ATbar Punjab: Nucleus of Terror

Punjab: Nucleus of Terror

15/02/2015 | by Ambreen, Agha  

First published in South Asia Intelligence Review

On January 16, 2015, at least three Shia Muslims were shot dead in Rawalpindi District while they were returning home from a religious gathering. The victims were identified as lawyer Fayyaz Hussain Shah (40), and his two nephews Mir Ghazi Shah (20) and Mir Hamza Shah (22). The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) 'spokesperson' Muhammad Khorasani claimed responsibility for the attack saying that lawyer Fayyaz Hussain Shah was active in his Shia community and was also a local leader of the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

On January 9, 2015, at least eight people were killed and another 25 were wounded in a bomb blast targeting the Aun Muhammad Rizvi Imambargah (Shia place of commemoration) located at Chittian Hattian in Rawalpindi District. Ehsanullah Ehsan, 'spokesperson' for TTP's Jama'at-ul-Ahrar (JuA) faction, claimed responsibility for the attack and vowed “to continue such attacks".

In the first 26-days of 2015, the Punjab Province has recorded 13 terrorism-related fatalities.

Significantly, reversing the declining trend in such fatalities since 2010, overall fatalities in 2014 increased by a whopping 122.22 per cent, as compared to the preceding year. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (STAP), Punjab recorded a total of 180 fatalities, including 132 civilians, 20 Security Force (SF) personnel and 28 terrorists in 2014, as against 81 such fatalities, including 64 civilians, seven SF personnel and 10 terrorists in 2013.

Other parameters of violence have also registered a staggering increase. As against 20 incidents of killing in 2013, the number of such incidents rose to 43 in 2014, of which eight were major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) resulting in 129 deaths, as compared to seven major incidents (out of 20 incidents of killing) in 2013 which resulted in 40 deaths. In the worst attack of the year, on November 2, 2014, at least 60 people, including children and women, were killed and more than 150 persons were injured, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives vest in the parking area some 500 meters from the Wagah Border, on the outskirts of provincial capital Lahore, where a daily ceremony is witnessed by large crowds on both the Pakistani and Indian side.

The Province recorded four suicide attacks in 2014, as against a single incident in 2013; the resultant fatalities stood at 83 and five respectively. At least 16 explosions were recorded in 2014, which claimed 111 lives and left more than 352 injured. In 2013, the number of bomb blasts stood at five with 14 fatalities.

An increase in incidents of sectarian violence was also recorded, from 13 in 2013 to 19 in 2014, though resultant fatalities at 23 remained lower in 2014, as against 42 in 2013.

2014, consequently, recorded an overall escalation in violence in the Province which has, for years, served as an ideological sanctuary and a recruitment ground for various terrorist formations in Pakistan. Indeed, on January 1, 2015, Awami National Party (ANP) Central General Secretary Mian Iftikhar Hussain declared Punjab a “training centre for terrorists and their masterminds” and demanded that the Government initiate decisive action against the terrorist leadership and infrastructure in the Punjab. He stressed, further, that “terrorism could not be eliminated from the country until an operation began against terrorist organisations in Punjab”. Pressing for action against terrorists, Hussain remarked that “there should be no distinction between good Taliban and bad Taliban and state institutions should take an across-the-board action against terrorists.”

This dismal situation has been created primarily due to the tacit support provided to these groups by the Federal and Provincial Governments, who have been implicitly supported by the judiciary. As in past, numerous instances of such support came to the fore in 2014. On December 22, 2014, the dreaded terrorist Malik Muhammad Ishaq, the leader of the anti-Shia sectarian outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), was released after three years in jail on grounds of "lack of evidence". Officials of the Punjab Home Department, however, did not seek extension in his detention. Significantly, the United States (US) on February 6, 2014, had designated Ishaq in its list of the most wanted 'Specially Designated Global Terrorists'. Indeed, despite an apparent ban on the organisation within Pakistan since August 2001, LeJ continues to operate with a great measure of freedom and exerts significant influence in Punjab.

Similarly, the Islamabad Anti-Terrorism Court Judge Syed Kausar Abbas Zaidi hearing the November 26, 2008, Mumbai (India) terror attacks (also known as 26/11) case, granted bail to top Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) ‘commander’ Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the mastermind of the attacks on December 18, 2014, noting "evidence against Lakhvi was deficient". After several u-turns, under intense pressure from India and the international community, Lakhvi continues to remain behind bars.

