the October 2007 suicide attack in Karachi that aimed to assassinate former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto as she returned from exile to begin her political campaign.

Bhutto, who was later assassinated in an attack in Rawalpindi in December 2007, implicated Akhtar in her posthumously released book. “I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs,” Bhutto wrote. “Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted jihadi terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in the 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one.”

The Pakistani government released Akhtar from jail on bail in June 2008 after claiming that the evidence was insufficient to link him to recent attacks. Akhtar is believed to have fled to North Waziristan.

Akhtar is one of the main leaders of the September 2008 suicide attack on the Marriott hotel in Islamabad. Akhtar acted in concert with Qari Zafar, the leader of the al Qaeda and Taliban-linked Fedayeen-i-Islam. Zafar was killed in the Feb. 24, 2010, airstrike in the town of Dargi Mandi near Miramshah in North Waziristan.

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