Opinion 8:10 p.m. Thursday, May 12, 2011

Terror’s veil lifted in Pakistan

By Deborah Scroggins

The revelation that Osama bin Laden was found “hiding” in a high-security mansion within rifle range of Pakistan’s premier military academy should rip away the last of the veils that have miraculously concealed the fact that al-Qaida has indeed had a state sponsor. It was Pakistan, and it still is.

Yet the United States was never quite able to focus on the evidence that a faction, at least, of Pakistani officialdom has been aiding al-Qaida all along. Indeed, this strange American inability or refusal dates back to the first attempt to bomb the World Trade Center in 1993.

The evil genius behind that attack, Ramzi Yousef, fled New York on his own Pakistani passport in the name of Abdul Basit Karim. By the time investigators traced him back to the city of Quetta, and later to the house in Peshawar of his maternal uncle, Zahid al-Sheikh, Yousef was gone. Inside the compound, however, police found pictures of his uncle with top Pakistani officials such as the former dictator, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, and also the future prime minister Nawaz Sharif — photographs that, according to a Pakistani police report, indicated “the level of his intimacy with the top brass of national politics.”

Al-Sheikh, significantly, is not only the uncle of Yousef, the operational head of the first World Trade Center bombing, but also the brother of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the true mastermind of the attacks.

Other raids on the homes of Yousef’s relatives turned up empty-handed. This led Rehman Malik, then the head of Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (and today its interior minister), to conclude that this extraordinary family “had protection at a higher level.” The FBI, for its part, became convinced that Pakistani intelligence helped Yousef get on board the plane that brought him to the United States in the first place.

When Yousef was captured in 1995, Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto warned Washington that the jihadi networks which had nurtured him were too firmly rooted in Pakistan for her to uproot them on her own. Nevertheless, an influential political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, Laurie Mylroie, continued to promote the odd theory that Yousef, who had entered the U.S. on a false Iraqi passport, wasn’t a Pakistani at all, but instead an Iraqi agent, and that Iraq was behind the bombing.

Most of the U.S. intelligence establishment disagreed — yet some high-ranking officials in the Bush administration apparently did believe Mylroie, and their misreading of the 1993 attack led them to misread the much more spectacular attack on the same buildings in 2001.

In the spring of 2001, the CIA received a warning that “Mukhtar,” an alias of KSM, was planning terrorist activities with al-Qaida. But since the agency had misidentified KSM as a “freelance terrorist” — according to the Commission — the CIA failed to make the connection that “Mukhtar” was actually Yousef’s uncle.

And it wasn’t until KSM was finally captured in 2003 — in the military garrison town of Rawalpindi — that the CIA began to unravel the many links between him and Pakistan’s nexus of military officials and jihadi groups — such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, which maintained a base outside the town where bin Laden lived and died. But by the time American intelligence began to get the picture, Washington was already invading — which country? — Iraq.

There have been more tragedies in the war on terror than most people realize even today. Now that bin Laden’s trail has led back to the same poisonous nexus in Pakistan, let’s hope Washington can keep its focus.

Atlanta native Deborah Scroggins is the author of the forthcoming “Wanted Women: Faith, Lies and the War on Terror — The Lives of Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Aafia Siddiqui.”