Jan 12, 2010

Lessons we must learn

Rahimullah Yusufzai

There are lessons to be learnt from the recent suicide bombing at the secret CIA station in Afghanistan's Khost province bordering Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region. A Jordanian medical doctor of Palestinian origin with a Turkish wife teamed up with other Arab nationals from Al Qaeda and sought the help of Pakistani, and possibly Afghan, Taliban to carry out this attack and inflict the heaviest loss to the premier US spy agency in 26 years. It showed how widespread the animosity is among Muslims against the US given its policies and explained the way Islamic militants transcending borders are increasingly joining hands to fight what they perceive as a common enemy.

One is sure no lessons will be learnt from this event. In the manner of the 9/11 attacks, the US would embark on another costly mission to hunt down the attackers. The CIA has pledged to avenge the loss of its seven agents who were killed in Khost, and the six others injured and apparently out of action for a long time. There would be more missile strikes by the CIA-operated drones in Pakistan's tribal areas and greater pressure on the Pakistan military to launch action against the militants in North Waziristan. Already, influential US Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman after recent meetings with top Pakistan government officials are saying that Pakistani security forces are preparing to undertake some action in North Waziristan. In the heat of the moment, no thought would be given to the consequences of such a militaristic approach to the already volatile situation.

Dr Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordanian suicide bomber came all the way from Zarqa to Waziristan to attack CIA's Khost base. It isn't clear if he came via Afghanistan or Pakistan, but the way he gained unchecked access to the CIA station was evidence enough that he already knew his Jordanian handler, Captain Ali bin Zeid, an operative of his country's intelligence agency and member of the royal family who was also killed in the suicide attack, and through him the CIA agents. It is possible he had already paid visits to the CIA base in Khost and earned the trust of his handlers. The Jordanian and American spies thought they had someone in their control who could lead them to Al Qaeda leaders, particularly Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri who has figured as the real or imagined target in most US missile strikes in Bajaur and Waziristan in recent years. The more plausible explanation is that he had been infiltrated from Afghanistan into North Waziristan, and from there to South Waziristan where his farewell video tape, while seated beside the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) head Hakimullah Mehsud, was recorded.

It was a properly done tape with Balawi first holding a weapon outside and then shown sitting in a room with Hakimullah and making his statement in Arabic and English. The young bearded man in military fatigues is seen describing the CIA and Jordanian intelligence as enemies of the Muslim nation and arguing that "God's combatant never exposes his religion to blackmail and never renounces it, even if he is offered the sun in one hand and the moon in the other." And then he describes late TTP leader Baitullah Mehsud as his amir (head) and tells him that he won't be forgotten, and his blood would be avenged in and outside America. Balawi then says that Baitullah paid with his life for offering to protect Osama bin Laden if he came to South Waziristan.

From Balawi's statement, it seems as if he was being offered money to spy on the militants and assist the CIA and Jordanian intelligence in tracking down important Al Qaeda and Taliban figures. Taliban sources are claiming that Abu Dujana al-Khorasani, the name Balawi used as a fighter, rejected Jordanian and American intelligence offers of millions of dollars for spying on the 'mujahideen.' They also insist that he shared US and Jordanian state secrets with the militants. Both the CIA and the Jordanian spy agency suffered embarrassment due to the intelligence failures and security lapses in this incident. As if trying to cover up, the CIA Director Leon Panetta claimed in a recent article that Balawi was about to be searched when he detonated his explosives.

By trying to lure or manipulate Balawi and use him to track down Al Qaeda figures, the CIA and its allied spy agencies also revealed their desperation. They haven't made any major breakthrough despite years of efforts to infiltrate the militant organisations such as Al Qaeda and Taliban. Offers of record rewards for capturing the wanted men are also not making any headway. It was thus a desperate move to trust someone like Balawi with a history of sympathising with Al Qaeda and start believing that he had changed and could be used to get the world's most wanted man bin Laden, his deputy Dr Zawahiri and others. It shows that all talk of Bin Laden or Zawahiri hiding in this or that place in the Pak-Afghan border areas is mere speculation as there has been no confirmed sighting of these individuals since December 2001 when they reportedly escaped to Tora Bora in eastern Afghanistan and then vanished.

Balawi had to say what he said in his farewell video-taped message, but the statements made by his Turkish wife, Dafne Bayrak, are instructive. The young woman who married Balawi while studying in Istanbul in 2001 holds a degree in journalism and has written articles for Islamic publications and also a book entitled Osama bin Laden: Che Guevara of the East. She expressed pride in her husband's mission and recalled that he regarded the US as an enemy. Denying that Balawi was an American agent, she argued that he only could have used America and Jordan to reach his goal. However, she declined to call Balawi a martyr and instead prayed to Allah to accept his martyrdom. This is how a highly educated, scarf-wearing woman from secular and westernised Turkey, which is the only Muslim country to be a member of NATO, thinks about the US and admiringly looks at the fight being waged by militants against America and it's allies.

Balawi's father Khalil al-Balawi also said he was proud of his son even though his death broke his heart. He appeared satisfied that his son killed some of those in the intelligence agencies who manipulated him. Balawi, he reminded, was a doctor who saved lives, but was sucked into the whirlpool of the intelligence agencies instead of being able to serve his people. This was not only the anguish of a father, but also a strong indictment of the working of intelligence agencies that manipulate and blackmail people into doing unwanted spying work.

Reports in the Arab press explain how Balawi was radicalised by the US occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. His wife said that in particular he was disturbed by the US treatment of Iraqi prisoners in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib prison and the destruction of Fallujah city in November 2004. The Israeli war on Palestinian territory of Gaza, often described as the biggest open air jail in the world, also upset him. He reportedly tried to go to Gaza to offer medical care to the Palestinians but was stopped by the Jordanian authorities. This is believable since his family originally belonged to Beershaba in Palestine, from where Israel under its ethnic and religious cleansing policy since 1948 has been uprooting Palestinians and annexing territory with backing from Western countries. It isn't surprising that Palestinians have been radicalised to no end and many of them have been active in hard-line organisations ranging from Fatah to Hamas and even Al Qaeda.

The Pakistani Taliban as one of their commanders Qari Hussain claimed may have facilitated Balawi in carrying out the suicide bombing at the CIA's Khost base and the video in which the bomber and Hakimullah are seated together is evidence of their close ties, but it is difficult to believe that they could have accomplished the mission without the support of Afghan Taliban, particularly the powerful Haqqani network dominant in Khost. It could have been a joint operation with Balawi having links to Al Qaeda receiving explosives and some training from the Taliban and then embarking on a mission that was primarily facilitated by the unwary Jordanian and CIA intelligence agents.

It should worry the US and its allies that Muslims the world over find it difficult to trust western nations. This is benefiting the militants and providing justification to their cause. The CIA agents were attacked because they were directing US drone attacks that kill some Al Qaeda and Taliban members and many more civilians in Pakistan's tribal areas. The fact that Islamic militants from different countries and cultures have been planning and conducting joint operations against western targets should be a matter of concern for the US and its friends. There should be some soul-searching on the part of all sides to the conflict to think of other and preferably peaceful options instead of embarking on revenge and continuing this vicious circle of death and destruction.

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