Al-Qaeda’s new man eyes Pakistan

One chapter in the Afghan war came to an end with the killing in May of al-Qaeda’s number three and Afghan operations chief Mustafa Abu al-Yazid in a drone attack in Pakistan’s North Waziristan tribal area.

The appointment of a new commander, Egyptian Sheikh Fateh al-Misri, previously not an al-Qaeda member and in Afghanistan only as a battle-hardened Arab fighter, marks the beginning of a shift in al-Qaeda’s strategy that aims for a more focused guerrilla war in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda’s Pakistan operations will be used to complement the battle against foreign forces across the border, reported Asia Times Online.

A previous al-Qaeda commander, Libyan Abu Laith al-Libi, also killed in a drone attack in Pakistan, in January 2008, had a similar background to Misri as he had not initially been a member of al-Qaeda and commanded his own Libyan groups that were active in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He was appointed operational commander in 2007 and in a short time proved himself in battle. He also developed close coordination with various other groups.

According to militant contacts who spoke to Asia Times Online, the militants believe that while Misri will focus on tweaking Afghan strategy, he realizes that the war there cannot be separated from Pakistan.

Last month, for instance, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani and the director general of the Inter-Services Intelligence, Lieutenant General Ahmad Shuja Pasha, twice visited Kabul to offer their services in opening negotiations with the Taliban. The Pakistanis aim to connect with various Afghan groups and promote a battle against al-Qaeda and its affiliated Pakistani organizations, the web site reported.

Acutely aware of this, Misri unleashed the attacks in which at least 95 members of the Qadyani sect were killed and nearly 100 injured at their places of worship in Lahore. Apart from the immediate horror of the attacks, the militants aimed to monitor the response of the security and rescue forces. In the immediate aftermath of the incident, dozens of militants poured into Lahore. They included men from nearby areas, members of a militant cell in the southern port city of Karachi, as well as people from Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, previously North-West Frontier Province.

Their main targets were to be “non-Muslims” in the eyes of the militants, such as the Qadyanis, and “polytheists” like the Shi’ites.

Pakistani intelligence agencies, however, became aware of possible attacks on places of worship and security was beefed up in Lahore, especially at places frequented by Qadyanis and Shi’ites. In a series of raids, 28,000 kilograms of explosives were seized, along with many weapons.

The militants became unnerved and last week, without consulting their top leadership in North Waziristan, there was a double suicide attack on the shrine of a Sufi saint in Lahore in which more than 40 people were killed and nearly 200 injured.

The attacks certainly drew attention to the militants, but al-Qaeda is aware that such incidents can cause blowback, such as happened in Iraq when it attacked the Samarra Shrine of Imam Hasan Askari in 2007, one of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines. This sparked a round of bloody sectarian retaliation in which up to 60 Sunni mosques were attacked and scores of people were killed.

Therefore, much as with the Moon Market blast in Lahore in late 2009 (in which innocent civilians were killed), the Punjabi Taliban denied their involvement in the shrine attack.

“Why should we do this kind of operation?” questioned Punjabi militant spokesman Muhammad Umar, alias Usman Punjabi, in a telephone conversation with Asia Times Online. “There were hundreds of shrines in Afghanistan during Taliban rule [1996-2001] and they never touched them. So why should we do that?

“I say a commander would be most incompetent if he sent in suicide attackers because there was such a crowd in the shrine that an explosive-laden car parked near the shrine would have been sufficient for a massacre. So I assure you, the Taliban were not involved in these attacks,” Umar said.

The attack on the Syed Ali Hajweri Shrine has caused a serious rift between Pakistan’s two major schools of thought – Deobandi (to which the Taliban adhere) and Brelvi (who are anti-Taliban Sufis).

Militants have lost much of their support base and sympathy in Punjab – the largest province – as extremists previously did in Iraq. All the same, they are establishing a reign of terror that has led to deep political and sectarian polarization. This in turn has diluted Pakistan’s enthusiasm to streamline a negotiation process between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The authorities might decide to take action against particular seminaries in Punjab and against some banned organizations, after a national debate through conferences. This will take time, and when it happens it will cause sectarian strife. This preoccupation and engagement of the security apparatus will provide breathing space for al-Qaeda, which has already defeated the military in Orakzai Agency, where it controls large areas.

New commander Misri will be waiting to strike, both in Afghanistan and in Pakistan.

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