Marriott bombing: Wily HUJI chief still at large

September 23rd, 2008 - 5:49 pm ICT by IANS  

Islamabad, Sep 23 (IANS) Qari Saifullah Akhtar, the Harkat-ul-Jehad-e-Islami (HuJI) chief suspected of involvement in the Marriott Hotel suicide bombing - and of masterminding the Oct 18, 2007 suicide attack on former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s welcome procession in Karachi - is still at large, a media report Tuesday said.”Although no one is sure if there was a link between Qari and Bhutto, PPP circles ask as to why Al Qaeda linked dreaded terrorist having known links with the Taliban militia was set free by the (then) Musharraf regime after three years (in jail) before Bhutto’s homecoming,” The News said.

“The whereabouts of Qari are unknown as he is believed to have gone underground in the aftermath of the Sep 20 Marriott Hotel suicide bombing” that killed 53 and injured hundreds more, the newspaper added.

Bhutto has alleged in her posthumous book that Saifullah had played a major role in a 1995 failed coup to topple her second government, and had masterminded the Karachi attack.

On Feb 26, exactly two weeks after Bhutto’s book was published, the Musharraf administration arrested Saifullah for interrogation. He was released on bail from a Karachi jail three months later in June.

Shortly before her Dec 27, 2007 assassination, Bhutto had been putting final touches to her hard-hitting memoirs “Reconciliation: Islam, Democracy and the West”, which were published by Simon & Schuster six weeks after her death.

In the book Bhutto has written: “It was Qari to whom the intelligence officials in Lahore had turned for help before my homecoming on October 18, 2007.”

“I was informed of a meeting that had taken place in Lahore where the bomb blasts were planned. However, a bomb maker was needed for the bombs. Enter Qari Saifullah Akhtar, a wanted jehadi terrorist who had tried to overthrow my second government in the 1990s. He had been extradited by the United Arab Emirates and was languishing in the Karachi central jail. According to my sources, the officials in Lahore had turned to Qari for help. His liaison with elements in the government was a radical who was asked to make the bombs and he himself asked for a fatwa making it legitimate to oblige. He got one,” Bhutto added.

Born in 1958 in Waziristan, Qari Saifullah is a graduate of the Jamia Binoria, Karachi, a well-known religious seminary of the subcontinent that has produced several prominent pro-Taliban Deobandi kingpins like the Harkatul Mujahideen chief Fazlur Rehman Khalil and the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar, The News said.

Qari Saifullah had been arrested and extradited from the United Arab Emirates on Aug 7, 2004 on charges of plotting the twin suicide attacks on Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003.

However, instead of trying to prosecute and convict him after his arrest, the security agencies chose to keep him under detention for the next two years and nine months, without even filing any criminal charges against him in any court of law, the newspaper said.

His arrest was challenged in the Supreme Court in the first week of January 2005. On Jan 18, 2005, the Supreme Court dismissed the petition against Saifullah’s arrest and directed the petitioner to first move the High Court by filing a habeas corpus petition.

A Supreme Court bench of Justices Hamid Ali Mirza and Falak Sher ruled that his arrest was not a matter of public importance and hence a constitutional petition could not be filed directly in the Supreme Court.

“However, after Bhutto’s murder, it emerged that Qari Saifullah had quietly been released by the agencies as one of the missing persons being sought by a Supreme Court bench under the now deposed chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry,” The News said.

Before that, on May 5, 2007, the government told the Supreme Court that Qari Saifullah was not in the custody of the state agencies.

The report presented by the National Crisis Management Cell to the Court, said: “He is engaged in jehadi activities somewhere in Punjab,” thus denying that he was under detention.

Two weeks later, on May 21, 2007, Qari Saifullah suddenly reached his home in Mandi Bahauddin in Punjab province.

The interior ministry brought this to the notice of the Supreme Court on May 26, 2007, by the Ministry of Interior.

Qari Saifullah’s counsel Hashmat Habib “told the court that while setting him free, the intelligence officials told Qari that had they not picked him up, there was a strong possibility of the American FBI taking him away for interrogation because of his alleged Al Qaeda and Taliban links”, The News said.

“Hashmat’s statement only supplemented Bhutto’s claim that Qari Saifullah was involved with those who were plotting to assassinate her upon her homecoming,” the newspaper maintained.

“Even otherwise, at the time of his August 2004 dramatic arrest and subsequent extradition from the UAE, Pakistani authorities had described the development as a major blow to the Al Qaeda sponsored terrorist network and its local affiliates in the country,” it added.

The then information minister, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, painted Qari Saifullah as a close aide of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the latter being the operational head of the Al Qaeda in Pakistan.

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