Thursday, June 16, 2011

Terror leader lives freely near Pakistani capital

On the outskirts of the Pakistani capital lives a militant considered so powerful that Osama bin Laden consulted with him before issuing a fatwa to attack American interests.

Fazle-ur-Rahman Khalil heads Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, a terrorist group closely aligned with al-Qaida and a signatory to bin Laden's anti-U.S. fatwa in 1998. Khalil has also dispatched fighters to India, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chechnya and Bosnia, was a confidante of bin Laden and hung out with 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Pakistani authorities are clearly aware of Khalil's whereabouts. But they leave him alone, just as they tolerate other Kashmiri militant groups nurtured by the military and its intelligence agency to use against India.

Khalil is also useful to the authorities because of his unusually wide contacts among Pakistan's many militant groups, said a senior government official who is familiar with the security agencies and who spoke on condition he not be identified fearing repercussions.

Khalil's presence in an Islamabad suburb, confirmed to The Associated Press by Western officials in the region, underscores accusations that Pakistan is still playing a double game — fighting some militant groups while tolerating or supporting others — even after the solo U.S. raid that killed bin Laden on May 2.

The U.S. Congress, enraged that bin Laden found refuge for at least five years down the street from Pakistan's equivalent of West Point, has threatened to cut off the billions of dollars in aid being spent here.

Obama administration officials and U.S. Army officers are trying to rebuild the relationship, considered vital to American hopes of negotiating an end to the Afghan war, but if anything the two sides appear to have drifted further apart in recent weeks.

Pakistan's intelligence service has arrested five Pakistanis who fed information to the CIA before the American raid that killed bin Laden, according to a Western official in Pakistan.

The group of detained Pakistanis included the owner of a safe house rented to the CIA to observe bin Laden's compound in the military town of Abbottabad, a U.S. official said. The owner was detained along with a "handful" of other Pakistanis, said the official.

Also, CIA Director Leon Panetta confronted Pakistan's intelligence service about tipping off militants running bomb factories aimed at killing U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. Pakistan denied tipping them off. The militants belong to the Haqqani network, an Afghan Taliban faction that has ties to al-Qaida.

Khalil's Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen, blamed for a deadly attack on the American Consulate in Karachi in 2002, has links to the Haqqanis and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. Hundreds of militants are thought to belong to his organization, though the strength of these groups are the links they share with each other, say analysts.

Khalil himself is not on any U.S. wanted list. In the Islamabad suburb of Golra Sharif, he lives in a nondescript two-story compound that includes a seminary or religious school, hidden behind a traditional high wall protected by barbed wire.

Reached by the AP on his cell phone last month, Khalil dismissed suggestions that he may have been in touch with bin Laden while the al-Qaida leader was hiding in Abbottabad.

"It is 100 percent wrong, it's rubbish," Khalil said. "Osama did not have contact with anybody." The AP obtained Khalil's phone number from a former aide who has since left the terror organization.

The Pakistani senior government official who spoke with AP said Khalil has been arrested twice but each time was released on orders from Pakistan's intelligence agency.

"He was significant for Osama bin Laden," the official said. "He has connections with all these groups in Waziristan but he is living here and we don't go after him. He is the one you go to when you need to get to these groups," tracking kidnap victims for example.

Khalil was once the boss of terror leader Ilyas Kashmiri, believed killed in a drone strike on June 3.

Like most of the militant groups that get a wink and a nod from Pakistan's security agencies, Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen's primary focus is Kashmir, a picturesque region divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by each in its entirety. Kashmir has been the cause of two of three wars between the South Asian neighbors and brought them perilously close to a nuclear confrontation in 2000.

Khalil's group has kidnapped foreigners in Indian Kashmir, killing one. His group also helped in the 1999 hijacking of an Indian airlines plane that resulted in the release of three militants, including Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who is now on death row for his part in the 2002 killing of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Khalil's militant ties include the anti-Indian Lashkar-e-Taiba group, blamed for masterminding the November 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166 people. The AP learned from the same official that seven training camps are operating in Pakistani Kashmir and most of them are run by Jamaat-ud-Dawwa, the name Lashkar-e-Taiba took after being banned.

