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The Legacy of Lal Masjid

By Zahid Hussain

July 09, 2017

It was a scene from hell when I visited the Lal Masjid and its affiliated women’s seminary Jamia Hafsa on July 12, a day after the end of the military action named Operation Sunrise. Every part of the sprawling complex was scarred by the battle and the acrid stench of battle still hung in the air.

The walls of the blackened basement, where the Lal Masjid’s Deputy Imam Abdul Rashid Ghazi and half a dozen of his followers had made a last stand, were shattered by the explosives. Metal furniture lay piled in a corner. The windowless room inside the Jamia Hafsa was charred; a suicide bomber had detonated his charge as the commandos had stormed the building.

In the next room, swarms of flies buzzed over the bloodstained floor and rubble was scattered where the militants had built a bunker. Walls that had been painted with Quranic verses were riddled with bullet holes, evidence of a vicious 35-hour assault in which the commandos fought from room to room against the heavily armed militants belonging to the seminary.

The remnants of deadly arsenal were strewn everywhere: ammunition, machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a crate of petrol bombs made from green Sprite bottles. Homemade bombs, gas masks, electronic scanners, and scores of Jihadi DVDs were among the debris.

The Lal Masjid siege was the deadliest battle between the army and home-grown militants since Pakistan entered into alliance with the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Al-Qaeda leaders were quick to respond, calling for revenge. In an audio message Osama bin Laden described Ghazi as a “hero of Islam” and declared an all-out war against the Pakistani military.

The Lal Masjid itself was spared the worst of the fighting, but its entrance hall was destroyed by fire and chunks of masonry were blown from the minarets, which gunmen were said to have used as a vantage point. The resistance was indeed beyond the expectations of the armed forces.

The violent end of the standoff left more than 100 militants dead and took the lives of 11 armed forces personnel. It marked a significant period in Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militancy.

Ten years later, the Lal Masjid episode continues to haunt Pakistan and inspire global Jihadi movements. In his death Rashid Ghazi became the source of inspiration for the militants. Al-Qaeda and other militant groups have since used the storming of the Lal Masjid as a rallying cry to fight the Pakistani government and its military.

More than 88 bombings killed 1,188 people and wounded 3,209 in the first year following the Lal Masjid siege alone. Two months after the Lal Masjid siege, an 18-year old boy blew himself up inside the high-security base of Zarrar Company, the elite commando unit of the Pakistan Army responsible for Operation Sunrise; 22 soldiers were killed. It was a major blow to the force, which had been specially trained to carry out counter-terrorism operations.

For the first time, military and intelligence personnel and installations in high-security zones in cities such as Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Lahore were targeted.

Organised under the banner of the Ghazi Force, Abdul Rashid’s disciples have been responsible for some of the most audacious terrorist attacks.

Ghazi had predicted that any violent end to the siege would help speed an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. His words resonated powerfully in north-western Pakistan, where tribal militant leaders declared holy war against the government and the military. It also spurred the loosely connected militant groups to come together.

Until then, disparate Taliban groups had operated independently of each other in their own regions. But the storming of the mosque and subsequent military operations inspired them to unite. Six months after Operation Sunrise on December 14, 2007, some 40 militant leaders, commanding 40,000 militant fighters, gathered in South Waziristan to form a united front under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The TTP included representatives from all the seven tribal regions as well as parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including Swat, Malakand, Buner, and Dera Ismail Khan, where the Taliban movement was already active. The birth of the TTP was another major turning point in the rise of insurgency in north-western Pakistan and the tribal areas.

There was already a nexus between the clerics of Lal Masjid and militant leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and Mullah Fazlullah in the Swat Valley. But the formation of the TTP gave fresh impetus to the militant movement. It vowed to avenge the death of Abdul Rashid. About 70 percent of the students of the madrasas attached to Lal Masjid came from the FATA territories and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and many of them returned home to join the insurgency.

