TIGHTENING THE NOOSE
A blown-off face, a half-burned ID card, and a destroyed cell phone were all that we had to go on after the second attack. They led to success beyond our wildest expectations. It often happens in science that some of the greatest discoveries are made when researchers stumble onto something completely different from what they are looking for. Similarly, in criminal investigations, significant findings come from the most unlikely breaks, and can lead to dramatic events. It was these three crucial pieces of evidence-the face, the ID card, and a “sub-scriber identification module” (SIM) card from the cell phone-that led to a major victory in the war on terror in Pakistan.
After the first attempt to assassinate me, on December 14, 2003, I asked the Rawalpindi corps commander, Lieutenant General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, to take charge of the investigation, since the crime had been committed in his jurisdiction. This was no ordinary criminal act that the police alone could handle. This was an attempt at destabilizing Pakistan by killing its head of state. As you can imagine, we threw everything we had into the investigation.
There were several competing agencies involved under Kayani’s command: Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI), the Intelligence Bureau (IB), the Special Branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the police, and relevant elements of the army.
Kayani told them to forget about rivalries over turf and work as one unit, sharing all information. He also told them that if they thought any information was very sensitive, all they had to do was to come directly to him; they would find his door always open. He assigned tasks so that the three principal investigating agencies-ISI, MI, and CIDwould not run after the same things and duplicate one another’s efforts. He himself was hands-on, leading from the front.
It was easier said than done. Intelligence agencies within any country compete with each other and jealously guard their turf and information. This situation has led to many lapses in intelligence, and Pakistan is no exception. But when Kayani got tough, the problems of coordination disappeared and the agencies started working like a well-oiled machine. He told them that they had to investigate three things: one, find Al the evidence at the site of the attacks; two, discover how the explosive had been prepared and activated or triggered; and, three, locate the network responsible for masterminding, planning, and execution.
In the first attempt, the attackers had placed explosives under the bridge so that they would detonate at its farthest end, throwing steel and concrete in the direction of the oncoming motorcade. My car was supposed to ram into the bared steel rods protruding like spears, or fall through the gaping six-foot lateral that would be cut in the bridge. That would have been my end. Thank God, as it happened, no one actually lost his life in that attack. The explosive charge was to be activated through a telephone call made to a receiver attached to the explosives. Luckily, the terrorist who had to make the call situated himself in such a manner that he could not clearly see the position of my car when it entered the bridge, and could not time the explosion accurately. This gave us a crucial two to three seconds to escape.
The key break in the first investigation would be from the old-fashioned dark arts of interrogation. But first there was a forensic lead. Our investigators found a small piece of the keypad of a telephone at the bridge. It looked peculiar and didn’t seem to belong to a cell phone. They discovered that it was from a Chinese-made long-range cordless phone. In a documented economy-for instance, in Europe or America-it would have been a simple matter to trace the importer of the phone and the distributor and outlets that had helped sell it. Not so when a lot of goods are smuggled and no such record is available.
Still, we learned some things. Such long-range cordless phones have a base unit and a handset, with pager buttons on each. If one presses the pager button on the base unit it generates a call on the handset, and vice versa. The pager button on the handset was ingeniously used as the trigger device. Our investigators found that it worked over a distance of about three or four miles (six or seven kilometers), even in a heavily built-up area. They expanded their search to a radius of four miles (seven kilometers) from the bridge in order to look for the base unit, but found nothing. Then they spread their search out to Chaklala Air Force Base, where my plane had landed. They faced a dead end there, too. They looked at the transmission nodes along the route that pick up telephone signals and pass them on to the next node; this is the arrangement that makes mobile and cordless phones operate. Still nothing.
While this investigation was proceeding, a clue came by chance from the Quetta corps commander. He telephoned Kayani to say that his intelligence people had learned that a terrorist named Mushtaq had links with Quetta and air force personnel based in Peshawar. If there were terrorists or sympathizers in the air force at Quetta and Peshawar, why not at Chaklala? A coordinated intelligence operation was launched that finally led to the arrest of Mushtaq. This was what began to unravel the puzzle. Under interrogation, Mushtaq gave clear leads about who was involved in the first assassination attempt, and to what extent. He gave very specific information on all the conspirators, almost all of whom were from the Pakistan Air Force. Kayani contacted the air chief at midnight and said what he had discovered. Four of the conspirators from the air force were arrested. The air force personnel involved in the attempted assassination were all very junior-warrant officers and below-who had been recruited either for money or for ideological reasons.
