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Pakistan - a safe haven for al Qaeda?

From Mike Chinoy
CNN Senior Asia Correspondent

Security has been further tightened outside the U.S. Consulate, the scene of a suicide bombing in June that left 12 dead
Security has been further tightened outside the U.S. Consulate, the scene of a suicide bombing in June that left 12 dead

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(CNN) -- It's easy to hide in Karachi. Located in the south, around 14 million people are jammed into this violent and lawless port-city, making it the largest in Pakistan.

As many as two million Afghans currently live in Karachi, which acted as the former ruling Taliban's main transit point to Afghanistan.

Also living there are huge numbers of illegal immigrants and now, diplomats and security sources say, scores or perhaps hundreds of al Qaeda fugitives -- regrouping to bring their holy war to the streets of Pakistan.

Their presence has security officials more than concerned.

"Everything is at stake. The very future of Pakistan is at stake," Azhar Hassan Nadeem, Deputy Inspector General of Police, says.

Since the turn of the year, when Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf announced a crackdown on Islamic militants, there has been a series of terrorist attacks across Pakistan.

Bloody attacks

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Officials in Karachi said they fear Pakistan's largest city is becoming a regrouping point for al Qaeda. CNN's Mike Chinoy reports.
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The bloodiest have occurred in Karachi.

A dozen people were killed in a car bomb outside the U.S. Consulate in June. A month earlier, 11 French engineers and three Pakistanis were killed when their bus was blown up outside the Sheraton Hotel.

And in January, Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and later murdered.

The bloodshed in Karachi has provided the strongest evidence of what appears to be a significant shift in al Qaeda strategy.

Sources say operatives who've fled Afghanistan have linked up with Pakistani Islamic extremists, providing money and know-how for new attacks on Western targets.

Jameel Yusuf was the last person to see Daniel Pearl before he was kidnapped.

As head of the Citizen Police Liaison Committee which provides high-tech help to the cash-strapped Karachi police, Yusuf played a key role in unraveling the Pearl case -- using sophisticated software to identify patterns in phone records that linked Pearl to the four Islamic extremists who were eventually convicted of his murder.

And he's been using specially modified FBI software to help identify suspects in the recent bomb blasts.

"In the French incident, the vehicle that was used was bought in a showroom. There have been eyewitnesses, many eyewitnesses. So we had all of them over here to develop the faces [of the suspects]," Yusuf says.

Al Qaeda links

Pakistan police cordon off the wreckage of a bus outside the Sheraton Hotel
Pakistan police cordon off the wreckage of a bus outside the Sheraton Hotel

The authorities have zeroed in on a handful of Pakistani extremist groups whose members have been linked to these and other attacks including the Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul- Mujahideen and Lashkar-e-Janghvi.

All these groups have a common al Qaeda-Afghanistan connection.

"They were getting training there. The partnership actually developed in Kabul, in Afghanistan, in Kandahar," Yusuf says.

While Pakistanis actually carried out the two bombings, security sources say there's a distinctive al Qaeda signature.

Both the U.S. Consulate and the so-called French incident were suicide attacks, previously almost unheard of in Karachi.

Sources also say that the bombs were so well made that they were likely the work of "experienced" explosives experts -- which translates as al Qaeda explosives experts.

Deadly threat

Musharraf.  Analysts say his government appears to be al Qaeda's real target
Musharraf. Analysts say his government appears to be al Qaeda's real target

Although many victims were Westerners, analysts say Musharraf's government appears to be the real target.

"These attacks have got a lot to do with the al Qaeda network crackdown the government has initiated. And the message they want to send is 'OK, if you come at our necks, well we will come and hit you whenever possible," says Salim Bokhari, executive editor of The News Lahore.

The violence, and fear of more to come, has left not only Karachi but other Pakistani cities on edge.

But fear is also elsewhere.

In the wild tribal region along the Afghan border where the government's authority has always been weak, there have been clashes as Pakistani troops have hunted for al Qaeda suspects being sheltered by sympathetic local tribesmen.

Yet, there have been some successes -- arrests and convictions in certain key cases, close collaboration between Pakistani police and FBI and CIA counter-terrorism teams, and a sense that al Qaeda is on the defensive.

"They can't travel easily. They can't get fake Passports so easily. There's no central place to plan. They are in disarray," Yusuf says.

Officials describe al Qaeda now as a wounded animal -- weakened and under pressure, but still, for Pakistan and its American allies, a deadly threat.

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