front-paged by BooMan

The military dictator of Pakistan told CNN today that Abu Faraj al-Libbi, the captured Libyan national alleged to be a kingpin operative in al-Qaeda, will be – or may already have been – deported to the United States. There was no confirmation from Washington, and it’s unknown whether Abu Faraj’s destination is actually the United States or that lawless limbo-land called Guantanamo. In fact, President Pervez Musharraf said he wasn’t sure whether Abu Faraj is already in the States or on his way, but  “we don’t want him in Pakistan.”

Thus is the story of this suspected top tier terrorist ratcheted up another couple of notches on my how-very-strange gauge.

Let me say at the outset that I’m not arguing that Abu Faraj isn’t a terrorist, isn’t an al-Qaeda operative, isn’t someone worthy of some of the press attention he got after he was captured May 2 in a Pakistan village near where some say Osama bin Laden is likely to be hiding. However, what’s been said so far publicly about Abu Faraj is so contradictory that even someone who understands intelligence and military operations as poorly as I can’t avoid having my bullshit antennae tweaked. Even the circumstances leading up to his capture are disputed.

One example: If Abu Faraj really was the mastermind behind two failed December 2003 attempts on Musharraf’s life, what sense does it make that the dictator would essentially wash his hands of this would-be assassin and ship him out of the country without even a quick show trial? After all, the Pakistani government had put a $350,000 price on his head, and he was No. 1 on the country’s most wanted list.

As pointed out in a Sunday Times article on May 8, if Abu Faraj was really al-Qaeda’s No. 3 – a replacement for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the terrorist network’s operations director, who helped plan September 11 – why did he not appear on any of the publicly available U.S. wanted lists of such senior leaders until after he was captured?

Even a senior FBI official admitted that al-Libbi’s “influence and position have been overstated”. But this weekend the Pakistani government was sticking to the line that al-Libbi was the third most important person in the Al-Qaeda network,

according to the Sunday Times. The comment by one American official that “We did not want him to know he was wanted” would be hilarious if it weren’t so pitiful.

Abu Faraj was apparently on some U.S. list.

Although the Associated Press in early May vaguely mentioned that a cell phone call intercepted by U.S. agents led to snaring Abu Faraj, that connection has never been expanded on by officials in Washington or Islamabad or by the media.

The details are that in mid-April, in an effort to reach his mother and sister in England, Abu Faraj unaccountably used a cell phone to call the Tunisian office of a businessman who is his distant relative by marriage. Within minutes, Tunisian special police appeared at the office to question the recipient of the phone call. Less than two weeks later, thanks to that cell call, Abu Faraj was in custody in Pakistan, providing George Bush and the Pakistani dictator with an opportunity to announce another victory in the war on terror.

Yet numerous reports claimed that authorities had no idea ahead of time that Abu Faraj was in the village where they showed up masquerading in burkas on the basis of a tip that “jihadis” were present – rather a good bet in a region of Pakistan whose leaders are more than sympathetic with the Taliban and Osama. They claimed not to know who he was until after they began questioning him and looked at his face, which is blemished by the skin disease vitiligo, the same affliction suffered by Michael Jackson.

Since he was taken into custody, Abu Faraj’s importance has been downplayed by European and some American intelligence experts, as detailed in the aforementioned Sunday Times story. They argue that Abu Faraj was not No. 3, and certainly not chief of operations in Europe, but rather “among the flotsam and jetsam” of al-Qaeda.

Simultaneously, however, the capture has been hyped ever higher by Musharraf and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, a sort of CIA and Gestapo rolled into one agency with longstanding ties to the Taliban. A mere fortnight after Abu Faraj was taken into custody, on May 16, the dictator said the capture had  “broken the back” of al-Qaeda, and that it no longer operates as a network in Pakistan.  

In his first interview since the arrest of Al-Qaeda’s senior leader, Musharraf said: “We have broken their back. They cease to exist as a cohesive, homogenous body under good command and control, vertical and horizontal.”

European security experts have been cautious about Al-Libbi’s importance in the network, but Musharraf maintained that his capture was “very significant” and that it had led to other key arrests in some Gulf countries.

Yet, while 11 additional operatives were captured, allegedly as a result of contacts found in Abu Faraj’s notebook and computer hard-drives uncovered consequent to his capture, even Musharraf concedes that the guy has no knowledge of Osama’s whereabouts, noting that Pakistani interrogators have extracted “all the intelligence” they can from their prize.

In one month? Can Pakistani intelligence be that much more efficient than our unfettered agents in Guantanamo? And if they are, and have surely shared every shred of information they’ve gotten from Abu Faraj with their American counterparts, what purpose is served by sending him to the United States other than to show how wonderfully Islamabad is cooperating with Washington? Is this some kind of perverse reverse rendition? Perhaps Musharraf thinks the proper punishment for the man said to have planned to kill him – twice – is to be chained to a chair listening to rap music at high decibels all day and night like other Gitmo prisoners. Stay tuned.

Cross-posted at The Next Hurrah.

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