In early April there were reports that Khaled Khawaja, a former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer and retired Pakistani air force officer had been kidnapped along with Sultan Amir Tarar, another former ISI officer popularly known as Colonel Imam, and Asad Qureshi, a British-Pakistani freelance documentary maker. According to Asia Times Online, the three men had not been heard of since a trip to North Waziristan on or around March 25th. On April 30th, Khaled Khwaja’s bullet-ridden body was found dumped near a village in North Waziristan between the towns of Mir Ali and Miranshah. At the time of writing, Mr Khawaja’s companions remain in captivity.
The sequence of events leading up to this abduction, the underlying motives and the identity of the captors remains a subject of controversy. What is however interesting is the emergence of “Asian Tigers”, a hitherto unknown outfit that appears to have unraveled the faultline between jihadi groups inside Pakistan.
There is no single authoritative account of the organisational details or leadership of the Asian Tigers group that claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of Mr Khawaja and his two associates. Multiple versions have appeared in the Pakistani media, Asia Times Online and in online jihadi discussion forums. There is also no consensus on the motive.
The weeks leading up to the kidnapping
A glimpse however into the motive emerges from an examination of the public record on Khaled Khawaja’s activities in the weeks immediately preceding his disappearance. Most prominent amongst these was his petition in the Pakistani courts urging a stay on the extradition of some Afghan Taliban leaders had been recently captured in Pakistan, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Mullah Abdus Salam, Mullah Kabir, Mullah Muhammad and Amir Muwaviya. The petition was subsequently dismissed by the Lahore High Court.
On March 17th Khaled Khawaja was also in the news for making allegations of torture and wrongful prosecution in the case of five US citizens from Virginia who had been arrested in Sargodha for attempting to enlist with the jihadi group Jaish-e-Mohammad.
Significantly on the March 21st the Daily Times of Lahore reported that Mr Khawaja had filed a constitutional petition in the Lahore High Court (LHC), seeking the registration of a first information report (FIR) against US president Barack Obama and others responsible for ‘carrying out drone attacks’ in the country.
There are multiple accounts on the circumstances of the kidnapping as well. One narrative in the Pakistani media attributes the kidnapping to an earlier visit to Waziristan by Mr Khawaja in which he allegedly shared a list of jihadists allegedly working for Indian intelligence agencies, leading to distrust and suspicions on his true motives. In a video released by the Asian Tigers to Asia Times Online, Mr Khawaja himself “confesses” to working on behalf of the ISI and the CIA during the Lal Masjid standoff of 2007. In the same video he also alludes to a list of 14 jihadi commanders he had attempted to malign during his visit to North Waziristan.
The News reported on May 1st quoting Mohammad Omar, a spokesperson for the Taliban Media Center, that the names of militant commanders identified as Indian agents by Khwaja amongst others included Qari Zafar, Rana Afzal, Ustad Abdul Samad, Qari Ehsan, Qari Basit, Ustad Aslam, Yasin, Qari Assadullah, Qari Imran, Qari Hamza, Ustad Khalid, Abu Huzaifa, Matiur Rahman and Qari Hussain Ahmad Mehsud.
The last in the list Qari Hussain Mehsud has been identified in the past as the leader of suicide bombers and a deputy of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief, Hakimullah Mehsud.
In an extensive account of what he believed was Mr Khawaja’s last mission, on May 1st, Hamid Mir, a prominent Pakistani journalist claimed that the murdered man had been attempting to establish direct contacts between the Afghan Taliban and the United States. Mr Mir also cited similar attempts that Mr Khawaja had made in the past.
Another journalist, Syed Saleem Shahzad, quotes former Pakistani army chief General Mirza Aslam Beg saying that Mr Khawaja had met him in early March and had described his latest initiative in bringing about a peace deal between the Pakistani Taliban and the Pakistan establishment.
The ‘secular’ moniker notwithstanding, all accounts in the Pakistani media believe the kidnappers to be a splinter group of the Taliban. While Mr Mir describes them as “Punjabi Taliban” that includes some Kashmiris, Mr Shahzad is far more circumspect in describing the genealogy of the Asian Tigers. It is interesting to note that Mr Shahzad excludes the assorted Afghan Taliban groups including the Haqqani network citing that they never believed the CIA conspiracy theory. He also takes care to discount a theory widely reported by the Pakistani and international media that Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade was involved. Mr Shahzad identifies an individual by the name Usman Punjabi with the Asian
Tigers who is variously described as a spokesman and a leader. The only details we learn of the captors from Mr Shahzad are that they once operated in South Waziristan and have strong al-Qaeda links.
Mushtaq Yusufzai writing in The News on May 1st adds more colour to the narrative, describing the Asian Tigers as an outfit of 30-40 people, Punjabi and Mehsud, all expelled from their respective groups—the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the TTP—and run by Usman Punjabi and Sabeer Mehsud.
According to the Asia Times Online that Mohammad Omar of the Taliban Media Center is believed to be the same individual as Usman Punjabi of the Asian Tigers
Khaled Khawaja’s confessional video on his role in the Lal Masjid standoff and in the arrest of Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Lal Masjid cleric, under embarrassing circumstances, suggests a faultline that runs between the anti-establishment jihadi outfits responsible for terror inside Pakistan and those who are seen as establishment-friendly.
In the video, Mr Khawaja accuses, among others, Jamaat-ud-Daawa’s Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Maulana Masood Azhar of working for the ISI and collecting funds on its behalf.
A raw picture of the deep distrust signified by this faultline and of the confusion that the kidnapping and murder have sown, is evident from one of the jihadi discussion forums online. The debate on the motive behind the murder had grown so acrimonious that the jihad-friendly forum administrators had to issue a rare English language amendment to the rules of participation that included a threat to disbar for life anyone who continued to discuss Khaled Khawaja. The immediate cause for the provocation was the allegation that Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade was behind the abduction and murder. In one contentious exchange which was subsequently deleted, the credibility of the forum’s administrator was questioned on assertions that the ISI was behind the murder while simultaneously claiming that Mr Khawaja was working against the jihadists for the ISI.
The penultimate act
The fates of Colonel Imam and Asad Qureshi continue to hang in the balance despite several media reports that prematurely claimed their release. In an exchange with Asia Times Online, Usman Punjabi claimed to have made a demand for release of 150 jihadis by Pakistan. The list interestingly included those who were arrested for the murder of Major-General Faisal Alavi in the weeks before the 26 November 2008 attacks on Mumbai as well as those who were arrested in connection with the Mumbai attacks. Both sets of individuals are allegedly linked to Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade. For the release of Mr Qureshi, there is a separate demand of $10 million in ransom. In a video released on May 11th Mr Qureshi appeals for raising funds towards his ransom while citing a May 15th deadline.
Given that the odds of the Asian Tigers either securing the release of 150 militants or ever seeing the $10 million in cash remain slim, their real motive remains an open question.
While the Pakistan establishment has come out of this episode relatively unscathed, a new controversy has erupted in the wake of Khawaja’s murder. A transcript and an audio recording of a phone conversation between noted Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir and an unidentified individual representing the Taliban has surfaced exposing the deep distrust and faultlines within the Islamists in Pakistan.
The confusion arising from the many contradictory narratives of this sordid affair have had their fallout within jihadi circles as is evident from the fracas on the internet discussion forum friendly to Ilyas Kashmiri’s 313 Brigade. Asia Times Online also believes that Ilyas Kashmiri has been threatened by the Asian Tigers in what appears to be an attempt at power projection in North Waziristan.
This perhaps may have been the ultimate outcome desired by the Asian Tigers and their backers.