December Issue 2003

By | News & Politics | Published 21 years ago

When police raided the office of the banned militant group fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir, Jaish-e-Mohammad, inside the huge mosque Masjid-e-Batah in North Nazimabad, Karachi, Mohammad Ilyas and his friends — activists of Jaish-e-Mohammad — were counting the money they had collected for donations in the name of jihad.

They quickly stuffed their shoulder bags with jihadi literature and money, and mingling with worshippers, moved to another mosque. Since then the tall and lanky Ilyas and his friends have been living in the verandah of the mosque where meals are free, and have set up a makeshift office for the continuation of their work.

For them every mosque and madrassa is an office. “For us, Allah’s home is an office for his soldiers,” says Ilyas, who fought in Afghanistan and the Kashmir valley against Indian security forces. “Allah and Islam call for jihad and Washington and Islamabad cannot stop us from following the cause of Islam.”

Like Ilyas, thousands of activists of outlawed extremist groups have maintained a low profile, changed their cellular phones, shifted to the mosques, madrassas and far-flung areas of the country following a fresh crackdown by Islamabad to curb activities by outfits which had resumed action under new identities.

Following his decision to side with the US in its ‘War on Terror,’ General Musharraf on January 12, 2002, banned militant groups accused of fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan along with the Taliban, declaring Islamabad’s change of policy, and a withdrawal of support to extremists.

But the banned groups started operating under new names, established offices, held public rallies calling for jihad, collected donations and distributed literature, triggering concerns amidst the continuing violence in Kashmir and escalation in attacks against US coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Throughout this time, prominent leaders like Masood Azhar, chief of Jaish-e-Mohammad, and Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman Khalil, head of the banned Harkatul Mujahideen, issued statements in the Punjab, delivered addresses urging participants to come forward for jihad. Two months ago, Maulana Khalil addressed a public meeting in Islamabad, while Masood Azhar visited his brother, Maulana Abdur Rauf in Karachi despite restrictions imposed by the authorities.

During her visit to Karachi on November 13, US Ambassador to Pakistan, Nancy Powell, said, “We are particularly concerned that these banned organisations are re-establishing themselves with new names.”

A few days later General Musharraf, in a high-level meeting, announced a ban on two sectarian militant groups, Islami Tehreek Pakistan and Millat-e-Islami Pakistan. Jamiat-ul Furqan and Khudamul Islam, new names for Jaish-e-Mohammad, were also banned. Jamat-ud Daawa, the new identity of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, was put on the watch list.

The Islamic extremist group Hizb-ul Tehreer, which has its branches in the United Kingdom, and Jamiat-ul Ansar, a reincarnation of former banned Kashmiri extremist group Harkat-ul Mujahideen, were also declared outlawed.

Jaish and Lashkar, two of the fiercest rebel groups fighting Indian rule in Kashmir, were blamed by India for the deadly attack on its parliament in December 2001.

Interior ministry and police officials say more than 100 offices of the banned groups have been sealed, dozens of workers rounded up, and efforts are being made to choke sources of terrorist funding. Bank accounts of the banned groups have been frozen, while the provincial governments have been directed to check the printing of publications by the banned groups.

The leaders of the banned militant outfits and their ideological mentors from the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) condemned Islamabad’s policy and vowed to continue jihad despite warnings from Islamabad. “For jihad, we do not need to seek a licence from Islamabad or Washington,” says Saif-ul Islam, spokesman of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad. “The mujahideen are hurt by such bans imposed by our own Muslim ruler (Musharraf); it can create temporary hurdles but cannot stop us from jihad.”

“The Americans are frightened because jihad is in full swing in Afghanistan and Iraq. S o now they want to cage jihadis all over the world with the help of their puppet governments,” says Saif-ul Islam.

Sources in the banned groups say they would go to court against Islamabad’s decision and will continue operating under further new identities. “The latest ban seems to be window-dressing for America,” says an analyst. “It has not created any disarray among jihadi ranks. They are calm and composed, unlike the past when they were baffled by a sudden change in Islamabad’s policy.”

MMA deputy leader Fazlur Rehman, who heads the pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, accused the government and its security agencies of fanning militancy between rival Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

“They themselves create sectarian tensions and some of the militant groups are the product of security agencies,” Maulana Fazlur Rehman told reporters in Islamabad. “Thus we consider the ban on these parties as an attempt to please the United States.”

Since the Afghan jihad in the 1980s, Pakistan has remained a hub for the activities of mujahideen of various Muslim countries, trained by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter -Services Intelligence (ISI) to fight against the Russians. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, the Americans walked away, but elements within Pakistan’s defence establishment continued to support Islamic holy warriors to instal an Islamic government in Afghanistan. Pro-extremist policies helped promote jihadi culture in Pakistan as hordes of militants allegedly crossed the Line of Control to “liberate” oppressed Kashmiris and help the Islamic militia of Taliban against the Northern Alliance forces.

Things changed only when Islamabad decided to throw its weight behind Washington’s campaign to oust the Taliban. But the change in Islamabad’s policies has angered Pakistani militant groups who vowed to extend support for the ousted Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda.

“Local brainwashed jihadis are the eyes and ears of Al-Qaeda in Pakistan,” say a senior police investigator. “They provide them shelter and logistic support.”

Activists of these banned groups were blamed for a string of attacks against foreign interests in Pakistan after the US ousted Taliban from Afghanistan and started hunting down Al-Qaeda militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Militants of the banned Jaish-e-Mohammad group were linked to the kidnapping and murder of US journalist, Daniel Pearl in early 2002 in Karachi and police investigators believe that they supported the alleged Al-Qaeda killers, including a top leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, who is believed to have slaughtered Pearl. Khalid Sheikh Mohammad is now in American custody.

The mastermind of that kidnapping, Sheikh Omer, was a close associate of Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, Masood Azhar, and both were released in a hostage exchange when an Indian airliner was hijacked on the eve of the new millennium.

Activists of a splinter group of the former banned Harkat-ul Mujahideen, known as Harkat-ul Mujahideen al-Alami, were convicted of a suicide attack in May last year outside the Sheraton Hotel in Karachi that killed 11 French engineers. Activists of the same group were also convicted of a suspected suicide attack outside the US Consulate building, killing 12 Pakistani nationals last June.

“If America wants to eliminate the terror network of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan it has to rein in the jihadi militant groups of Pakistan because they are a part of the nexus,” says a western diplomat.

But ending the terror network of Pakistani militant groups is not an easy task. A banned Shiite sectarian party is a member of the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) and the chief of the banned Sunni militant group, Azam Tariq, was even allowed to contest last year’s elections and became a legislator. