Bin Laden issues fresh threat to U.S.

Exiled al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, threatened in a new audio recording released on Thursday to kill any captured Americans if the U.S. executes the self-professed mastermind of the September 11 attacks or any other al-Qaeda suspects.

The U.S. is still considering whether to put Khalid Sheik Mohammed and four of his fellow plotters on military tribunal for their role in the September 11 attacks. The Obama administration is also looking into recommendations for civilian trials, and is expected to announce a decision soon.

In a brief 74-second audio tape aired on Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden said if the U.S. decides to execute any al-Qaeda suspects in its custody — and explicitly mentioned Mohammed — his terror network would kill American captives.

The terror leader said such a decision “would mean the U.S. has issued a death sentence against whoever of you becomes a prisoner in our hands.”

It was not immediately clear whether al-Qaeda currently has any U.S. captives, but the Haqqani group – the Pakistan-based Taliban faction closest to al-Qaeda — is holding an American soldier it captured in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009. It released a video of him in December.

Bin Laden said U.S. President Barack Obama is following in the footsteps of his predecessor George W. Bush by escalating the war in Afghanistan, being “unjust” to al-Qaeda prisoners and supporting Israel in its occupation of Palestinian land.

In a veiled threat, bin Laden said Americans had previously thought their homeland was beyond the reach of his group until the 9/11 attack.

Mohammed, who was captured in Pakistan in 2003, is the most senior al-Qaeda operative in U.S. custody, and is currently in detention at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 2008, the U.S. charged him with murder and war crimes in connection with the September 11 attacks. Pentagon officials have said they’ll seek the death penalty.

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Osama, deputy hiding in Pak: CIA

The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believes Osama bin Laden and his top deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, are inside Pakistan though it does not know precisely where.

The agency officials believe the two are hiding, “either in the northern tribal areas or in North Waziristan, or somewhere in that vicinity,” CIA Director Leon Panetta told The Washington Post in an interview published on Thursday.

While there have been no confirmed sightings of either man since 2003, the continued pressure on Al Qaeda increases the opportunities for catching one or both, he said.

Relentless attacks against Al Qaeda in the Pakistan tribal region appear to have driven bin Laden and other top leaders deeper into hiding, leaving the organization rudderless and less capable of planning sophisticated operations, Panetta told the Post.

So profound is Al Qaeda’s disarray that one of its lieutenants, in a recently intercepted message, pleaded to bin Laden to come to the group’s rescue and provide some leadership, Panetta claimed.

In what the post called a near-acknowledgement of the CIA’s war against extremists in Pakistan, Panetta credited an increasingly aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda and its Taliban allies, including more frequent strikes and better coordination with Pakistan.

Calling it “the most aggressive operation that CIA has been involved in in our history,” he said, “Those operations are seriously disrupting Al Qaeda.”

“It’s pretty clear from all the intelligence we are getting that they are having a very difficult time putting together any kind of command and control, that they are scrambling. And that we really do have them on the run.”

Panetta also cited recent arrests of top Taliban figures-mostly notably Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, captured in Karachi on Feb 8, as tangible evidence of improving ties with Pakistan’s intelligence service. He told the Post Pakistan had given the CIA access to Baradar since his capture, and added, “we’re getting intelligence” from the interrogation.

Panetta acknowledged that Al Qaeda was continuing to look for ways to kill Americans and was specifically seeking to recruit people who lacked criminal records or known ties to terrorist groups to carry out missions.

Still, the CIA under the Obama administration is “without question putting tremendous pressure on their operation,” Panetta said.

“The president gave us the mission to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda and their military allies and I think that’s what we are trying to do.”

‘Tension’ with India: Gilani

Pakistan has said the world community should nudge India to resolve all “core” bilateral issues, including Kashmir and sharing of river waters, arguing that “tension” on its eastern border is a distraction to its fight against al-Qaeda and Taliban in its restive tribal belt.

