Terrorism's epicenter

November 30, 2005|By BRAHMA CHELLANEY

NEW DELHI -- The South Asian earthquake struck at the epicenter of a principal recruiting ground and logistical center for global terrorists, leveling a number of terrorist nurseries and training camps in an area that serves as the last main refuge of al-Qaida. Much of the quake's destruction occurred in the two terrorist-infested areas of northern Pakistan where Osama bin Laden may be holed up - Pakistani-held Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province.

The Oct. 8 calamity brought foreign teams and troops to that restricted region in Pakistan and gave the international community the potential leverage to steer the area away from terrorism. NATO is sending up to 1,000 troops to the quake-hit region in addition to about 1,200 U.S. military men already there. International donors, which have pledged $5.4 billion in quake aid to Pakistan, can ensure that their aid is not used to rebuild the terrorist infrastructure destroyed by the forces of nature.

Several hundred members of underground terrorist groups were reported killed when the earthquake flattened their hideouts and training schools in the two mountainous regions. Several of these groups have enjoyed long-standing ties with the Pakistani military, especially its infamous agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, which reared them as part of its covert war in Indian Kashmir and its success in bringing the now-splintered Taliban to power in Afghanistan.

Pakistan granted outside rescuers access to its restricted areas because it found its own disaster management capabilities woefully inadequate. Now, the access foreign teams and troops have gained to the stricken parts - combined with Pakistan's need for continuing international aid - can be leveraged to help that military-ruled country clean up its terror act. The urgency of that task has been underscored by the death of about 70 festival shoppers in the Oct. 29 New Delhi bombings, which were blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba group.

Pakistan has emerged as a common thread in the investigations of most acts of international terrorism. As Pakistan military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf acknowledged July 21 in an address to the nation after the London subway bombings, "Wherever these extremist or terrorist incidents occur in the world, a direct or indirect connection is established with this country."

Two U.S. reports issued earlier this year presented a bleak picture of Pakistan's future.

The Congressional Research Service warned that Pakistan is "probably the most anti-American country in the world right now." The National Intelligence Council's Global Futures Assessment Report projected a scenario in 2015 of Pakistan as a "failed state ripe with civil war, bloodshed, inter-provincial rivalries, lack of command and control of nuclear weapons and lurching toward extreme fundamentalism."

General Musharraf has since 9/11 ridden two horses - extending selective anti-terror cooperation to the United States, symbolized by some high-profile al-Qaida arrests, and maintaining a political alliance with Islamist parties at home. That way he has managed to pocket billions of dollars in U.S. aid and helped marginalize the political mainstream. His standing at home, however, has been undercut by his inept handling of the earthquake.

The latest calamity highlights the need for international action to help move Pakistan toward a better future by encouraging General Musharraf to uproot the terrorist complex and take measured steps toward democracy.

The massive international relief operation can aid the global war on terror by helping the injured and the displaced in the stricken areas of what remains the last bastion of transnational terrorists. Donors have pledged to build civil infrastructure of a kind that didn't exist there before.

That makes it necessary to ensure that international aid is not illicitly diverted to terrorist groups or employed to rebuild the "hate factories" that churn out trained and committed extremists. The aid needs to be used to help foster development and societal de-radicalization in a region steeped in religious bigotry and teeming with Islamists of different hues and nationalities.

This necessity has been underscored by the way the earthquake relief effort is being directed by young militants wielding AK-47 rifles and walkie-talkies at some of the field camps set up in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir. In fact, underground extremists, seeking to shore up their standing among the local people, are competing with international teams in relief work, with the lead being taken by Jamaat ud-Dawa, an offshoot of the terrorist group that is the main suspect in the New Delhi bombings. Children orphaned by the quake are being "adopted" by terrorist groups for imparting what the Jamaat ud-Dawa calls "Islamic education."

The disaster has opened the first real opportunity for the international community since the post-9/11 launch of the global war on terror to help Pakistan drain its terrorism-breeding swamps.

In Pakistan, where the culture of jihad is deeply woven into the national fabric, cleansing the stricken areas of their terrorist nurseries will not be easy. Despite the large losses they suffered, underground groups have not slowed their activities, as is evident from the killing of dozens of their members by Indian border troops while attempting to sneak in since the quake. What is needed is not just action against such groups, which keep changing their names, but the complete dismantlement of the infrastructure of terror in Pakistan.

Brahma Chellaney is professor of strategic studies at the privately funded Center for Policy Research in New Delhi.

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