October Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago

On October 6, in the heavily guarded city of Islamabad, US Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, was meeting Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf and top civilian and military officials to discuss the security situation in the wake of the ongoing war against terrorism.

Only a few kilometres away from the President’s House and the Diplomatic Enclave, MNA and head of the banned Sunni extremist group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Azam Tariq, was driving into Islamabad from Jhang, along with three bodyguards.

The car stopped at the Toll Gate, the driver paid the tax, and was just beginning to accelerate when the vehicle was suddenly overtaken by a four-wheel drive, probably a white Pajero. Spinning around in a scene reminiscent of a Hollywood movie, the vehicle blocked the way.

In a commando style operation, three men armed with automatic weapons swiftly jumped out of the four-wheeler and riddled the car with around 200 bullets within two to three minutes, firing from three directions.

Their job done, the assailants fled the scene, leaving the maulana and his companions in a pool of blood, their bodies battered beyond recognition. “Maulana Azam Tariq received 40 bullets. His face and parts of the upper torso were literally torn into pieces,” says a senior police official.

News of the maulana’s killing spread like wildfire across Pakistan, as he was a key figure in the country’s bloody history of sectarianism. Around 1500 people have been killed and more than 3,000 injured since 1989, in the ongoing conflict between the majority Sunni and minority Shia extremist groups.

After Tariq’s assassination, from Islamabad to the headquarters of the SSP, the town of Jhang, and the city of saints, Multan, down to Karachi, fears have spread of a possible backlash. There is the apprehension that Sunni militants could take revenge by attacking Shias.

In the immediate aftermath of the killing, thousands of police and paramilitary troops were deployed across the country and guards provided to Shia leaders, as commandos stood on the alert on the roads and besides mosques and imambargahs.

These measures notwithstanding, hundreds of emotionally charged Sunni militants went on the rampage, torching buildings, hurling rocks at passing vehicles in Rawalpindi and Jhang, while hooded armed men forcibly shut down shops and markets in parts of Karachi. A man was reportedly killed when the angry protesters torched a cinema house in Rawalpindi. “Shia kafir, shia kafir,” they chanted, their slogans echoing the hatred incited by sectarianism across the country.

Investigators are still looking for clues, but the leaders and activists of Maulana Azam Tariq’s Sunni militant party accuse their rival Shia extremist group, the Tehrik-e-Jaffria Pakistan (TJP), of the killing.

“Shias have attacked Maulana Azam Tariq in the past; who else could it be?” says the party’s central leader, Qari Shafiq-ur Rehman. “Our party’s stance of supporting the Taliban could have made our enemies angry. We think Allama Sajid Naqvi, the head of the banned Tehrik-e-Jaffria Pakistan, and his followers could be behind the killing.”

The 42-year-old Tariq had escaped two prior assassination attempts in the mid-1990s by suspected rival Shia militants. He is the third SSP leader to be murdered after its founder, Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, was killed on January 23, 1990 and succeeding party head, Zia-ur Rehman Farooqui, blown into pieces in a bomb attack in Lahore in 1997, along with other party leaders.

The story of sectarianism in Pakistan is as bloody as the fate of the leaders of the SSP. In 1985, the then military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, extended his support to the formation of a Sunni militant group in the small town of Jhang, associated with the romantic folk tale of Heer Ranjha. Twenty-nine leaders formed the group called the Anjuman Sipah-e- Sahaba (ASS), and Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, a former leader of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) became its founding chief. (The party subsequently changed its name to the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan).

Zia-ul-Haq wanted to counter the increasing strength of Shia groups motivated by Imam Khomeini’s Islamic revolution, who were agitating against his Islamist regime for its controversial Islamic laws, aimed at marginalising minority groups like the Shias.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba or the Army of Prophet Mohammad’s companions, was a radical party from the start. It demanded that Pakistan be officially declared a Sunni Muslim state, as Iran is a Shia state.

Within no time, the group expanded its power base. It established around 500 offices across Pakistan, scores of madrassas, and its cadres grew to 100,000 hardcore militants. The party drew its support mainly from Sargodha, Jhang, Bahawalpur, Multan and Muzaffargarh in the central and southern Punjab and Karachi in Sindh.

The party also reportedly managed to set up 17 clandestine branches abroad, located in the UAE, England and Canada. Sources disclose these have remained a major source of party funding, apart from donations from Saudi Arabia.

As the party grew, so too did its activities. Groups of hit men were formed called “killers of infidels,” who went about murdering scores of doctors, officials, diplomats and ordinary folk who had just their Shia identities in common.

In 1990, Iranian consul general, Sadeq Ganji, was killed, and in January 1997 the Iranian Cultural Centre in Lahore was attacked and set on fire. Seven people, including an Iranian diplomat, were killed and the incident sparked off a serious diplomatic row between Islamabad and Tehran. The targeting of Iranians was apparently meant to convey the message to Shia militants that not even their “patrons” were safe.

In the mid ’90s, when Punjab and Karachi were bleeding after the worst wave of sectarian clashes and tit-for-tat targeted killings, the authorities, for the first time, recognised that the sectarian groups were getting out of hand and attempted to crack down on them.