“We want to maintain very good relations with India and with (rest of) our neighbours. Our enemy is terrorism and we have to focus on terrorism… We want the world to concentrate so that with India we resolve all our core issues including Jammu and Kashmir and (differences over sharing of river) water,” prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said.

“We should concentrate more on the poor people of both of our countries. Our focus should be on those real issues,” Gilani said in an interview to the ‘Financial Times’.

He was responding to a question on the next steps to be taken to normalise bilateral ties following the foreign secretary-level parleys held last month.

Noting that Pakistan and India have traditionally been rivals, Gilani said the tension on Pakistan’s eastern border is a “distraction” for the fight against terrorism on the western frontier with Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants have found a safe haven in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt bordering Afghanistan and the US has been pressing Islamabad to take more steps against them.

“The world should understand that we can concentrate more on extremism and terrorism if we (India and Pakistan) are on good relations with each other,” he added.

Gilani also said that he wanted “composite dialogue with India” but it should be “meaningful.”

Asked when he would meet his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh, Gilani did not give a direct reply and noted that Singh had said that dialogue is the only way forward but “there is a lot of pressure within (India) which doesn’t let him move forward.”

Referring to his meeting with Singh in Sharm el-Sheikh last year, he said they had agreed that the composite dialogue should not become hostage to the Mumbai terror attacks.

Asked about the possibility of reviving former military ruler Pervez Musharraf’s blueprint to resolve the Kashmir issue, Gilani said: “We think that it can be resolved when there is a composite dialogue and we can discuss all core issues.”

In an apparent reference to the Indo-US nuclear deal, he said Pakistan should be granted access to civil nuclear technology for “regional stability.”

“If there is discrimination, there would be no regional stability,” he said.

Bomber says he lured CIA operatives with misleading intel

An al-Qaeda suicide bomber who killed seven CIA operatives in Afghanistan has claimed that he lured American and Jordanian intelligence officers into a trap by offering them doctored information about terrorist targets as well as videotapes of senior leaders of his group.

In a posthumous video message posted on an extremist website, Jordanian physician and double agent Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi claimed that he intended to kidnap only a single Jordanian intelligence officer, but then stumbled on an unexpected opportunity to attack a large group of Americans and their Jordanian allies at once.

“It wasn’t planned this way,” Balawi says in a 44-minute undated videotape released on Sunday by as-Sahab, the media arm of al-Qaeda.

He attributes the change to “the stupidity of Jordanian intelligence and the stupidity of American intelligence” services that invited him to Afghanistan to help set up a strike against al-Qaeda targets.

The video was apparently filmed shortly before the 32-year-old al-Balawi blew himself up at a CIA facility on December 30 in Afghanistan’s eastern province of Khost where he’d been invited to reveal information on al-Qaeda No 2 Ayman al-Zawahri. The attack killed nine people, including seven Americans. It was the deadliest attack on the US intelligence agency’s staff in a quarter-century.

Al Qaeda vows more attacks across India

Lahore, February 16: Just days after the deadly Pune terror attack, top al Qaeda terrorist commander Ilyas Kashmiri has vowed to continue attacks across India.

In a message sent to a media group, Kashmiri, whose 313 Brigade is an operational arm of the al Qaeda, said that his group will attack India until the Army leaves Kashmir.

He also issued a threat against the major sporting events like the Commonwealth Games scheduled to be held in Delhi later this year.

“We warn the international community not to send their people to the 2010 Hockey World Cup, the Indian Premier League and Commonwealth Games – to be held in New Delhi later this year. Nor should their people visit India – if they do, they will be responsible for the consequences,” Kashmiri warned.

The al Qaeda threat comes at a time when India and Pakistan are scheduled to hold bilateral talks on February 25 – first time since the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.

Pakistan has all along been demanding that the Kashmir issue should be discussed during the talks, while India wants the counter-terror cooperation to be at the centre of all talks.

