MALAKAND - Al-Qaeda's leaders have allocated 2 billion rupees (US$23.25 million) and a new training program for 400 militants in Khyber Agency to start a full-blown insurgency in the Swat area of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province and Malakand Division next summer, Asia Times Online has learned.
At a time United States President Barack Obama was making a surprise visit to Afghanistan on Friday and telling US troops at Bagram air base outside Kabul that they should be prepared for tough times, militants who spoke to ATol said al-Qaeda had masterminded a plan for militants that would see them engage the Pakistan military in Swat.
This, it is expected, would reduce the military's ability to further US designs in the region, in particular by preventing it from launching an all-out offensive in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal area, a key militant stronghold and staging post for the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda at the helm
I was in Malakand to give an address at the university, and received a message on my phone to meet someone at a nearby hotel. This turned out to be a youngish man who introduced himself as Shamim Hussain (not his real name) and asked me to spend a night in a nearby village to listen to the views of insurgents from Swat, where last year the Pakistan military waged a major offensive against militants in the once tranquil valley.
The Swat operation began in mid-2009 and changed the course of the country after the army applied optimum force and eventually won the battle. The nation witnessed the biggest internal displacement in its history when over 2 million people left their homes. Swat remained a ghost valley for three months as the military went about its business, showing no mercy.
"Every morning we would see at least three dead bodies of Talibs, but the military never allowed them to be buried. They wanted them to be eaten by the crows, eagles and vultures," a student, Abdul Rahman, told ATol.
Reports and a video of gross human-rights abuses surfaced in the wake of the operation, to such an extent that the US threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan and the army chief constituted a committee to probe the video's contents.
Hussain's car stopped in front of a house near a sugar cane field and he took me into a room.
"What are you up to now? The army claims that the [Pakistan] Taliban are history," I asked.
"Undoubtedly we are down, but we are not out. We have completely overhauled our strategies. We will come back very strongly next summer," Hussain said.
He continued, "Have you heard the news of the murder of local nazims [elected mayors], lawyers and members of the Awami National Party? This is a very organized but low profile Taliban campaign to assassinate their rivals. In the next few months, this campaign will jack up and by next summer, the militants will be in the valley to take on the army," Hussain said.
I did recall some high-profile murders. including that of Dr Farooq Khan, a physiatrist and religious scholar who supported the army by setting up schools to reform militants.
The Taliban have adopted a similar approach in Khyber Agency, where by 2007 they had a very small presence, with the Brelvi - a Sufi sect - in the majority.
Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, a member of parliament from Khyber Agency and a federal minister, told ATol a few months ago that the Taliban had drawn up a list of 3,000 people to be assassinated, and that by 2008, there was nobody left in Khyber Agency to resist the Taliban. The Taliban mobilized their cadre from different regions and now Khyber Agency is their stronghold.
Al-Qaeda has also set its eyes on Khyber Agency, as almost 75% of the supplies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization bound for Afghanistan pass through it. This year has seen unprecedented levels of disruption of the supply convoys.
Hussain confirmed that al-Qaeda had its eyes on Swat.
"Al-Qaeda has directly taken over Swat issues. Mullah Fazlullah, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Taliban's [TTP - Pakistan Taliban] Swat wing, has been summoned to North Waziristan so that al-Qaeda can direct all decisions through him. The chief operations commander, Ibn-e-Amin [or Bin Yameen], has been placed in Mohmand [Agency - near Malakand] so that he can direct operations in the Swat Valley and fighters have been placed in the Khyber Agency's Terah Valley for training."
Hussain warmed to his story, "Initially, militants were asked to stop their activities in Swat at once and retreat and everybody was then instructed to go to Terah Valley in Khyber Agency. Even the activities of abduction for ransom were stopped in Swat while essential operations related to Swat and Malakand were diverted to other branches of militants.
"The vice chancellor of Peshawar University [who is a close relative of the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa] Ajmal Khan was abducted by Tariq Afridi's group of Darra Adam Khel for the release of Muslim Khan, a senior Taliban spokesperson in Swat. The militants of Swat, meanwhile, were stopped from taking part in any major activities until they had become more sophisticated.
"Al-Qaeda allocated 2 billion rupees for its Swat plan and appointed most of its able Arab, Pakistani and Turkish trainers to train Swat militants and bring sophistication to their operations," Hussain said. He added that once a few groups of militants were trained, target killings would begin in Swat.
This is similar to the strategy introduced in Afghanistan by Pakistani Ilyas Kashmiri, the battle-hardened Kashmir veteran who has sided with al-Qaeda. He stopped the traditional guerrilla fight - a game of hide and seek in the mountains that failed due to drones and hi-tech American aircraft - and militants were trained for sophisticated special operations. These included the attack on the up-market Serena Hotel in Kabul in January 2008 in which six people were killed and six wounded.