- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
The New York Times is reporting today that a cell phone recovered from Osama bin Laden’s safe house “contained contacts” to the militant group Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (HUM), which has longstanding ties to Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The implication is the spy agency, or elements of it, may have had a hand in sheltering bin Laden.
While the revelation about the cell-phone contacts are interesting, there’s nothing new about the group’s longtime connection to bin Laden’s terror network.
The links go all the way back to the founding of al Qaeda. Fazlur Khalil, one of HUM’s leaders, even signed bin Laden’s fatwa in 1998 calling for attacks on the United States and U.S. citizens around the world as part as the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders.” And when the United States launched retaliatory airstrikes against al Qaeda after the embassy bombings in East Africa that same year, some of those missiles struck a HUM training camp in Afghanistan, killing 11 of its militants. At the time, the Clinton administration said the camps were “part of a terrorist network run by Osama bin Laden,” according to a Times story from 1998.
According to Robert Grenier, the former CIA station chief in Islamabad, it’s not clear if HUM and al Qaeda “shared camps on an organizational level,” but there were definitely personal links forged at HUM camps between fighters of both groups.
The State Department put the group on its list of foreign terrorists after the 9/11 attacks (its precursor group, which went by a different name, had been placed on the list in 1997).
WikiLeaks offers more evidence of a connection. In one leaked threat assessment document about a detainee at Guantánamo with ties to HUM, an “analyst note” says: “Kamran Atif, a terrorist who was recently arrested by the Pakistani Crime Investigation Department (CID) Police revealed that [HUM] has links with Al-Qaida and that [HUM] and AQ are ‘in complete contact with each other.'”
In a threat assessment for another detainee with ties to both groups, HUM is described as “a Pakistani extremist group known to help al Qaeda members escape from Afghanistan.”
HUM is also tied to the 2002 kidnapping of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter who was killed in Pakistan, reportedly by al Qaeda’s 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. According to a report released this year on the kidnapping from the Center for Public Integrity and Georgetown University, the mastermind of the operation, Omar Sheikh, had ties to HUM, among other militant groups in Pakistan.
Also, Pearl’s remains were found in a shed owned by Saud Memon, reportedly HUM’s chief financial backer who was later killed, according to the Associated Press.
The Times article says that Khalil, HUM’s leader is living “unbothered by Pakistani authorities on the outskirts of Islamabad.”
When the Associated Press called Khalil on his cell phone last month, he said that reports that he was in touch with bin Laden in Abottabad were “100 percent wrong, it’s rubbish.”