By then, the SSP had made inroads into the hardline Islamic militia of the Taliban, which introduced a strict Sunni Islamic system in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban were and still are natural allies of Pakistan’s Sunni militants as they are against Iran and brutally targeted the Shia Hazaras in Afghanistan. For them, it was a natural ideological bonding on the basis of anti-Shia rivalry,” says a security official, familiar with the working and hierarchy of sectarian groups. “Friendship with the Taliban and entering Afghanistan has opened the doors for Sipah-e-Sahaba militants to international terrorist outfits,” he maintains.

In the wake of the government crackdown in the mid-’90s, the SSP split into two. The dangerous and deadly Lashkar-e-Jhangvi made its appearance with the stated agenda of targeting Shias. It was led by Riaz Basra, who faulted the main party for having strayed from its core ideology. At the same time, hordes of Sunni militants from both groups went to Afghanistan for training in a camp in Sirobi, near Kabul, run by the Taliban minister, Maulvi Hameedullah, where these young men were trained in carrying out suicide missions and making explosives.

Shia militancy grew in response to the rise of Sunni extremism. In the 1980s, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jaffria (TNFJ) was formed with an aim to implement a Shia Islamic system similar to that of the Khomeini-led Islamic regime in Iran. The party later changed its name to the Tehrik-e-Jaffria Pakistan (TJP).

The militancy in Shia ranks took a new turn in 1993, when Mureed Abbas Yazdani created the Sipah-e-Mohammad Pakistan (SMP), convinced that the TJP would not allow its young cadres to physically attack the Sunni militants of the SSP. The SMP attracted thousands of enraged TJP party workers and members of the Imamia Students Organisation. According to an intelligence estimate, the strength of the group grew to 30,000, with the village of Thokar Niaz Beg on the outskirts of Lahore as its headquarters.

Differences eventually created another faction which led to internecine clashes, and now SMP cadres operate on their own. Many are disgruntled and left the party after a scandal erupted, concerning Tehrik chief, Allama Sajid Naqvi’s marriage to a teenager.

Difficult times for the sectarian groups started in earnest when Islamabad sided with the US in its war on terror and on January 12, 2002, General Pervez Musharraf announced a new policy that banned both Shia and Sunni extremist groups. Hundreds of sectarian militants were subsequently rounded up.

In ensuing operations against them, at least 26 notorious Sunni militants were either arrested or killed. The founder of the Lashkar, Riaz Basra, the country’s most wanted sectarian terrorist, was killed along with three of his accomplices during an alleged shootout with law enforcers on May 14, 2002, in Mailsi in the Punjab.

Asif Ramzi, another Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militant leader and a proclaimed offender wanted in 87 cases, was killed on December 19, 2002, in an explosion at a chemical warehouse in Karachi. He was known as a key link between local Muslim militants and the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and was also a member of a local militant team which is believed to have had links with the kidnappers of the US journalist, Daniel Pearl, who was later brutally murdered by suspected Al Qaeda operatives.

Akram Lahori is accused of numerous cases of sectarian killings and is now in prison. On May 29, 2003, his successor, Qari Abdul Hayee, was arrested during a raid in Muzaffargarh.

Despite the arrest of Sunni militants, police officials estimate that hundreds of trained sectarian militants still operate in the country. Now Sunni militants have joined hands with Kashmiri extremist groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkatul Mujahideen and their splinter groups are known to operate with Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives in Pakistan, after the ouster of the Taliban from Afghanistan

“They can handle weapons, rockets, bombs. But the fearsome aspect is that they are not afraid of death. For them, killing Shias is a gateway to paradise,” says a police investigator in Karachi, who has himself been threatened and had attempts made on his life.

“The extremists were on the run, but are now seemingly regrouping and employing the most deadly tactics,” he says, in reference to the recent upsurge in sectarian attacks.

In July this year, at least 50 Shia worshippers were killed in an apparent suicide attack on an imambargah in Quetta by suspected Sunni militants. Another 13 people, including six employees of SUPARCO recently died in Karachi when the bus they were travelling in was attacked. Despite the Musharraf government’s declared ban on sectarian groups, the militant parties continue to operate with changed names. Azam Tariq renamed the Sipah-e-Sahaba the Millat-e-Islamia, while the Shia party, the Tehrik-e-Jaffria, gave itself the name of Tehrik-e-Islamia.

The recent spate of killings, and the spectacuar attack on Azam Tariq could lead to the further disintegration and splintering of society in the name of faith.

“His murder will further brutalise society and incite his followers to adopt a radical path,” says analyst, Tauseef Ahmed. “There are always fears that Azam Tariq’s followers could target Shias and provoke sectarian clashes.”

Musharraf has assured the world of his support for the war against terror, and for the liberal and progressive forces in the country. But as an official stand, this has required backtracking on long-standing policies, and may have come too late in the day. Years of tolerating, even encouraging the destructive role played by fundamentalist forces and sectarian groups, has resulted in their tentacles spreading far and wide. The military has also found these forces useful in the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, and in that sense must accept its share of responsibility for their proliferation.

The crackdown on the Al-Qaeda and Taliban will not be effective until the government targets their ideological support, which has entrenched itself in the country’s social fabric. This support comes from religious fundamentalist groups such as constituents of the MMA coalition. The Deobandi and Wahabi factions and jihadi outfits are also a source of violent discord in addition to sectarian groups such as the Tehrik Jaffria and the Sipah-e-Sahaba. “Musharraf is busy concentrating on the US-led war on terror without realising it is a war that needs to be simultaneously fought on different fronts,” says an analyst.