Pakistan's release of militant stirs questions

He is a self-declared warrior against U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan. He allegedly ran terrorist training camps there when the Taliban was in power. He was suspected of involvement in the attempted assassination of two Pakistani leaders.

And today, Qari Saifullah Akhtar is free.

Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, the top judicial official in Akhtar's native Punjab province, told The Associated Press he was released from four months of house arrest in early December because authorities finished questioning him in connection with the October 2007 attempted assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and found no grounds to charge him. Bhutto was killed in December the same year.

However, one U.S. official said Akhtar has extensive ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups and is someone who should not be free to walk around the streets of Pakistan or any other country. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Former U.S. intelligence officials and analysts said Akhtar's release is yet another sign of Pakistan's reluctance or inability to crack down on the most dangerous terrorist organizations.

The leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Hafiz Saeed, was freed from custody on more than one occasion and is currently free. Lashkar-e-Taiba, headquartered in Punjab, is believed to be the mastermind behind the November 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people.

As part of Pakistan's battle with neighbor India, the military and intelligence helped train and arm militant groups who fought in the disputed Kashmir region. Many of those groups cut their teeth on guerrilla warfare in the U.S.-backed 1980s insurgent war against Russian soldiers in Afghanistan.

But military and intelligence officials have told The AP their relationship with such groups was severed after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, which marked a turning point that moved Pakistan into a closer alliance with the U.S. However there are lingering concerns that some links with militants remain.

Pakistani military officials say the military and intelligence services fighting insurgents in the northwestern tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan are stretched too thin to open another front against militants in the Punjab. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not allowed to talk to the media.

A number of militant groups active within Pakistan are headquartered in Punjab, where 60 percent of Pakistan's 170 million people live. Religious tensions have been running so high in the province that its governor, Salman Taseer, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards last week for criticizing blasphemy laws that impose the death penalty for a variety of religious offenses, including insulting Islam. The bodyguard has been celebrated as a hero by many in Pakistan.

Military officials said that gathering actionable intelligence in the tribal regions, where some al-Qaida's leaders are believed to be hiding, has been deadly. A senior intelligence official told the AP Pakistan has lost more than 50 spies killed by militants.

"I think it is clear that Akhtar is going to go back to the front lines of the fight against the United States, which complicates our mission in Afghanistan, and threatens the stability and security of the region in general," says Charles Bacon a U.S.-based intelligence analyst.

Pakistani and U.S. analysts say Akhtar's release reflects a growing lack of control by the country's security agencies over one-time prodigies who have broken away and turned their weapons on the state.

Mohammed Amir Rana, who runs the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said freeing Akhtar was a desperate attempt by the security agencies to reunite militant groups whose members have splintered into smaller groups and in some cases, turned against Pakistan because of its support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan and its attacks on the Taliban at home.

Bhutto had named Akhtar as a person she feared might try to kill her.

To protest his innocence, Akhtar's lawyer has filed suit against Bhutto's widower, President Asif Zardari, complaining that Bhutto had referred to his client as her would-be assassin, said author and defense analyst Ayesha Siddiqa. Bhutto named him as the bombmaker in the October attack on her in her posthumously released book.

"But the real reason is simply that there are elements in the (intelligence) agencies who are sympathetic to these guys," said Siddiqa, referring to militants.

No charges were ever brought against Akhtar over Bhutto or his suspected involvement in an earlier assassination attempt against former president Gen. Pervez Musharraf, according to Jane's Defense.

Akhtar's operational chief Ilyas Kashmiri had connections with some of the Mumbai conspirators. He was linked to David Coleman Headley, the Pakistani American in jail in the United States for his involvement in the Mumbai attack. Akhtar, who ran al-Qaida linked training camps in Afghanistan during the Taliban rule, has also been linked to five American would-be jihadis arrested in 2008 in Pakistan.

Akhtar was also alleged to have masterminded a plot to overthrow her government in 1995, according to Bhutto, but escaped to the United Arab Emirates. During her tenure she had issued a warrant for his arrest.

"It is law that a man being investigated and interrogated in sensitive and high-profile cases should be under house arrest and strict vigilance by the police," said the Punjab Law Minister Sanaullah. But once the investigation is done and no charges brought, the suspect must be released, he said.

Sanaullah, who has given tacit support to banned religious groups, dismissed allegations that the Punjab government, which is run by the conservative Pakistan Muslim League (PML), was afraid to take on militant organizations headquartered in the province.

During local elections last year Sanaullah campaigned with the banned Sunni extremist group, the Sipah-e-Sahabah, a forerunner to the al-Qaida affiliated Lashkar-e-Janghvi organization, believed to provide the majority of suicide bombers who have attacked Pakistani targets.

"The one thing I can offer is that Pakistan has had trouble holding the leadership of banned terrorist organizations and extremist groups accountable for anything, either because of perceived legal constraints or concerns about stirring an extremist hornet's nest," said Juan Carlos Zarate, a top counterterrorism official in the Bush administration.


Kathy Gannon is The Associated Press special regional correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Associated Press writers Babar Dogar in Lahore and Adam Goldman in Washington contributed to this report.