The international media barely noticed when Pakistani authorities recently picked up three foreign jihadis, including two German passport holders, in the remote town of Taftan near the Iranian border. But the arrests are being taken seriously by Western intelligence agencies.
The suspects were allegedly carrying sophisticated satellite phones and traveling through a lawless region known as a hotbed of Islamic radicalism. That and other circumstances have touched off an international investigation into the backgrounds and prior travel of the suspects. The chief concern is that the suspects may have been planning to cross into Iran on their way to Western Europe—or even the United States—to act as potential "muscle" in possible terror attacks, a European intelligence official tells NEWSWEEK. (The official asked not to be publicly identified talking about sensitive intelligence matters.)
Although little hard evidence about the intentions of the suspects has surfaced, the interest in the three alleged jihadis—one of whom hails from Kyrgyzstan—reflects mounting worries among Western intelligence officials about developments in Pakistan's border regions. It also underscores concerns among U.S. officials that potential terrorists could take advantage of loose travel rules for European citizens to enter the United States on tourist visas.
Just this week, the Western media began publicizing an inflammatory new jihadi video, made in the same region, that purports to show a "graduation ceremony" of 300 aspiring suicide bombers headed for the West. According to an account of the tape on the ABC News web site, the ceremony was staged on June 9 at a training camp alleged to be operated by the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The video, recorded by a Pakistani journalist, shows groups of about 150 masked men—supposedly suicide bombers assigned to conduct attacks in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States. Some of the would-be bombers were speaking English. Emceeing the graduation ceremony was a Taliban commander named Mansoor Dadullah—allegedly the brother of Mullah Dadullah, a senior Taliban commander whose brother was killed by U.S. forces in May.
A senior U.S. official told NEWSWEEK that the video has been closely analyzed by the U.S. intelligence community. "It looks to be more a propaganda tool than real because of its obvious staging," said the official about the graduation ceremony. Still, the FBI issued a bulletin to state and local officials this week. The bulletin downplayed the video as part of an apparent "propaganda operation," but urged officials to "maintain their high level of vigilance."
At the very least, the arrests in Baluchistan and the new Taliban videotape would appear to demonstrate that Pakistan and the tribal regions along its border with Afghanistan remain areas where Taliban militants—and what remains of their Al Qaeda allies—still operate with relative freedom and even openness. Indeed, the remote border areas of Pakistan—not Iraq—remain the prime point of origin for terror threats to Western countries, U.S. officials say.
Several of the best-publicized terrorist plots that U.S. and European authorities claim to have disrupted since 9/11 have connections to Pakistan or its border regions. These include the plot to launch multiple simultaneous attacks on U.S.-bound transatlantic passenger flights—and another to attack buildings in New York, New Jersey and Washington, D.C. British authorities have said that some of the bombers who attacked London underground trains and a double-decker bus on July 7, 2005, spent time in Pakistan before the attacks.
Most U.S. and European counterterrorism officials still believe that what remains of Al Qaeda's central command—including the terrorist network's two most important leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri—are still alive and hiding out somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistan border. Many officials believe that Zawahiri and bin Laden have now split up and are living in different locations. And while the Al Qaeda chieftains are thought to move around a lot, many U.S. and European officials believe that they spend much of their time on the Pakistan side of the border.