Owen Bennett-Jones writes: In her posthumously published book, Reconciliation, Benazir Bhutto named a man whom she believed had tried to procure bombs for an unsuccessful attempt on her life in Karachi in October 2007:
I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned … a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail … The officials in Lahore had turned to Akhtar 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.
Akhtar’s story reveals much about modern Pakistan. Born in 1959, he spent two years of his boyhood learning the Quran by heart and left home at the age of 18, moving to the radical Jamia Binoria madrassah in Karachi. In 1980, he went on jihad, fighting first the Soviets in Afghanistan and later the Indians in Kashmir. In both conflicts he came into contact with Pakistani intelligence agents, who were there trying to find out what was going on and to influence events. Helped by the high attrition rate among jihadis, he rose through the ranks and by the mid-1990s, after an intense power struggle with a rival commander, emerged as the leader of Harkat ul Jihad al Islami or HUJI, once described by a liberal Pakistan weekly as ‘the biggest jihadi outfit we know nothing about’.
In 1995, Akhtar committed a crime that in many countries would have earned him a death sentence: he procured a cache of weapons to be used in a coup. Putsches in Pakistan generally take the form of the army chief moving against an elected government. This one was an attempt by disaffected Islamist officers to overthrow not only Bhutto’s government but also the army leadership.
The plot’s leader was Major General Zahir ul Islam Abbasi. In 1988, as Pakistan’s military attaché in Delhi, he acquired some sensitive security documents from an Indian contact. When the Indians found out, they beat him up and expelled him. He returned to Pakistan a national hero. Seven years later, disenchanted by the secularist tendencies of both Bhutto and the army leadership, he devised a plot to storm the GHQ and impose sharia. Akhtar’s role was to supply the weapons. He travelled to the town of Dera Adam Khel near Peshawar, a well-known centre for the production and sale of cheap weapons, and bought 15 Kalashnikovs, two rocket launchers and five pistols.
He was caught red-handed moving the weapons to Rawalpindi. No doubt cajoled by his intelligence agency handlers from Afghanistan and Kashmir, Akhtar decided to give evidence against his fellow plotters. At a stroke he was transformed from a typical jihadi into a highly trusted informant; he has been playing on his supposed loyalty to the intelligence services ever since. Many of those accused of major jihadi outrages in Pakistan have at some stage been released from detention; after Akhtar had spent just five months in prison in 1995, the chief justice set him free.
It is commonplace for the Pakistani intelligence agencies to cut deals with jihadis. In Akhtar they struck gold. While most Pakistanis never escape the class into which they are born, radical Islamists enjoy considerable social mobility. He had left his Karachi seminary in 1979 with a dream of fighting jihad; by the mid-1990s he was the leader of the HUJI and had a close relationship with Mullah Omar, the Afghan Taliban leader and de facto head of state. Indeed, he was seen as one of the few people who might have been able to bridge the growing gap between the Taliban and al-Qaida. Not only that, he expanded the HUJI’s operations to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Burma, China and Chechnya.
Everything changed with the collapse of the Taliban regime after 9/11. According to one account, Akhtar and Mullah Omar shared the same motorbike as they fled for sanctuary with Akhtar’s old intelligence contacts in Pakistan. He told his men to keep a low profile – the US was picking up jihadis and sending them to Guantánamo – and himself headed to the UAE, a hub for Islamists as well as Western businessmen. By 2004 he had overstretched even the UAE’s relaxed hospitality. He was arrested on charges of plotting the assassination attempt on General Musharraf in December 2003 and handed over to Pakistan.
One might think that this time his luck had run out. But that would be to misapprehend the convoluted logic of what has been described as the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan. Akhtar, and others like him, were seen not as a clear and present threat, but as powerful, not very well educated men who simply needed to be pointed in the right direction. If they could be persuaded to aim their guns not at domestic targets but at the Americans in Afghanistan or at India they could still be useful. [Continue reading…]