Islamic radicals are being trained at terrorist camps in Pakistan and Kashmir as part of a conspiracy to send hundreds of operatives to “sleeper cells” in the United States, according to U.S. and foreign officials.
The intelligence and law-enforcement officials say dozens of Islamic extremists have already been routed through Europe to Muslim communities in the United States, based on secret intelligence data and information from terrorists and others detained by U.S. authorities.
A high-ranking foreign intelligence chief told The Washington Times in an interview last week that this clandestine but aggressive network of training camps “represents a serious threat to the United States, one that cannot be ignored.” The official said as many as 400 terrorists have been and are being trained at camps in Pakistan and Kashmir.
U.S. intelligence officials said the camps, located in the remote regions of western Pakistan and in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, are financed in part by various terrorist networks, including al Qaeda, and by sources in Saudi Arabia.
Pakistani Ambassador Ashraf Jehangir Qazi denied in an interview that terrorist camps are operating in his country, including the remote regions of western Pakistan or in Kashmir.
“We have never accepted the allegation that there were training camps here, not now, not ever,” Mr. Qazi told The Times. “These allegations have persisted despite our repeated denials. I assure you there is absolutely no reason to believe that any terrorist camps exist in Pakistan or Kashmir.”
Al Qaeda sleeper cells are believed to be operating in 40 states, according to the FBI and other federal authorities, awaiting orders and funding for new attacks in the United States. Financed in part by millions of dollars solicited by an extensive network of bogus charities and foundations, the cells use Muslim communities as cover and places to raise cash and recruit sympathizers.
Last month, Pakistan and India announced a new round of peace talks on Kashmir, in which Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, the target of two recent assassination attempts, said Pakistan had agreed “not to allow the use of Pakistan’s territory anywhere in the world” for terrorism.
In announcing the talks, Gen. Musharraf said his military-led government would act to “eradicate” religious extremists in Pakistan. “We will get to them, I am sure,” he said.
But U.S. and foreign intelligence authorities said terrorist training camps have been documented in some of western Pakistan’s remote areas and in the disputed regions of Kashmir, and that military officials and others in the Musharraf government have not fully disassociated themselves from al Qaeda or the former Taliban regime in Afghanistan.
Some U.S. officials have privately expressed concern that members of Pakistan’s intelligence community have assisted in the concealment of al Qaeda members and associates.
In December, the government of India said terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Kashmir that had been closed after the September 11 attacks on the United States had been reactivated, mostly along the disputed border area near the so-called Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir.
The Indian government said its army had photographs and other evidence of ongoing terrorist training, much of which was turned over to U.S. officials. That information included satellite photos and communication intercepts, U.S. law- enforcement authorities said, that documented 60 to 70 camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as well as in Pakistan.
Officials at the Indian Embassy in Washington declined comment.
Since September 11, Pakistan has publicly ordered a clampdown on terrorism and arrested hundreds of suspected al Qaeda members and associates, transferring many of them to the United States. The captured include Abu Zubaydah, the organization’s top recruiter; Ramzi Binalshibh, paymaster for the September 11 hijackers; and Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, chief of operations for Osama bin Laden and mastermind of September 11.
One veteran U.S. law-enforcement official with an extensive history in counterterrorism said many of the training camps in the Pakistan-controlled regions of Kashmir are operated by the Harakat ul-Ansar, an Islamic militant group tied to bin Laden.
The group’s leaders joined with bin Laden in signing a February 1998 “fatwa” calling for attacks on U.S. and Western interests. Also known as the “Movement of Holy Warriors,” Harakat ul-Ansar has been tied by U.S. and foreign intelligence officials to the January 2002 abduction and murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.
Several other camps are being operated by an anti-U.S. Muslim group known as Lashkar-e-Taiba, according to U.S. and foreign intelligence officials. Listed by the State Department in 2001 as a terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba is the armed wing of the Pakistan-based religious organization Markaz-ud-Dawa-wal-Irshad.
Eleven men, including nine U.S. citizens, were arrested last year in Virginia in what authorities called the “Virginia jihad.” The men were accused in a 41-count grand jury indictment of engaging in “holy jihad” to drive India out of the disputed Kashmir territory. Six have since pleaded guilty.
The indictment said some of the men traveled to Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist camps in Pakistan, where they were trained in the use of various weapons, including small arms, machine guns and grenade launchers. The indictment also said the trips occurred both before and after the September 11 attacks.