August 11, 2006

British airliner terror plot: a Pakistani connection

(This originally appeared in MSNBC's Hardball "Hardblogger")

The British have taken over 20 persons into custody in connection with the plot to bomb nine airliners over the Atlantic while en route to cities in the United States.

Is this an al-Qaeda operation? Building nine explosive devices that can evade detection by airport security, then detonating them simultaneously on nine airliners is not the work of an "al-Qaeda wannabe." While there is no concrete evidence, most analysts believe that the sophistication of this plan and the level of training and support required points to al-Qaeda.

What is the connection to Pakistan?

Most, if not all, of the suspects are British subjects of Pakistani origin. It is believed that several of the suspects had recently traveled to Pakistan most likely for training, and money to support the operation was wired to some of the suspects from Pakistan.

That said, Pakistan has been a strong ally of the United States in the war on terrorism. It appears that the detection and unraveling of the plot was due to arrests made in Pakistan. Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf firmly supported American efforts to remove the Taliban from power in neighboring Afghanistan in 2001.

Musharraf has paid a price for his continued support of the United States, in the form of three known al-Qaeda efforts to assassinate him. Ironically, it was Musharraf’s intelligence service that originally created the Taliban, and there is still strong support for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the Pakistani military and intelligence services. This bond has often been cited for the failure (or unwillingness) of Pakistani forces to capture or kill senior al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives known to be resident along the porous border with Afghanistan.

So is there a connection between this plot and Pakistan? There are areas of Pakistan that are virtually under the control of local tribes, in fact they are officially "tribally administered areas," including Waziristan and the Northwest Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan. The central government rarely ventures into these areas. We believe that there are al-Qaeda and Taliban training camps in these areas - it is here we suspect that some of the July 7, 2005 London subway bombers were trained, where "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh received some of his training, and likely where some of these current plotters were trained.

When Musharraf has ordered the Pakistani army into these areas to hunt down Taliban or al-Qaeda fighters or camps, they have encountered fierce opposition. Musharraf has also refused to allow American forces operating opposite these areas in Afghanistan to enter Pakistani territory to hunt down suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members.

Until the Pakistani army is ordered to take out these camps and either arrest or kill the remaining Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, or Musharraf allows American forces to enter Pakistani territory to do it for him, I suspect there will be more plots like the one made public today.