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Karachi was a hub of foreign fighters and terrorists transiting through the region

Published: May 1, 2011
Al Qaeda chose Karachi as the workshop for its media and financial operations, strategic planning and hideout.  PHOTO: FILE/AFP

Al Qaeda chose Karachi as the workshop for its media and financial operations, strategic planning and hideout. PHOTO: FILE/AFP


On September 11, 2001, four al Qaeda operatives in Karachi watched news footage of planes crashing into the World Trade Centre towers in New York. One of them was the man who had planned every detail of the attack.

They celebrated their success and prayed. The men they had financed and trained had pulled off an unprecedented coup.

But despite this major attack, they considered their work far from over. In the months to come, they would plot more attacks, train and finance young operatives, and help their peers in Afghanistan escape the US and coalition forces that were bombarding their hideouts.

Two years later, they would be in Guantanamo Bay, being interrogated by officials of the same country they had wreaked havoc on.

Guantanamo yielded assessments of over 700 detainees held there. These files were released this month by WikiLeaks and are astonishing in their breadth. The picture they paint sweeps over the mosques of Yemen, training camps in Muzaffarabad and Khost, airports in the Gulf and eventually coalesce to the city that became a nerve centre for al Qaeda: Karachi. This seething and heaving metropolis had always been a reliable base, given that it was a pit stop for those traveling to Afghanistan to join the Taliban and other militant organisations.

Al Qaeda chose Karachi as the workshop for its media and financial operations, strategic planning and it served as a reliable hideout for everyone from the 9/11 plotter Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to Osama bin Laden’s son. The files reveal the confessions by al Qaeda operatives — elicited using harsh interrogation techniques — and how hundreds of impressionable young men were swept away by the call to ‘jihad’.

It was in Karachi that al Qaeda celebrated its success, and it is where it eventually met its downfall. An operative’s driver gave away the locations to their safe houses after being arrested. Raids on houses revealed a trove of documentation about the hundreds of men who had enlisted with al Qaeda. Arrested operatives began talking about the plans they had started working on: targeting consulates, hotels and ports. But while those plots did not come to fruition, the wheels set in motion by al Qaeda are still running in Karachi.

According to the assessments released by WikiLeaks, detainees at Guantanamo Bay mostly travelled to Karachi in 2000 and 2001. After 9/11, people, including from within Pakistan, were persuaded to join the fighting in Afghanistan after fiery speeches and sermons were delivered at political rallies and mosques. Others were persuaded, especially in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, to travel to Afghanistan via Karachi for charity work. For many, this was not their first time to the region – they had either participated in the fighting against the Soviet Union during the 1980s or had travelled to Afghanistan for charity work. The most common route was to Kandahar via Karachi and Quetta, which the US authorities used as an indicator to assess detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

SI officers visited Guantanamo Bay from Aug 3 to 10, 2002 to interrogate Pakistani detainees


Al Qaeda military commander Sayf al Adl told Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to not murder Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, but to either hand him over to the groups who kidnapped him or release him


Osama bin Laden’s son Saad bin Laden lived in Karachi with his wife from Jan to June 2002

A Karachi-based al Qaeda member was tasked with procuring supplies and construction material from and sending them to Afghanistan to prepare the cave complex in Tora Bora for occupation by Osama bin Laden and his family


A letter sent by Khalid Shaikh Mohammad to Hamza al Zubayr, instructing him to execute a terrorism plot, was dubbed the ‘Perfume Letter’


Several detainees told US officials that they had visited or stayed at Karachi’s Makki Masjid. However, officials believed this was a ‘cover story’ to hide their actual travels

Ammar al Balochi

Nationality: Pakistani

Age: 34

Capture: April 2003

Internment at Guantanamo Bay: 4 years

Abd al Aziz Ali aka Ammar al Balochi is Khalid Shaikh Mohammad’s nephew and was married to Aafia Siddiqui. US Attorney General Eric Holder recently announced that al Balochi, along with Mohammad, will face trial by a military commission.

His mother has filed a case in the Sindh High Court over his enforced disappearance. Ammar al Balochi was captured in a raid in April 2003 and was handed over to the US. He studied at the Universal Computer Institute and Petroman Electronics Institute in Karachi from 1996 to 1998.

Ammar al Balochi was responsible for the ‘Karachi Plot’, which would target US consulates and troops in the city. He dealt with media operations and financial transactions, including picking up money from ‘couriers’ and transferring it abroad or within Pakistan. He helped facilitate the travel and funding of the 9/11 hijackers and was part of the planning team for key operations.

Walid Mohammad Salih bin Attash

Nationality: Yemeni

Age: 33

Capture: April 2003

Internment at Guantanamo Bay: 4 years

Walid Mohammad Salih bin Attash was captured in Karachi with Ammar al Balochi. He fought ‘jihad’ in Tajikistan and against the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. He was part of the operational planning team for important plots and was also involved in planning the 2000 attack on the USS Cole.

Ramzi bin al Shibh

Nationality: Yemeni

Age: 38

Capture: September 2002

Internment at Guantanamo Bay: 4 years

Ramzi bin al Shibh was originally enlisted as a member of the 9/11 hijackers team, but since he had difficulties obtaining a US visa, he was made a coordinator for the attacks. Ramzi bin al Shibh is one of the 16 high-value detainees currently held at Guantanamo Bay. Hijacker Mohammad Atta called him in August 2001 to tell him the date of the 9/11 attack through a riddle. Al Shibh informed Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, who told Osama bin Laden of the impending attack. He moved to Iran after 9/11 but had to leave because Iran was set to start arresting ‘mujahideen’ based there. He was working on a plot to attack Heathrow airport before he was arrested in the Sept 2002 raids on al Qaeda safe houses in Karachi.

Majid Khan

Majid Khan

Nationality: Pakistani

Age: 31

Capture: March 2003

Internment at Guantanamo Bay: 4 years

Majid Khan is one of the detainees held at Guantanamo Bay. He worked directly with Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, and was directly involved in the assassination plot against then head of state Pervez Musharraf. Khan acted as a courier to deliver funding to al Qaeda operatives in Thailand. Mohammad planned to use Majid Khan to carry out terrorist plots in the US, targeting gas stations. Khan was given what he believed was an explosives-laden waistcoat and was told to detonate it in a mosque which Musharraf was due to visit. This was a ‘test’ to vet Khan as a possible operative.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2011.

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