From these men we learned how the job had been accomplished.
out 551 pounds (250 kilograms) of explosives were hidden under the bridge, having been brought there bit by bit. The design of the bridge made it possible to hide them for a long time. Five steel-and-concrete reinforced beams under the road rested on abutments at their ends, creating six compartments of six feet by eight feet (1.8 by 2.4 meters), completely concealed from view. It is in these rooms that the explosives were initially stored over several nights and then laid in a circuit, with‑ out being detected.
Under interrogation, the suspects revealed that they had been using one house in Jhanda Chichi, a locality near the bridge, and another house in Islamabad to hide the explosives. They had been operating from bases in Nowshera and Peshawar in the North-West Frontier Province. The explosives were first brought to the house in Islamabad and then shifted piecemeal to the house in Jhanda Chichi. From there they were gradually shifted to the bridge over several days.
Mushtaq was the only civilian involved in the operation. He was the one who triggered the explosive. He finally turned out to be the planner for an organization of between 150 and 200 people who owed allegiance to Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban, and had taken an oath to work for Omar’s cause. Though they had no direct link with al Qaeda, they were sponsored by the terrorist organization Jaish Mohammad, headed by Maulana Masood Azhar. Not only did Jaish sponsor this organization but Maulana Masood Azhar’s brother also helped train its people in the use of explosives and weapons.
Mushtaq had stationed himself in a slight depression about 200 yards (180 meters) upstream from the bridge. This position obscured his sight of the motorcade when it passed over the bridge, and so he mistimed the action and inadvertently allowed us all to escape unhurt.
The terrorist group involved in bombing the bridge knew nothing of the cell assigned to carry out the second attack. The two assassination attempts were totally compartmentalized from each other, and the people involved were entirely different. In fact, the second set of attackers had actually geared itself up on December 14, by sheer coincidence. When the bridge exploded, they were completely taken aback and were forced to temporarily abort their own plan.
When the minivan bombs of December 25 exploded, they were so powerful that Kayani heard the blasts in his house, nearly two miles (three kilometers) away. The memory of the explosion from the first attempt was still fresh in his mind. He jumped into his car and rushed to the scene as fast as his escort of military police could take him. The first thing he did was to seal off the area. Personnel from Inter Services Intelligence, Military Intelligence, and the police were already at the site.
Having secured the site, Kayani rushed to Army House, where he found me still standing in the porch. I instructed him to add this investigation to his responsibilities.
Again, small pieces of evidence proved crucial. There is a two-story police station opposite the second gasoline pump, where the second vehicle struck my motorcade. Our first clue was found in the inner compound of this police station, in the form of the sheered-off face of the first suicide bomber. It had been propelled over and across the building. It was like a mask made of human skin, like something in the movie Face/Off The skin had been peeled off the facial bones and the skull. It was gruesome. It looked as if someone had done a very fine job of surgery. It was lying flat on the ground, faceup. The face was taken to a very able plastic surgeon at the Combined Military Hospital, who did an excellent reconstruction job in order to show us the true appearance of the attacker.
We also found a partially burned identity card near the first explosion. The reconstructed face matched the photograph on the ID card perfectly. Investigators took the card to the National Database and Registration Authority (which has issued over 50 million identity cards and maintains an up-to-date database of Pakistani nationals above age eighteen and their minor dependents) and found information on the person. His name was Mohammad Jamil, and he came from a village in Rawalakot in Azad (Independent) Kashmir. He was the first of the two suicide bombers.
By three thirty PM that same day, instructions went out to the army in Rawalakot to raid Jamil’s house and seal it. Before nightfall, the house had been raided and swept, all its occupants had been taken into custody, and crucial evidence had been gathered and flown to Rawalpindi by helicopter. By far the most important evidence came from Jamil’s diaries, which contained code names, real names, addresses, and many phone numbers. It took some effort, but our people broke the code within hours, and we got a lot of information, including a great deal of material on terrorist activities.
