by Arif Jamal
The emergence in North Waziristan of the Asian Tigers, a previously unknown jihadi group, has several messages for jihad watchers. Two of them are very important. First, the Punjabi Taliban are slowly but surely growing in strength and numbers. Second, their war is primarily against the state of Pakistan (read: their former handlers) and may eventually surpass that of their Afghan comrades in intensity.
Although the exact identity of the Asian Tigers is not known, Pakistani intelligence agencies believe it is a front group for the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI), headed by Ilyas Kashmiri (The News [Islamabad], May 1). The Asian Tigers’ first operation was to abduct Khalid Khawaja, a former Pakistan Air Force squadron leader who gained notoriety as a jihadist ideologue in the 1980s, and then execute him on April 30 in a dramatic manner, leaving his body with a note saying he was a CIA agent and all such others would be treated likewise (Dawn [Karachi], April 30).
Some time in March, Khalid Khawaja traveled to North Waziristan on an Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI)-sponsored mission to cleanse the Pakistani Taliban of “bad Taliban.” Khawaja was accompanied by Brigadier Amir Sultan Tarar (a.k.a. Colonel Imam), Shah Abdul Aziz, a former mujahideen commander who became a member of Parliament under General Musharraf, and Mehmud al-Samarai, described by the Taliban as a former Iraqi intelligence agent but now believed to be involved in Saudi peace efforts in Afghanistan. The three pleaded with Taliban leaders Sirajuddin Haqqani, Hakimullah Mahsud and Waliur Rehman to convince them to change their targets. According to a Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman, “They tried to convince Hakimullah Mahsud and Waliur Rahman Mahsud to stop attacking the Pakistan army and discussed a mechanism to target NATO supply lines only. They offered to help Hakimullah set up pockets in different parts of the country from where they could attack NATO supplies going to Afghanistan” (Asia Times, April 28).
The trio also appealed to the TTP to expel 14 senior Taliban commanders who were suspected by the ISI of being on the payroll of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s external intelligence agency. Most of these 14 commanders are Punjabis (see The News, May 1 for the full list of names). A four-wheel drive vehicle belonging to Waliur Rehman which Khawaja used during this visit was hit a few days after Khawaja’s departure by a U.S. drone, though the attack failed to kill Waliur Rehman (Asia Times, April 28; Dawn, April 30).
Although the drone attack and other suspicious behavior noted by the militants may have prompted the Punjabi Taliban to take his life, the real reasons are to be found elsewhere. Khalid Khawaja remained loyal to the ISI even after his retirement and shared its vision of liberating Kashmir by using jihad as an instrument of defense policy as well as using the Afghan Taliban to establish strategic depth in Afghanistan against India. For Khawaja, like his mentors in the ISI, all those who were out of the ISI’s control were Indian agents. The Punjabi Taliban are irked by this policy and fail to understand why jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir is good but jihad against the Pakistan army, allied with the same infidel forces that occupy Afghanistan, is bad. Mohammad Omar, a spokesman for the Punjabi Taliban, told a Pakistani journalist that Khawaja was killed partly because he would call the Punjabi Taliban “terrorists” but refer to the Afghan Taliban as “mujahideen” (The News, May 2).
According to a TTP spokesman, during his visit to Waziristan Khawaja promised to return with others, and when he did, the Taliban were prepared to abduct and interrogate him. Khawaja returned on March 25 with Colonel Imam and Asad Qureshi, a Pakistani journalist with British citizenship whom the Asian Tigers accused of working for the Pakistan military’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Before killing Khawaja and dumping his body on a roadside in Mir Ali, the Asian Tigers sent five video clips to selected media outlets which contained the “confessions” of the former ISI officers. The Urdu-language videos appear to have been heavily edited and include incomplete sentences. Khawaja in particular appears to be under duress and at times seems to be reading from notes on his lap.
In the videos, Khawaja confesses to having conspired with Maulana Fazlur Rehman, leader of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F, a major Islamist political party) and Grand Mufti Maulana Rafi Usmani to bring down the radical Lal Masjid movement, named after the Islamabad mosque that acted as its headquarters. The military’s July 2007 siege of Lal Masjid marked the beginning of a new and especially violent wave of Islamist militancy in Pakistan. The second crime Khawaja confessed to was being an agent of both the ISI and the CIA. Khawaja also alleged in his “confession” that Harkat ul-Mujahideen commander Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, Jaish-i-Mohammad founder Maulana Masood Azhar and Jaish-i-Mohammad commander Abdullah Shah Mazhar were ISI proxies. “Jihadi organizations like Laskhar-e-Taiba, al-Badr, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Harkat ul-Mujahideen, Jamiat ul-Mujahideen etc. operate with the financial assistance of the Pakistani secret services and they are allowed to collect their funds inside Pakistan" (Asia Times, April 24).
The kidnapping operation of the Asian Tigers is shrouded in mystery. Only Colonel Imam and Asad Qureshi (who remain in their custody) may have the answer to the identity of the Asian Tigers. One report claimed senior Afghan commanders negotiating for the release of Colonel Imam (who is very close to Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar) had suggested the Asian Tigers appeared to have the backing of someone powerful, as the group was moving freely through the region despite its small numbers (The News, May 1). If true, this would show that part of the military establishment in Pakistan has become radical and is siding with those who have rejected the official policy.
Arif Jamal is an independent security and terrorism expert and author of “Shadow War – The Untold Story of Jihad in Kashmir.”