Meanwhile, the Province continued to host LeT 'founder' and Jama'at-ud-Dawa (JuD) 'chief' Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Through the course of the year he was allowed to propagate his ideology of hate and violence freely across the country, and including the Islamabad Capital Territory, organising and conducting rallies, in which he spit venom against India and other ‘infidel’ countries. Indeed, on December 4-5, 2014, Saeed organised a two day “National Conference” on the theme, “Pakistan’s liberty lies in the ideology of Pakistan”, at the Minar-e-Pakistan monument in Lahore, calling for the revival of the demand for the complete enforcement of Sharia'h (Islamic Law), protecting and promoting the Islamic ideology of Pakistan, jihad against the 'enemies of Islam' to uphold Muslim nationhood across the world, and liberating 'occupied Muslim territories'. At the Conference, he declared, “…To deal with the Indian atrocities we will have to adopt the course of Ghaznavi and, Ghauri... Narendra Modi should be straightforward and resolve the Kashmir dispute, and if you are not ready to resolve it, then God willing, Kashmir will be the gateway and we will wage jihad against India…” Crucially, the Pakistan Government ran two special trains free of cost to transport people to attend the congregation in Lahore, and to return them to their homes after the conclusion of the congregation.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan Government declared, on January 22, 2015, that it has ‘banned’ JuD along with several other terror organistaions, including the Haqqani Network. Earlier in a lamentable act of duplicity, Pakistan’s Minister for Defence Production told Hindustan Timesin an exclusive interview on January 16, 2015, “We are looking to ban terror organisations but the JuD is a charitable organisation and the Government of Pakistan has no evidence against Hafiz Saeed or the JuD.” Subsequently, however, the Pakistan’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson stated that there was "no new ban" on JuD, in what Ajai Sahni, Editor, SAIR, described "as the same cycle of plants and denials, the same smoke and mirrors trick, reassuring gullible 'believers' without changing realities." Sahni notes, further,

Interestingly, JuD was consistently included in its list of terrorist organisations by the National Assembly since 2005, and this was used as grounds to 'take control of' many of the organisation's madrassas and institutions, especially by the Punjab Government. The actual staff and management remained very much with the same individuals who controlled these institutions before the purported 'take over', but there was now a pretext that permitted the Government to directly and generously fund their activities.

This cover was blown in 2009, when the Lahore High Court quashed proceedings against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed on the grounds that JuD was not a banned organisation, since no notification to this effect had been issued by the Ministry of Interior or by the Punjab Government.

Nevertheless, the National Assembly blithely continued to include JuD in its 'updated list' of banned organisation in 2012, even as official funding to its many madrassas and institutions flowed on.

All this is a part of Pakistan's strategy of deception, its careful calibration of policy as a 'minimal satisfier', responding reluctantly to meet the least of requirements where international - particularly US - pressure becomes unbearable, while insistently protecting the infrastructure, integrity and continuity of the many 'sarkari jehadi' groups it has long cultivated.

A December 20, 2014, Pakistani report indicated that JuD continued to remain “Enlisted under UNSCR 1267” since December 10, 2008. Despite this long 'ban' JuD and its leader Saeed - who has a USD 10 million bounty placed on his head by Washington, find no reason to disguise their activities.

Even if a ban is imposed, JuD is likely to continue to operate under another identity, even as its precursor, LeT did after its apparent ban in January 2002. JuD already has a number of other identities in place, including Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool (Movement for defending the honour of Prophet), Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Movement for the Liberation of Kashmir), Paasbaan-e-Ahl-e-Hadith (Defender of Prophetic Tradition) , Paasban-e-Kashmir (Defender of Kashmir), Al-Mansoorian (The Victorious), Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (Establishment for the Service of Humanity), Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (Foundation for the success of humanity), Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal (Movement for Safeguarding the Holy Ka'ba).

Pakistan has, unfailingly, proved to be a country where hard core sectarian and India-oriented Punjabi jihadists find widespread public and official support. According to the SATP database, there has been a considerable and increasing presence of at least 57 extremist and terrorist groups in Punjab alone. At least 28 of these outfits exist in Lahore. The situation is, in fact, even more alarming and, on January 14, 2015, Federal Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, during a briefing on the status of the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism and extremism, disclosed that the number of proscribed organisations actively engaged in terrorism and extremism in the Province had reached 95.

Islamabad continues with its most dangerous friendships with purveyors of terror, even as it makes desperate efforts to contain some aspects of domestic terrorism. In a 15-minute long video released in December 2014, TTP openly exposed the past misdeeds of the Pakistan Army. A senior leader of the group, Adnan Rashid, a former Pakistan Air Force officer, accused the Pakistan Army of taking a "U-turn" and labeling jihad as terrorism and mujahedeenas terrorists, and warned

You remember when thousands of Pakistani youth fought your proxy war in Afghanistan and in Indian Kashmir.... And then you went into the dollar game and you earned millions from the proxy war in Afghanistan and you deceived the nation in the name of jihad. The Muslims have not forgotten the blood game you played in Indian Kashmir exploiting youth in the name of so called freedom...

The evidence of Pakistan's long history of malfeasance is now overwhelming, and yet, the flourishing terrorist formations in Punjab and the obvious support they receive from the state establishment, demonstrate that there is obviously insufficient international pressure for change. Indeed, US and international agencies continue to bail Pakistan's elite out with annual doses of liberal financial aid, even as Washington continues to bolster Islamabad's arsenal.