News Intelligence Unit
KARACHI: The Thursday on August 20, 1998 must have been the luckiest day in the life of Osama Bin Laden when at the last minute, he dropped the idea of visiting and having dinner at his Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami military training camp in Khost, Afghanistan. If Osama hadn't postponed the last item in his schedule for Thursday, the American Tomahawk missiles would have gotten him and some other key commanders during their post dinner Kahwa (Arabic coffee) in the open skies of Khost, 94 miles southeast of Kabul.
American Satellite Photo of Osama bin Laden's Training Camp
Pakistani officials reported jubilation in the militant Arab circles in Afghanistan and in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) as reports spread that Osama Bin Laden had at the last minute decided not to visit his guerrilla training base in Khost and that he was safe. "Osama is alive, death to America" shouted about 20,000 Afghans and Arabs who took to the streets and clashed with police to reach the US Consulate General in Peshawar on Friday afternoon.
While the Pentagon maintained that only Tomahawk missiles had been used in simultaneous attacks against terrorist facilities in Afghanistan and Sudan, almost all of the wounded persons in their interviews with Pakistani officials said that the bombings closely followed the noise of fighter aircraft overflying their camps.
"As the fighter aircraft flew past our camp, the whole area got lit up and almost simultaneously the place got bombed. They must have dropped at least 10 bombs." This was reported to Pakistani authorities by Rehmat Ali, aged 20, who had arrived with fractured ribs and legs at a small hospital in the border town of Miranshah.
Another Pakistani Riyasat Ali said that he had just gone to bed near a well under an open sky, when he heard the sound of several "supersonic fighter aircraft, there was bright light all over and then came the bomb explosions, the wall caved over my feet," the 22-year Pakistani youth from Bahawalpur district in southern Punjab said. "It is now an open war between us and America."
A federal cabinet source, who didn't want to be named, said in a telephone interview from Islamabad that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif placed the nation's law enforcement agencies on full alert on Friday morning as he received secret report from intelligence agencies, confirming that of the three guerrilla training camps targeted in the US missile attack on Thursday, two were being run by Pakistani nationals and "dozens of Pakistani religious youth are believed to have been killed or wounded in the raids."
Sharif was also told that the strong religious lobby all over Pakistan was putting its act together to devise a common strategy to place the government under pressure to severe all ties with the US. Prime Minister Sharif was also told that bodies of at least seven Pakistanis killed in the incident arrived in the border town of Miranshah before dawn Friday. By the evening, border officials had confirmed receiving at least 11 Pakistani bodies and two dozen "badly wounded" Pakistani youth from Khost.
Since early Friday morning, officials said, the small and ill-equipped hospital in the border town Miranshah was receiving dead and wounded from Khost. At least, five of the seven Pakistani youth who got killed in Khost belonged to the southern Punjab. "We had instructions to quickly dispatch these bodies to their native places."
Senior official sources including a source in the NWFP's Governor's office said that they had absolutely no information of any stray missile striking any area of the province. These sources said that all casualties had been reported from Khost. "We have no such incident to report from the NWFP," informed an official at the Governor's House who was not familiar with reports that Islamabad had reported a stray US missile hitting a Pakistani area in the NWFP.
Senior intelligence officials in their preliminary report for Prime Minister Sharif on Friday reported that the US missiles though targeted Harkatul Jihad Islami camp of Osama Bin Laden, Tomahawk missiles also hit Jamiatul Mujahideen and Harkatul Ansar camps, both run by Pakistani individuals, almost 21 kilometers away from Osama's exclusively Arab camp in Khost.
In the same report, Prime Minister Sharif was also told that it seemed that the US forces specifically targeted the Pakistani camps, as the two adjacent Pakistani camps were "showered with missiles" despite the fact that they were situated almost 20 kilometers away from Osama's exclusively Arab state-of-the-art guerrilla training facility that had also been destroyed in the US attack.
Sources said Sharif met intelligence chiefs and key military officials on Friday morning to devise the Pakistani response to the US attacks which incidentally confirmed that Pakistani religious youth were receiving guerrilla training in camps run and managed by Pakistanis in Afghanistan.