"There are seven jihadi camps working in Kashmir right now, giving them explosives training," the official said. He said military and intelligence agencies say the camps provide Pakistan with "strategic depth."

"They say we need them, otherwise India will treat us like the rest of South Asia, like they can dictate," he said. "It is only the military and intelligence. The government has no say."

Pakistan has said it has severed its links with these Kashmiri militant groups, though many suspect that is not the case. But it does recognize the dangers posed by some militant groups in another corner of Pakistan — near the Afghan border.

Since deploying troops in 2004 to the region near the Afghan border, Pakistan has lost 3,000 soldiers to militant attacks, more casualties than NATO has suffered over 10 years in Afghanistan.

"Our concern at this point in time is our involvement with northwest Pakistan. We cannot manage to open a new front in central Punjab and in south Punjab," where these groups are headquartered, said a senior military official on condition of anonymity. "Our army is not well trained for counterterrorism in urban centers and we do not have the capacity in our civil law enforcement agencies" to go after these groups.

But many Pakistanis wonder how they got to this place, besieged by militants who bomb them daily while suffering a litany of criticisms and perceived humiliations from their U.S. allies for not doing enough.

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a physicist, columnist and peace activist, recently dubbed his homeland "Jihadistan," saying it wasn't always this way. He laid the blame on an array of players for the current state of affairs in Pakistan.

In a recent column, he first pointed the finger at former military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul Haq. Zia made Islamic radicalism the centerpiece of his military and political strategy, launching the country and the security forces on a path of religious extremism.

Hoodbhoy then blamed Washington's Cold War doctrine that partnered the United States with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Zia's Pakistan in the 1980s to embrace Islamic radicalism to defeat Soviet forces in Afghanistan. The partnership brought Islamic radicals from across the Middle East to Pakistan.

The strategy worked, and the Russians left Afghanistan. But the cost of victory was a toxic mix of Islamic radicals.

"Jihadistan is a messy place these days, a far cry from the simple bastion of anti-communism in the 1980s," he wrote. "Today the military must kill some of its former proteges and some radicals even as it secretly supports others."

A former U.S. ambassador to Islamabad says throwing money at Pakistan won't wean it off jihadi groups so long as its fear of India dictates its security policies.

"It is the perception of India as the primary threat to the Pakistani state that colors its perceptions of the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan's security needs," Anne Patterson said in a 2009 cable made public by WikiLeaks.

She said the United States should discourage India from excessive involvement in Afghanistan, and scale back American military sales to New Delhi.

"We need to reassess Indian involvement in Afghanistan and our own policies toward India, including the growing military relationship through sizable conventional arms sales, as all of this feeds Pakistani establishment paranoia and pushes them closer to both Afghan and Kashmir-focused terrorist groups while reinforcing doubts about U.S. intentions," Patterson said in the memo.


TRUSTLAW POLL-Afghanistan is most dangerous country for women

Afghanistan tops expert poll of dangers to women

* Congo plagued by rape as weapon of war

* Pakistan blighted by acid attacks and 'honour killings'

* India cited for trafficking and sexual slavery

* Somalia seen as having full gamut of risks

(Corrects attribution of quotation in paragraphs 3-4)

LONDON (TrustLaw) - Violence, dismal healthcare and brutal poverty make Afghanistan the world's most dangerous country for women, with Congo a close second due to horrific levels of rape, a Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll said on Wednesday.

Pakistan, India and Somalia ranked third, fourth and fifth, respectively, in the global survey of perceptions of threats ranging from domestic abuse and economic discrimination to female foeticide, genital mutilation and acid attacks.

"Ongoing conflict, NATO airstrikes and cultural practices combined make Afghanistan a very dangerous place for women," said Clementina Cantoni, a Pakistan-based aid worker with ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid department.

"In addition, women who do attempt to speak out or take on public roles that challenge ingrained gender stereotypes of what's acceptable for women to do or not, such as working as policewomen or news broadcasters, are often intimidated or killed."

