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Punjabi Taliban: Monster Turns On Master

BY Sankar Sen

Once nurtured by the Pakistani state, especially the ISI, jihadis are now increasingly attacking Pakistanis. The massacre of Ahmediyas, who are treated as second class citizens in Islamic Pakistan and denied equal rights as Muslims, highlights the growing clout of the Punjabi Taliban. But Islamabad is not unduly bothered.

On May 28, there was a massacre of over 100 worshippers at two mosques in Lahore by Pakistani militants. The worshippers belonged to the Ahmediya sect, one of the religious minorities in Pakistan that the Government machinery either discriminates against or declines to adequately protect. The Ahmediyas are regarded as heretics for believing that Mohammed is not the last prophet.

According to police sources, Punjabi Taliban groups were behind the massacre. Following the twin strikes, the militants also carried out an audacious attack on a hospital in order to free one of the captured terrorists receiving treatment. Though they did not succeed in freeing him, they killed four policemen and a patient before escaping. The victims in the mosque massacre include a retired Army Lieutenant-General and several former judges and civil servants.

In the past, Punjabi militants have been somewhat distinct from militants from tribal areas and the Pakistan armed forces retained a semblance of control over them. This is no longer true. The growing role of Punjabis marks a major escalation of extremist threats in Pakistan. Punjab is the heartland of Pakistan and home to its political and military elite. Many Punjabi Taliban leaders have received military training which makes them more lethal than rural Pashtoon fighters. Pakistan is now witnessing a coalescence of various militant jihadi groups. According to Bruce Riedl, a former top official in the White House National Security Council dealing with South Asia, the big danger is that these groups are fighting for recruits from the same Punjabi families and clans that the Pakistani Army recruits from for its Officer Corps.

Southern Punjab has become a hub for Punjabi militants who maintain close touch with the Taliban and travel to the tribal belt for both training and combat. The traffic is in fact two-way with Punjabi militants providing safe havens to Taliban fighters and commanders when needed. Indeed, the Taliban movement in Pakistan is now dominated by Punjabi militant groups once created and controlled by the ISI. Like Frankenstein’s monster, these groups have now joined Al Qaeda and the Taliban to battle the Pakistani Government. Their goal is to spread the message of their rigid, intolerant interpretation of Islam to the heartland of Pakistan and beyond.

The extremists’ goals have become increasingly maximalist. Many seek just not to liberate Kashmir but see eventual control of territory within India as the true prize of their struggle. Addressing a gathering at Kuba mosque in Islamabad on February 5, 2008, Nasar Javed, a Lashkar-e-Tayyeba functionary, said, “The Government of Pakistan may have abandoned jihad but we have not. We will continue to wage jihad till eternity.”

According to political analyst Hasan Askari, the militants have polished their approach, expanded their arsenal and improved their tactics. They also seem to be targeting the Army as well as the police — their original targets. The federal Government says that Punjabi groups have been responsible for most of the daring strikes in the province, but authorities in Lahore continue to deny their existence. The provincial Law Minister insists that he did nothing wrong to canvass for votes in the company of some of these militant leaders. While the Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs and other foreign fighters who have found refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas have no option but to fight the Pakistani Army, the Punjabis have the option to return to their own province and stage more attacks.

Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf outlawed two Punjabi extremist groups — the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi following attacks on the Shia sect. Many Jhangvi fighters then moved to North-Western Frontier Province. They are now the operational arm of the Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-e-Taliban. Rohan Gunaratne, the author of Inside Al Qaeda, says that it is difficult to distinguish between the three groups.

Islamabad is trying hard to stop other militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and LeT from joining the Taliban. Jaish-e-Mohammad, based in Bhawalpur, is ambivalent when it comes to fighting the Pakistani state. The 50,000-strong LeT, the largest Punjabi militant group, has so far not responded to the Taliban siren call. The LeT was responsible for perpetrating the massacre in Mumbai in November 2008 that pushed the two countries to the brink of war. Though sympathetic to other jihadi groups, the LeT has not been taking part in the current spate of attacks because it still has close links with the ISI.

Many suspect that Punjabi groups are still accorded some kind of protection by the ISI. Punjab Government official says the activities of Punjabi groups are not sectarian but directed mainly against India. Domestic terrorism is not on their agenda. The killings in Lahore have brought to the surface the rift between the Central Government and the administration in Punjab. Interior Minister Rehman Malik declared that an operation has to be launched to flush out these Punjabi groups. According to him, groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Jaish-e-Mohammad are part of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The Punjab Government, however, does not agree with this assessment. There has been no disarmament or de-mobilisation programme for the Punjabi Taliban because every Pakistani Government has so far denied that they exist.

The Punjabi leadership has come to the forefront because of the American success in targeting the Pashtoon militants. In comparison to the rag-tag and bobtail Pashtoon, Punjabi Taliban are highly trained and motivated. Another new group calling itself the Amjad Farooqi Taliban comprising Punjabis claimed responsibility for attacks on Rawalpindi military headquarters and three security installations in Lahore as well as a suicide attack in the North-Western Frontier Province. Pakistan, therefore, can no longer afford to limit its fight against the terrorists to the north-west. Terrorist groups are now striking roots in Punjab and the distinction between those that the state is willing to tolerate and those it wants to curb is rapidly fading.

The growing nexus between the jihadis based in FATA and extremists outside the region is one of the most troubling recent developments. According to Ms Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst, “If the Taliban spreads its tentacles across the province this would change the battlefield completely.” Although the number of jihadis operating on the Pakistan and Afghanistan border is not very large, their growing ideological appeal represents the biggest threat to Pakistan and other countries targeted by the jihadis, including the US.

There is, however, one heartening trend. Some civil society groups in Pakistan have been increasingly vocal in demanding action against terrorist groups for the horrendous bloodletting since the mosque massacre. They have also been rooting for a crackdown on Jamaat-ud-Dawa’h. Their protests offer a glimmer of hope.

-- The writer is former Director, National Police Academy, and former Director-General, National Human Rights Commission.

Source: The Pioneer