ISLAMABAD: Almost a decade after the October 18, 2007 twin suicide bombings in Karachi targeting former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s homecoming procession, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the ameer of the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), who had been named by Mohtarma in her posthumous book as the key suspect in Karachi attacks, has seemingly died a silent death in Afghanistan while pursuing his radical jihadi agenda.
Qari was gunned down in Afghanistan on January 9, 2017 during a clash with the Afghan security forces in in the southern province of Ghazni. The National Directorate of Security (NDS), the Afghan intelligence service, confirmed almost 40 days later [on February 18, 2017] that its forces killed Qari Saifullah Akhtar during a raid in January in the Ghazni province. The NDS spokesman said Saifullah Akhtar and one of his “comrades” were killed during a raid in the district of Nawa in Ghazni on January 9, 2017. It is unclear why the NDS took more than five weeks to confirm his death. Qari managed a terrorist hub in the Bagram and Reshkhor regions of Kabul province, according to the NDS. Just one day after the raid, the Pakistani press had reported that Qari has been killed in Paktika’s Bermal district. However, his death has not been announced by either al-Qaeda or Harakatul Jehadul Islami (the Movement of Islamic Holy War), which Qari used to lead. He was a valuable asset to the Inter-Serves Intelligence (ISI), so much so that he was released from custody four separate times, despite being directly being linked to multiple terrorist attacks and plots inside Pakistan.
Nawa district, where Qari Saifullah Akhtar was killed, is a known haven for Afghan Taliban which provides shelter to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Qari’s presence in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. Al-Qaeda has maintained a significant presence in Afghanistan, despite claims by the Obama administration that the group was decimated there. Qari Saifullah Akhtar and HUJI have worked with the Taliban and al-Qaeda for decades. Like many Pakistani-based jihadi groups fighting in Jammu and Kashmir, the HUJI received support from Pakistan’s military and the Inter-Services Intelligence. Qari Saifullah Akhtar took control of the HUJI after the group’s previous leader was killed fighting the Soviets in 1985. He had subsequently expanded HUJI’s infrastructure throughout Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
Qari Saifullah Akhtar had not only served as a political advisor to the Afghan Taliban ameer Mullah Mohammad Omar, but had remained in touch with the former al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. However, since most of the bearded heroes of the past [most of whom were the stooges of the intelligence agencies] have been made zeros in the wake of the Operation Zarb-e-Azab and the changing policy of the mighty military establishment, the death of the once mythical jehadi commander failed to receive much coverage in the mainstream Pakistani media.
Around 150 people were killed and hundreds others wounded when two suicide blasts in quick succession ripped through the procession as it reached the Karsaz area at mid night. Although Ms Bhutto had survived the Karachi suicide bombings, she was assassinated in the garrison town of Rawalpindi almost ten weeks later on December 27, 2007. Almost two weeks after her martyrdom, Ms Bhutto had named the ameer of al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked outfit, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, in her posthumous book as a principal suspect in the attempt to kill her in Karachi on October 18 2007. Shortly before her assassination, Ms Bhutto was giving final touches to her hard-hitting memoirs entitled, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and West, which was published by Simon & Schuster six weeks after her death.
In the book she made some shocking allegations from the grave, stating that Qari Saifullah had been involved in the bloody Karachi attack. The bomb explosions were powerful enough to rip off a door of her truck; what saved Benazir Bhutto was that she wasn’t atop the truck at that fatal moment. Investigations have revealed prior knowledge of the security architecture around Benazir Bhutto. Not only were the attacks three-pronged, the mastermind chose suicide bombers to evade the jamming devices fitted into two vehicles immediately in front and behind her truck. The jammers could have prevented any blast triggered by a remote-controlled device, as had happened during one of the two attempts on Musharraf’s life in December 2003 in Rawalpindi. The nature of the explosives used in the twin attacks against Benazir Bhutto had indicated highly intricate planning.
Investigations revealed that the bombers had strapped themselves with 15-20 kg of a fiery mix of C4 and Trinitrotoluene explosives. So, who were the people having access to such devastating and rarely available explosives and being aware of the obstacles they would encounter in targeting Bhutto? In her book, Benazir Bhutto herself stated, ‘It was Qari Saifullah Akhtar to whom the intelligence officials in Lahore had turned to for help before my homecoming on 18 October 2007.’ The PPP circles had subsequently asked as to why an al-Qaeda linked dreaded terrorist having known links with the Taliban militia was set free by the Musharraf regime after three years in imprisonment, shortly before her homecoming. The clandestine release in May 2007, just a few months before BB’s return, therefore, evoked suspicions among the PPP circles of a nexus between Qari Saifullah and the Musharraf regime.
