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North Waziristan: the new terrorist epicentre?

The investigations into Faisal Shahzad’s attempted car bombing in New York have shifted focus to his links in Pakistan. While little evidence has so far emerged of his link to one or the other terrorist group, his own admission according to US officials says he received bomb-making training in North Waziristan during a five-month stay in the country. One should be grateful that the training did not prove adequate, otherwise the bomb that failed to go off would have had devastating consequences for innocent citizens in New York.

Faisal’s family, relatives and friends are being sought. His parents and some relatives have gone ‘underground’, while some arrests are reported across the country. The Pakistani investigation team, spanning both military and civilian intelligence agencies, says a case can only be registered against Shahzad once some link is established with a terrorist group on Pakistani soil. One cannot but agree with the scepticism of the DG ISPR that the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) claim of responsibility needs to be taken with a pinch of salt since there is no evidence they have the kind of outreach to mount an operation on US soil. Nevertheless, the involvement of the TTP or even more significantly al Qaeda in imparting the rudimentary training Shahzad received cannot be ruled out. Shahzad continues to insist he acted alone, but given the confession of a link with North Waziristan and phone records showing calls to Pakistan just before the botched bombing contradict that claim. All this could lead to the speculation that a new strategy is being resorted to by the terrorist network to use ‘lone wolf’ operators abroad to hit the US. That would fit in with the nature of asymmetrical warfare, in which hitting ‘soft’ targets is the logical progression when the terrorists are under pressure, as they are from the Pakistani military’s offensives in FATA and Swat and the US drone strikes. Whether this heralds, in conjunction with the earlier attempt by a Nigerian national to blow up a US plane, a new form of global jihad using lone operators (more difficult to detect, particularly if they are citizens of the countries they reside in, like the US in this instance) to hit soft targets such as busy streets, shopping malls, etc, remains to be seen. Naturally, as we have learnt already to our cost in Pakistan, it is very difficult to prevent such attacks.

While the investigations in the US, Pakistan and elsewhere grind on, this perhaps is the moment to reflect on the role of North Waziristan in the new configuration of terror. Reports have consistently pointed out that militants who escaped the military’s offensives in Swat, South Waziristan and other parts of FATA have found refuge in North Waziristan with the Jalaluddin Haqqani network. The military in the past has seemed reluctant to expand its operations into North Waziristan, partly because Haqqani is still seen as a pro-Pakistan asset in a post-US Afghanistan, partly because the military was reluctant to open a new front while it was still engaged in ‘mopping up’ operations in Swat and FATA. If the story about Faisal Shahzad receiving training in North Waziristan is true, and there are other reports of North Waziristan not only providing a safe haven for militants displaced by the military’s offensives, but also militants from far and wide, including what are now dubbed the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, it may be inescapable for the military to focus on how to take out this new epicentre of terrorism. This is not only necessary for the success of the military’s efforts elsewhere in FATA and Swat, it is now critical generally to ensure the militants are unable to regroup and cause headaches to Pakistan and the world through attacks such as the New York one. Failing to take action against the terrorists holed up in North Waziristan will doubtless bring renewed pressure from the US, and if cooperation is not forthcoming, the millions of dollars of US military and civilian aid may be threatened. The government and the military need to revisit the ‘hands off’ policy on North Waziristan and grasp the nettle firmly.

Source: Daily Times, Editorial, 7 May 2010

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