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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 July, 2005, 17:15 GMT 18:15 UK
Pakistan's risky strategy against terror

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Karachi

Osama Bin Laden
The US has offered $25m for Bin Laden's capture

Pakistan seems to have embarked on a new strategy to flush out militants sympathetic to Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network from its territory.

The game plan involves letting loose dozens of suspects known to have been affiliated with or at least sympathetic to al-Qaeda, in the hope that they would eventually lead the authorities to some top wanted figures in the terrorist organisation.

Top security experts admit that it is a dangerous game but argue that a similar approach in the past has reaped rich dividends.

In particular, they point to Pakistan's northern tribal area of Waziristan - the inhospitable and semi-governed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where a year-long confrontation with militants has cost the Pakistan army over 500 lives.

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Security experts say former Guantanamo detainees - released by the Pakistan authorities on being returned - unwittingly led security agencies to many previously unknown hideouts used by local and foreign militants in the area.

The strategy of tailing suspects instead of arresting them was also instrumental in curbing the budding network of nationalist insurgents in the province of Balochistan.

Similarly, say security officials, top al-Qaeda arrests in many parts of the country including Karachi were possible because of the released suspects who had led the authorities to their mentors.

Pakistani authorities have now clearly decided to extend this strategy on a scale that some feel could lead to unexpected results.

Strict security

In immediate terms, the strategy means easing some of the restrictions imposed earlier on top Pakistani militants.

The visible part of the plan unfolding in recent weeks came in the shape of the release of about 150 Pakistanis who had returned from Guantanamo Bay.

After extensive debriefing lasting between nine to 10 months, most of these men were allowed to go free.

Pakistani officials say those released will remain subject to strict security protocols first drawn up when Pakistan opted to throw in its lot with the US after the 11 September attacks in the United States.

According to these regulations, local police authorities are required to keep track of the movements of these individuals and maintain the information in a central database set up by the federal government.

But what Pakistani officials are unlikely to admit as openly is the fact that most of these individuals will also be under constant watch using the hi-tech surveillance equipment deployed in Pakistan by the US.

The extent to which the Pakistani authorities are banking on their strategy is obvious from the new found freedom of some of the militant outfits.

Many of them - despite their well-known exposure to and sympathies for al-Qaeda - have reportedly reopened their offices in many parts of the country.

Top security experts admit that it is a dangerous game

There are also reports that at least two such organisations - Harkatul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed - have restarted training camps in the district of Mansehra in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

Harkatul Mujahideen was a part of the meeting called by Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in early 1998. At this meeting, Bin Laden announced the formation of International Islamic Front against "Jews and Crusaders".

The Harkat's commitment to Bin Laden's new platform came to light when several Harkat militants from Pakistan were killed in US missile strikes at an al-Qaeda training camp near the Afghan city of Khost in August 1998.

Soft approach

In early 2000, the Harkat split into two - giving birth to the hardline and fanatical Jaish-e-Mohammed group. Activists of Jaish were later implicated in several terror attacks including the assassination attempts on President Pervez Musharraf and Shaukat Aziz, who was soon to become prime minister.

Some security analysts in Pakistan have been critical of the government's seemingly soft stance in relation to Harkat and Jaish - wondering why they have not been dealt with as severely as some of the other groups.

Pakistani troops
Pakistan has sent troops into its unruly tribal areas

While other militant groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi have been neutered with their entire leadership arrested or killed, these two groups have not suffered to a similar extent.

The latest example of the government's soft approach was the release two weeks ago of Harkat chief Fazlur Rehman Khalili. He was first detained in September last year, released for a short while, but eventually placed under house arrest.

Mr Khalili has now been released again - perhaps as part of a "network of human probes" that the authorities are hoping may lead them to top al-Qaeda leadership.

Pakistani security officials privately admit that the plan is fraught with the danger of a resurgence of terror attacks inside Pakistan.

But they forcefully argue that Pakistan has little chance but to take the risk.

In their assessment, the new lease of life afforded to militants may lead to an intensification of violence in Kashmir as well as inside Pakistan.

But as one official put it, it may well be a small price to pay if it leads to the eventual capture of the world's most wanted man.


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