The timing's a little strange, no question about that, and, yes, maybe a little embarrassing for those of us who like to shoot holes in conspiracy theories. Last week I wrote a skeptical column called "October Surprises," dismissing out of hand the notion among Bush-haters that the president or his men have an already-captured Osama bin Laden squirreled away some place so they can pop him on the public at a vote-grabbing moment just before the U.S. presidential election. "Give me a break," I said.
Then, well, something kind of like that happened. No, it's not OBL. And no, it's not October yet. But last week right at the end of the Democratic National Convention--at just that moment when John Kerry was supposed to be getting a huge boost from the undivided attention of the media and the American people ... Bingo! News broke that Pakistan caught one of Al Qaeda's Most Wanted. Actually, you've probably never heard of him: a Tanzanian named Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani (a.k.a. "Foopie") who allegedly helped blow up the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es-Salaam six years ago this month. But still, the timing of the announcement was an uncanny surprise.
Further fouling the conspiratorial air was an article that appeared earlier in July in The New Republic, reporting that the Bush administration was putting all sorts of pressure on the Pakistanis to do just this: nab high-profile members of Al Qaeda before November or during the Democratic convention. An official in Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was quoted saying "the last 10 days of July deadline has been given repeatedly by [U.S. official] visitors to Islamabad."
The American public didn't pay much attention--at first. The Tyndall Report, which tracks U.S. network news coverage, doesn't even mention the Ghailani arrest in the stats for last week, which show the nets' evening news programs devoted 135 minutes to the convention and the Kerry campaign, and only 16 to any issues dealing with foreign policy.
But more headlines followed. Files found on computers used by Ghailani and another supposed Qaeda operative show the group had cased financial centers in New York and D.C. very carefully. When that news hit Homeland Security, alarm bells went off. Never mind that much of the information was years old. So here we are, less than a week since the Democrats' days in the sun, and the only glow left on American TV screens is an Orange alert.
Is the Bush administration playing such cynical politics with our fears? Perhaps. But before we point that finger, maybe we should take a closer look at the Pakistanis. They've had an uncanny way of producing senior Al Qaeda figures when they've felt the heat from the United States, and seeming to miss them right in their midst when the pressure was lowered. The Bush administration may or may not have been telling the ISI it wanted a July surprise, or an October one. But it has plenty of good reasons to turn the screws on the government of President Pervez Musharraf all the time, and in every way it can.
The first thing you notice when you look at the record of high-profile Al Qaeda arrests over the last three years is that almost all of these bad guys have been found in major cities, and deep inside Pakistan. "They're not being caught in some haystack on the border," says M. J. Gohel, an authority on terrorism at the British-based Asia-Pacific Foundation. The much-publicized drive into the back-of-beyond tribal lands near the Afghan frontier last spring produced zilch. But a list prepared by Gohel suggests where the real action has been, and probably remains.
Abu Zubaydah, Al Qaeda's chief of operations and bin Laden's reputed No. 3, was grabbed along with 20 other members of the organization in urban Faisalabad in March 2002--after the United States provided very precise (you might say inescapable) intelligence on his whereabouts. Ramzi bin al-Shibh, the roommate of the 9/11 hijack leader Muhammad Atta, was picked up in a middle-class Karachi neighborhood in September 2002. In April 2003, again under pressure from U.S. investigators, Tawfiq bin Attash was arrested in another part of Karachi, along with five alleged accomplices. He was reputedly a key figure in the USS Cole bombing and other Al Qaeda operations at sea.
The biggest catch, in March 2003, was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who drew up the master plans for the 9/11 atrocities. American agents tracked him to a middle-class suburb of Rawalpindi, where his neighbors included Pakistani Army officers and members of the ISI. Rawalpindi, it's worth noting, is only nine miles away from the Pakistani capital Islamabad.
Ghailani--the latest catch--is a black African. And there aren't many of them in Pakistan. He was caught in the industrial city of Gujrat, and he had been living with friends and extended family in Pakistan for the better part of six years. That is, ever since the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up. His picture has been posted on the Web for years, along with a $5 million reward from the United States government. And nobody noticed this guy until last week?
"The conclusion has to be that there are still elements in the government or the intelligence services that are protecting these individuals," says Gohel. Of course, Musharraf and his people insist that they are working full time all the time to track down every terrorist they can. They fiercely deny any suggestion that they're trying to distract attention from Pakistan's black-market bazaar for nuclear weapons by staging antiterrorist offensives and producing Al Qaeda leaders at convenient moments. Musharraf himself was nearly blown up by terrorists twice earlier this year. So he has reasons to want these people out of the way. Yet it is almost uncanny, as Gohel says, that "whenever Musharraf is under pressure he seems able to produce one or two Al Qaeda fighters like a magician out of a hat."
So maybe the curious clockwork of the Ghailani arrest and the Orange alert is all a Bush conspiracy or a Musharraf ploy. Or both. But I'll tell you this. I hope the pressure keeps up. Because every time one of these guys is hauled away for interrogation instead of sitting around with his buddies studying maps of D.C. and New York, the safer all of us become.