— Rahimullah Yusufzai, a senior journalist who also had the opportunity to interview Osama bin Laden twice over in 1998 in Afghanistan
By Farah Zia
The News on Sunday: One year after bin Laden’s death, how safe is the world or the region?
Rahimullah Yusufzai: No, the world or the region is not safe; there still are problems. The Americans are saying the al-Qaeda remains a threat. Although the threat is diminished, they are still very cautious. That is the reason the US forces are still in Afghanistan; they will be staying there until 2014 and even after that. They have already signed a strategic partnership agreement with the Afghan government and it is possible they will have some military bases in Afghanistan, use special forces, deploy air power, drones and also have CIA agents. This is because they think there is still some threat from al-Qaeda and its allies including Taliban.
Apart from Afghanistan, they are also worried about al-Qaeda’s influence in the Middle East, Yemen, Iraq and certain African countries. Bin laden was a founder, financier and the spirit behind al-Qaeda but we have seen a younger generation of fighters joining al-Qaeda, especially from Arab countries.
So al-Qaeda will have some relevance even though the Arab Spring has affected it probably more than the military operations.
TNS: So you do buy the thesis that al-Qaeda has become irrelevant because of the Arab Spring?
RY: I think people now have other options; they can bring about change through peaceful means (though force had to be used in Libya and Yemen). When you can change rulers, kings and dictators, and form your own government, there will be less incentive to join al-Qaeda. But there will always be a hard core — certain people who will want to use force because the Americans are using force. There will still be reasons for people to join al-Qaeda. It will not finish; it will remain present in some form.
TNS: How do you look at the phenomenon of Pakistanisation of al-Qaeda viz. the nexus between it and TTP or the Punjabi Taliban?
RY: Al-Qaeda is now more dependent on the TTP than the Afghan Taliban. As long as the Afghan Taliban were in power in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda was headquartered there. Bin Laden and his colleagues were able to live there and were protected by the Afghan Taliban. But that changed after they lost power and their own leadership was displaced; al-Qaeda could no longer stay safe in Afghanistan and hence shifted to Pakistan. So the relation between Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaeda has become strong and its relation with Afghan Taliban has become weak. After the death of bin Laden Afghan, leaders like Mullah Omar are not as close to al-Qaeda leaders like Ayman al-Zwahiri as they were to bin Laden.
Al-Qaeda because of its presence in Pakistan and because of its links with Pakistani Taliban is a bigger threat in Pakistan than it is in Afghanistan now.
TNS: Beyond their physical presence and protection, what about the convergence of interests between al-Qaeda and Taliban?
RY: Because of its dependence on Pakistani militants, it is not really such a big force that it can dictate terms to the TTP; rather it’s the other way round. As for the TTP, it is now mainly fighting in Pakistan; it is not even sending many fighters to Afghanistan. It does have ambitions to launch attacks in the West; it has been making claims and there were some links too, like in the case of Faisal Shahzad. But these were just rare instances. So the TTP may be thinking that links with al-Qaeda can help it in launching attacks elsewhere in the world, especially in the West but that is not happening.
There aren’t many al-Qaeda people left here in Pakistan but those who are, are not totally depending on the TTP structure. They also have their own personal links. So there are different relationships between some al-Qaeda agents and some TTP elements or jihadis or even some Islamic parties. In some cases al-Qaeda people were living with Jamaat-i-Islami members.
TNS: As a journalist, what is your sense, whether Pakistan’s military was in the knowledge of his whereabouts, considering the statements of some former generals etc.?
RY: I don’t believe that the Pakistani army or intelligence agencies were aware of his presence in Abbottabad in that house. Maybe they had general information that he could be somewhere in Pakistan. If the army had wanted to protect him, it could have put him up in one of its many garrisons; why put him outside where there could be a raid by the Americans.
Bin Laden had declared war against Pakistani state and al-Qaeda had issued statements asking Pakistani people to revolt against their government and army. There was no love lost between the two. They were in rival camps. So there was no incentive for Pakistan to protect him. I believe, and I know it from my personal contacts, that Pakistani military would always have wished that he was not found in Pakistan or that he was captured and killed across the border because it would have caused problems for it in the long run.
TNS: And, it seems it did. How, in your view, has the killing of OBL in Pakistan affected the Pak-US relations?
RY: Although the Americans are not publicly saying that Pakistan government or military was involved in giving him protection here, they are saying he had a support system. Somebody somewhere knew his whereabouts and was helping him. It’s quite possible because he could not have lived at so many places in Pakistan and then Abbottabad with his families, without some local support system.
Pak-US relations have always been very uncertain and distrustful. This was one more instance that added to the lack of trust. What was a big achievement for the Americans was a big embarrassment for Pakistan. It is easy to see the kind of impact this would have on the relationship between the two countries. The Americans have always been suspicious about Pakistan and its military establishment.
But I do think that certain people in the Pakistani establishment were informed at the eleventh hour that the Americans have entered Pakistan on gunship helicopters and that they were after a high-value target and that Pakistanis should not come in their way. It could have been just three four people including the president, the army chief and the ISI chief. The Americans could not have taken such a huge risk. It was only ten years after Tora Bora that the Americans were finally getting some good intelligence about bin laden. They had bombed Tora Bora but had missed him. Now they did not want to miss an opportunity. That is why Obama said the chances [of success] were 60/40 but they still went ahead and raided this house.
TNS: Were you surprised to know that bin Laden was hiding here?
RY: No, I was not surprised at all because where else could he have gone. This region was familiar to him; he had lived here, built friendships, supported people, given them money. So this was the place where he would be trying to hide and seek refuge. Also, so many al-Qaeda people had been captured from Pakistan before him and it was understandable that he would also be in Pakistan.
Then his biggest supporters and protectors, the Afghan Taliban, were no longer in power and themselves were in hiding in Pakistan. How could bin Laden stay in Afghanistan? He had to be in this country and he had to be in a city. Most of the important al-Qaeda figures had been captured from the Pakistani cities. It’s easier to hide in bigger places; they need a support system — electricity, computers, they need to stay in touch with al-Qaeda cells all over the place and finally they have families living with them. It is difficult for rich people to live in caves or remote places.
TNS: What about the proceedings in the Abbottabad Commission? What direction have they taken, and if and when its report comes, will it satisfy everyone?
RY: The Abbottabad Commission has taken quite long; almost a year. They’ve met everybody. But overall, the history of commissions in this country is such that people have their reservations about the report being made public or its recommendations being implemented, and also whether the commission will tell the whole story about what happened. I don’t think we will be able to know the full story even after the report is out. Security and political compulsions will also come into play. That’s why I don’t have much hope that we will know more than what we already do.
TNS: Is Osama bin Laden a hero for a majority of Pakistanis?
RY: There was a time when he was popular and a hero to many people because he had declared jihad against the US. I remember that new-born boys were named after him. That was a different period. There was no violence in Pakistan and people had not seen the fallout of his jihad against the US. But as people started suffering in Pakistan due to violence and acts of terrorism, the support for al-Qaeda and Osama dropped. I don’t think a vast majority of people consider him a hero at this point in time.
I don’t think he has emerged as a hero even after his death. Maybe this will change. If the US does not change its policy of supporting Israel and dictators in Muslim countries, if the Muslim countries continue to be the B-teams or agents of the US in future even after the establishment of democratic governments, a time may come when people will say that Osama bin Laden was right. You can’t bring a change through peaceful means. But that’s about the future. Right now, I don’t think there is much support for al-Qaeda or bin Laden or their line of thinking.