Just an hour before Monday's pre-dawn Pakistani military missile on an Islamic school at a remote location near the Afghan border left 80 people dead, Pakistani intelligence officials closely watched the latest video footage from that location with deep anxiety.
With an assist from infrared cameras, the officials say, they watched groups of young men running around the compound surrounding their living quarters, stretching and jogging, apparently training for physical endurance.
The apparent mission of these trainees, the officials say, was none other than to ultimately cross the porous Afghan border and join the ranks of Afghanistan's resurging Taliban fighters, seeking to attack military contingents from NATO, the U.S. or Afghanistan's newly established military.
What appeared then, according to Pakistan, to be a logical decision of attacking a group of militant suspects, has turned into the latest political challenge for the country's pro-U.S. ruler, General Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan's vociferous Islamic hardliners have seized the occasion to claim that the attack could not have been carried by anyone other than U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan.
This claim, which may seem outrageously unfounded to many foreign observers, however, is based not just on a bit of history, but also underlines the ways in which Pakistan's anti-U.S. lobby is often keen to exploit opportunities for the revival of popular anger against the US.
In January of this year, the U.S. was roundly condemned in parts of Pakistan following an attack then believed by some to have been carried out by predator unmanned planes operated by the CIA, at a remote location where Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's number two, was believed to be hiding. The claim was subsequently found to be untrue.
"Why would Pakistani troops want to attack their own people in this way," said Qazi Hussain Ahmed, leader of Jamaat-I-islami - one of the most powerful Islamic political groups – speaking a few hours after Monday's attack. "Obviously, it had to be the Americans."
Senior Pakistani security officials tell a different story.
They say the site of the attack was closely monitored since July when Pakistani officials were alerted for the first time to the possibility of that location being used for training militants.
"These people were trained in withstanding physical stress. They were also taught the use of explosives and weapons," said a Pakistani security official speaking on the condition that his name not be used. "Why did these people receive such kind of training, unless their intention was to head in to a war zone?"
In claims which are non-specific and provide no evidence of recent such activity, Pakistani officials also claim that high profile terrorist suspects such as Ayman Al Zawahiri have visited the site in the past.
"This was an essential operation which had to be carried out," said one government official. "If the missile strike would not have taken place now, you can't tell how much damage would have been caused by these people."
Senior western diplomats stationed in Pakistan, however, warn that the fallout from the attack will be driven more by the country's sharp political divide - between its pro-U.S. and anti-U.S. citizens - and less by the details of the attack.
"The Pakistani government would continue to be condemned for conceding ground to the U.S., you can't change this," said a Western diplomat in Islamabad who asked not to be named. "Irrespective of the exact facts, this case has become locked in political controversy."
By Farhan Bokhari