By Ahsan Waheed
An intelligence agency has detained six members of al Qaeda’s suicide squad, their local handler, and two of their technical collaborators, nabbing a total of eight terrorists who were in the process of planning suicide bombings in Lahore. The operation was conducted by a premier intelligence agency whose agents had already picked up another member of the al Qaeda “Fidayeen” mission on September 3 from a room of Punjab University Hostel No 1. This is in stark contrast to the denials issued by both the Punjab University and the Islami Jamiat Talba on September 8 that no arrests took place on the university premises on September 2 or on September 6, and that reports to that effect were false. Various news sources, including the Daily Times and Zee News India, report that the intelligence agency did not consult or inform the Punjab University Vice Chancellor, Professor Mujahid Kamran, about the operation.
Out of seven al Qaeda members in the recently arrested sleeper cell, four have taken special jihadi training in Miramshah – headquarters of North Waziristan Agency – while the other three are also experts in different fields; five of the captured operatives have expertise in information and communication technologies (ICT), improvised explosive devices (IED), automobile technology and even media coordination. Investigators have also unearthed a workshop where members of the squad would test out their instruments of death and destruction. Seven suicide jackets, guns of various bores and calibers, scores of bullets, CDs, computers, maps of important facilities, and a huge cache of explosives were also recovered. Some of the detained collaborators are local shopkeepers from an electronic market. They allegedly provided the electronic gadgets – triggering mechanisms and cellular technology – used in suicidal missions, sources familiar with the matter told The Express Tribune.
While the handler of this sleeper cell resided in Punjab University (PU) Hostel, the remaining members lived in different urban areas in Lahore. It is unclear whether the handler is (or was) a student of the varsity or not, and it is also unclear as to whether the room from where the handler was arrested belongs to the chief of a student organization or not, since the name of the person to whom the room is allotted, and the name of the student organization chief, is almost the same: this issue is taken up in this investigative report, as other sources of information and officials privy to this development are being asked about these links, which have not – as yet – been disclosed to the mainstream media. The arrest of the handler was made after another squad member, who often visited the PU Hostel, met his boss (the handler) to give him updates and to seek instructions.
The militant arrested after the initial raid seemed to be an Arab national who arrived in Lahore for leading a “Fidayeen” (suicidal mission) about three weeks ago, and was allegedly provided shelter by the Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT), the student wing of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) which practically runs the affairs of the university, and especially those of the male student hostels, as explained above. But the man actually turned out to be a resident of K-P. Sources said the arrested youth was allegedly involved in subversive activities in Pakistan’s tribal areas and had come to Lahore to lead a mission. However, at least one foreigner, who is believed to be of Arab origin and to be affiliated with Al Qaeda, has been arrested in the operation – a member of the IJT has also been arrested in connection with this sleeper cell. India’s NDTV believes that “several of the detained men are foreigners”.
Armed with the information about the meetings between the suicide squad member and his handler, the intelligence agency placed the handler under surveillance and noted that when other students of the hostel left their rooms to attend their classes, this suspect remained present in his room. The university had allotted the room (Room No 237) to a Statistics Department student Ahmed Sajjad, who hails from Okara and allegedly had an association with the IJT – at this point, it is unclear whether the current IJT Nazim, Ahmad Sajjad Wattoo, and the Ahmed Sajjad who apparently occupied Room 237 from where the terrorists were arrested, are one and the same. However, the IJT Nazim is clearly an occupant of the same hostel from where the terrorists were arrested.
Sources said that the handler was detained soon after his aide was apprehended. Pictures of Aafia Siddiqui and other al Qaeda leaders were discovered from the handler’s room in the Punjab University hostel, reinforcing the suspicion that the man detained was an al Qaeda figure. Ahmed Sajjad had been an activist of a student organisation in the past but it had disowned him, adding that Sajjad was an MS student at the PU College of Statistical and Actuarial Sciences. They also said Sajjad was not present at the time of the raid.
While it has become clear that some of the detained men are foreigners, others hail from Sindh, Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P): an indication that Al Qaeda has deeply penetrated all corners of Pakistan, and its fanatic followers, supporters and operatives pose an existential threat to the country and its citizens – with help from Al Qaeda specialists and operatives from around the world, especially from other Muslim countries. In this very light, it must be remembered that a house in Green Town area of Lahore was raided in late August, which turned out to be an international communications hub for Al Qaeda – this hub received ID and signals from Afghanistan and the tribal areas, and along with six alleged terrorists (including four females), a cache of arms and ammunition was also seized from the site.
It has also become clear that despite their claims to the contrary, the IJT and other right-wing student organizations are (at least passively if not actively) supporting terror activities in the urban areas of Pakistan by providing shelter and other means of support, unless they are directly involved in the planning or execution of terrorist acts. Two years ago, the IJT organised an international conference in which hundreds of foreigners participated, who were provided residence in PU Hostels: the incident increased insecurity and caused panic among hostel tenants and their parents who demanded that the PU administration and the Punjab government provide security to all hostel tenants. According to many PU students, a number of students who had completed their studies at the PU were still living in the hostels, with the help of the hostel administration as well as student unions, in violation of the varsity’s rules and regulations.
