September Issue 2015

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 2 years ago

On July 29, in Shahwala Jungle, a sandy, shrubby wilderness on the Jhang Road 15 kilometres from downtown Muzaffargarh, security agencies shot dead sectarian-jihadi Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) leader Malik Ishaq, 56, along with his two sons and 11 colleagues, including his second-in-command, Ghulam Rasool Shah.

Shahwala Jungle, at least five kilometres away from any human settlement, is an area where the Muzaffargarh police have staged many alleged ‘encounters’ with hardened criminals, who have escaped conviction by the law because of inadequate evidence of their involvement in assorted crimes and the reluctance of witnesses to testify against them.

A police officer confided to Newsline that members of a security agency actually killed Malik Ishaq and his colleagues and handed their corpses to the Muzaffargarh police. Next, he said, almost routine in such cases, policemen fired a few shots aimed at the legs of some of their colleagues, to lend credence to the claim that an exchange of fire between the criminals and law-enforcers had indeed taken place.

The police’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD), Multan, however, had another version of what transpired. A CTD spokesman said that Ishaq and five of his cohorts were taken to Muzaffargarh by a contingent of the CTD to unearth a caché of arms and explosives they had been told were hidden there by the LeJ leader and his gang. In the course of this expedition, some 12 to 15 armed men attacked the police possé and freed their counterparts.

Later, according to official claims, the CTD police followed the militants and there was an exchange of fire between them. As a result of this shoot out, 14 militants, including Malik Ishaq and Ghulam Rasool Shah, were killed, and six policemen sustained injuries. CTD members said a sizeable amount of weapons and ammunition were recovered from the attackers.

Soon after Ishaq’s killing, intelligence agencies reportedly intercepted messages exchanged between LeJ operators which spoke of targeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, other members of the Sharif family, the Inspector General Police, Punjab, Mushtaq Sukhera, members of the Punjab government, and some Shia bureaucrats.

Intelligence reports leaked to the media suggest Malik Ishaq, who was himself involved in more than 70 sectarian murders, has left behind a group of around 50 motivated and well-trained killers who are planning to strike against some top government officials and individuals belonging to the minority groups.

In the first week of August, Punjab’s Inspector General of Police, Mushtaq Sukhera, reportedly sent a letter to senior police officers alerting them of possible, impending terrorist attacks on members of the force and high-profile individuals in the Punjab, by the Tehreek-e-Taliban’s (TTP) Commander Nazir Group.

Since Ishaq’s killing, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, usually readily availing all photo opportunities, stopped making public appearances. And for more than a month, Sharif has been addressing official meetings of provincial bureaucrats through video-conferences.

Malik Ishaq’s ideological heirs took only two weeks to strike back. On August 16, Punjab Home Minister, Col. Shuja Khanzada (Retd.) paid the price of Ishaq’s killing with his blood. Khanzada was the public face of the Punjab government on the issue of law and order, and used to often appear on television channels.

Being actively and unabashedly engaged in the fight against sectarian outfits in the Punjab, Khanzada was aware of the threat to his life, but lowered his guard when meeting with the people of his electoral constituency. This proved to be a fatal mistake: Khanzada and 11 others became a soft target when a suicide bomber detonated his device in the minister’s personal office in Attock on  August 16.

Apart from Khanzada, the victims included his gunman, and Shaukat Shah, a Deputy Superintendent, Police. More than 20 others suffered serious injuries in the blast, which was so powerful that within a few seconds the room was reduced to a mound of debris.

Khanzada was an obvious target as he had publicly targeted both the LeJ and the TTP, the two organisations which have joined hands since the military operations against the terrorists began in the northwestern tribal region.

A day after the killing of Malik Ishaq, Khanzada had publicly declared that the sectarian terrorist was taken down by the CTD in accordance with the National Action Plan (NAP), thus sending a strong message to other wanted terrorists that the same fate awaited them. “Action will be taken wherever the state’s interest is at stake,” he had announced.

