August Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

The softly spoken young man walks up to me in the restaurant we had arranged to meet at. He is accompanied by my ‘contact,’ a member of a political party that was outlawed by President Pervez Musharraf three years ago. The stranger is wearing a crisp white shalwar kameez. I have no idea of his name, but we decide on a pseudonym: Hafeezullah. He apologises for being late, with a sarcastic smile. “Since I’m wanted by the police in many cases of terrorism and also have a legion of enemies in the underworld, I keep my timings flexible so that I can be sure no one is lying in wait for me.”

The man sitting opposite me doesn’t look violent, but he is certainly capable of violence. Aside from being involved in assorted criminal activity, Hafeezullah, an activist of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of many extremist religious groups in Pakistan, is one of the accused in a case rated among the country’s worst incidents of sectarian terrorism — the 1998 massacre of 16 people in a Shia mosque in Muzaffargarh. While he doesn’t admit guilt, he doesn’t deny complicity either. And he has little sympathy for the victims. “Don’t term them innocents, they were enemies of Islam,” he contends. “And anybody who is an enemy of my religion deserves to be killed.”

Apart from the Muzaffargarh killings, Hafeezullah is also wanted by the authorities in dozens of other murder cases, and the government has announced a one million rupee award for information leading to his arrest. Hafeezullah cannot recall the exact number of shootouts he has been involved in, but with chilling precision he recounts the number of people he has murdered in cold blood: 21 to date. He is not troubled by any pangs of conscience. “Once you are in, you are in, and there is nothing to repent. Killing is in my blood now,” he says nonchalantly.

Equipped with pagers and mobile phones, armed with heavy machine guns and automatic pistols, and supported by a well-entrenched party network, a new generation of militants has come of age and is ruthlessly pursuing its real and perceived enemies within and outside Pakistan. Hundreds are wanted for myriad crimes — from murder to kidnapping to house robbery, to acts of terrorism.

Many militants, like Hafeezullah, start their journey in one of the country’s thousands of religious seminaries, and in the past 20 years have found enough ‘holy’ causes to expend their religious zeal on. They have joined ‘Islamic crusades’ in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Kashmir. Many have perished, but those who have survived the jihads have returned home to families and a country that doesn’t want to know them. Hence, a myriad other nebulous jihads have claimed these prodigal sons, who know no other way of life, virtually having been raised by the gun.

Hafeezullah’s journey began when, as a five-year-old in 1981, his impoverished parents sent him as a boarder to a madrassah for religious education in his home town, Muzaffargarh, in southern Punjab. As he grew older, he started attending religious lectures, learnt first-hand about jihad as he saw his senior colleagues leave for Afghanistan to fight the Soviet occupation, and finally joined a militant religious outfit — the extremist Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba, Pakistan (SSP) — himself.

Soon thereafter, Hafeezullah was asked to go across the border for combat training. Completely indoctrinated, he readily agreed, “That was the final nail in the coffin. When I returned to Pakistan after the training I was an altogether changed person,” he says. However, he claims he became far stronger psychologically as a result of the Afghan experience. “When I was leaving for that totally alien land, I was scared. But after undergoing so much training, by the time I completed my course I had became so strong within that I used to feel I could single-handedly defeat an entire battalion of enemies.”

During the three-month course in Afghanistan, Hafeezullah was taught how to assemble and dismantle a variety of weapons and how to maintain ammunition. He also learnt the mechanics of detonating bombs and ‘operations planning’ — a veritable step-by-step guide for conducting terrorist activities. His journey from idealistic student to hardened warrior was almost complete. “Subsequent to the training, I came home, but soon thereafter returned to Afghanistan and fought for two years. However, by then the focus of my organisation had changed — and so had the enemy. After the withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1990, the new nemesis was the enemies of Islam within the country,” he says. And according to his party high command, these were the Shia “infidels.” When he moved back to Pakistan, he and his militant brothers brought the war against the Shias back with them.

“I participated in a couple of operations involving the killing of Shias, and committed numerous robberies in various parts of the country,” says Hafeezullah casually. Robbery helped fund operations for his party. In 1994 the SSP split into two factions and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an even more extreme group, was born. Hafeezullah gravitated towards this group, which since its creation has been responsible for scores of murders, including that of 90 doctors. The Pakistan government banned the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi three years ago because of its involvement in organised crime.

Of operational strategy Hafeezullah reveals that whenever his group decides to conduct an operation, they split up to avoid detection by intelligence agencies. “When we go for a target, there is a frontline — comprising the hit men — and a second front that provides support. While the second line does reconnaissance, the actual assassins remain invisible,” he says.

After he began to feature on the government’s wanted list, Hafeezullah moved to Afghanistan once again, where he became a teacher, imparting gun-training to new recruits. But since the fall of the Taliban government two years ago, he has once again been on the run, never staying in one place long, moving back and forth across the border and from one city to the next. “I’m too deeply entrenched now. There is no way I could resume a normal life,” he says. What make this easier is the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about his family’s well-being: his parents receive generous cash handouts from his party. According to Hafeezullah, they get up to 10 thousand rupees a month, with extra cash for medical care. As for the future, Hafeezullah shrugs. “If you live by the gun, you can die by it too. If that is ordained, so be it.”