Jamil’s relatives said that he was working with an extremist religious organization and would sometimes disappear for months. He had received training from a terrorist organization in the Kotli area of Independent Kashmir and had gone to Afghanistan to participate in the jihad against the American-led invasion in 2001. There he had been arrested and imprisoned for nearly two years, until his father paid money to obtain his release. When he came back to Pakistan he was very bitter about the outcome of the war there. He was not the only one to take an oath to avenge the United States’ attack on Afghanistan by assassinating me.
The mutilated body of the second suicide bomber had flown off and fallen quite some distance away, in front of the entrance to an apartment complex. We also found his partially burned ID card; It had his photo-graph, but a false name and address. Still, we managed to establish his identity. The card had its registration number, which led us to the office of issue. The complete application form of this individual for a national identity card was dug out. It had the name of the person who had verified his identity The sponsor was reached, and it was he who gave the bomber’s real name and address. The real name was Khaleeq (the name on the ID card was Shafiq). One wonders how people who can plan an operation so meticulously can be so careless as to take their identity cards along with them, unless they think that they will gain fame through martyrdom. Little do they realize that the discovery of their identities can compromise their entire organization. But then, without such egotistical lapses, investigators would never get lucky. The bombings of July 7, 2005, in London followed much the same pattern: more than sufficient evidence was found at the scenes of the crimes to help establish the identities of the suicide bombers without any doubt.
We also discovered a cell phone on the roof of the same police station where Jamil’s face mask was found. The instrument had been destroyed, but a meticulous search of the area helped to find the SIM card. Surprisingly, it was intact.
As noted earlier, SIM stands for “subscriber identification module,” and as the term implies, it identifies the person in whose name the phone has been purchased. Even if it is a prepaid phone, the record of the calls made to or from the number can be traced. The chances that the terrorist’s SIM was still functional seemed dim, but to our surprise, when we put it in another phone, it worked. Thus we not only obtained a lot of phone numbers from the SIM itself, but were able to get many more from the call record at the cell phone company. That actually became the starting point of an investigation that led to the entire net-work.
After the first assassination attempt, we had worked out the calls made from cell phones along the entire route of the motorcade, from anyone nearby. Similarly, after the second attempt, we discovered from the call records that there was a person acting as a spotter. He had reported to somebody located at the center of the route, acting as the controller, who in turn gave instructions to the suicide bombers. The spotter had stationed himself at the boundary of responsibility between the police forces of Islamabad and Rawalpindi where the motorcade had the option of taking one of two routes. It was only after my motorcade took one particular route that the controller told the suicide bombers that the operation was a “go.” After the second assassination attempt Kayani was confronted with a maze of telephone calls from different numbers. At first, it was a daunting mass of data. He was quick to assemble a team of army officers who were computer experts by hobby. They developed a software program that was able to sort through all the calls, arranging them chronologically up to the moment of the attack. It allowed him to extract a tangible network pattern of the terrorists’ calls. This was a major technical breakthrough and subsequently led to the clear separation of the terrorist planners and executors.
He could see which numbers belonged to the planners and which to the executors. The planning group had been talking earlier, before and after a two-hour window on either side of the blasts. The execution group had been talking only just before the time of the first blast. We would see an accelerating series of very brief calls, just a few seconds long. I can imagine the words: “He’s approaching”; “He’s within a mile”; “Fifty yards.”
Faced with the vast number of calls and telephone numbers, Kayani and his investigators soon ran into another maze. They discovered that the terrorists had changed SIMs, or simply exchanged SIMs among themselves in order to confuse investigators and avoid detection. But again, a chance breakthrough solved the problem.
One day Kayani mentioned his problem to Nadeem Taj, my military secretary. Nadeem said that his son Nomi worked for a cell phone company and had told him that even if a SIM is changed, a caller who continues to use the same instrument can still be traced. Our investigators had been told the opposite by the cell phone companies. But they had been talking to senior management, people who are often unaware of the minutiae of their own operations. When Kayani asked his people to contact the hands-on staff of the companies, they were told, yes, it was possible to trace the user of the same instrument even if the SIM is changed. at happens is that every phone has its own specific code number and every SIM has its own code number. When the phone is used, they both get transmitted and recorded. So even if the SIM is changed, the code of the instrument remains the same and the caller can be traced.
