WASHINGTON — India’s Central Bureau of Investigation is turning up evidence that is proving inconvenient for the Bush administration as it tries to maintain its shaky alliance with Pakistan.
As administration officials, led by State Secretary Colin Powell, praise Pakistan for its help in the war on terrorism, FBI agents responding to Indian leads are quietly investigating Pakistan-based terrorist groups connected to al-Qaida and the Sept. 11 hijackings.
While the American press has largely ignored the Pakistan angle, the Indian press has been putting together pieces to a puzzle that makes Islamabad look more like a willing sponsor of terrorism than a trusted ally in the fight against terrorism.
The Pakistani connection
First, rewind to 1999. On Dec. 24, five Pakistani nationals armed with knives hijacked Indian Airlines Flight IC-814 from Katmandu to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Led by Sunny Ahmed Qazi, alias “Burger,” the hijackers slashed the throat of one of the 178 passengers, a honeymooner, and forced pilots to open the cockpit door.
On Sept. 11, of course, five al-Qaida terrorists armed with knives hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and steered it into the first World Trade Center tower. Led by Mohamed Atta, the hijackers slit the throats of at least two flight attendants and forced pilots to open the cockpit door. Their confederates, also operating in groups of five and wielding knives, hijacked two other jetliners. Another group of four, reportedly one man short, hijacked a fourth plane.
What’s the connection, besides the mode of operation? Plenty.
Burger demanded the Indian government release three Pakistani terrorists from prison in exchange for the airline hostages. After an eight-day stand-off, New Delhi agreed to free Ahmed Omar Sayeed Sheikh among the three.
Sheikh turns out to be one of Osama bin Laden’s chief money men. About a year before the Sept. 11 attacks, Sheikh wired $100,000 from Pakistan to Atta from an account in the United Arab Emirates capital of Dubai. Sheikh was spotted in Islamabad at the time the money was transferred.
The $100,000 covered the hijackers’ flight-school tuition and airfare, as well as living expenses. Sheikh picked up an unspent residual of more than $25,000 from Atta and three other hijackers in Dubai right before the attacks, then fled back to Karachi, Pakistan.
The 28-year-old Sheikh is a leader in Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed (J-e-M), an Islamic militant group. Its founder, Mohammad Masood Azhar, aka Maulana Masood, is closely linked to bin Laden.
In fact, bin Laden is understood to have helped fund the well-financed, well-organized J-e-M, making it al-Qaida’s arm in Pakistan. J-e-M also runs terrorist training camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
But don’t stop there.
Azhar was freed along with Sheikh in the 1999 India Airlines hostages-for-prisoners deal.
Delhi’s capitulation proved a fatal error, as Azhar is now accused of masterminding the J-e-M’s Dec. 13 suicide attack on India’s Parliament House in which 14 were killed, including five J-e-M terrorists.
And there’s more: Delhi police believe that the leader of the suicide squad was none other than Burger, the lead hijacker of the India Airlines flight.
The Indian government thinks Pakistan’s military spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), has sponsored and protected Azhar and his prot?g?, Sheikh. And it accuses ISI of sponsoring the Dec. 13 suicide attack on the Indian Parliament. What’s more, it suspects ISI was tied to the 1999 hijacking.
“Azhar is considered to be a pampered terrorist of Pakistan’s ISI,” said The Press Trust of India.
India Abroad says ISI has been “instrumental” in recruiting terrorists for training camps in Kashmir.
But here’s what’s really disturbing.
According to accounts in both The Times of India and India Today, former ISI chief Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmad instructed Sheikh to send the $100,000 to Atta.
“A direct link between the ISI and the WTC attack could have enormous repercussions,” the Times article said. “The U.S. cannot but suspect whether there were other senior Pakistani Army commanders who were in the know of things.”
It added: “Evidence of a larger conspiracy could shake U.S. confidence in Pakistan’s ability to participate in the anti-terrorism coalition.”
The Times says Ahmad lost his job only after India shared with the FBI evidence showing a link between the general and Sheikh’s wiring of funds to Atta.
J-e-M’s accounts were frozen not long after Dennis M. Lormel, director of
FBI’s financial crimes unit, confirmed the $100,000 transaction, if not the
“They wired over $100,000 into Mr. [Mohamed] Atta a year ago,” he
testified in October, not identifying who “they” were.
The Bush administration has said the money trail is a crucial link in uncovering the support network for the 19 hijackers, and then destroying that network.
However, a major hub of that network is in Pakistan, and it’s still active, as India learned, tragically, last month.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has banned J-e-M and arrested Azhar. But Azhar is not the only terrorist on India’s list of wanted terrorists from Pakistan.
Sheikh reportedly now lives near the Binori mosque in Karachi, on the Pakistani coast. And the four remaining hijackers of Indian Airlines Flight 814 are still hiding in Pakistan.
The FBI has trusted Pakistani authorities to question Azhar.
But according to the Gulf News, the FBI earlier this month asked the Pakistani government for permission to question Azhar. U.S. officials are reportedly interested in his links to bin Laden, Sheikh and the Sept. 11 attacks. They also want to ask him about bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Asked about the request, an FBI spokesman demurred.
“I can’t answer that question at this point because of the diplomatic issues involved,” FBI’s Jay Spadafore told WorldNetDaily, referring to the administration’s tender alliance with Pakistan.
Have any FBI agents traveled to Islamabad recently?
Spadafore put down the phone and checked with a superior before returning to the line.
“I can’t comment on where we’ve deployed agents,” he said.
It’s become increasingly clear that Pakistan is the epicenter of terrorism, and is most likely sheltering bin Laden.
Yet, at least publicly, the Bush administration continues to trust the Pakistani government to help capture bin Laden and other anti-American terrorists.
At a Jan. 16 press conference in Pakistan, for example, Powell stubbornly insisted that Pakistan is not running a base for terrorism, or sponsoring and harboring terrorists linked to al-Qaida. He suggested the terrorists there are nothing more than free radicals.
Asked by an Indian reporter about the seemingly well-organized network of terrorists still operating there, he said that no country is immune from terrorism. Even America has its own “home-grown” terrorists, Powell said dismissively.