Al Qaida's attack on Danes reveals its grip on Pakistan

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Al Qaida's claim Thursday that it was behind this week's bombing of the Danish embassy here has exposed the deadly grip of terrorism on Pakistan and is likely to strain U.S. relations with the country, analysts said.

Pakistan is currently negotiating peace deals with Taliban extremists based in its northwest tribal territory, a policy that Washington already has criticized. The evidence of al Qaida activity in the heart of the country could further undermine U.S. confidence in Pakistan's new anti-terror approach.

"Pakistan is the global headquarters of al Qaida," said Kamran Bokhari, director of Middle East analysis at Strategic Forecasting, a private U.S. intelligence firm in Texas. "Pakistanis have been playing games and think they can manage the U.S. with the odd arrest, but the U.S. is in no mood for business as usual."

On Thursday, al Qaida took responsibility for an attack on the Danish mission in Pakistan, chillingly warning that the blast will "only be the first drop of rain". The statement praised the efforts of Pakistani jihadists in the operation.

Signed by al Qaida commander Mustafa Abu al Yazeed, it said the bombing was in response to the publication of "blasphemous" cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in Danish newspapers in 2005. The cartoons also were reprinted in other European countries, putting their Pakistani embassies also at risk, as well as menacing Danish interests around the world.

"This (al Qaida claim) means that Pakistan is under great threat. It has to be bloody careful," said Talat Masood, a retired general who is now a security analyst. "For al Qaida, Pakistan is a soft country, anyone can do anything here, the unprofessional way we do our security."

The terrorist group is believed to have found shelter in Pakistan's tribal belt, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which runs along the Afghan border.

Baitullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban, with whom the Pakistani government is indirectly negotiating a peace deal, recently said he would be "honored" to host Osama bin Laden. Earlier this year, key al Qaida lieutenant Abu Laith al Libi was killed in a U.S. air strike on his hideout in FATA.

More worrisome than al Qaida's influence in the tribal belt is its network across major cities in Pakistan, experts believe.

There are allegations that sections of Pakistan's extensive intelligence network are sympathetic to the jihadists. Other parts of the intelligence apparatus remain engaged in political meddling at home, especially an effort to keep the country's unpopular president Pervez Musharraf in power, rather than fighting terrorism, said Masood.

It is thought that al Qaida has linked up with myriad Pakistan former sectarian groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which have now adopted the ideology of global jihad. These banned groups, and their multiple splinter organizations, have a well-developed network of cells across Pakistan, including in the mega-city of Karachi and the most populous province, Punjab.

"The Taliban at least have a political aspect, you can negotiate with them," said Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, a research organization based in Islamabad. "But these other jihadi groups have no political aspect, you can't talk to them."

Recent attacks that could be the work of sectarian groups linked to al Qaida include one in March on an Italian restaurant in Islamabad in which four FBI agents were injured, and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December. Pakistan has blamed Baitullah Mehsud's Taliban recruits for the attacks.

"Musharraf has been claiming for the last three years that he has eliminated al Qaida from Pakistan and that now the biggest challenge is the Taliban. But the realities were different," said Rana.

In Pakistan, more top al Qaida operatives have been killed or captured than in any other country, including 9/11 masterminds Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, whose trials have just begun at Guantanamo.

Diplomacy between the United States and Pakistan has been frenetic in recent months, with two visits from Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. Admiral Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew in this week to Islamabad for his third visit since February.

Husain Haqqani, the new Pakistani ambassador in Washington, has already been called in to see Gen. David Petraeus, newly installed as head of Central Command, and on Friday Haqqani is reportedly due to see President Bush.

The analyst Bokhari said that he expected U.S.-Pakistan relations to be shaken up by the appointment of Petraeus, the former Iraq military chief who now has overarching responsibility for the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Iraq, he became known for the "Anbar strategy", which used local tribesmen to fight al Qaida; he could employ the same approach in Pakistan's tribal region, with or without Islamabad's cooperation.

"He (Petraeus) is being sent in to Pakistan to change the dynamic on the ground, he's going to act unilaterally," said Bokhari. "He is going tag-team with anyone who has a beef with the Taliban in FATA."

(Shah is McClatchy's special correspondent in Islamabad, Pakistan.)