Regardless of their association with terrorists or acts of terrorism, the IJT and other radical right-wing student groups in PU have always supported religious parties and have created havoc on the streets of Lahore at multiple times: the Danish cartoons episode, the Aafia Siddiqui discovery and indictment episode, the alleged OBL raid episode, the Raymond Davis episode, to name a few. It is these student groups that contribute massive support and form a major constituent of the organized “street power” that religious political parties are able to display and exhibit – but since this power has never translated into major electoral victories for these political parties, it can also be said that these students are either disenchanted or marginalized from the democratic political process of Pakistan, or at the very extreme, consider it un-Islamic and refuse to participate in it because of their belief system (or the belief system created for them and indoctrinated into them by such radical student organizations and their supporters in the mainstream society of Pakistan – such as the JI and Jamiat Ulema Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) political parties, and the Tableeghi Jamaat).
During the course of interrogation, it was revealed that the squad members had succeeded in preparing an explosive suicide vehicle (a car) which is still present in Lahore at an unidentified location with a fake licence plate. Though the vehicle poses a potential threat to citizens, it hasn’t been located or impounded by law enforcement agencies so far. Nevertheless, sources in the intelligence agency that performed the operation confirmed that during initial interrogations, links between this sleeper cell and al Qaeda have been established with concrete evidence supporting this. They also claimed that the suspect was on a “Fidayeen” (suicide) mission. After these arrests, intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies have widened the scope and scale of anti-terror operations in Punjab, since during the interrogation, the existence of terrorist operatives and sleeper cells in other parts of Punjab was also disclosed by the arrested Al Qaeda operatives to their interrogators. Intelligence sources say that the arrested terrorists include a key Al Qaeda operative, and a relative of a top Al Qaeda commander – it is uncertain whether these are two different suspects, or the same person.
The university is considered a stronghold of the IJT — which has denied any link with the arrested suspect. “We had not given shelter to any suspected terrorists,” IJT spokesman Abdul Moqeet said, adding that “the IJT does not believe in the al-Qaeda ideology and the IJT does not have any relation with any terrorist outfit”. Despite this statement, PU has over time acquired notoriety as a hub for breeding fanatic Muslim students, particularly contributing to the cadres and leadership of the Muslim Students Federation (MSF), the Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT), the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), and organizing them into potent political operatives who carry out and support rallies ordered by mainstream religious parties. At times, such radical PU students even join the cadres of banned militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and other terrorist organizations with links to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and – as this recent arrest shows – Al Qaeda. While PU students espousing right-wing (and even radical) beliefs have long threatened and intimidated their fellow students – especially those whom they consider to be secular or not in conformance with strict Islamic ideals and practices – they have, at times, even harassed teachers and the PU administration into acquiescing to their demands, whether just or not. Stories of bearded students harassing other students in the hostels, or weapons being found in the PU hostels, or even the hostel administration being afraid of going into certain areas of the on-campus student housing facilities, are not new. On several occasions, violent incidents occurred at Punjab University in the past and, most of the time, outsiders boarding in the varsity hostels were found linked to such incidents; the IJT has also been involved in several criminal activities on the PU premises. Almost every time, the Islami Jamiat Talba (IJT) was alleged for being involved in such incidents which is also evident from many FIRs registered against its activists by the PU. The incumbent Nazim – or chief – of the IJT, Ahmad Sajjad Wattoo, also resides in Hostel No 1. The IJT spokesman failed to clarify whether the occupant of the room, Ahmed Sajjad, was the IJT Nazim, Ahmad Sajjad Wattoo, or some other student with the same name.
However, the recent arrests should be an “eye-opener” for the varsity administration as well as for the Punjab government, according to The News International’s Khalid Khattak. He notes that five years ago in September, the PU administration had recovered ammunition, including five Kalashnikovs (AK-47), hundreds of rounds of assault rifles and 12 hand grenades near the very hostel No 1 where these latest arrests took place. “Many of the PU faculty members believe that had the Punjab government supported the varsity administration in clearing hostels from outsiders and non-student elements by conducting police operation, many of violence-related incidents might not have happened”. The presence of alleged al-Qaeda operatives is, according to Khattak, an abject failure on the part of the government because of their indifferent attitude towards the country’s oldest and largest university, which has 30,000 on-campus students.
Students of the Punjab University, as well as their parents, have time and again demanded that the PU Vice Chancellor and the Punjab chief minister conduct an operation in PU hostels, as they feared that elements involved in criminal activities continue to reside – and obtain shelter – in hostels reserved for students of PU. These demands were presented to Pervez Elahi during his tenure as Chief Minister of Punjab, as well as to Shahbaz Sharif, who has been Chief Minister of the province for over five years since his election in June 2008 and re-election in June 2013. However, civil law enforcement agencies and the provincial government’s home department have yet to take action on the issue, leaving it to the intelligence agencies to apprehend alleged terrorists and suspected miscreants preemptively, before they can carry out their dastardly designs to wreak havoc and mayhem in urban centers of Pakistan; Lahore, in this case.
Does the Jamaat-e-Islami passively support terror activities in Pakistan? A senior serving intelligence agency officer, who also led operations in which wanted al Qaeda figures Ahmad Khalfan Ghalani and Naeem Noor Khan alias Abu Talha were arrested, has confirmed that the JI has been directly and indirectly involved in providing accommodation to al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, No. 3 in the al-Qaeda hierarchy till his arrest in March 2004, was captured from the house of JI’s women’s wing leader in Rawalpindi. Another senior al Qaeda leader, Abu Zubaida, was arrested in the same year from Faisalabad, and was given shelter by Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – which is the same organization, but started using the former name to carry out “humanitarian” operations after the latter was declared a banned outfit.