One must not forget that Qari had always been regarded as an intelligence asset who was involved in the 1995 failed attempt to stage a coup against the Bhutto government, but was given a safe passage after becoming an approver. Benazir Bhutto wrote in her book: ‘I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari [Saifullah Akhtar], a wanted jehadi terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari [Saifullah Akhtar] for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one. The bomb blasts took place in the army cantonment area in Karachi”.
On February 26, 2008, two weeks after Bhutto’s revelations, the Musharraf regime had arrested Qari Saifullah for interrogations, although there were many in the establishment circles who believed that the Qari has actually been taken into protective custody by his handlers. As a matter of fact, Qari was considered to be a handy tool of the intelligence establishment who they used and dumped whenever required. The Qari was seized by the security agencies along with his three sons (Asif Ali, Abdul Rehman and Mureed Ahmad) in Ferozwala, near Lahore. He was grilled by a joint interrogation team comprised of operatives from the Punjab Police, the Inter-Services Intelligence and the Special Investigation Group of the Federal Investigation Agency.
During interrogations, Qari claimed that he had already adopted the path of Sufism since his May 2007 release and was living for the past few months in the secluded Khanqah (Sufi retreat) of a renowned Sufi cum militant of the 18th century, Syed Ahmad Shaheed (b.1786 d.1831). Although Syed Ahmed’s tomb is situated in Balakot, his followers have established a Khanqah in his name near Sagian Bridge in Ferozwala area, close to Lahore, from where he was seized. Qari told his interrogators that upon his release, he went to Masjidul Huda lane Hamza Town, Lahore to meet his Pir (spiritual mentor), Syed Nafees Shah, also a follower of Syed Ahmed Shaheed, who ordered him to stay in the Ferozwala Khanqah and work for the spiritual guidance of the people.
Qari Saifullah also conceded that his failed ‘Operation Khilafat’ of 1995 to topple Bhutto’s second government with the help of his like-minded army men, was meant to bring in the Khliafat system in Pakistan and to enforce Shariah in accordance with the teachings of Syed Ahmed Shaheed. Qari told his interrogators that his Pir (mentor) Syed Nafees Shah had declared him ‘Khalifah’ in his place, shortly before his February 5, 2008 death and he was duty bound to fulfill his mission of converting Pakistan into a pure Islamic state, to be ruled by a Khalifah who has the traits of both Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Ahmad Shah Abdali.
Born on January 8, 1959, Qari Saifullah Akhtar was a graduate of the Jamia Binoria in Karachi. He was arrested and extradited from the United Arab Emirates on August 7, 2004 on charges of plotting twin suicide attacks on Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003. However, instead of trying to prosecute and convict him after his arrest, the agencies chose to keep him under detention for the next two years and nine months, without even filing any criminal charges against. His “unprovoked” arrest was challenged in the Supreme Court of Pakistan in the first week of January 2005. On January 18, 2005, the Supreme Court had dismissed the petition against Qari’s arrest and directed the petitioner to first move the High Court by filing a habeas corpus writ petition. A Supreme Court bench ruled that the arrest in this case was not a matter of public importance and hence a constitutional petition could not be filed directly in the Supreme Court under Article 184(3) of the Constitution. But following Benazir’s murder, it emerged that Qari was quietly released by the agencies as one of the missing persons being sought by a Supreme Court bench headed by the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
Before that, on 5 May 2007, the federal government had told the Supreme Court that Qari Saifullah was not in the custody of the state agencies. The concise report presented by the National Crisis Management cell to the Supreme Court revealed: “He is engaged in jehadi activities somewhere in Punjab,” thus denying that he was under detention. Two weeks later, on May 21, 2007, Qari Saifullah suddenly reached his hometown in Mandi Bahauddin, with the national media reporting on May 22, 2007 that Qari Saifullah Akhtar was actually released by an intelligence agency earlier that morning when he was thrown out of an official car in a deserted area near the Chakwal district. The release was subsequently brought into the notice of the apex court on May 26, 2007 by the Ministry of Interior.
Hashmat Habib, the counsel for Qari Saifullah Akhtar, having confirmed the release of his client, told the Supreme Court that while setting him free, the intelligence officials had told his client that had they not picked him up, there was a strong possibility of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) taking him away for interrogations because of his alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban links. At the time of his August 2004 dramatic arrest and subsequent extradition from the United Arab Emirates, the Pakistani authorities had described the development as a major blow to the al-Qaeda sponsored terrorist network and its local affiliates in Pakistan. The then Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed went to the extent of painting him as a close aide of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, and the operational head of al-Qaeda in Pakistan. ‘We confirm that we have arrested Qari Saifullah Akhtar. He was on our wanted list for a long time”, he had stated during a news conference.