Officials speaking on condition of strict anonymity confirmed that one of the camps hit in the US missile attack was run and managed for the militant Harkatul Ansar (HUA) organization by a Pakistani national identified as Saiful Islam Akhter. "Even by a conservative estimate, the HUA's Saiful Islam camp in Khost had produced hundreds of Mujahideen who had fought against anti-Muslim forces from Philippine to Bosnia to Kashmir," according to an informed security official in Peshawar.
In their announcement of the US missile raids against the terrorist bases in Khost and Sudan, top US officials including President Bill Clinton had made no mention that their target also included the HUA's camp in Khost. After receiving credible reports that the HUA was responsible for the December 1994 kidnapping and feared murders of four Western tourists in the Indian-occupied Kashmir, the US State Department had declared it a terrorist organization last year.
At least, seven HUA activists were killed and another 10 wounded in the Thursday's US strike. Senior officials who had interviewed the HUA victims of the US attacks said that most of the recently trained militants had in recent weeks left the camp to join the Taleban in their offensive to gain full control over Afghanistan.
The top US officials had also made no mention that another guerrilla training facility, adjacent to the HUA's camp in Khost also run and managed by a Pakistani national, was also targeted on Thursday night. Ranking security sources said that Jamiatul Mujahideen camp commanded by a highly-motivated Mufti Bashir from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir also came under Tomahawk missile attack that almost destroyed this 10-year-old facility. "After the Afghan war, Mufti Bashir was training people almost exclusively for the Kashmir struggle," informed a security source in a telephone interview from Peshawar.
Unlike HUA which receives recruits from places as far as Bosnia and Philippines, Mufti Bashir's Jamiatul Mujahideen camp received volunteers almost exclusively from Pakistan and Indian-controlled Kashmir. Officials said that the US missiles hit Mufti Bashir's base at the time when most of its people "were out on missions." Sources said that the facility was geared to provide military raining to at least 250 youth at a time.
Pakistani officials said that it seemed that Osama Bin Ladenís military training camp called Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami was the prime US target of the US military strikes. Quoting from sources who had visited Osama's camp early Friday morning, a high-level Pakistani official said that "the raid completely ruined the place. It has been leveled to the ground."
Pakistani sources said that they would not have any estimate of casualties at Osama Bin Ladenís camp as most of the dead and wounded Arab volunteers at his camp were shifted to Taleban-run hospitals in Kabul and a heavily-guarded medical facility in Khost. "We can only confirm that loss of Arab lives in that attack was not substantial because many Arab volunteers from Osama's camp are actively involved in the Taleban's current military offensive."
Official and other sources said that beside Harkatul Jihad Al-Islami, Osama bin Laden is also tied with other exclusive Arab training facilities such Salman Farsi camp and the Badar One and Badar 2 camps in the same Khost area. An HUA activist in a background interview with this correspondent had recently acknowledged that "Osama and his people often provide financial support to HUA camps in Khost." The same HUA activist had also divulged that it were only the Arab training facilities "that also provide training into hijacking and exploding multi-storied buildings."
After speaking with the survivors of the Thursday's US raids in Khost, Pakistani security officials with long-standing ties with both Pakistani and Arab militant organizations operating from Afghanistan described the US strike "as the most dangerous development for the safety and security of US citizens all over the world."
"The most powerful army and the world's most dangerous terrorist organizations have declared war against each other," a high-level Pakistani intelligence source remarked on Friday. "We fear that this war will be fought in and around this region." Pakistani officials felt that it will be a long time before the Americans, who had abandoned Pakistan after a stern travel advisory from the State Department last week, would return to their normal business in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, authorities reported strong condemnation of US military strikes during Friday prayers in mosques all over Pakistan. Officials said that more than 1000 Sunni madressah (religious schools) of Pakistan are the hot bed of anti-US feeling, where religious youth during Friday congregation openly asked for 'practical steps" to avenge the Thursday's military action.
The largest of such congregations of religious students was held at the Darul Uloom Haqania at Akora Khattak, about 25 miles from Peshawar. District administration officials in Akora Khattak said that hundreds of heavily charged religious students and other participants of the Friday prayers jointly pledged to "teach America a lesson for its action against the Mujahideen bases in Khost." Pakistani officials have said that strict vigil was being observed against all religious schools where tempers were believed to be running high.