On August 3, two weeks before his assassination, Khanzada had openly blamed the TTP for violence in the Punjab, saying that the law-enforcement agencies had tracked down the perpetrators of the twin explosions at a church in the Youhanabad area of Lahore in which 15 people were killed. He said those responsible for the blasts were linked with the Jamaatul Ahrar faction of the TTP.

Given the pattern of sectarian militancy, it was only to be expected then that Khanzada would be targeted. However, the Punjab police failed to provide the home minister adequate security.

The Punjab police’s failure to protect the home minister is symptomatic of the department’s poor working and its bad management. The Punjab has invested a huge amount to create a new CTD, with much higher salaries for its officials than those of the regular police force, but its service delivery is as poor as that of the rest of the force.

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Whenever a law and order challenge emerges, the provincial government creates a new force, spending billions of rupees in the process, but the new force, like the ones preceding it, is usually diverted to serve the powers-that-be rather than being allowed to perform the duties it was ostensibly created for. “Almost half of the CTD staff is working in offices instead of the field for which for they were originally hired,” disclosed a senior police officer. He added that all the specialised forces are used by top bureaucrats, politicians and their friends to protect them, while the main objective for creating the force is relegated to the backburner. Ironically, the provincial government has doled out Rs 2.1 million in honoraria, along with salaries to cops performing jobs as guards in the private residences in Lahore of the Prime Minister and Punjab’s Chief Minister.

In the late 1990s, the Punjab had, with much fanfare, created the Elite Force to fight organised crime. But since then most of its members have been set to work as guards for politicians and other VIPs. This year, the Punjab government has earmarked another two billion rupees to expand this Elite Force that essentially protects only the elite. Additionally, this year the provincial government is creating another force within the police department named ‘Dolphins’ at a cost of 3.5 billion rupees to ‘combat terrorism.’

The unofficial, unacknowledged policy of taking down sectarian terrorists such as Malik Ishaq, Ghulam Rasool Shah, Usman Kurd, Riaz Basra and
others of their ilk in so-called encounters with the police indicates the failure of our criminal justice system to build solid enough cases to convict such felons, even when their complicity in serious terrorist attacks is beyond doubt and in full public knowledge.

In most cases, terrorists intimidate witnesses with the help of their large network of hit-men, forcing them to back out of giving testimony. Malik Ishaq was wanted in more than 70 cases of murder, and spent 14 years in jail as his cases proceeded but managed to escape conviction because witnesses got cold feet. Then, on July 14, 2011, the Supreme Court bailed him out.

Overall, the government has been unable to improve the investigation and prosecution techniques of the agencies dealing with these issues. This is only to be expected: there have been more than 700 vacancies in Punjab’s prosecution department for many years.

So while there is no lack of funding – for example, this year, the Punjab government approved a sum of 300 million rupees for android phones for police officers from grade-16 to grade-22 – defective police investigations and a poor prosecution system, has yielded a dismal picture vis a vis meeting the terrorism challenge. Nearly 26,000 terrorism cases were registered in the Punjab under the NAP during the first six months of 2015. To date, only 12 per cent of these cases have been decided by the courts.

The same holds true for other provinces, including Sindh, where 19 Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) have a conviction rate of around 33 per cent, with the accused in 454 cases having been exonerated, and only 223 convictions being registered.

And from January 1  to June 30, 2015, the anti-terrorism courts in Sindh disposed of 677 cases while over 3,300 cases were still pending. The ATCs were unable to hold the trials on a daily basis, as required under the law, or decide the cases within the stipulated period of seven days.

In a recent high-level meeting in Karachi, the Director General, Rangers, Major General Bilal Akbar, complained to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif that the courts had freed even those accused in serious cases against whom the Rangers had produced credible witnesses and evidence. He reportedly also told Sharif that the Sindh government had failed to take any step for the protection of witnesses against the terrorists.

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The DG Rangers added that the police had earlier freed a suspect involved in the May 13, 2015, carnage at Safoora Goth in Karachi in which 45 people were killed. He maintained that had the arrested terrorists not been released, this carnage would not have taken place.

