Muslim Militants Threaten American Lives
By Kamran Khan and Kenneth J. Cooper
KARACHI, Pakistan – Three Muslim militant groups based in Pakistan, angered because some of their comrades were killed last August in U.S. missile attacks on terrorist training camps in neighboring Afghanistan, are threatening to carry out revenge killings against Americans.
The threats to retaliate come mainly from Harkat Ansar, a group that the United States has declared to be a terrorist organization because of its suspected role in the 1995 kidnapping and likely killing of four Western tourists, including American Donald Hutchings, in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir.
At least seven Harkat members were killed and two dozen were wounded in the attacks on six training camps linked to Osama bin Laden, the reputed terrorist charged in the Aug. 7 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
At a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, after the U.S. assault Aug. 20 on camps near Khost and Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan, Harkat leaders vowed that the harm done its members would not go unanswered. But in recent interviews here in Pakistan's largest city, Harkat leaders and others issued their first specific public threat to retaliate against Americans.
"The veterans of the Khost bombing form the nucleus of Osama bin Laden loyalists whose sole mission in life is to settle the score with the United States," said a senior Harkat member, who asked not to be named. "For each of us killed or wounded in the cowardly U.S. attack, at least 100 Americans will be killed. . . . I may not be alive, but you will remember my words."
Other Harkat sources predicted that the organization would exact "bloody retaliation" for the Clinton administration's attempt to strike back at bin Laden for the embassy bombings. The militant group has maintained close ties to bin Laden since it was formed in the 1980s to join Islamic guerrillas in their successful decade-long fight to oust the Soviet army from Afghanistan.
Since that war ended in 1989, Harkat has sent a large number of Muslim militants from Pakistan across an unrecognized border dividing the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir to fight security forces in Indian-controlled areas. Harkat and other militant Pakistani groups were using bin Laden's camps to provide military training to their members, according to U.S., Indian and other intelligence agencies.
[Lee James Irwin, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, indicated Friday that officials there had received no written threats against Americans from Harkat or any other Pakistani group. But a senior official in Washington said such threats have surfaced through intelligence channels. "Those are bad guys," the official said of Harkat, adding that the group is thought to be capable of carrying out its threats and to be closely tied to bin Laden.]
Militant Muslim groups such as Harkat are suspected of killing six Americans in two Karachi street shootings, security officials said. Those attacks, still unsolved, claimed the lives of two U.S. consulate employees in 1995 and four oil company workers in 1997.
Senior Pakistani intelligence officials estimated that Harkat commands at least 500 well trained militants, most of whom have gone underground since the Clinton administration labeled Harkat a terrorist group in 1997.
The designation prompted Pakistani security agencies, which have covertly backed Muslim insurgents in Kashmir, to distance themselves from Harkat. But Pakistan has not cracked down on the group's militant activities in Kashmir because the government fears a bloody backlash from Islamic fundamentalist groups.
"In the shape of [Harkat Ansar] and a few other militant religious groups, Osama has a formidable human asset in Pakistan," a high-ranking security official said. "Frankly, we don't have specifics on this operation."
The other Pakistani militants killed in the U.S. attacks were members of Lakshar-e-Taiba and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen. A total of eight of their members died.
Last November, Lakshar organized a religious gathering of 50,000 youths near Lahore, Pakistan's second-largest city. Participants chanted slogans in support of bin Laden and vowed to avenge the U.S. attack on his camps. "Soon the flames of holy war will engulf the United States of America," one large banner said.
Pakistani officials estimated the three-day gathering cost organizers about $1 million. It is unclear whether any of the funding came from bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi dissident who left his hideout near the Afghan city of Kandahar last month but is believed to have remained in Afghanistan.
"We received donations from certain Arab individuals, but they don't want their names to be announced," said Amir Hamza, editor of the group's monthly publication. "The brutal bombings don't kill the spirit of these great people."
The gathering was one expression of what the State Department has acknowledged to be "considerable public sympathy and overt support" for bin Laden in Pakistan. Audio tapes of his speeches, translated from Arabic into Pakistani languages, have been circulated to mosques in major Pakistani cities. "Long Live Osama" has been painted on hundreds of cargo trucks since October, and Islamic seminaries operated by radical Sunni Muslim groups have displayed large portraits of bin Laden.
"For each of the 5,000 Pakistani and Afghan [students] in my two universities, Osama bin Laden is an ultimate hero. . . . Our youth are getting desperate to pay back the Americans in their own coin," said Sami ul-Haq, the cleric who directs the largest Sunni seminary in Pakistan.
Not all Pakistani security officials consider the propagation of "Osama ideology" as dangerous. "It's a harmless activity that doesn't merit any attention," one said.
Some Pakistanis have even taken to naming their children after America's most wanted terrorism suspect.
"When my son was born on September 1 last year, our family unanimously decided to name him as Osama," said Abdul Aziz, 43, a carpenter. "We thought it was the most respectful name a Muslim can give to his newborn."
Later, two lower middle class families in the same Karachi neighborhood named their newborn sons Osama. There was a particular reason for bin Laden's appeal in the Surjani neighborhood: One of its own, Jalil Chisti, was injured in the U.S. attack on the Afghan training camps.
"We were all Pakistanis in the camp. By hitting us, the U.S. had committed a grave blunder," said Chisti, 19, who joined Harkat last April after he could not find a job. His right arm and leg were broken when missiles struck the Salman Farsi camp near Khost.
Chisti said that the camp's commander had told trainees that bin Laden financed the operation. "We were told about his sacrifices and bravery during the Afghan war," the youngster recalled. "For all of us, he was almost an unseen god."
Staff writer Vernon Loeb in Washington contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company