- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 17, 2006

Information is emerging that the ultimate target in last week’s foiled airline bombing plot was not the United States or Britain, but Pakistan, our vital ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. The timing of the aborted attacks was not meant to coincide with the impending fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. The date that mattered to the plotters was Pakistan’s Independence Day celebration on Aug. 14.

It is no coincidence that British security officials eased travel restrictions out of Heathrow and other British airports as Pakistan’s Independence Day passed without any coup against President Pervez Musharraf.

The objective of those who backed the British plotters was to pull off a terrorist spectacular that would demonstrate the strength of the Islamic militancy and spark popular uprisings against the Musharraf government. The symbolism of Pakistan breaking away from its close alliance with the West on its 59th celebration of independence would have resonated throughout the Muslim street. Pakistani officials are probing whether there was an inside coup plan to complement the terrorist plot and planned street agitation.

In a move that went unreported last week by Western media, which were focused almost exclusively on the arrests in Britain and airport security delays, Pakistani authorities placed Hafiz Mohammed Saeed under house arrest. At the same time, they banned a planned demonstration by Mr. Saeed’s charity, Jamaat ud Dawa — the Association of the Call to Righteousness — for Aug. 14.

Jamaat ud Dawa is at the center of suspicions of being the logistics network for the British plotters. Probers in Pakistan and Britain are trying to disentangle money transfers that may have originated with Jamaat fund-raisers in the U.K. and appear intended to purchase the airline tickets to carry out the foiled plot. The United States considers Jamaat ud Dawa a terrorist organization and suspects that it is a follow-on entity to Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant organization active in Kashmir and banned by Gen. Musharraf in 2002.

British authorities had to move urgently on the terrorist plot this past week when the importance of Pakistan’s Independence Day and the broader implications of the plot became clear. The targeting of Pakistan also helps explain another curiosity regarding the British terrorist cells involved in the foiled plan. Although those arrested are British citizens, they almost exclusively have Pakistani roots. In past terrorist attacks and plots, we have seen an amalgam of nationalities — Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Somalis, and more — reflecting the broad reach of Islamist extremism. In contrast, this was all about Pakistan, from conception to targeting to backing.

There are other anomalies of the past week’s events that make more sense in light of the targeting. President Bush did not break off his Crawford vacation to rush back to the Situation Room in anticipation of a potential crisis caused by downed airliners. The fact that he stayed in Texas tells us all that British, American and Pakistani intelligence had the threat under control. If there had been even a minor chance of aircraft exploding over the Atlantic last week, Mr. Bush would have been back in the White House.

Nonetheless, Gen. Musharraf took no chances. On Aug. 14, the entire country was on high alert and thousands of extra police were deployed in the capital city of Islamabad and in population centers including Lahore and Karachi.

In his Independence Day remarks, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz cited Pakistan’s “vital role in the international war on terrorism.”

It is hard to overstate Pakistan’s importance as an ally. Its nuclear weaponry alone makes Pakistan a special case in the Muslim world. The strategic value of its cooperation with the West should not be underestimated at a time when the Taliban is showing renewed vigor in Afghanistan. Had Gen. Musharraf’s regime been toppled this week, Pakistan could have become the world’s first nuclear-armed state sponsor of terrorism. This will not be the last time that Islamist extremists will try to carry out terrorist plots whose ultimate targets are not the West, but friendly Muslim governments. It should serve as a reminder that the political and economic stability of allied Muslim regimes ought to be a foremost consideration for American policy-makers.

John B. Roberts II served in the Reagan White House. He writes frequently on terrorism and national security.

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