KARACHI - Just like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf's intelligence forces have contrived a feat of equal illusion with the arrest of a number of foreign students alleged to have terror links.
Among those detained is 27-year-old Indonesian Gun Gun Rusman Gunawan, said to be a younger brother of Hambali, the operational chief of Southeast Asia's Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) terror organization, who himself was arrested in Thailand in the middle of last month.
As a partner in the US's global "war on terrorism", Musharraf is under constant pressure to crack down firstly on support of cross-border militancy into Indian-occupied Kashmir, and secondly to round up people with terrorist links seeking refuge within Pakistan.
In both cases, his record is open to criticism, although, with some regularity, whenever the general travels abroad, and especially to the US, there is a spurt of activity on the home front. Musharraf is currently in New York for the annual session of the UN General Assembly, which he is due to address, and he has had a number of high-profile interviews and meetings in which he has touted his government's record in the fight against terrorism.
The weekend's announcement, therefore, by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Islamabad of the arrest in Karachi of 13 Malaysian, two Indonesian and two Myanmese students on suspicion of links with the JI could not have come at a better time for Musharraf.
The students were mostly from two large institutions of Salafi origins in Karachi - Jamia Abu Bakar Islamic University situated in the Gulshan-e-Iqbal area, and Jamia tut Darasatul Islamyia, in University Road. The arrests were made on Saturday, and unlike in the past, news was soon leaked to the national and international press.
But all was not what it appeared.
It transpires that Gun Gun Rusman Gunawan had in fact been arrested much earlier, some sources told Asia Times Online on September 1, and he had been studying at Jamia Abu Bakar since 1999. He was named along with the batch arrested at the weekend, though.
In all cases the method was the same, with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) using the cover of the FIA, claiming that the students were wanted by their governments. As far as can be ascertained, the students' immigration and study clearance papers (from both Pakistani and home country officials) were in order.
The Indonesian government, despite the Pakistani claims, quickly lodged an official protest with Islamabad over the arrests, and denied that it had requested that the students be apprehended.
Speaking to this correspondent, the director of Jamia tut Darasatul Islamyia, Abdul Rehman Abid, gave his eye witness account. "Last Saturday, several dozen policemen laid siege of the campus. Different persons in civvies [civilian clothes] entered the campus and refused any movement to the students. They asked the Jamia administration to produce a list of students. We provided them with a computer-generated copy.
"They marked a few names - all were Malaysian students - and all were teenaged. We produced them. The students thought that it was just a question and answer session, but the officials asked for their arrest. They said that the students were wanted in their countries of origin and would be extradited. The students had tears in their eyes, and we saw them go off with an utter feeling of helplessness.
"You please tell me, if they were criminals, why did these agencies not follow the routine course under which Interpol warrants would have been produced. If they were involved in any crime in Pakistan, why was a case not lodged against them. How can anybody be picked up without any evidence or reason and taken to an unknown destination? We contacted their embassies and they denied that they had made any extradition requests.
"We never went to the press to disclose the news, the intelligence agencies personally informed the press corps about this development. Generally, they avoid [disclosure]. You know and I know that this is just to make Musharraf's visit [to the US] to look colorful, and it happens every time. We Pakistanis always expect these type of events before the arrival of any US dignitary, September 11 anniversary or the departure of a Pakistani celebrity to the US," Abdul Rehman Abid went on to say.
He said that since September 11, 2001, the Salafi schools had become a target for the intelligence agencies. The Salafi schools are ideologically close to Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabism, and therefore there is an interaction with Arabs. According to the director, intelligence sleuths visit the campus several times in a month and harass the administration, at times even soliciting bribes.
It is worth noting that such Salafi schools have no connections with the Taliban, who are followers of the Hanafi school of thought, which is at odds with the Salafis. Islamic schools such as Darululoom Haqqania of Akora Khattak, Binori Town Karachi, Jamia Farooqia and dozens others all over Quetta and North-West Frontier Province on the border with Afghanistan nurture the Taliban. Yet there has not been one single operation against these seminaries.
And despite harassment, the weekend's arrests were also the first to be made at a Salafi school.
Like the rabbits conjured out of a hat, there is a sense of wonderment at these latest arrests. But one can only speculate as to the overall effectiveness of the whole exercise in the broader context of the "war on terror".