With regard to the Pune blast, India has been pointing to the involvement of Pak-based groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawah and Lashkar-e-Toiba in the entire conspiracy. The actual attack may have been carried out by Indian Mujahideen but they could have been instigated by the LeT or JuD in Karachi as some arrested operatives had said they were shown videos made by David C Headley, wanted by India in 26/11 terror attacks and under American custody, including clips of the Osho Ashram in Pune.

Home Secretary GK Pillai has also asserted that the Pune attack – which has so far claimed nine lives, including two foreigners – was part of the notorious Karachi Project which was aimed at attacking India.

What has raised doubts about the involvement of the Qaida-LeT-JuD nexus is the mention of Pune attack during the so called Kashmir Solidarity Day conference held by terror groups in the Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) on February 4.

Hafiz Abdur Rahman Makki, leader of terror outfit amalgam Jamaat-ud-Dawah, in his hate India speech during the conference mentioned about attacks on Indian cities, including Pune.

Makki, brother-in-law of LeT founder and JuD chief Hafiz Saeed, in his speech said three Indian cities, including Pune, would be targeted by the “Jihadis to teach India a lesson”.

Saeed, one of the mastermind of the November 26, 2008 Mumbai attacks that were carried out by LeT, too vowed to renew terror attacks in India. JuD is the frontal outfit of Lashkar-e-Toiba.

The Muzaffarabad conference was also addressed by Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin, Al-Badr leader Bakht Zamin, United Jehad Council general secretary Sheikh Jamilur Rehman, senior JuD leaders Abdul Aziz Alvi and Abdur Rehman Makki, and former Inter-Services Intelligence agency chief Hamid Gul.

Al Qaeda launches recruitment drive in Algeria

Al Qaeda has launched a new campaign to recruit university students, scientists and IT specialists in Algeria, a website said.

“We appeal to undergraduates, chemists, doctors and IT specialists to join our ranks,” the terror network said in a statement published on jihadist websites on Thursday.

“Remember the massacres that take place every day in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan,” said the statement signed by Abu Muslim al-Jazairi.

Al Qaeda is seeking new bomb-makers and medics who can help treat fighters wounded in clashes with Algerian security forces, according to daily El-Nahar.

Currently, 80 percent of young people recruited by Al Qaeda in Algeria do not have a high-school diploma.

Algerian authorities put the country’s anti-terror units on high alert in December and ordered security to be stepped up at checkpoints following intelligence reports that Al-Qaeda is planning terrorist attacks in the capital.

Al Qaeda claimed twin bombings in Algiers in December 2007 that killed 41 people and injured close to 200.

The bombs exploded outside Algerian government offices and the office of the UN refugee agency in Algiers, killing at least 11 UN employees in the attack.

In April 2007, 33 people were killed in Algiers in a triple suicide bombing

UK tightens rules for student visas

Days after Britain suspended issuing student visas in north India, Home secretary Alan Johnson has announced new measures intended to cut the number of student visas issued abroad and prevent abuse of the immigration system.

In a statement, Johnson said Britain will continue to welcome genuine foreign students, but will come down heavily on those who use student visas to come to Britain mainly to work and abuse the system.

He said: “We remain open to those foreign students who want to come to the UK for legitimate study – they remain welcome. But those who are not seriously interested in coming here to study but come primarily to work – they should be in no doubt that we will come down hard on those that flout the rules.”

Under the new measures, successful applicants from India and other countries outside the European Union will have to meet a higher bar on English language requirement, and students taking courses below degree level will be allowed to work for only 10 hours a week, instead of 20 as at present.

Those on courses which last under six months will not be allowed to bring dependants into the country, while the dependants of students on courses below degree level will not be allowed to work.

Student visas for courses below degree level will be granted only if the institutions they attend are on a new register, the Highly Trusted Sponsors List.

Officials said they suspended issuing student visas in north India, Nepal and Bangladesh after the system had been overwhelmed amidst concerns that many cases were not genuine.

The new rules a review ordered by Prime Minister Gordon Brown after he said the alleged Christmas Day bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who had studied in London, had linked up with Al Qaeda in Yemen after leaving the UK.

In 2008-9, about 240,000 student visas were issued by the UK.