Al-Ahram Weekly Online
27 Dec. 2001 - 2 Jan. 2002
Issue No.566
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Lessons unlearned

If there was anything to take away from the bloody prisoner uprising in Afghanistan last month, it was that detained Al-Qa'eda fighters do not stop fighting, Absar Alam reports from Islamabad

As the international manhunt continues for Osama Bin Laden and the senior leaders of his Al-Qa'eda terrorist network -- the prime suspects in the 11 September attacks -- Pakistan has so far arrested 275 non-Afghans believed to be members of Al-Qa'eda. Mostly Arabs, the prisoners crossed over into Pakistan from the neighbouring White Mountain ranges of Tora Bora while fleeing heavy bombing by US war planes last week.

At least 10 of these prisoners were later killed in a bitter fight with their Pakistani captors, who were transferring them to a larger prison facility in Kohat, in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, from the border town of Parachinar. Prisoners travelling in a convoy of three buses and two trucks overpowered their guards, snatched their weapons and climbed on the mountain tops to open fire on Pakistani troops. Seven Pakistani soldiers were killed in the shoot-out that ensued.

Although Pakistani authorities later re- arrested most of the fighters, at least five are still missing. Authorities suspect that those who did not escape to other parts of the mountainous province might have been given refuge by local tribesmen. Two of the Arab fighters killed in the shoot-out were buried by local tribesmen with honour. A number of locals visit the grave every day, offering prayers and flowers at the fighters' last resting place. The religious rituals offered these slain fighters are a strong indication that Bin Laden and his Al-Qa'eda network still has support in the area.

After the bloody incident, Pakistan increased security of the Arab prisoners being shuttled to Kohat city (earlier they had not even been handcuffed). Since the incident Pakistan has also enhanced its vigilant patrolling of the border with Afghanistan, deploying more troops to hunt down all Al-Qa'eda fighters entering Pakistan.

The 275 prisoners -- apparently facing charges of illegally entering Pakistan -- are now being kept in Kohat jail, where two top US intelligence services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), are grilling them for information about the fugitive Al-Qa'eda leaders. Their complete details, fingerprints and other tests have been taken to verify the information they are providing about themselves and other Al-Qa'eda members.

Although most of the non-Afghan prisoners are Arab, a number of the Al- Qa'eda members in custody hail from Western countries like Australia, France, Germany, Spain, Denmark and Switzerland. So far Saudi Arabia tops the list of countries of origin for captured fighters -- 80 prisoners are Saudi Arabian nationals -- followed closely by Yemen (70). Other fighters come from various Arab and Muslim countries, including Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Morocco, Qatar, Bahrain, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Macedonia, and Albania.

Khaled Wazem Diab, an American citizen who was arrested last month, was handed over to US authorities. One German national was deported, while two were still being interrogated by Pakistani authorities. One Frenchman, four Macedonians, one Australian and two Turkish citizens were also being interrogated in detention. One Spanish citizen was handed over after the Spanish Embassy in Pakistan requested his transfer.

Pakistan has also arrested more than 3,000 Pakistanis who crossed over from Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime. These Pakistani Taliban are being kept separate from Arab fighters. Pakistani Taliban are being interrogated by the Inter-services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's intelligence agency, while the Arabs are at the mercy of the FBI and CIA.

Although three Yemeni women and one child were released and handed over to their country last month on the request of the Yemeni Embassy in Islamabad, the US authorities have refused to hand over any Arab citizen to his country of origin, despite the efforts of numerous Arab embassies in Islamabad.

The case of the single American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, who survived the Qala-i Jhangi prisoner revolt last month in Afghanistan, is being widely discussed in the US media, with all aspects of his case being thoroughly evaluated. Meanwhile, the fate of hundreds of Arab fighters and thousands of Pakistani Taliban hangs in the balance. Pakistani authorities this week evacuated all Pakistani prisoners from the Kohat jail to install the Arab prisoners brought over from Parachinar, who will undergo intensive interrogation by US authorities before a decision is taken about their future.

The authorities have not allowed anyone to see detained fighters, either Pakistani or non-Pakistani, many of whom could be taken to the United States for further interrogation and indictment in various cases. A number of Afghan and non-Afghan Taliban prisoners have already been shifted to unknown destinations.

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