LAHORE: In a surprising development, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the alleged mastermind of the October 18, 2007 twin suicide attacks on the welcome procession of Benazir Bhutto in Karachi, who had shifted his militant base to Waziristan in 2008, has resurfaced in Punjab as a free man.
However, the most astonishing aspect of his return is the fact that the fugitive ameer of the al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked militant group Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI) has actually been freed by the Punjab home department.
According to well-informed sources in the Pakistani security agencies, the Qari was being kept under house arrest at an undisclosed place in the Chishtian tehsil of Punjab since August 2010 and has just been freed — almost three weeks ago — in the first week of December.
The sources say Qari Saifullah had to abandon Waziristan, his birth place, after he was wounded in a US drone attack in the area. He subsequently travelled to Peshawar and then to Rawalpindi for treatment before being arrested and taken to Lahore.
He was eventually put under house arrest in Chishtian, only to be released recently. Interestingly, his release orders coincide with the third death anniversary of Benazir who had named the Qari in her posthumous book, Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West, as a principal suspect in the attempt to kill her in Karachi, a few hours after her homecoming.
In her book, which was published in February 2008, Bhutto had narrated in detail the suicide attacks targeting her welcome procession as well as the involvement of Qari Saifullah Akhtar in the assassination bid.
She wrote: “I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned… Three men belonging to a rival political faction were hired for half a million dollars…. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail…. The officials in Lahore had turned to Akhtar for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one. The bomb blasts took place in the army cantonment area in Karachi.”
Subsequently, on February 26, 2008, the Qari was arrested by the Musharraf regime for the purpose of interrogation in the Bhutto murder, although there were many in establishment circles who believed that Qari Saifullah had actually been taken into protective custody by his spy masters.
The HUJI chief is generally considered a handy tool of the intelligence establishment. Whenever required, he is used and then dumped by his spy masters. Qari Saifullah was seized by the security agencies along with his three sons in Ferozwala, near Lahore. He was then grilled by a joint interrogation team comprising operatives from the Punjab Police, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Special Investigation Group of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).
Although, Qari Saifullah denied having played any role in the Bhutto murder, he did tell his interrogators that since his 2007 release, he had been in contact with former ISI chief Lt Gen Hamid Gul and two other army officers who had attempted to stage a coup to topple her government in 1995.
“I was in touch with Lt Gen Hamid Gul, Maj Gen Zaheerul Islam Abbasi and Brigadier Mustansar Billa,” Qari Saifullah said in a 35-page statement submitted to the Joint Investigation Team. Hamid Gul was one of the three persons Bhutto had named as her possible assassins in a letter to Musharraf, written in October 2007. Though Gul was retired prematurely, Bhutto believed that he still maintained his former close ties with the militant groups.
Ironically, Qari Saifullah’s February 26, 2008 arrest established the fact that despite all the charges levelled against him, he had been released much before Benazir returned home. Born in January 1959 in South Waziristan, the HUJI chief is a graduate of the famous Jamia Binoria in Karachi, who was arrested and extradited from the United Arab Emirates on August 7, 2004 on charges of plotting the twin suicide attacks on General Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003. But instead of trying to prosecute him, the agencies chose to keep him under detention for the next two years and nine months, without even filing any criminal charges against him, giving credence to reports that he was a handy tool of the Pakistani establishment.
The Qari’s “unprovoked” arrest was challenged in the Supreme Court in the first week of January 2005. On January 18, 2005, the apex court dismissed the petition against his arrest and directed him to first move the high court by filing a habeas corpus writ petition.
But after Benazir’s murder, it transpired that the Qari had already been released by the apex court after being told by the agencies that he was one of the “missing persons” being sought by a Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. His name was in the list of persons being held by the agencies without any formal charges having been filed against them. But the Musharraf government had told the Supreme Court on May 5, 2007 that Qari Saifullah was not in the custody of the state agencies.
The concise report presented by the National Crisis Management Cell to the court revealed that he was engaged in militant activities somewhere in Punjab and not under detention. On May 21, 2007, the Qari suddenly reached his hometown in Mandi Bahauddin of Punjab. The release was subsequently brought to the notice of the apex court by the Ministry of Interior. Hashmat Habib, the counsel for Qari Saifullah, told the court that while setting him free, the intelligence officials had informed his client that had they not picked him up, there was a strong possibility of the American Federal Bureau of Investigation taking him away for interrogation because of his alleged al-Qaeda and Taliban links.
At the time of his arrest in August 2004 and his subsequent extradition from the UAE, the Pakistani authorities had described the development as a major blow to the al-Qaeda sponsored terrorist network and its local affiliates in Pakistan. On March 20, 2008, Qari Saifullah was produced before an anti-terrorism court in Karachi for his alleged role in the twin suicide attacks on Bhutto’s welcome procession in Karachi.
But few days later, Justice Khawaja Naveed Ahmed of the Sindh High Court released him on bail, after the investigation officer said that no evidence had been found to link him with any terrorist activity. But he was rearrested the same day under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) and shifted to a Karachi safe house. Two months later, on June 8, 2008, Qari Saifullah was released by Sindh Home Department as the two-month term of detention set under the MPO had expired.
Though Qari Saifullah’s role in the Karachi suicide attack could not be explored further due to an apparent lack of interest by the agencies, his previous involvement in a failed coup plot in 1995 had projected him as one of the deadliest militants who, from the establishment’s viewpoint, had gone astray.
The group of potential plotters busted by the Military Intelligence at that time included four serving army officers, headed by Major General Zaheerul Islam Abbasi. Brigadier Mustansar Billa, who had also been arrested, was described as the ideologue of the religiously motivated army men.
The arrested army officers were accused of plotting to first take over the GHQ of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi during the Corps Commanders Conference, and later overthrow the Benazir government to eventually enforce their own brand of Islamic Shariah and Khilafat in Pakistan.
Those who had plotted the coup were convicted by the Field General Court Martial (FGCM) and awarded different sentences ranging from two to 14 years on October 30, 1996. Qari Saifullah decided to become the approver for the prosecution.
After the dismissal of the second Bhutto government in 1996, he was released by the agencies; he went to Afghanistan and was inducted into the cabinet of the Taliban ameer, Mulla Omar, as his adviser on political affairs. Qari Saifullah was one of the few militant leaders from Pakistan who had escaped with Mulla Omar after the US-led Allied Forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.