By 2008 the Taliban were virtually in control of all the seven FATA agencies and had expanded their influence to a large part of KP. After dominating Swat, the Taliban had advanced to Buner and were just 60 miles away from capital Islamabad. The raid on the GHQ and a series of attacks on the ISI offices in high-security zones demonstrated the growing sophistication of the militants. The Ghazi Force played a critical role in all those attacks.

A Strategic Asset

Established shortly after Pakistan’s capital was moved from Karachi to the newly built Islamabad in 1965, Lal Masjid was named for its red walls and interiors. Only a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the ISI and a few blocks from the high-security Red Zone, the mosque since the 1980s had harboured the rise of militant Islam under state patronage. It had been used for the recruitment and mobilisation of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which also brought its chief cleric closer to the intelligence and security establishment.

The first Imam of this state-controlled mosque was Maulana Muhammad Abdullah, who was known for his radical sectarian views. Under General Zia’s military rule he rose to prominence and General Zia appointed him the member of his Majlis-i-Shura.

After the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, Maulana Abdullah became closely associated with the movement and with al-Qaeda. In 1998, he travelled to Kandahar to pay homage to Mullah Omar. He took his younger son, Abdul Rashid, with him. During that visit the father and son met with Osama bin Laden.

Abdul Rashid met with bin Laden alone for an hour. “The meeting inspired me to work for the establishment of Islam,” he said when he fondly narrated the story of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, he recounted, he picked up bin Laden’s glass of water and drank from it. An amused bin Laden asked him the reason for his action, to which Abdul Rashid replied, “I drank from your glass so that Allah would make me a warrior like you.”

After the assassination of Maulana Abdullah, his older son Abdul Aziz was appointed the head cleric of the mosque and Abdul Rashid officiated as his deputy. The two brothers continued to enjoy state patronage despite their growing links with the Jihadi and sectarian groups.

But the long-standing links between the Pakistani military establishment and Lal Masjid turned hostile after Pakistan allied itself with the United States following the 9/11 attacks. For the militants this change of tack was a betrayal of jihad. The Lal Masjid became the centre of anti-government and anti-American protests. Many students of the madrasas affiliated with the mosque joined the Afghan Taliban resistance against the American invasion.

Relations worsened when in 2004, the clerics of the mosque issued a fatwa calling the people to join the militant resistance against the army operation in Waziristan. They declared that those fighting the Pakistani forces were martyrs and urged the people not to give Islamic burial to the soldiers killed in the fighting.

The situation escalated in 2007, when under the leadership of two brothers, the Lal Masjid movement sought to take revolutionary action against Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s government. They announced a charter for proposed Islamic rule of the country, which envisaged a new social, political and judicial system based on the Sharia. The clerics called for the formation of revolutionary committees for the implementation of the charter.

Meanwhile, the mosque became a base for Taliban-style vigilante squads. Led by fearsome, stick-wielding, Burqa-clad young women, radicals poured out of the mosque and the two madrasas affiliated to it, raiding houses allegedly used as brothels, kidnapping suspected prostitutes, and making bonfires of videocassettes and DVDs that they regarded as un-Islamic.

But for months the administration tolerated activities of the self-styled anti-vice squads even after they kidnapped a number of policemen and ransacked government buildings. The clerics even threatened to launch a wave of suicide attacks if any move was made against them. The military hesitated to take any action, surely due to its long ties with the mosque.

The military-led government finally took action after the Lal Masjid squad kidnapped three Chinese girls and accused them of prostitution. The situation escalated to a point that some feared the militants might take over the capital itself. On July 3, 2007, army troops backed by tanks and artillery guns surrounded the mosque. But the final onslaught was held off in order to allow time for the students to surrender.

For seven consecutive days, positioned behind concrete bunkers and sandbags, the militants responded to the military’s siege with automatic fire, showing little sign of fatigue or shortage of ammunition.

Around midnight on July 7, snipers positioned inside a minaret shot Lieutenant-Colonel Haroon Islam, the commander of the Special Forces leading the operation. He passed away on July 8. The killing vividly demonstrated how well-trained the militants were; many of the hardliner militants had been schooled in guerrilla warfare in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The death of the commander was the last straw.