Now the investigators had another method for analyzing the avail-able data. It became a great help in breaking into the terrorists’ telephone networks.
At one point Kayani became frustrated because. he couldn’t ascertain the modus perandi of al Qaeda. He asked ISI to give him the reports of the interrogation of al Qaeda’s top brass, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM) and Abu Zubeida. He received ten thick folders. Scanning them, he saw that al Qaeda liked to work on any given objective with two separate and independent cells that were unaware of each other. He also realized that they had a few highly specialized makers of improvised explosive devices (LEDs). Those few men would prepare IEDs, hand them over to the executor of any given plot, and then detach themselves. The bomb makers did not know when, where, or for what purpose the bombs would be used, or by whom. So it was essential that we find and arrest al Qaeda’s IED maker or makers.
Our next break came when Kayani’s men traced the dealer who had sold the Suzuki van that Jamil used in the suicide attack on me. The dealer gave them descriptions of the buyers. One description matched Jamil. We also matched Jamil’s DNA with samples taken from his parents.
The second bomber, Khaleeq, belonged to a village in the North-West Frontier Province. He turned out to be an orphan living with uncles and aunts. His family said that he had been involved in the Afghan jihad and would sometimes be away from home for six months at a time. When he was home, strange people would sometimes visit him. He ignored his family’s warnings that he was falling into the hands of the wrong people, who would get him killed. The family appeared quite dysfunctional.
This was a common feature we found among all the suicide bombers: they had personality disorders and came from broken homes or dysfunctional families. Some were of an uninformed religious bent; others became terrorists just for the money. For example, Jamil was religiously motivated but the second suicide bomber was not. Many either were illiterate or had only a very basic education. Some came from very poor backgrounds and large, disjointed families that couldn’t make ends meet. They were ripe for indoctrination and molding.
At about the same time that we traced the vehicle used in the attack, we arrested someone named Salahuddin who was close to people high up in al Qaeda’s hierarchy. We got him through the good work of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Punjab provincial government. This was a very important breakthrough. Salahuddin was arrested in Jhanda Chichi, the same locality from which the bridge bombers were operating.
We discovered that Salahudddin had actually recruited the people involved in the second assassination attempt. We also discovered that he had gone to Afghanistan to join the war there. He knew Abu Faraj al-Libbi and Hadi al-Iraqi, two prominent members of al Qaeda. After Salahuddin returned from Afghanistan he got married, took a house in Jhanda Chichi, and had children. Now he had additional needs and responsibilities. Making money was high on his agenda.
He had contacted Hadi al-Iraqi and said that he wanted to meet him, but Iraqi could not meet him personally, and arranged instead for Salahuddin to meet Abu Faraj al Libbi. They met twice, in Hasan Abdal, twenty-eight miles (about forty-five kilometers) from Rawalpindi and not far from Peshawar, the capital of the North-West Frontier Province, which had also been the capital of the mujahideen during the jihad against the Soviet Union during the 1980s. Salahuddin claimed that Abu Faraj gave him money.
Under interrogation, Salahuddin claimed that two noncommissioned officers of the Special Services Group of commandos (SSG), to which I also belong, were helping him. One was named Arshad and the other Dogar. This was a surprise but not a complete shock-it is almost impossible to guard against extremists’ indoctrinating the lower ranks in any armed forces.
We arrested Arshad-of all places-from the security detail of the vice chief of the army staff. Arshad was from a village in Kahuta near Islamabad. But it is appalling nevertheless how close the terrorists could get to us.
I was initially shocked by the apparent involvement of Dogar, because he was one of my close personal guards and was actually in the front seat of my car on December 25. Happily, he turned out to be innocent. It was a different Dogar, who had been in my security detail at one time, but no longer. We also picked up the bad Dogar.
