The recent arrest of Naamen Meziche, a Frenchman of Algerian descent who had deep-rooted links with Al-Qaeda leadership, by Pakistani agencies came as another blow to the dwindling hierarchy of the terrorist organisation. Meziche, who had lived in Germany since long, had been intimately acquainted with the heart of darkness; he had maintained a longstanding friendship with Mohammad Atta, who is believed to be the leader of the gang - the notorious Hamburg Cell - that hatched and then executed the plan to fly commercial airliners into the skyscrapers of Manhattan, New York and the Pentagon. The terrorist, believed to be in his early forties, was arrested by the Pakistani intelligence from the Pak-Iran border, probably, in the last week of May. He was on the global intelligence radar ever since the Nine Eleven tragedy, but had successfully evaded his pursuers; acquiring in the process, the position of a lynchpin in coordinating various cells of Al-Qaeda, a major recruiter and in providing crucial backup support to the ongoing operations.
Meziche carries a strong German connection. He is the son-in-law of Mohamad Al-Fazazi, who is considered to be the spiritual leader of the Hamburg Cell. He has been under investigation by the German intelligence for his connections with the September 11 plot for a long time; even as no charges have been finalised for lack of any incriminating evidence. He maintained a very low profile as a fugitive, but his trail resurfaced in mid-2010 when two Germans with links to Hamburg were captured in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They divulged to the interrogators that the attacks were being planned on multiple targets in Europe and the operation was being recruited and coordinated by Meziche. The gathered information led to the launch of an unsuccessful drone attack in Fata region to take Meziche out, but he had ostensibly outwitted his pursuers. He was finally put on the spot by Younis Al-Mauritani, who was nabbed by the Pakistani intelligence in Quetta in September last year along with three accomplices.
Al-Mauritani duly assisted by Meziche had been tasked by Osama to organise terrorist strikes in Africa and as he planned his move, Meziche shifted to Iran from where he joined his mentor in Africa. The details of this movement were given away by Al-Mauritani to Pakistani interrogators, which led to laying of the trap that finally ensnared Meziche as he trekked back into Pakistan. The bagging of Meziche is no mean achievement, as he had acquired the art of merging with the ground to perfection.
Against this context, a surprising aspect is the failure of the German intelligence to nail him much earlier when ample telltale markers were manifest; pointing to his affiliation with Al-Qaeda. He was questioned by the German authorities in 2003 when a call made to him by the 9/11 coordinator, Ramzi Bin al-Shibh, was traced within a week preceding the attack. However a year later, he was set free without any indictment for want of conclusive evidence; even as he was secretly classified as a potential threat.
The recent arrests of Al-Qaeda big fish by Pakistani intelligence, Younis Al-Mauritani and Meziche, coming in the span of nine month, has served to poignantly underscore a central role played by Pakistan in dismantling the Al-Qaeda structure, an aspect that has failed to be adequately recognised by the US and its allies. Coming at a time when the Pak-US ties are at their nadir, these arrests should serve as an apt reminder to highlight the vital role played, and being played, by Pakistan in the US-led war on terror. A listing of the names of some of the biggest Al-Qaeda fish taken out by the Pakistani intelligence, even at the cost of repetition, would not be out of place to underscore the country’s sterling achievements.
Abu Zubaydah, who was at the centre of all major Al-Qaeda executed acts of terrorism, and is now a Guantanamo Bay inmate, was captured in Faisalabad along with three accomplices in March 2002. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the alleged organiser of the Hamburg Cell, was among the first five names of the “most wanted terrorists” compiled by the FBI and was arrested in Karachi on September 11, 2002. His arrest was significant enough to draw appreciation from President Bush as a proof of a “relentless” US effort to “one by one…….hunt the killers down.” Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the alleged mastermind behind the 9/11 and carrying a head money of $25 million, was apprehended in Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003. Abu Faraj al-Libbi was arrested on May 2, 2005, from Mardan in an ambush laid by cross-dressing Pakistani intelligence operators. At the time of his arrest, he was number three on the rungs of Al-Qaeda leadership ladder. Umar Patek was arrested virtually days before the Abbottabad raid from the city on March 29, 2011. Patek, an Indonesian militant, was accused of playing a key role in the 2002 Bali bombings and was a major link between Al-Qaeda and its South Asian affiliates.
Any country, with this set of accomplishments in the war on terror, should rightfully claim to have played a frontal role in the assault to eliminate Al- Qaeda. Meziche’s arrest, which has come at a time when Pakistan and the US are passing through one of the rockiest patches of their relationship, should serve to highlight this much ignored aspect. Misperceptions in the US establishment, which became evident in the wake of the Abbottabad raid that removed Osama bin Laden, are unfortunate and tend to grossly underrate Pakistan’s commitment and hard work. That has worked to US advantage in turning back the tide of terrorism. The USA’s uncalled for mistrust and suspicion tend to be unfounded as well; there is no evidence to support the spate of accusations. The declassified letters picked up, along with terra bytes of data, from Abbottabad’s compound have sprung no smoking gun, much against the US establishment hawks’ expectations, who were expectantly looking for some handle to hang their unfounded suspicions about Pakistan’s culpable collusion, at whatever level, in the Osama affair. As the latest arrest has served to underscore, there is much to be accomplished in joint cooperation but for that achievable end, the US has to be more forthcoming in acknowledging the toils of Pakistani state and its agencies.
n The writer is a freelance columnist.