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Default Pakistan's Chitral District: A Refuge for al-Qaeda's Top Leadership?

Pakistan's Chitral District: A Refuge for al-Qaeda's Top Leadership?
Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 3 Issue: 46
December 7, 2006 06:43 PM Age: 2 yrs
Category: Terrorism Focus, South Asia
By: Hassan Abbas[tt_news]=984

In the hunt for Osama bin Laden and other top al-Qaeda leaders,
security services continue to focus on Pakistan's Chitral district in
the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Chitral became a concern
after the release of a bin Laden videotape from September 2003 in
which trees native to the Chitrali mountain range were evident.
Extensive search operations for the al-Qaeda leader and fellow
operatives by Pakistani and U.S. forces were conducted in the area in
February-March 2003 (Dawn, March 7, 2003). More recently, in May there
were claims that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had established
an office in Chitral to monitor militant activities in the district
(The Nation, May 1). Other links to the district include Abu Khabaib,
an Arab explosives expert who has been spotted several times in the
hills of Chitral. He is known to have helped Sheikh Ahmed Saleem, an
Arab member of al-Qaeda. Saleem has been giving money to Lashkar-e-
Jhangvi for recruiting militants for al-Qaeda in Pakistan (Daily
Times, October 2). Finally, because Chitral is adjacent to
Afghanistan's Nuristan province, there is concern that Taliban and al-
Qaeda militants are crossing the border between the two countries.

Chitral, with its rich cultural heritage and changing religio-
political trends, is a fascinating area in the NWFP. It is caught
between diverse traditions and rumors of al-Qaeda involvement. In the
backdrop of the turmoil created by pro-Taliban elements in the
Pakistan-Afghanistan border area and the rising influence of religious
political parties in the district, Chitral has become an important
focus in the war on terrorism. For centuries, the people of Chitral
have lived in relative isolation in their mountain kingdom. They have
experienced various political phases, beginning with their involuntary
association with the British Empire (1895), their voluntary
association with the new state of Pakistan (1947) and finally their
incorporation into Pakistan's NWFP (1969). The Katur dynasty that
ruled the area collapsed in 1949-50, and the federal government of
Pakistan took direct control of the Chitral administration.

Geographically, Chitral is bordered by Afghanistan in the north, south
and west. A narrow strip of Afghan territory, the Wakhan strip,
separates it from Tajikistan. It has always been a very important
route for invaders on their way to South Asia, including Alexander the
Great and the Mongols. The Chitral Valley, at an elevation of 1,100
meters, is popular with mountaineers, hunters, hikers and Western
anthropologists. Imposing mountains dominate the landscape of Chitral,
forging a rugged terrain that is home to approximately 325,000 people
comprising an area of 243,818 acres. The topography of the district is
varied, with 30% of the region covered in glaciers, snow-clad
mountains, bare rock and barren ground, and with about 65% of the land
supporting pastures with only sparse vegetation. Chitral is cut off
from the rest of Pakistan during the winter. Sunnis compose 65% of
Chitral, while Ismaili Shiites comprise 35% of the population. A small
population of the non-Muslim Kailash community—known for their
beautiful dresses and traditional dance—are based in the south of the

While located in a Pashtun region, the Chitrali people are ethnically
different than Pashtuns. They are called Kho and their primary
language is Khowar, although about 10 other languages are spoken in
the area. One might expect that Pashto would be a natural choice as a
second language for many Chitralis, but that is not the case. In fact,
Chitralis dislike Pashtuns and their language. Their dislike is in
part an outcome of economic factors—for instance, since 1979-80, a
large number of Afghan refugees (predominantly Pashtuns) moved into
the area and competed quite successfully with the local Chitrali
businessmen. Business in the region is predominately agricultural.

Chitralis have a reputation for being civilized and peace-loving.
Their folk singers are popular in various parts of Pakistan. There is
a fairly sizeable seasonal migration of Chitrali men to Peshawar and
to other cities of Pakistan for winter employment. Additionally, many
have found employment in the Gulf States. Relations between Sunnis and
Shiite Ismailis have been cordial historically, but have recently
become more heated now that Wahhabis have more influence in the area.

In terms of political orientation, however, Chitral has been steadily
becoming more conservative. For instance, its current representative
in the National Assembly of Pakistan, Maulana Abdul Akbar Chitrali,
belongs to Jamaat-e-Islami (part of the religious MMA alliance) and is
a chief administrator of a seminary in Peshawar named Jamia Arabia
Hadiqatul Uloom. Interestingly, he is best known for leading a mob
that burned down the offices of the Frontier Post newspaper in
Peshawar three years ago after it published a "Letter to the Editor"
with controversial religious connotations.

More troubling signs emerged in late 2004 when the offices of a
progressive Pakistani NGO, Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP),
sponsored by Ismaili leader Prince Karim Aga Khan, were attacked by
religious extremists. Developments came to a head on December 27, 2004
when two workers of the Aga Khan Health Services Office in Chitral
were killed in a terrorist attack and four vehicles owned by the
charity organization were destroyed. The culprits turned out to be two
men associated with the declared terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,
which has links to al-Qaeda (Dawn, January 5, 2005). In a December 29,
2004 Daily Times editorial titled "Chitral Trouble is Symptomatic of
Deeper Malaise," the paper maintained that this development was an
outcome of sectarianism and that "in Chitral, the Shiite-Sunni tension
dates back to 1988 when the Northern Areas were attacked by Pashtun

In conclusion, due to Chitral's location on the border with
Afghanistan, elements of al-Qaeda may find refuge there. The mountains
potentially provide a good cover. Yet, another potent factor has to be
kept in perspective—because much of the district's population is not
friendly to Pashtuns, they may be less willing than other areas of the
NWFP to provide sanctuary. Pashtunwali has very limited appeal in this
area and Ismaili Shiites (35% of the population) are anti-al-Qaeda to
their core for sectarian reasons. Therefore, one can speculate that
the al-Qaeda leadership may have passed through this area during their
"travels" in the region, but are unlikely to consider Chitral a place
where they can find safe refuge for a long period of time.
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