Arshad started divulging a lot of information. We found that he had been part of this terrorist group for a long time. He had met Omar Saeed Sheikh, the person involved in the kidnapping and murder of Daniel Pearl, when Omar Sheikh was contemplating the abduction. Arshad also told us that some rockets had been brought to Islamabad a year earlier and were supposed to be used to assassinate me and others in the high command of our government during our Republic Day Parade on March 23, 2003. This was reminiscent of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat of Egypt. We had heard about this at the time but didn’t know for sure where the rockets had come from or where they were. Arshad told us that they were in his village, close to Kahuta. His home was raided by Military Intelligence at midnight that very day, and three powerful rockets were found. There were watches as well, to be used as timers for bombs. Everything needed for suicide bombing, including bomb-making kits and detonators, was discovered. The activation kits for the bombs were highly sophisticated.
Like the second suicide bomber, Arshad was hardly religious. He was just a mercenary, working for money.
On January 2, 2004, our investigation led to the discovery of the third suicide vehicle in Shakrial, a neighborhood of Rawalpindi. January 2 was just a few days before a summit of the heads of government of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation was to take place in Islamabad. It was on the sidelines of this summit that Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India and I would sign the famous Islamabad Declaration that commenced the composite dialogue between Pakistan and India. When we found the vehicle, it was fully prepared for an assault. There was a large cylinder in it, the sort that is used for compressed air or natural gas. The terrorists had drilled a hole in the cylinder and filled it with a large amount of explosive. The detonation cord was visible through the hole. We also discovered a lot of explosives at the house where this vehicle was found, secreted an overhead water tank. The terrorists were all set to attack the summit meeting.
After all the arrests and investigations, we were finally able to begin to define the structure of the network. There was a definite link between Salahuddin and Abu Faraj al-Libbi (al Qaeda’s number three), as well as between Salahuddin and Arshad. Salahuddin’s role was that of a go-between for the mastermind, Libbi. Al Qaeda’s style is decentralized: once the mastermind identifies a target, he gives it to the go-between, who in turn hands the operation over to a planner. After the planner has planned the operation, he hands it over to an execution team for implementation. The execution cell then executes the operation on its own. There is no timetable for execution. The timing is left to the executers.
For the second attack, Abu Faraj al-Libbi was the mastermind. Salahuddin was just a mailman-a courier who took Libbi’s plans and gave them to the planner. But who was the planner? We were told that the air force personnel and the commandos of the Special Services Group whom we had arrested were relatively small players. We were
still missing a link. It was then that the interrogators came across the name ofAmjad Faruqi.
Faruqi and Libbi had met in Afghanistan. Faruqi turned out to be the main planner of al Qaeda in Pakistan. Not only did he plan and direct the second attempt to assassinate me, he was also in the vicinity when the attempt was carried out. Faruqi had gone to Afghanistan many times. He was very highly regarded in the al Qaeda hierarchy, from its high command downward, as well as in extremist sectarian circles, for his operational capabilities, leadership qualities, and professionalism.
We started searching for Amjad Faruqi. We knew he had the capacity and resources to arrange the second assassination attempt and that it was he who put together the entire operation. Could Salahuddin help us find him?
During all this time, many offers kept coming from our American friends to help us in our investigations. One day Kayani invited them to his headquarters and asked for their technical help with the explosives. The Americans said that they needed to see the site, and he allowed them to see it. He then asked them how much time they needed. They said four weeks. After four weeks they presented him with their report. Kayani was surprised to find that there was nothing in it that he did not already know. It merely contained the type of explosive used. He asked the Americans whether there was anything he was missing. They said no, this was all they had. Kayani thanked them and said that we had already achieved significant breakthroughs, made many arrests, and completed our investigations. That was the help we got from our friends.
Abu Faraj al-Libbi was the biggest fish in this pond. As I have said, he was al Qaeda’s number three, who now filled the shoes of KSM. We desperately wanted to find him. Yet I was equally interested in the arrest of Amjad Faruqi. If we got both, that would be ideal, for with the mastermind and the main planner in Pakistan out of the way, a very big blow would be dealt to organized terrorism in our country and we would have some peace. And so it came to pass, at least in our cities.
As it transpired, we bagged Amjad Faruqi first. We were able to track him thanks to our analysis of all the phone calls on December 25, 2003. We started by tracking Faruqi’s phone. He kept changing numbers and would often go quiet for some time. But we kept at it. He could not keep quiet for too long. In September 2004, we found that he was talking to two people in particular, in the Punjabi dialect of Faisalabad, the third largest of our cities in central Punjab. Their conversations were always very brief It soon became apparent that he was the most important person in the trio, for he was usually giving the instructions. Libbi’s name came up in some of those conversations.