On March 20, 2008, almost three weeks after his February 26, 2008 arrest, Qari Saifullah was produced before Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi for involvement in the October 2007 attacks on Benazir Bhutto’s procession. Justice Khawaja Naveed subsequently granted 12 days’ remand to the Karachi police till March 29, 2008 so that Qari could be grilled thoroughly. On March 20, 2008, Hashmat Habib, the counsel of Saifullah, told the media in Karachi that he had sued the printer, publisher and beneficiaries Benazir Bhutto’s book for falsely accusing his client of being involved in the Karachi bombing and thus damaging his reputation. ‘I have moved the suit under Section 8 of the Defamation Ordinance 2002, seeking damages of $200 million.
Five days later, on March 26, 2008, Justice Kh Naveed Ahmed ordered the release of Qari on bail after the investigation officer reported to the ATC that no evidence had been found to link him with any terrorist activity. Investigation officer Nawaz Ranjha submitted a report to the court stating that during initial investigations he did not get enough evidence to file a charge sheet against Qari. ‘The suspect was interrogated during the 12-day period given by the court but he denied involvement in the blasts. Under Section 497 of the Criminal Procedure Code, when a person accused of a non-bail able offence is arrested without warrant by an officer-in-charge of a police station, he may be released on bail when he is brought before a court, but he shall not be so released if there are reasonable grounds to believe that he is guilty of an offence punishable with death or imprisonment for life or imprisonment for 10 years,’ so stated the report submitted to the court.
Although the judge accepted the report and ordered Qari Saifullah’s release on bail, Qari was rearrested under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) and shifted to a Karachi safe house. Two months later, on June 8, 2008, Qari was released by the Sindh Home Department when the term for his detention expired. ‘He is a free person. There is no case against him anywhere in Pakistan,’ Qari’s lawyer told media persons. Subsequent media reports indicated that Qari had shifted his jehadi base to Waziristan by the end of 2008. In August 2010, the national media reported that Qari Saifullah has been arrested from Chishtian district of Punjab, as he had abandoned Waziristan after being wounded in a US drone attack. But he was set free following the orders of the Punjab home department almost three months later in December 2010, on the third death anniversary of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.
While the Pakistani intelligence agencies had been feeding faulty info to the Ministry of Interior that Qari Saifullah Akhtar was leading a secluded life in the Ferozwala area near Lahore after adopting the path of Sufism and renouncing, it emerged that he was actually waging jehad in Birmil area of Paktika province Afghanistan where he was finally gunned down in the first week of January 2017.
The significance of Qari Saifullah Akhtar as a key jihadi commander can be gauged from the fact that he had founded the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI), which is considered to be the mother of many lethal jehadi groups in Pakistan and that once had outreach to various conflicts zones across the Muslim world. When Osama bin Laden had released a fatwa under the banner World Islamic Front for Jihad Against the Jews and Crusaders [in 1998] the Qari-led HUJI had joined al-Qaeda and set up a training camp at Rishkhor in Afghanistan before till the Americans finally invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
Quoting senior Pakistani security officials, British journalist Carlotta Gall claimed in her March 19, 2014 article titled “What Pakistan Knew About Bin Laden” that Osama Bin Laden had traveled to Pakistan’s tribal areas in August 2009 to meet with Qari Saifullah Akhtar. She wrote in The New York Times: “Informally referred to as the “father of jehad,” Saifullah Akhtar is considered one of the ISI’s most valuable assets. According to a Pakistani intelligence source, he is credited with driving Mullah Omar out of Afghanistan on the back of a motorbike in 2001 and moving Bin Laden out of harm’s way just minutes before American missile strikes on his camp in 1998. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he was detained several times in Pakistan. Yet he was never prosecuted and was quietly released each time by the ISI”.
Carlotta Gall further wrote: “At his meeting with Bin Laden in August 2009, Qari Saifullah Akhtar is reported to have requested Al Qaeda’s help in mounting an attack on the Pakistani army headquarters in Rawalpindi. Intelligence officials learned about the meeting later that year from interrogations of men involved in the attack. Information on the meeting was compiled in a report seen by the civilian and military intelligence agencies, security officials at the Interior Ministry and American counter terrorism officials. At the meeting, Bin Laden rejected Akhtar’s request for help and urged him and other militant groups not to fight Pakistan but to serve the greater cause – the jehad against America. He warned against fighting inside Pakistan because it would destroy their home base: ‘If you make a hole in the ship, the whole ship will go down,’ Bin Laden reportedly said”.
The now slain al-Qaeda ameer reportedly wanted Qari Saifullah Akhtar and the Taliban to accelerate the recruitment and training of fighters so they could trap United States forces in Afghanistan with a well-organized guerrilla war. And Qari finally died in Afghanistan while fighting a guerrilla war.