What happened next sparked changes to militancy at home as well as to pan-Islamist Jihadi movements elsewhere?

A Global Fascination

The Lal Masjid standoff also spurred global Jihadi movements. An Iraq-based militant group known as Ansar al Sham named one of its training camps after Abdul Rashid Ghazi. In 2014, this al-Qaeda affiliate released a video showing militants receiving training at the same camp.

The video begins with Ghazi’s last message exhorting his followers to continue the struggle. The video then shows visuals of the Lal Masjid itself, along with the Jamia Hafsa and also visuals of troop deployment prior to the operation. Many of the Pakistanis who have joined jihadi groups fighting in Iraq and Syria are believed to be former students of the madressahs affiliated with Lal Masjid.

Indeed the devastation of Lal Masjid and killing of Abdul Rashid gave new cause to the militants, but it is not the reason for the rise of violent extremism in the country. It may be argued that the massive use of force by the state was avoidable, but the military action cannot be described as unprovoked. No government can allow any move to establish a parallel system through the use of force and incite public to revolt against the state.

The Lal Masjid phenomenon did not emerge overnight. It was the product of a decades-long policy of patronising extremist clerics and using militancy as a tool of the country’s foreign policy. The argument that the rise of violent extremism and terrorism was the direct consequence of the military action certainly does not hold ground.

In fact the action came too late which made things much more complicated. It could have been easier had the administration cleared the mosque from the militants few years earlier when there was a strong evidence of their support for the insurgent fighting Pakistani armed forces in the tribal areas and their links with al-Qaeda.

The state continued to ignore the increasing activity of the self-styled Islamic vigilante groups operating right in the heart of the country’s capital. The administration and the military failed to realise the degree to which rising extremism among the Pakistani militant groups had taken on a life of its own. They wilfully looked the other way rather than confront clear signs that the violent extremism was taking root in the country as well as in the capital.

It was perhaps not easy for the security establishment to cull its own creation. The Lal Masjid phenomenon did not emerge overnight. It was the product of a decades-long policy of patronising extremist clerics and using militancy as a tool of the country’s foreign policy. The Lal Masjid had long served that purpose. The argument that the rise of violent extremism and terrorism was the direct consequence of the military action certainly does not hold ground.

It may have precipitated the militant war in the mainland, but an al-Qaeda backed insurgency had already gained ground in most of the tribal region and had spread to parts of KP. Any further delay in action could have threatened the very existence of the state.

Return to Status Quo?

Ironically, a decade after the bloody siege, Lal Masjid remains a symbol of radical Islam. Abdul Aziz who incited armed rebellion against the state and sought to establish his own version of retrogressive Islamic order is now re-installed at the pulpits defending militant actions.

Most of the cases against the cleric have either been quashed by the courts or dropped by the government. Clearly, the long arm of the law does not reach a proclaimed offender even if he defies the country’s Constitution and openly defends militant violence.

An intelligence report last year warned that the Lal Masjid’s links with militant groups involved in terrorist activities presented a grave security threat. The report also cited a video message recorded by students of Jamia Hafsa pledging allegiance to the militant group, Islamic State.

The mosque’s link with outlawed militant and sectarian groups is an open secret. But the allegiance of the Maulana’s disciples to the IS is much more serious. Unsurprisingly, the intelligence warning and the open support for the global militant group by the women and girls in Jamia Hafsa are ignored by the administration.

The revival of the Lal Masjid as the citadel of extremism exposes the lack of will to effectively deal with the menace of militancy. The impunity enjoyed by Abdul Aziz and other radical clerics raises fears of the capital returning to a 2007-like situation. The threat is much more serious with the mushroom growth of madrasa populations in the city. It seems that the state has not learnt any lesson from the events that led to the bloody siege that shook the country.

Zahid Hussain is an author and senior journalist.