Two parallel, independent investigations were going on at the same time-one by Kayani’s men in Rawalpindi and the other by the commanding officer of the Inter Services Intelligence detachment in Karachi. As it turned out, the commanding officer’s information was better and more accurate than that of Kayani’s team. Both sides had recorded some of Faruqi’s phone calls. Kayani took the recordings of the telephone conversations from the commanding officer and compared the voice samples with his own team’s recordings. He found that all three voices matched.
On September 25, 2004, Major General Zaki, director general of Counterintelligence, called Kayani and informed him that Faruqi was on the move. His destination was Nawabshah, in the province of Sindh, about 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Karachi on the Arabian Sea. Both teams started tracking Faruqi constantly, and in coordination with each other.
Faruqi was heading south, starting out from Dera Ismail Khan and then going on to Lakki Marwat, both in the North-West Frontier Province. When he reached Nawabshah, our agents were hot on his heels. He holed up in a house with his accomplices. Our men surrounded the house. When they rang the doorbell and someone came out, they grabbed him. Our agents climbed onto the roof Inside the house, Amjad Faruqi realized that he was surrounded. This was a traditional eastern-style house with a courtyard at the back. At one end of the courtyard was a solitary room. Faruqi took a woman and child from inside the house, ran into the room, and bolted the door. Our agents climbed onto its roof and asked him to come out. Faruqi replied that he would not and insisted that their commander speak to him. We were very anxious to take him alive, so our agents cut a hole in the roof (which was not made of concrete) and fired in a tear-gas canister, smoking Amjad Faruqi out. Faruqi came running out toward our agents, but instead of firing pistols from both hands, he had something that looked even more lethal and deadly-a thick shawl wrapped around his body, like a poncho. He might have been hiding a weapon or wearing an explosive belt. Our agents shouted at him to stop, but he kept moving toward them. Fearing that he would blow everyone up, they shot and killed him. When they pulled back the shawl, they saw that he was not only carrying a loaded submachine gun but also wearing an explosive belt. When a person is determined to go down fighting, it is very difficult to take him alive.
Now the problem was to positively identify him, because he had changed his appearance by shaving off his beard. We flew in a man named Khalid Fauji, who was in our custody and who knew Amjad Faruqi very well. He had been Faruqi’s “shadow” when they operated together. When he saw the body he confirmed that this was indeed
Amjad Faruqi. Of course we followed up this visual identification with DNA testing.
“I have good news for you,” I said to General John Abizaid, com‑
mander in chief of CENTCOM, when he came to visit me in May 2005. ‘We have Libbi.”
I consider Abizaid an able general and also a good friend.
“Really? When?” asked the surprised American. “A few days ago,” I replied.
“Where is he now?” asked Abizaid.
“Oh, he’s here in Islamabad,” I replied nonchalantly. “Please tell President Bush-or should I?”
“It would be better if you informed him.” said Abizaid, his excitement growing.
“I don’t know,” I said. “You tell President Bush.”
“No, I can’t. You please tell him.”
I said that I would. That evening I phoned President Bush and gave him the news. `You’ve got Libbi?” he exclaimed in excitement. The one al Qaeda operative whose name Bush knew, apart from Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri-the one man he had asked me to arrest if I could-was Abu Faraj al-Libbi.
His real name is Mustafa Muhammad, but he is better known as Abu Faraj al-Libbi. His capture was as significant as the capture of KSM, and is worth telling about in full. It began in the old-fashioned way: we nabbed three men who told us what we needed to know Abu Faraj al-Libbi came to Afghanistan to fight in the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union had withdrawn and the jihad was over. He became a pioneer member of al Qaeda. After the arrest of KSM on March 1, 2003, Libbi took his place in the al Qaeda hierarchy. He became prominent, and his name became known to the public after the two attempts to assassinate me.