The poll by TrustLaw, a legal news service run by Thomson Reuters Foundation, marked the launch of its new TrustLaw Women section, a global hub of news and information on women's legal rights.

TrustLaw asked 213 gender experts from five continents to rank countries by overall perceptions of danger as well as by six risks. The risks were health threats, sexual violence, non-sexual violence, cultural or religious factors, lack of access to resources and trafficking.

Some experts said the poll showed that subtle dangers such as discrimination that don't grab headlines are sometimes just as significant risks for women as bombs, bullets, stonings and systematic rape in conflict zones.

"I think you have to look at all the dangers to women, all the risks women and girls face," said Elisabeth Roesch, who works on gender-based violence for the International Rescue Committee in Washington.

"If a woman can't access healthcare because her healthcare isn't prioritised, that can be a very dangerous situation as well."


Afghanistan emerged as the most dangerous country for women overall and worst in three of the six risk categories: health, non-sexual violence and lack of access to economic resources.

Respondents cited sky-high maternal mortality rates, limited access to doctors and a near total lack of economic rights. Afghan women have a one in 11 chance of dying in childbirth, according to UNICEF.

Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), still reeling from a 1998-2003 war and accompanying humanitarian disaster that killed 5.4 million people, came second mainly due to staggering levels of sexual violence in the lawless east.

More than 400,000 women are raped in the country each year, according to a recent study by U.S. researchers. The United Nations has called Congo the rape capital of the world.

"Statistics from DRC are very revealing on this: ongoing war, use of rape as a weapon, recruitment of females as soldiers who are also used as sex slaves," ECHO's Cantoni said.

The fact that the government is corrupt and that female rights are very low on the agenda means that there is little or no recourse to justice."

Rights activists say militia groups and soldiers target all ages, including girls as young as three and elderly women. They are gang-raped, raped with bayonets and have guns shot into their vaginas.

Pakistan ranked third largely on the basis of cultural, tribal and religious practices harmful to women. These include acid attacks, child and forced marriage and punishment or retribution by stoning or other physical abuse.

"Pakistan has some of the highest rates of dowry murder, so-called honour killings and early marriage," said Divya Bajpai, reproductive health advisor at the International HIV/AIDS Alliance.

Some 1,000 women and girls die in honour killings annually, according to Pakistan's Human Rights Commission.


India ranked fourth primarily due to female foeticide, infanticide and human trafficking.

In 2009, India's then-Home Secretary Madhukar Gupta estimated that 100 million people, mostly women and girls, were involved in trafficking in India that year.

"The practice is common but lucrative so it goes untouched by government and police," said Cristi Hegranes, founder of the Global Press institute, which trains women in developing countries to be journalists.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation estimated that in 2009 about 90 percent of trafficking took place within the country and that there were some 3 million prostitutes, of which about 40 percent were children.

In addition to sex slavery, other forms of trafficking include forced labour and forced marriage, according to a U.S. State Department report on trafficking in 2010. The report also found slow progress in criminal prosecutions of traffickers.

Up to 50 million girls are thought to be "missing" over the past century due to female infanticide and foeticide, the U.N. Population Fund says.

Some experts said the world's largest democracy was relatively forthcoming about describing its problems, possibly casting it in a darker light than if other countries were equally transparent about trafficking.

Somalia ranked fifth due to a catalogue of dangers including high maternal mortality, rape and female genital mutilation, along with limited access to education, healthcare and economic

"I'm completely surprised because I thought Somalia would be first on the list, not fifth," Somali women's minister Maryan Qasim told TrustLaw.

"The most dangerous thing a woman in Somalia can do is to become pregnant. When a woman becomes pregnant her life is 50-50 because there is no antenatal care at all. There are no hospitals, no healthcare, no nothing.

"Add to that the rape cases that happen on a daily basis, the female genital mutilation that is being done to every single girl in Somalia. Add to that the famine and the drought. Add to that the fighting (which means) you can die any minute, any day."

Poll respondents included aid professionals, academics, health workers, policymakers, journalists and development specialists.