Meanwhile, how serious the federal government is in improving law and order and the investigation of criminal cases can be gauged from some facts the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) shared with the Supreme Court of Pakistan on August 20, among these the paltry budget of 1.6 million rupees allocated to the FIA for the investigation of all the cases across the country.

The NAP was introduced following the December 16, 2014, Taliban rampage at the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed over 150 students and staff.  However, the government’s lack of interest in implementing the Plan is illustrated by the figures given in the Supreme Court during a hearing in July.

The 2015-16 federal budget earmarked only an amount of Rs. 100.34 million for the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) against its demand of two billion rupees. Perhaps on account of this shortfall, only 57 positions are currently filled in NACTA – most of them of drivers and attendants, while 503 positions remain vacant.

In January this year a decision was made to set up a Joint Intelligence Directorate (JID) to help ensure the complete coordination and dissemination of real-time information among all 24 intelligence agencies operating in the country, but that too has fallen victim to a series of ongoing discussions, repeated objections and a lack of funds.  In March and June 2015 respectively, the Interior Ministry sent two letters to the federal government asking for funds for the establishment of the JID, but both times the Finance Division raised technical objections to this request.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s house has been provided a budget of nearly one billion rupees for the current year.

In the face of the civilian government’s failure to rise to the challenge of sectarian-jihadi militancy and a flawed justice administration system, the army seems to have silently assumed the lead role in Punjab, as it has done in Karachi, through a provincial apex committee which oversees the implementation of the NAP for fighting terrorism.

Judging by just the composition of the apex committee, the military’s key role in actions against terrorism becomes evident.  It constitutes the Lahore Corps Commander, Lieutenant General Naweed Zaman, Director General, Punjab Rangers, Major General Umer Farooq Burki, the General Officer commanding 10-Div, Major General Sardar Tariq Aman, and other military officers.

In one meeting of the apex committee on July 16, the decision was made to eliminate banned outfits with full force. It was also decided that the law-enforcement agencies would take more effective and speedy steps for the implementation of the NAP by carrying out “an indiscriminate crackdown on terrorists and facilitators of extremists, as well as those providing them financial assistance.”

Twelve days after the July 16 apex committee’s meeting, Malik Ishaq and his 11 colleagues were shot dead.

Ishaq’s killing is the latest in the series of such killings of alleged notorious terrorists at the hands of the authorities after the December 16, 2014, carnage at the Army Public School.

Earlier, on February 15 this year, members of the Frontier Corps (FC) had gunned down the most wanted Amir of the Balochistan chapter of the LeJ, Usman Saifullah Kurd, a former right hand man of LeJ supremo Riaz Basra, and a close associate of Malik Ishaq, in alleged crossfire near Sariab Road in Quetta.

Kurd was alleged to have been involved in 36 cases of terror, including suicide attacks and bombings at Shia mosques in Quetta and other areas of Balochistan and the January 2015 Imambargah bombing in the Lakhi Dar area of Shikarpur which had killed more than 60 people.

In June 2006, the Criminal Investigation Unit of the Karachi Police had arrested Usman Kurd from the Mauripur area of Karachi. In November 2003, A Quetta ATC had sentenced him to death along with his second-in-command, Dawood Badini – the nephew of the 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the brother-in-law of Ramzi Yousaf – for masterminding two terror attacks in the city that killed 65 people. However, in January 2008, Kurd escaped, along with Badini, from the high security jail of the Anti-Terrorism Force (ATF) located in the Quetta Cantonment. Badini is still at large.

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The escape of Kurd and Badini from the jail raised many eyebrows on the suspicious role of the security establishment and intelligence agencies in Balochistan, where the LeJ-TTP conglomerate had been carrying out a virtual Shia genocide. It was alleged that the Taliban leadership, which was hiding out in Quetta and using the city as its headquarters, had joined forces with the LeJ to eliminate the Shia Hazaras and purge the city of its minority Shia sects.

The Taliban’s militant struggle to regain control of Afghanistan and its alleged use of Pakistani territory for its activities has been a major factor in the rise of sectarian militancy and awarded free reign to terrorists of the ilk of Malik Ishaq.

