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By Javed Mahmood
KARACHI – When Saudi diplomat Hassan Al-Qahtani was killed May 16, the Taliban were quick to claim responsibility, only to back down on that claim later.
On May 25 police arrested a Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) activist in the case, lending credence to the perception that the Taliban increasingly make false claims. The Taliban are not allied with the SMP.
Unknown motorcyclists killed Al-Qahtani as he was driving to the Saudi consulate May 16.
“We have arrested Muntazir Imam,” Chaudhry Aslam, chief of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Karachi police, told Central Asia Online May 26.
Army intelligence agents, CID police and Federal Investigation Agency representatives are interrogating the accused.
Based on the interrogation, police are searching for others connected with the murder of Al-Qahtani, a Saudi national working at the Saudi consulate-general in Karachi, Aslam said.
While “it would be premature to say whether or not the notorious banned outfit Sipah-e-Muhammad” planned the murder, Aslam said, he called Muntazir’s arrest a breakthrough.
The killers quickly disappeared from the crime scene after targeting Al-Qahtani, the CID chief said, indicating that the criminals have hideouts in the area, namely, Khayaban-e-Shahbaz, DHA Phase-V, in Defence, Karachi.
The outlaws had two motives, Aslam said: the first was to defame the country; the second was to damage ties between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
Taliban claim, then deny responsibility
The case is the latest example of one in which the Taliban first claim, then deny, responsibility or flat-out falsely take credit for something.
The Taliban were not involved in Al-Qahtani’s murder although some blamed the TTP, Ihsanullah Ehsan, TTP spokesman, told Central Asia Online by satellite phone from an undisclosed location in Waziristan.
“The TTP neither claimed responsibility for the murder of the Saudi diplomat nor issued such a statement,” Ehsan said. “We have already abolished our media cells in different parts of the country, and only one centre was being run in Waziristan to avoid confusion in issuing statements.”
Such backpedalling is to be expected, one analyst said.
“The Taliban frequently retract their claims of carrying out terrorist activities in Pakistan,” Ikram Sehgal, a renowned security analyst, told Central Asia Online.
Confusion erodes Taliban credibility
This case is by no means alone in terms of different segments of the Taliban arguing over whether the group was responsible for an act.
Ehsan claimed responsibility for the murder of Mian Rashid Hussain, the only son of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Information Minister and staunch Taliban opponent Mian Iftikhar Hussain, in July. Later, though, Azam Tariq, the chief spokesman for the TTP, denied involvement.
TTP Bajaur deputy commander Maulvi Omar claimed to have planned the 7/7 attacks in London, among others. But the TTP’s Bajaur chief, Maulvi Faqeer, categorically denied the group’s role and even laughed at Omar’s claims.
The Taliban claimed to have attacked eight Christian missionary doctors in Badakhshan in August, Sehgal recalled, adding that investigation revealed another group was involved.
Frequent contradictions in claims by the Taliban have eroded their credibility in the media and among the public, Sehgal said.
Responsibility or denial: which is it?
As for which to believe, Brig. Mohammad Saad, a former military attaché at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, said, “They (the Taliban) are involved in around 80% of the incidents that they claim.”
When confusion arises, chances are “that the top leadership may not be in favour of these attacks, or … the local leadership has done it on their own,” Saad said.
A number of smaller groups in TTP and Afghan Taliban take action on their own, though it is disavowed by the mainstream leadership, Saad said.
When a vice chancellor of the Islamia College University, Ajmal Khan, was kidnapped last year, a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility, but TTP Khyber Agency chief Tariq Afridi denied TTP involvement. Khan is still missing; police suspect the Taliban were behind his abduction.
Javed Aziz Khan contributed to this report