The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Where in Pakistan is OBL?

Peter Bergen, the only Western journalist to have met Osama Bin Laden, wrote an important article on the hunt for the Al Qaeda leader in The Atlantic (via The Agonist), where he wonders if OBL (and presumably top aides like Ayman Al Zawahri) might not be hiding near Kashmir rather than the northern Pakistan-Afghanistan order as has been presumed:

“A further possibility, which to date has received scant attention, is that bin Laden is somewhere in the mountains of Pakistani Kashmir--an area that is off limits to outsiders and home to numerous Kashmiri militant groups, some of which are deeply intertwined with al-Qaeda. Harakat ul-Mujahideen (HUM), for instance, shared training camps in Afghanistan with al-Qaeda in the late 1990s. An offshoot of HUM, Jaish-e-Muhammad, orchestrated the kidnapping-murder of the American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, an operation run in conjunction with al-Qaeda. U.S. officials believe that Jaish-e-Muhammad received funding from bin Laden. The multiple relationships between those groups and al-Qaeda--what one U.S. official in the region described to me as "overlapping networks of nasty people"--make the groups obvious potential allies in the effort to hide bin Laden and al-Zawahiri. According to Pakistani terrorism analysts, several of the most militant Pakistani groups have recently gathered under an umbrella organization called Brigade 313, named for the number of men who stood with the Prophet Muhammad at the key battle of Badr, in the seventh century. Also, the Kashmiri militant groups are genuinely popular in Pakistan. Until January of 2002, when it was officially banned, Lashkar-e-Taiba maintained 2,200 offices around the country and attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to its annual gatherings. Technically Lashkar no longer exists, but it continues to operate, under a different name and with a lower profile, and its leader, Hafiz Saeed, continues to address rallies in Pakistan.

Further complicating the picture, the Pakistani government has long had a close relationship with the Kashmiri groups because they share the goal of expelling Indian forces from the Kashmir region. Bin Laden understands that Kashmir is Pakistan's "blind spot," a senior U.S. military-intelligence official told me. Musharraf's government has cracked down on Kashmiri militants since 9/11, but the intensity of the crackdown has ebbed and flowed. For instance, Maulana Masood Azhar, the leader of the Jaish terror group, is not under house arrest and, according to a U.S. official, has "good relations with [Pakistan's] spooks." An official in Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry concurs: "The leadership and brains of al-Qaeda are not in the tribal areas of Pakistan. The question is, Who is in Kashmir?”

He also asks, what happens if OBL is killed? Would it really make things worse? I don't share his pessimism, but the parallel with Sayyid Qutb is troubling.

Sayyid Qutb, generally regarded as the Lenin of the jihadist movement, was a relatively obscure writer before the Egyptian government executed him, in 1966. After his death his writings, which called for offensive holy wars against the enemies of Islam, became enormously influential. The same thing would happen after bin Laden's death, but to an infinitely greater degree.