A week after Khanzada’s murder, the Punjab police arrested two men,  suspected of the attack on Khanzada. Shoaib Cheema and Tariq were picked up from a house in Faisalabad and some explosives were recovered from them. An initial investigation indicated that the two suicide bombers who killed Khanzada came from Afghanistan, while two local residents of Attock provided them transport and lodging. Cheema is said to have told the police that the LeJ Punjab’s deputy chief, Nadeem Inqilabi, living in Afghanistan, masterminded the attack.

Earlier, in June this year, the CTD and intelligence operatives shot dead four suspected Taliban militants in a pre-dawn raid in a Pushtun-dominated locality on Kala Shah Kaku Road in the suburbs of Lahore, and arrested two suspected terrorists. According to the Punjab Home Minister, the suspects were identified as members of the TTP. They were allegedly planning attacks on a senior politician in Lahore, on a market, and a sensitive building.

Most leads to terrorist activities in Pakistan face in the direction of Afghanistan, where the leaders of the LeJ and TTP have been living since the army launched operations against the TTP, Swat, led by Mullah Fazlullah, aka Mullah Radio, in 2009.

Following the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, Fazlullah has been leading the TTP, and the TTP and LeJ have formed an alliance for their common goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate in Pakistan. This ideology is based on the Sunni-Deobandi-Takfiri interpretation of Islam as was practiced by Mullah Omar in Afghanistan and Mullah Fazlullah in Swat during his brief reign of terror.

There are strong indications that the operatives of the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, aka Daesh, have also networked with the country’s sectarian outfits as the idea of an anti-West, conservative Sunni-Islamic state has traction for all the country’s extremist organisations.

One such operative is Mati-ur-Rehman, alias Abdul Samad Sial, from Bahawalpur district, who works as a link between the LeJ and the TTP and Al-Qaeda, and now leads the LeJ. He has been listed as one of the US State Department’s ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorists’ since August 2011 due to his al-Qaeda links. Rehman is alleged to have been involved in many high-profile terrorist cases, including the abortive plan in August 2006 of destroying a US-bound British aircraft mid-air and the January 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl.

Mati-ur-Rehman is also wanted by the Punjab police for masterminding two failed assassination attempts on General Musharraf in Rawalpindi in December 2003, and an attack on Prime Minister-designate Shaukat Aziz near Fateh Jang in July 2004.

The Taliban have been traditional allies and patrons of sectarian militants in Pakistan, but Taliban apologists have invented the myth that the Afghan Taliban are not involved in sectarianism and that only the TTP is involved with violence of this nature.

Between 1996 and 2002, Riaz Basra, the leader of the LeJ before Malik Ishaq, involved in hundreds of Shia killings, orchestrated his organisation’s activities from Kabul, under the patronage of the then Taliban government headed by Mullah Omar. In 2001, Javed Noor, the Lahore police chief had disclosed: “I can tell you the exact location of the house and street in Kabul where Riaz Basra lives, but the Taliban government has declined all requests from Islamabad to hand him over to Pakistan.”

4In the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2002, Basra fled to Pakistan and was arrested by security agencies and killed in an ‘encounter,’ as was Malik Ishaq 13 years later.

Since the Pakistan army started operations against the militants in the tribal areas and Swat, different Islamist and sectarian outfits banded together and pooled their resources. The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and sectarian organisations in Pakistan have long been lending a helping hand to each other. Now the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has also joined the fray. A number of key Taliban leaders, have already taken oaths of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

Intelligence reports in Balochistan suggest that activists of the ISIS are now working to connect with other local militant organisations, including Jandullah and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Jandullah’s spokesman, Fahad Marwat, was reported as saying that an ISIS delegation had visited Balochistan province to see how it could join hands with Pakistan’s assorted militant groups.

A few months ago, the Balochistan government sent an intelligence report to the federal interior minister about the presence of the ISIS in the province, and warned that the ISIS had asked the LeJ, Jandullah andthe Ahle-e-Sunnat wal Jamat (ASWJ) to join hands with them.

