- The Washington Times - Friday, November 20, 2009

Mullah Mohammed Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, has fled a Pakistani city on the border with Afghanistan and found refuge from potential U.S. attacks in the teeming Pakistani port city of Karachi with the assistance of Pakistan’s intelligence service, three current and former U.S. intelligence officials said.

Mullah Omar, who hosted Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders when they plotted the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, had been residing in Quetta, where the Afghan Taliban shura — or council — had moved from Kandahar after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Two senior U.S. intelligence officials and one former senior CIA officer told The Washington Times that Mullah Omar traveled to Karachi last month after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. He inaugurated a new senior leadership council in Karachi, a city that so far has escaped U.S. and Pakistani counterterrorism campaigns, the officials said.

The officials, two of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the topic, said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the ISI, helped the Taliban leaders move from Quetta, where they were exposed to attacks by unmanned U.S. drones.

The development reinforces suspicions that the ISI, which helped create the Taliban in the 1990s to expand Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, is working against U.S. interests in Afghanistan as the Obama administration prepares to send more U.S. troops to fight there.

Bruce Riedel, a CIA veteran and analyst on al Qaeda and the Taliban, confirmed that Mullah Omar had been spotted in Karachi recently.

“Some sources claim the ISI decided to move him further from the battlefield to keep him safe” from U.S. drone attacks, said Mr. Riedel, who headed the Obama administration’s review of policy for Afghanistan and Pakistan last spring. “There are huge madrassas in Karachi where Mullah Omar could easily be kept.”

Mr. Riedel also noted that there had been few suicide bombings in Karachi, which he attributed to the Taliban and al Qaeda not wanting to “foul their own nest.”

A U.S. counterterrorism official said, “There are indications of some kind of bleed-out of Taliban types from Quetta to Karachi, but no one should assume at this point that the entire Afghan Taliban leadership has packed up its bags and headed for another Pakistani city.”

A second senior intelligence officer who specializes in monitoring al Qaeda said U.S. intelligence had confirmed Mullah Omar’s move through both electronic and human sources as well as intelligence from an unnamed allied service.

The official said that neither Osama bin Laden nor al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri has been spotted in Karachi. The official said the top two al Qaeda figures are still thought to be in the tribal region of Pakistan on Afghanistan’s border.

But, the official said, other midlevel al Qaeda operatives who facilitate the travel and training of foreign fighters have moved to the Karachi metropolitan area, which with 18 million people is Pakistan’s most populous city.

“One reason, [al Qaeda] and Taliban leaders are relocating to Karachi is because they believe U.S. drones do not strike there,” the official said. “It is a densely populated urban area.”

Al Qaeda has had a presence in Karachi since at least 2001.

In late 2001, a cell likely commanded by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed — the admitted operational planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — abducted and killed journalist Daniel Pearl.

Mohammed, who was captured by the CIA with ISI help in Pakistan in 2003, was sent to the detention facility at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and is now set to go on trial in New York. In 2007, at a closed military hearing at Guantanamo, he confessed that he personally beheaded Mr. Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter.

Pakistani officials said they were perplexed by the U.S. reports regarding Mullah Omar and denied that the ISI had facilitated a move by the Quetta shura to Karachi.

Nadeem Kiani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Embassy in Washington, said the U.S. has not provided Pakistan with any credible intelligence regarding Mullah Omar’s whereabouts.

“We have no evidence of his presence in Pakistan,” Mr. Kiani said. “If anybody in the U.S. government knows of any Quetta shura or Karachi shura, why don’t they share that intelligence with Pakistan so we can take care of the issue ourselves? We have not been made aware of any presence of Mullah Omar in the region.”

He said the ISI and Pakistani military have “suffered a lot of losses fighting the terrorists” and that “people who are making these accusations have their own agendas.”

“Our forces are fighting the Taliban in Waziristan and other areas,” he said. “The terrorists are now killing and targeting innocent people in Pakistani cities. ISI is a very professional intelligence agency and these allegations are baseless.”

Mr. Kiani added that the U.S. and Pakistan have “24-hour intelligence sharing.”

Another Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the nature of his work, told The Times, “If Pakistan is made aware of the allegations and we do nothing, then the U.S. will know who to blame. Pakistan can take action with credible information.

“But to shift the blame on Pakistan and the security forces because Afghanistan is becoming more of a problem is not going to be helpful but have a demoralizing effect on the situation both here and there,” he said.

Mary Habeck, a professor and analyst on radical Islam at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, said the reported move “suggests the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are one and the same thing.”

She said that it also “shows the Taliban are not the marginalized group we have been saying they are. They can move into a major city in Pakistan and believe they are safe there.”