January 26, 2003 / Vol. 163 No. 3
The Monster Within
Once nurtured by Musharraf, the violent group Jaish-e-Muhammad now seems bent on killing him
BY TIM MCGIRK | ISLAMABAD
In the half-hour before Mohammed Jamil ended his life, he was a busy man. As he sat in a pickup truck loaded with C4 plastic explosives, he made and received no fewer than 109 calls on his cell phone, talking, at least in some cases, to accomplices in his effort to incinerate the President of Pakistan. Jamil, 23, might have assumed that the evidence he was creating would disintegrate in the blast he planned for Pervez Musharraf. If he did, he was wrong. Not only did he and a second car bomber fail to kill Musharraf in their Dec. 25 attempt, but the memory card of Jamil's cell phone, which investigators found intact amid the detritus of the blasts, has led authorities to dozens of suspected collaborators. Many belong to a violent Pakistani extremist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad. Once allied with Musharraf's government, the group is now linked to al-Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, called for Musharraf's overthrow in a recent audiotape.
One phone call that particularly disturbed investigators was between Jamil and a policeman on Musharraf's security beat. An investigator on the case told TIME that the policeman, who has been arrested and is being interrogated, informed Jamil in which car Musharraf—who uses several decoy limousines—was riding. U.S. and Pakistani investigators say they believe that insiders within the President's guard were also in on a failed Dec. 14 hit, allowing would-be killers to plant five explosive charges under a bridge that blew up just after Musharraf crossed it. Jaish-e-Muhammad is also suspected in that near miss. Under a new order, police officers assigned to the President's motorcade are prohibited from carrying cell phones while on duty for fear they will use them to coordinate attacks on Musharraf.
That Jaish-e-Muhammad has the capacity to launch sophisticated attacks on the President, possibly with insider help, is a situation partly of Musharraf's making. The government in Islamabad has long coddled militant Islamic groups, encouraging them first to help drive the Soviets out of neighboring Afghanistan and later to torment Indian troops in the part of the disputed state of Kashmir that is under Indian control. It was to this latter cause that Jaish-e-Muhammad was devoted. Official tolerance of these groups, and in some cases assistance to them, continued after Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. The President was especially supportive of Jaish-e-Muhammad's leader, warrior-cleric Maulana Masood Azhar. When Azhar was released from an Indian jail in a prisoner exchange in December 2000, he was permitted to stage a huge rally in Karachi attended by gun-toting followers. In 2001 Musharraf even tried unsuccessfully to persuade the various Kashmiri guerrilla groups to unite under Azhar.
The government's partnership with extremists was tested after 9/11, however, when Musharraf sided with the Bush Administration in its battle against Islamic militancy. Even so, Musharraf treated homegrown radicals gingerly at first. Under pressure from Washington, he banned various militant organizations in January 2002, but he left their leaders largely unfettered and allowed the organizations to reconstitute under new names. When it came to Jaish-e-Muhammad, Musharraf acted like a parent in denial after his favorite son has turned delinquent. Pakistan's intelligence services, which had helped build up the group and infiltrate its fighters into Indian-controlled Kashmir, were hesitant to crack down, even after Jaish-e-Muhammad began unleashing religious terrorism within Pakistan. Officials hold the outfit and its offshoots responsible for a May 2002 bombing in Karachi that killed 11 French naval technicians and another explosion outside the U.S. consulate in the same city in June 2002 that killed 12 Pakistanis. Diplomats in Islamabad say that one reason Musharraf was reluctant to get tough on Muslim extremists was that most were allied with religious parties he needed to prop up his regime.
After the two attempts on his life, Musharraf seems to have a new attitude. Acting on information gleaned from Jamil's cell phone, police in the central region of Punjab last week arrested more than 35 suspects from mosques and seminaries, most thought to be connected to Jaish-e-Muhammad. An unspecified number were released. Still, U.S. officials are encouraged that Musharraf finally seems committed to going after Jaish-e-Muhammad, a request Washington has made to Islamabad for years, to little effect. "He's serious," says a U.S. State Department official. "He was born again on Dec. 25."
One of those arrested last week was wanted as an accessory in the January 2002 abduction and murder of U.S. journalist Dani