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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Start unraveling the threads of many recent terrorist plots and they continue to lead back to al-Qaida and to Pakistan. The State Department says Northwest Pakistan is a safe haven for al-Qaida fighters. The head of MI-5, Britain's security service, recently made a similar pronouncement. Eliza Manningham-Buller said that her officers have disrupted 30 terrorist plots in the past year, plots that often link back to Pakistan.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Such charges infuriate Pakistani officials. They insist they're doing their utmost to fight terror and they say top Taliban and al-Qaida leaders such as Osama bin-Laden are almost certainly not in Pakistan.

NPR's Mary Louise Kelly has that story.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: If you want to see fundamentalist Islam in Pakistan, walk into the Akora Khattak Madrassa on the road between Islamabad and Peshawar. This is perhaps the most famous of Pakistan's madrassas, or religious schools. It's where many of the Taliban's leaders studied.

Today's students, all male, roughly 3,000 of them, remain deeply conservative. With anti-American sentiment running high in Pakistan these days, it took the personal intervention of Pakistan's secretary of religious affairs to secure an appointment. Nonetheless when I arrived, there was a flutter of consternation among officials. We thought you would be older, they told me. Less of a distraction to the religious students here. After some whispered consultations, they relented and agreed to show me around.

Mr. RASHID ul-HAQ (Akora Khattak Madrassa): This is the library, central library.

KELLY: Rashid ul-Haq shows off the library, then the computer room. His grandfather founded the madrassa 60 years ago. Today his father, Sami ul-Haq, runs the place. The ul-Haqs live in a house on the grounds. There, over tea and fruit, Sami ul-Haq points out that teachers here offer math, social studies and English in addition to religious studies. He says the stereotype of madrassas such as this one spawning terrorists is misinformed and he hotly denies recent reports of military training at his school.

But ul-Hoc does offer up some thoughts distinctly at odds with the U.S. world view. Suicide bombers, ul-Haq says, die honorably and, he argues, the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan was illegitimate because the 9/11 attacks, he says, were not the work of al-Qaida.

Mr. SAMI UL-HAQ (Akora Khattak Madrassa): (Through Translator) I doubt al-Qaida and bin Laden were behind that. If they were, why have they done nothing in the five years since? No. This was a propaganda plan from the Bush administration, to give them an excuse to attack Afghanistan, to attack Iraq, to attack Muslims.

KELLY: It should be noted this is not a minority view here in Pakistan. Over two weeks and dozens of interviews, I met only a handful of people who say they believe the U.S. account of what happened on 9/11. From taxi drivers to senior government officials, far more common is view that Israeli or U.S. intelligence orchestrated the attacks.

Another conspiracy theory circulating here is that the United States, having invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, might attack Pakistan next. As evidence, Pakistanis cite two recent strikes against alleged terrorists in Bajaur, a tribal area in the northwest. The first, in a village called Damadola in January, killed 18. The second, at a madrassa just a few weeks ago, killed more than 80. In both cases, Pakistan's government at least initially claimed responsibility. But veteran Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, says he and many other Pakistanis believe American planes carried out both strikes.

Mr. RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI (Journalist, Pakistan): And the people in Bajaur will tell you that look, it's the second time that the Americans have attacked us and the Pakistan army has not been able to protect us.

KELLY: This, then, is the delicate position in which Pakistan's leaders find themselves, caught between an exceptionally powerful ally, the U.S., which demands you're either with us or against us in the war on terror, and the Pakistani public, which views the U.S. with deep distrust.

In the weeks since the latest Bajaur strike, the press here has portrayed Pakistan's leaders as wimps, caving to every American demand in the war on terror. But Pakistan's prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, denies his government is being pushed around.

Prime Minister SHAUKAT AZIZ (Pakistan): Pakistan does not need to be pushed by anyone. We are fighting terrorism not because we are being pushed. We are fighting terrorism because we think it's bad for the world.

KELLY: In an interview at his offices in Islamabad, Aziz also challenges the prevailing view of Pakistan as a breeding ground for terrorists. Aziz concedes this view was reinforced just a few months ago in the wake of the foiled plot to blow up airplanes. It involved British Muslims with Pakistani connections.

Prime Minister AZIZ: Whatever events are taking place in Britain, and we have told this to the British government, it is an indigenous problem. And why are Pakistanis, why are they behaving this way in Britain? There must be a reason. We think the answer lies in Britain.

KELLY: But clearly, at least part of the answer does lie here in Pakistan. Just about all the big al-Qaida players killed or captured since 9/11 have been found in Pakistan. Officials here argue this demonstrates their commitment to counterterrorism efforts. But you can argue it the other way, too, that al-Qaida leaders have been picked up in Pakistan precisely because they're living and plotting here.

Then, factor in the near daily incidents in Pakistan of rocket attacks, roadside bombs, market explosions. The violence is especially pronounced in the northwest of the country.

(Soundbite of vehicle engine noise)

We're driving through Peshawar now. This is the capital of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province. And we're headed to meet the man who is charged with trying to bring stability to this part of the country. He's Lieutenant General Aurakzai.

Alu Aurakzai is governor of northwestern Pakistan. Before that, he was commander of the Frontier Corps, the paramilitary force that guards Pakistan's tribal belt. Aurakzai points out some 700 Pakistani troops have been killed since 9/11 in the name of fighting terror. He shakes his head, no, when asked whether top al-Qaida leaders such as Osama bin Laden are in Pakistan today. Which does lead one to wonder if they don't think he's here, are Pakistani security forces still actively looking for him?

Mr. ALU AURAKZAI (Governor, Northwestern Pakistan): What do you think are our 80,000 troops are doing along the western border? They're not there on a picnic. You know how many operations we've carried out. You know how many casualties we've suffered. So obviously, we are very actively involved in this exercise.

KELLY: In private, some Pakistani officials speak bitterly of how the U.S. treats their country. According to a White House press release dated September 29th, the U.S. is providing high tech equipment to help the Frontier Corps patrol the border with Afghanistan and it's also paying for more than 100 border outposts. But one senior Pakistani official, speaking on condition he not be named, spat what the U.S. gives us is peanuts. If they want us to do more they should give us more.

U.S. Intelligence Chief John Negroponte says he's well aware that Pakistan's leaders have, in his words, a very tough road to hoe. But in an interview with NPR, he still offered some gentle criticism.

Mr. JOHN NEGROPONTE (U.S. Intelligence Chief): I do think that one of the issues that still is not being dealt with as well as it might be, it's the question of the sanctuary that Taliban political and even the military elements have been able to obtain in Pakistan. And I think that issue requires more work.

KELLY: Presented with this criticism, Pakistan's Home Secretary Sayed Kamal Shah all but rolls his eyes.

Mr. SAYED KAMAL SHAH (Home Secretary, Pakistan): We feel that we have done more than what could have been possible by any other country. So when we hear this that Pakistan is not doing enough, it hurts, and it hurts grievously.

KELLY: Shah's boss, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, seconds this view. In a 2005 speech titled Global Terrorism, Musharraf said if Pakistan is not doing enough, the whole world is asleep. Because I think we are doing the most.

Mary-Louise Kelly, NPR News.

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