After Kabul fell to the American-led coalition in 2001, Libbi came to Karachi. He kept on the move, shifting from Karachi to Gujranwala in the Punjab and then on to Abbotabad and the Bajour Agency in the North-West Frontier Province. He was chief of al Qaeda’s operations in Pakistan and received funds from al Qaeda abroad.
Truth to tell, Libbi led us a merry chase, even though he was easy to recognize, owing to leukoderma on his face, a condition that makes white albinolike blotches on the skin. We came very close to arresting him twice before we finally managed to get him. The first time was as early as April 2004, about four months after the second attempt to assassinate me. We had arrested many people, one of whom was Libbi’s driver. He gave us a lot of leads to work on.
One of those leads caused us to arrest someone from Gujranwala, Punjab, who had kept Libbi in his house and was Libbi’s courier. Under interrogation he revealed that he had rented a house in Abbotabad, and that was where Libbi was living right then. This man had also kept his family there to provide cover for Libbi. at he did not tell us is that there were actually three houses in Abbotabad that Libbi used. At that time Libbi was in the third house. Our people raided the first one, and Libbi escaped.
The second miss was again in Abbotabad. We were tipped off that someone important in al Qaeda was living in a house there, and that someone else, also very important, someone we were looking for, was supposed to come and meet him. We did not know that the second someone was Abu Faraj al-Libbi, but we had enough information to attempt an interception. Our team members stationed themselves around the house in Abbotabad. When the expected visitor turned up, the person in the house came out to meet him. But as he approached, the visitor acted suspicious and tried to run away. There was an exchange of fire, and he was killed. The visitor was not Libbi. Later, after we arrested Libbi and interrogated him, we discovered his pattern: he would always send somebody ahead as a decoy while he himself stayed behind to observe. He was undoubtedly watching his decoy perform the fatal pantomime that day.
We had to start afresh. We managed to “turn” one of Libbi’s important accomplices, of course without Libbi’s knowledge. Our agents made the captive accomplice arrange a meeting between himself and Libbi. The accomplice tried to arrange the meeting in Bannu, but Libbi stayed away. He had said he would appear, but he intended only to send a courier. Then he even canceled the courier. Our lead, the captive accomplice, was next told that a new meeting would take place in Mardan, again in the North-West Frontier Province, at four thirty on the afternoon of May 1, 2005.
Pakistani intelligence planned its operation. We knew from inform-ants that Libbi traveled on a motorbike as a passenger, while somebody else drove. Our people were camouflaged, hiding and ready, with three men on motorbikes. As four thirty approached, Lib,bi kept calling, asking the captive accomplice in code whether everything was OK. The accomplice assured him that everything was fine. Our men took their informant to a bazaar so that Libbi would hear the background noise and be assured that he wasn’t in custody. We played other such games with him. But still, he did not appear at four thirty. Then the line went dead.
Early the next morning a call came that Libbi would be at the meeting place at nine thirty, thus reducing the warning and preparation time. Not all our men were there, but they still decided to go ahead with the operation. The meeting place was a dark graveyard where there is also a shrine that has a lot of visitors, who come and go all day long. Three of our people put on burkas, the robes that women wear to cover themselves, including their faces. Abu Faraj al-Libbi got there at nine thirty on the dot. At some distance from the meeting point he got off his bike. For some reason, he broke with his usual procedure of sending in a decoy first, and simply started walking toward our man. Though he was wearing big sunglasses and a cap, our people had no doubt that it was he, because of the leukoderma on his face. His driver stayed on the bike while a gunman followed at a distance. The moment Libbi came close to one of our burka-clad “women,” “she” jumped up and embraced him. It was quite a scene. In a place as conservative as the North-West Frontier Province, a woman in a burka embracing a man in public is unthinkable.
The moment this happened, Libbi’s gunman (later identified as Ibrahim, a Pakistani courier) opened fire aimlessly and then ran and hid in a house some distance away. Our agents chased him and surrounded the house. They asked him to come out. When he wouldn’t, they fired a tear-gas canister into the house, forced him out, and arrested him.
Meanwhile, the bike driver ran off at high speed. We tried to hit him and capture him, without killing him, but he managed to escape. Nonetheless, the capture of Abu Faraj al-Libbi is one of the greatest victories in our terrorist manhunts.
