According to The News, the latest twist in the strange tale of Qari Saifullah Akhtar - a man who for the past 13 years has flickered in and out of the news in connection with terrorist acts - has added to the mysteries surrounding him. At the end of February, several news reports, some quoting the interior minister, stated that Qari Akhtar had been held in Lahore with his three sons. He was believed to be wanted in connection with the October 18 bombing at a PPP procession in Karachi. However, the interior ministry now says it has no record of Qari Akhtar's arrest.
A strong fishy odour lurks everywhere. The suspicion is that it does not suit certain interests to have Akhtar appear before a court, possibly because he knows too much about the links of powerful people with pro-militant elements. Indeed, the man who in 1995 was alleged to have been part of a bizarre plot, planned alongside senior army officers to overthrow the second Benazir Bhutto government and usher in strict Taliban-style 'Islamic' law has a long past of engagement with groups active in the Kashmir jihad. At least some of these groups enjoyed official patronage. A number of the men trained and indoctrinated as a part of the policy to stage a liberation struggle in Kashmir, seem to have later moved beyond the control of their official 'handlers'. Some, like Qari Akhtar, appear to have re-directed their efforts to staging 'jihad' within Pakistan, using terrorist tactics against those they saw as enemies.
After turning approver in the 1995 takeover case, Qari Akhtar was quietly released and then went to Afghanistan, taking a pro-Taliban role during the violent battles fought out in the country. His fate since the fall of the Taliban has been unclear, though he and his band of fighters escaped a 2001 US-strike on a house in Kabul. Some two years ago, Saifullah appears to have been arrested in Dubai and handed over to Pakistan, but then once more quietly freed. The tale of this terrorist is relevant for several reasons. It in the first place points to long-suspected linkages between militant elements and forces - particularly secret agencies - within Pakistan. This dangerous courtship began in Kashmir. Indeed, some hold that certain militant groups are still being offered support in case the strategy of conflict in the valley needs to be revived at some later stage.
But beyond the troubled question of Kashmir, the fear is that people who still apparently wield influence are anxious to avoid truth about linkages emerging. After all, this can be the only explanation for the reluctance to keep a man as dangerous as Qari Akhtar behind bars. He obviously has a tale to tell that some would not like to be heard. There is a need for the highest authorities in the land to intervene and ensure that the wanted terrorist is not allowed to escape punishment. This is all the more so because his alleged role in the October 18 bombing must be fully investigated. After all, the attempt that took place then on Benazir Bhutto's life could shed considerable light on her eventual assassination just a few weeks later. If Qari Saifullah Akhtar once more walks away from justice or is whisked away by secret agencies, this will only add to suspicions that the authorities are not sincere in their efforts to get to the bottom of the Benazir murder or that elements eager to cover their own tracks are able to intervene and prevent the uncovering of the truth.