Abbottabad, Pakistan. A hailstorm was lashing this Pakistani hill town when Abdul Hameed’s son came to his room with an unusual request: He had come across a foreign couple, cold and shivering in the street, and could he give them food and shelter for a few days?
Hameed had spare rooms on the second-floor that he occasionally let out since his older children had left home.
His wife urged him to let the couple stay. “They were human beings in need, what else could I say?” said the retired accountant.
The couple were mysterious, never leaving their room upstairs, Hameed said, not even to go to the house’s sheltered courtyard with its views over pine-clad hills. Hameed’s youngest daughter left the guests a tray of food three times a day only to return to find it barely touched, he said.
Around nine days later, the identity of the male guest became clear, when a squad of heavily armed Pakistani intelligence agents raided the home.
“Keep your mouth shut and your hands up”, they told Hameed and his family as they went room to room and then up the stairs.
Two shots rang out, and minutes later they hauled the man, bleeding, out the building.
The run of good luck had ended for Umar Patek, an Al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militant who for 10 years had been on the run from a $1 million American bounty on his head, for allegedly helping build the bombs used in the 2002 bombings of nightclubs in Bali that killed 202 people.
Pakistani officials had kept Patek’s detention on Jan. 25 secret until two weeks ago, when the Associated Press first revealed word of it. But until now, where or how one of the biggest terror arrests under the Obama administration went down was not publicly known.
The details highlight how Pakistan continues to be a draw for Islamic militants from around the world despite the risks of traveling here.
His case also illustrates the durability of the wide-ranging international connections among militants. Patek had intended to travel along with two French militants to North Waziristan, the Afghan border region where Al Qaeda’s top command is based, according to a Pakistani intelligence official briefed on the 40-hour operation. Many of the terrorist plots against the West over the past decade have originated from the territory.
The two French militants were also arrested, separately from Patek, the official said. A French counterterrorism official on Thursday confirmed the arrests of the two. He could not verify the other details, but said he would be “surprised” if either had links to Patek.
Patek, who trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, was able to remain plugged into transnational terror networks despite being one of the world’s most wanted militants. Southeast Asian authorities had said he was hiding out in the southern Philippines for much of the last 10 years, fighting and training with an allied insurgent army.
Indonesian and Filipino security officials said Patek left the southern Philippines in late May last year before traveling to the Middle East. One official said he was believed to have attended a meeting of Southeast Asian and Mideast militants in the holy city of Mecca.
Patek, a slightly built 40-year-old, is now believed to be in a Pakistani army hospital being treated for bullet wounds to his legs, according to Indonesian officials.
Hameed said Patek looked like “a slaughtered chicken” when he was brought down from the upstairs room, but the seriousness of his injuries has not been revealed. There were two bullet holes in the room, one in the window and one in the ceiling. But Hameed said there was considerable blood in the room’s en-suite bathroom and outside the door. Pakistani officials have not said whether Patek was armed.
There has been no word on the whereabouts of his wife, who has been described as either Indonesian or Filipino.
Questions also remain over his fate, and there are signs he may be caught up in tensions between Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency and the CIA, which have previously cooperated during terror arrests and would like access to him.
Islamabad has said it will not hand Patek over to the CIA and that he will be sent to Indonesia. But officials in Jakarta don’t appear that keen to have him, and have expressed doubts whether they could make charges stick against him for his alleged role in the Bali attacks.
Abbottabad is in northwest Pakistan, one of the first towns on the famed Karakoram Highway that leads to the Himalayas and China and less then a day’s drive from the Afghan border. During the era of British rule, it was a major garrison town and it remains so today, with Pakistani troops now occupying the barracks built and lived in by the region’s former rulers.
Officials did not say how or why Patek ended up there, but his arrest followed the detention of an alleged Al Qaeda facilitator in the town called Tahir Shehzad, who worked as a clerk at the town’s post office, a squat building just across the road from the British-era St. Luke’s Church.
Tahir had been under surveillance since last year when he was spotted in Abbottabad with an Arab terror suspect, said the intelligence official, who like all Pakistani spies is not permitted to give his name.
When he left town on Jan. 23, agents followed him to Lahore, Pakistan, where he was arrested with the two French militants, whom he had picked up from the international airport there. They were “French al-Qaida” operatives, one of Pakistani origin, the other described as a white Muslim convert, the official said.
“Patek and the French had plans to travel to North Waziristan,” the official said.
Shehzad led officers to Hameed’s house.
Patek and his wife arrived in Pakistan around five months ago traveling on forged Pakistani visas, the official said, but he did not disclose if the agency knew where they had been staying before Abbottabad.
Patek was once a leading member of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant network whose core was made up veterans of the “jihad” against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Most of the top leadership and many foot soldiers have been arrested or killed since 2002 in a widely praised, U.S- assisted crackdown. Patek was perhaps the last of his generation on the run.
His travels are similar in some ways to that of Muhammad Jibriel, an Indonesian currently serving time in Jakarta over hotel bombings in 2009. Jibriel, whose father was also in the Afghan “jihad”, was found guilty of obtaining funding for the bombings while visiting Saudi Arabia in 2008. By his own admission, he also traveled to North Waziristan before his arrest.
Hameed’s son, Kashif, was arrested alongside Patek, and Hameed has not heard anything of him since.
The ISI frequently detain people for months, if not years, without informing their relatives, much less charge them with any crime or present evidence of wrongdoing. Answerable to no one, the institution is feared by many Pakistanis.
Hameed maintains that his son, a telecommunications student in a college in Abbottabad, was innocent and had no militant links.
“He was not a terrorist, he was just a boy, a nothing, a baby,” he said as he shuffled to the door with his visitors, a pair of pink “Croc” sandals on his feet.
“Those two people trapped my son and my family. What can I expect now? What can I expect now?”