While it is true that the killings of high-profile sectarian-jihadi leaders, the confiscation of their hate material and some surveillance of religious seminaries are likely to result in a reduction of violence, it is also an all-too-evident reality that the sectarian-jihad forces are extremely resilient and equally determined – as they brutally demonstrated with the murder of Shuja Khanzada.

History indicates that sectarian terrorists have a strong survival instinct, as they demonstrated in the late 1990s when facing a crackdown. At that time they tactically retreated, only to resurface when the dust had settled. One of the tactics employed by the sectarian-jihadi terrorists is to take cover behind political fronts.

An impression has been deliberately created in recent days to suggest that differences have cropped up between Malik Ishaq’s LeJ and its parent organisation, the ASWJ, formerly known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and that the ASWJ chief, Hafiz Ahmed Ludhianvi, believes in political struggle against the Shias rather than violence. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is fiction that has been created to make the ASWJ more acceptable so that its cadres are spared a crackdown.

The reality is that virtually all religious clerics and seminaries are directly or indirectly involved in sectarian violence. Some of them provide ideological support in the form of hate material; others supply the workforce to be trained as killers; still others arrange boarding and lodging for terrorists; and there are yet others who provide political cover to terrorist activities. The goal is common: to convert Pakistan into a conservative Sunni-Deobandi-Takfiri state on the pattern of Afghanistan under Mullah Omar.

In the past 30 years, these organisations have managed to insinuate themselves into every part of the country, with a large public support base and financial assistance from businessmen belonging to the conservative Deobandi and Wahabi sects. The LeJ and its parent organisation, the ASWJ for example, are well organised in Balochistan, Hangu, southern Punjab, Upper Sindh and Karachi.

The numbers are telling. A month before his murder, Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada had stated that 95 per cent of the 13,000-15,000 seminaries in Punjab were doing a good job, thereby tacitly implying that the remaining five per cent – around 700 seminaries in one province alone – were suspected of involvement in sectarianism and terrorist activities. And just during the first seven months of this year the police have taken into custody more than 1800 suspects across the Punjab on charges of having links with terrorists and terrorist organisations, or publishing hate material.

A survey carried out by the Sindh Home department in 2014 meanwhile, reported that 2,161 of the 12,545 seminaries in the province were sectarian and dangerous. And as many as 3,010 religious seminaries exist in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, most of which belong to the Deobandi and Wahabi sects. Thousands of students pass out from these seminaries every year, and while all of them may not be terrorists, they do have a strong sectarian mindset that is the basis of sectarian violence and extremism in this country.

The northwestern tribal areas and certain regions of Afghanistan provide safe haven for sectarian-jihadi terrorists. The free flow of arms, weapons and explosives and the narcotics trade and smuggling are the main sources of their funding. Unless extremist forces are eliminated from both, the tribal region (the Federally and Provincially Administered Tribal Areas) and Afghanistan, sectarian terrorism in Pakistan will keep raising its head.

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The elimination of Malik Ishaq and Usman Kurd clearly points to a change in the military establishment’s policy towards sectarian and other religious extremist organisations, and given the current dispensation’s visible resolve in crushing them, one may hope the menace of terrorism in Pakistan can be entirely wiped out. But in reality, the chances of its compete elimination is slim for a variety of reasons.

The system of governance has partly broken down and the socio-economic conditions of the country are so dismal that the promise of jannah with all its trappings courtesy jihad, is likely to find a steady supply of recruits from the poor and deprived strata of society.

Additionally, there is no dearth of funding and logistical support, and growing linkages between ideologically connected groups make for a formidable enemy of the state.

Most important though, is the extent to which the sectarian-Takfiri interpretation of Islam has taken root among a vast section of the population. As a representative of this narrative, Malik Ishaq had excelled in persuasive, rhetorical skills to woo large cadres of the country’s unemployed youth to his ranks. Unless an alternative, based on a progressive, modern interpretation of Islam, is advocated and popularised, sectarian violence is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

 

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2015 issue.

 

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