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Ex-major in Pakistan tied to extremists

A former major who trained fighters for war in Afghanistan and Kashmir keeps cropping up in terrorism investigations in Pakistan. But police say the gray-haired grandfather is shielded by his links to the army and powerful intelligence agencies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former major who trained fighters for war in Afghanistan and Kashmir keeps cropping up in terrorism investigations in Pakistan. But police say the gray-haired grandfather is shielded by his links to the army and powerful intelligence agencies.

The case of Ahsanul Haq shines a light on a murky side of the militancy infecting Pakistan: the extent to which retired members of the security agencies allegedly support or tolerate Islamist militants they once nurtured for foreign policy aims.

The recent arrest of another former army major with alleged links to the suspect in New York's Times Square bomb plot rekindled these concerns. The man has since been released, but the army says he was dismissed from the force because of his links with banned Islamist extremist organizations.

Speaking to The Associated Press in his first media interview, Haq seemed to embody the contradictions of this shadowy struggle. He said he sees nothing wrong with "jihad against infidels" but strongly denies being linked to terrorism. In 2007, he was detained for five months by the country's main spy agency, Inter Services Intelligence, but says he was "treated like a VIP" and never charged.

The most recent allegations against him appear in a report by investigators of last year's ambush of the Sri Lankan cricket team in the eastern city of Lahore. The document, obtained by The Associated Press, claims Haq gave logistical support to unspecified Taliban and other fighters. It says cell phones used by the attackers were traced to locations close to a large garment factory owned by Haq and his brother.

Senior Lahore police investigator Zulfikar Hameed said the force reported its suspicions to the ISI, which told him the major was not involved. Therefore Haq was no longer wanted by the police in connection with the attack, he said, though other high-ranking officers, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they still harbored suspicions about him.

Otherwise calm and soft-spoken, Haq grew angry as he sat in his upscale Lahore home reading the report into the cricket team attack.

"The police are doing this just to say they have completed the case, to get promotions," he said. "This is absolutely wrong."

Haq served in the army when it and the ISI created and fostered fighters in the U.S.-backed war against the Soviet occupation of neighboring Afghanistan.

After the Soviets were driven out, the ISI trained thousands of young Pakistanis to wage guerrilla war on Indian interests in the disputed region of Kashmir.

Following the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks, the government of President Pervez Musharraf outlawed the most notorious groups, and was believed to have purged several hundred ISI staff for being too close to the extremists.

But the crackdown was patchily enforced, and many of the militants behind the suicide attacks now rocking Pakistan are linked to the outfits created by the ISI. One such group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, is accused of masterminding the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Haq says he served with a Pakistani army unit close to the Afghan border during the Soviet jihad, supporting fighters there. He left the army in 1990 and says he began working for the ISI to train fighters for Kashmir.

In 2007 he showed up on the police radar, when a police investigation report identified him as a member of the "Mufti Sagheer" militant network which it said transported bomb-making equipment to Lahore.

Haq said several of the group's members trained under him in Pakistan's sector of Kashmir, but he insisted they had done no wrong.

"These men are behind bars just because they have beards and believe in jihad against infidels," he said.

The police report calls Haq "sympathetic to the core of his heart to the jihadi groups in Afghanistan and Kashmir. He supports jihadi organizations financially."

On Nov. 1, 2007, came the suicide bombing of a Pakistan air force bus in the eastern city of Sargodha. Haq was arrested and intelligence officials said he was suspected of being one of the masterminds behind of the attack. They said he had traveled to Afghanistan and met Sirajuddin Haqqani and his father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, Taliban leaders blamed by the U.S. for much of the violence against Western troops in Afghanistan.

Haq says he was cleared of involvement in the bus attack and "treated like a VIP" during his detention.

Now in his 60s, he says he lives a quiet life devoted to Tableeghi Jemaat, a conservative Islamic missionary group with members worldwide and global headquarters on the outskirts of Lahore.

Members of the group have been linked to terrorism before. Authorities say the militants who raided two Lahore mosques of a minority Muslim sect 10 days ago, in which 90 people died, had stayed at the Tableeghi center in the days before the attack.

Haq praised jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, but generally avoided answering questions about the legitimacy of attacking Pakistani security forces. Both he and his brother, who sat in on the interview, aired conspiracy theories alleging U.S., Indian or Jewish involvement in 9/11 and in the wave of bombings in Pakistan. Haq refused to be photographed, citing religious reasons.

Three senior police officers in Lahore said they retained suspicions of Haq, but made no specific allegations. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of talking about senior ISI or army staff.

One officer said ISI papers rank Haq as "white," meaning a militant or his handler who is or has served the agency's interests. "Gray" means someone under watch, and "black" is a militant, supporter or a handler gone rogue.

"The army and ISI people don't let others interrogate them," said Pervaiz Rathore, the outgoing police chief of Lahore. "The army is stronger than any other establishment in the country."

The intelligence agencies' power and alleged links to militants were highlighted in a U.N. commission's report into the murder of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. It said almost all independent analysts it spoke to alleged that Pakistani security officers retain links to militant groups they once supported.

But the loyalties may be weakening, One ex-ISI member-turned-militant sympathizer, Khalid Khwaja, was killed in early May. Suspicion has fallen on a militant faction that has no loyalty to the older generation.