With Amjad Faruqi’s death and Libbi’s capture, the story of the attack of December 25, 2005, on me reached closure. The mastermind was in custody; the chief planner was dead; Salahuddin, the go-between, was also captured, as were all the major operatives in the case. A few minor players are still at large. Kayani, who by now had become director general of ISI, was able to bring the case to a successful conclusion. He was not the only happy man.
There was one final twist: Mushtaq, the man who had played a key role in the first attempt to assassinate me, on December 14, 2003, escaped from a base of the Pakistan Air Force in Rawalpindi, where he had been kept in custody. Not being a regular prison, the air base had slack security. An opportunity to escape came at six AM on November 25, 2004, when Mushtaq asked the guard on duty to let him take a shower. When he came out of the shower, he found the guard asleep. They were in a gallery where off-duty air force technicians leave their overalls. Mushtaq put on a pair of overalls and slipped past the sleeping guard and out through a window. He then managed to hoodwink the guards at the main gate, since he was in Pakistan Air Force overalls and they did not suspect that he was one of their prime prisoners. Then the situation went from the stupid to the ridiculous. To get away fast and undetected, Mushtaq asked a bicycle rider who was also wearing an air force uniform to give him a ride to the Daewoo intercity bus stop. From there he went to Peshawar, over 100 miles (160 kilometers) away, where he phoned a man named Mubashir, who directed him to one Noor Jehan, with whom he stayed till January 2005. (Noor Jehan is normally a woman’s name, but not in this case.)
From Peshawar, Mushtaq went to Lahore, where he met up with Mubashir’s cousins, who told him to go and work in a poultry farm owned by two brothers, Naukhez and Javed, in a nearby small town named Bhai Pheru. He told them that the intelligence agencies were looking for him. At a later date Mushtaq met up with a man named Kaleem, and the two discussed killing foreigners in Islamabad, and even started planning some operations.
Mushtaq then changed course. Along with Naukhez and Mubashir, he started planning another attempt to assassinate me, in the area of the Islamabad Highway, which leads from the capital to Rawalpindi. In fact, they had made all the necessary arrangements and Mushtaq left Lahore for Islamabad on April 19, 2005, to carry out the assassination attempt on April 20, 2005. But by now the ISI was on his heels and he was arrested on the highway near the Salem intersection.
How the ISI traced Mushtaq is another interesting story. His escape deeply shook our authorities. Searching for him would be like looking for a needle in a haystack, but the ISI was assigned to catch him, come what may. A special exclusive unit was set up within the ISI to find Mushtaq. A number of his family members were already either in custody or under strict watch. We also had a lot of data concerning his friends and associates and the places he used to visit or hide out in. The ISI paid special attention to three phone numbers and addresses. The first was Mushtaq’s mother’s number in Karachi, the second was his girlfriend’s in Gujrat, and the third was Mubashir’s in Peshawar.
When Mushtaq made the first phone call to Mubashir after reaching Peshawar on the day he escaped, we were still not onto him. But after about four weeks he called his mother from a public call office in Bara near Peshawar, so we knew that he was there. A few days later he called his girlfriend in Gujrat from a cell phone and joyfully told her, “I have escaped, and they will never be able to catch me again.” Unfortunately for him, his girlfriend told him that she had written him off after he had been arrested and had taken on another boyfriend. This infuriated him so much that he threatened to travel to Gujrat immediately and kill his rival. However, instead of going to Gujrat he remained in Peshawar. Later he went to Lahore and then to Bhai Pheru in January 2005. By now the ISI had his cell phone number and the codes of his SIM, as well as the phone itself After these two telephone interceptions, the ISI was able to establish Mushtaq’s movement pattern and identify his associates in Peshawar. Mushtaq knew that his phone could get him into trouble, so he kept changing SIMs. Eventually he was using different SIMs for different people, including his girlfriend in Gujrat. The ISI knew all this, and was on his heels when he got onto the highway from Lahore to Islamabad.
That is how he was arrested at the Salem interchange. He was found fast asleep in his seat in the last row of a bus, with a switched-on cell phone in his pocket. When the ISI officer asked him to identify himself, Mushtaq replied, “You know exactly who I am.”
Hopefully, Mushtaq’s saga has finally come to an end.