- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2002

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan The FBI has organized some former Pakistani army officers and others into a band known as the "Spider Group" to locate Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives hiding in tribal areas along the Afghanistan border.
A federal law-enforcement official in Washington said yesterday that the move marked an attempt by the FBI to develop a "free flow of information" to U.S. agents who previously had worked under some restrictions with Pakistan's official Inter-Services Intelligence agency.
The ISI had deep and long-standing ties to the Taliban and is believed by many to remain beyond the control of the central government in Islamabad.
The Spider Group consists largely of retired officers of Pakistan's army, some of whom had reached the rank of brigadier and colonel, say law-enforcement authorities in Washington and sources in Pakistan familiar with the operation.
Most of those involved have had a long experience dealing with Afghanistan, going back to the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in the 1980s and as recently as the period of Taliban rule, from the mid-1990s until last year.
The new group is based in the Pakistani border city of Peshawar, a gateway to Afghanistan.
It is charged with tracking the activities and movement of Taliban and al Qaeda outfits that operate in a largely autonomous belt of tribal areas nearby.
Sympathy for the Taliban and its brand of Islam is widespread in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier province, of which Peshawar is the capital.
Candidates of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of six militant anti-Western Islamic parties, won a majority in the province's legislature in recent elections.
Some of those elected to the provincial assembly taught Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and other top Taliban officials. The provincial assembly's new leaders have vowed to block the FBI from carrying out its mission, saying they want to hunt for the Taliban and al Qaeda themselves.
Initially, the Spider Group was assigned to keep an eye on public gatherings and seminars involving the MMA, especially the leaders of the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam (JUI) party, which is especially close to Taliban leaders.
The FBI fears that the provincial MMA-led government will give the Taliban and al Qaeda the freedom to meet, recruit members and plan attacks against pro-Western targets.
The FBI also believes that fugitive Islamists from Afghanistan are hiding in a network of madrassas, or religious schools, that are operated by the JUI.
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf denies that the schools harbor terrorists or that the ISI is beyond his control. He has said his government will not allow anyone to challenge its participation in the U.S.-led war against terrorism.
The Spider Group has also been asked to recruit locals in Pakistan's tribal areas, where hundreds of wanted terrorists are holed up under the patronage of tribal chiefs.
Despite a sizable Pakistani army presence in those areas, they are considered havens for Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives.
Members of the Spider Group, a mix of Muslim and Christian retired army and intelligence officers, have been trained and equipped by the FBI, and, sources in Pakistan say, all have command of the Pashto language spoken in the region. They have also hired Arabic translators.
Active Pakistani intelligence officials have begun monitoring Spider Group members, and their presence in army receptions and ceremonies has been banned. Pakistani intelligence operatives have also been directed not to have meetings with the group members.
The FBI decided to set up the Spider Group after it concluded that "lack of cooperation" from the ISI made it impossible to hunt down Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives in the tribal areas, the sources said.
The FBI found that the ISI helped several Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives escape to Iran after the military campaign in Afghanistan last year.
The FBI believes the ISI might still be helping fugitives by providing authorities with a steady flow of incomplete information.
An ISI spokesman would neither confirm nor deny the existence of the Spider Group.
"I have heard about it; however, I cannot comment on that without any concrete information," said the spokesman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He also denied that the FBI had ever expressed no confidence in information or hints provided by Pakistan's intelligence agency.
"Pakistani secret agencies are completely following the government policy vis-a-vis the war against terrorism and the recent arrests of al Qaeda leaders from Pakistan," the spokesman said.
Two top al Qaeda operatives have been arrested in Pakistan, both outside the tribal areas. In September, U.S. and Pakistani authorities captured Ramzi Binalshibh, believed to be a planner of the September 11 attacks, in Karachi. In March, al Qaeda financier Abu Zubaydah was arrested in the Pakistani city of Faisalabad.
Jerry Seper contributed to this report in Washington.


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