No accurate estimate is as yet available on the human losses and material damage suffered by the Al Qaeda and other jihadi terrorist organisations belonging to Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front as a result of the earthquake which struck Pakistan Occupied Kashmir and the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan on October 8.
Of the members of the IIF, only the Lashkar-e-Tayiba has openly admitted extensive damages to its infrastructure in POK. It has also admitted the death of at least 70 of its cadres and an unspecified number of its POK-based office-bearers in the quake. It has not ruled out the possibility that many more of its cadres might have died in POK. It has claimed that Prof Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed, leader of its political wing called the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, is alive and denied reports that he was in POK at the time of the quake.
Maulana Abdul Aziz Alvi, a spokesman for the JUD, said in Karachi on October 11: 'The group has taken a severe blow. The casualty figure may cross 100 and even more, as we have no information about those killed in other areas of Muzaffarabad.' He added that the organisation's members who survived the earthquake were attending funerals every two to three hours. According to him, the Jamaat's religious schools and mosques had been razed to the ground. More than a dozen members died when the roof of the party office collapsed during a meeting, he said. .
Yahya Mujahid, a spokesman for the JUD at Lahore, said on October 11 that Hafeez Mohammad Sayeed was not in the region at the time of the quake and was still alive. 'The Jamaat has a strong following in all the earthquake-hit areas. Sayeed is safe and well. It's time to do jihad of a different nature, by helping people in this hour of need. The Jamaat teams are working day and night,' he added. Do his remarks mean that the LeT too, like the United Jihad Council, is temporarily suspending its terrorist operations? The answer is not clear.
However, the LeT has remained silent on the damages and casualties suffered by it in NWFP. Even in POK, it has admitted damages only to its legitimate structures such as hospitals, charity offices and madrasas. It has not referred to its training camps since it never admits running training camps for jihadi terrorists.
The Al Qaeda, the Taliban and other members of the IIF, who have their infrastructure in Pakistani territory, have not come out with any admissions regarding the losses and damages suffered by them. One should not over-estimate the damages suffered by the training infrastructure of jihadi terrorist organisations. Their training camps generally consist of tents and other makeshift structures, which can be shifted from place to place to evade detection and targeting by US intelligence agencies. Even if they have been damaged, the human casualties are likely to be low.
The problem which the jihadi terrorists might face in the short term, would arise from the fact that some areas such as POK and Manshera district of NWFP, which were favoured by them in the past for locating their training camps, are now unlikely to be available at least for some months because of the damages suffered and the large influx of foreign relief teams, which would weaken the deniability of any new camps.
But Balochistan and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas, where most of the sanctuaries and training camps of the Al Qaeda, the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Jundullah and other similar organisations are located, have not been affected by the quake. The jihadi training infrastructure in those areas are reportedly intact.
There is no information so far about Osama bin Laden. Jihadi elements in Pakistan have been making frantic enquiries among themselves about the safety and welfare of 'the Sheikh', which is possibly a reference to him. This would indicate that he was possibly in Pakistani territory at the time of the quake.
The announcement by a Pakistani military spokesman on October 11, that 24 more US helicopters would be joining the rescue and relief missions next week has given rise to suspicions that President Pervez Musharraf has agreed to US intelligence agencies operating anti-Al Qaeda reconnaissance missions in POK and NWFP in order to hunt for bin Laden and other remnants of the Al Qaeda under the cover of quake relief missions. Some of the senior military and Air Force officers are reported to have reiterated to Musharraf their misgivings over the wisdom of allowing American personnel to operate these helicopters. This is one of the issues which the National Security Council, chaired by Musharraf, is expected to discuss on October 12.
There is an increasing demand that Musharraf should withdraw the troops deployed on anti-Al Qaeda duties in the FATA and use them for humanitarian relief work in POK and NWFP. There has also been criticism of the use of helicopters for so-called aerial survey missions, ostensibly to survey from the air the extent of quake damage. There has been a demand that the choppers should be used only for transporting relief materials and for shifting the injured to hospitals.
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India. He is presently Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Distinguished Fellow, International Terrorism Watch Programme, Observer Research Foundation and Convenor of its Chennai Chapter. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org)