Terror camps? What terror camps? That's Pakistan's reaction to news that one of two terror suspects arrested last week in California trained to kill Americans at an al Qaeda camp operating inside Pakistan, America's supposed ally in the war on terror.
"There are no training camps in Pakistan," insists senior Pakistani diplomat Naeem Khan. "We are the frontline state in the fight against terrorism. How could we allow such camps in our country?"
Or worse, right under your nose, as seems to be the case.
According to the FBI, a Pakistani-American from the sleepy farming community of Lodi, California, confessed he spent six months in 2003-2004 at an al Qaeda camp near Rawalpindi -- a suburb of capital Islamabad and home to none other than Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who claims to be cracking down on terrorism in his country.
"That's a bit like having a terrorist training camp on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.," remarked former White House counterterror czar Richard Clarke.
Rawalpindi happens to be the same place 9/11 mastermind and Pakistani national Khalid Sheikh Mohammed hid after the attacks. He was captured only after U.S. intelligence drew a bead on him right in Musharraf's neighborhood. (As the 9/11 Commission Report concluded, much of the 9/11 plot was hatched from Pakistan.)
Pakistan denies hosting any terror training camps just as it denies the presence of Osama bin Laden, even as his couriers deliver tape-recorded messages to Al-Jazeera's bureaus in Islamabad and Karachi.
But ABC News obtained footage showing al Qaeda has set up new training camps inside Pakistan similar to ones dismantled in Afghanistan. And U.S. authorities have known about the threat from Pakistan-trained terrorists since at least last summer.
In a special alert dated June 17, 2004, the Homeland Security Department warned border authorities to be on the lookout for young men of Pakistani descent -- including U.S. citizens -- traveling from Pakistan and showing signs of training at terror camps there. Among other things, it ordered agents to check for "rope burns" and "unusual bruises" from obstacle course training, and scarring from firearms training, according to the bulletin, a copy of which I've obtained. (It is so diplomatically sensitive that DHS headquarters has opened an internal investigation into the source of the leak.)
"Individuals traveling to train at terrorist camps in Pakistan," the two-page bulletin warns, "are destined to commit illegal activities in the United States." It says "police raids and military operations in Pakistan" have led to information about the camps, directly contradicting Islamabad's claims of ignorance over them.
The FBI says Pakistani-American Hamid Hayat cycled through an al Qaeda camp called Tamal near Ramalpindi with "hundreds" of other jihadists to "learn to kill Americans" with various weapons and explosives. His targets allegedly included American supermarkets and hospitals.
Hayat, 22, may be one of many such individuals already in place inside our country, raising new concerns about al Qaeda sleeper cells. His arrest also raises fresh concerns about Pakistan's overall cooperation in the war on terror.
Yes, Islamabad has produced a handful of senior al Qaeda operatives hiding out in Pakistan. But they have come in fits and starts, and for the most part only after U.S. officials have paid visits to Musharraf to press for better results or after he got new pledges for economic or military aid. (Recently captured Abu Farraj al-Libbi was billed as a major al-Qaida trophy, but it turns out he wasn't even on the FBI's most wanted terrorist list. He was tops on Musharraf's list, however, wanted in connection with a plot on Musharraf's life.)
And bin Laden and his inner circle have gone unscathed to the point where they're churning out new terrorists to attack America from training camps in Musharraf's own back yard.
Meanwhile, Musharraf refuses to let U.S. troops based in Afghanistan cross his border to hunt for bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders and crush what appears to be their new base of operations.
Remarkably, the White House has agreed to the ban with hardly a whimper, while rewarding Musharraf for his "strong cooperation" with long-sought F-16 fighter jets and other military gear it can use against archenemy India, a true friend of America who like us has been a victim of Islamic terror, not a generator of it.
So, America is counting almost exclusively on Pakistan's military to hunt down its Enemy No. 1 and destroy his new terrorist hatcheries.
But don't hold your breath: It was Pakistani military intelligence that introduced bin Laden to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, also still at large. It even tipped him off before the U.S. first bombed his Afghan camps in 1998, according to the 9/11 Commission Report. And by many accounts, Pakistani intelligence remains "in bed with bin Laden," as Clarke has put it.
Which begs the obvious question of why we're still relying on people more loyal to our enemy to protect us from it. More to the point: Why do we keep rewarding them?
Given President Bush's gushing support in the face of Musharraf's spotty results, you have to wonder who's running our war on terror -- Bush or Musharraf? Who's really in command of our security? Why is Bush deferring authority over a matter of life and death for potentially every American?
After 9/11, Bush demanded the Taliban "close immediately and permanently every terrorist training camp in Afghanistan."
Yet Pakistan, the cradle of the Taliban movement, gets no such ultimatums regarding its own terror camps. It gets F-16s instead.
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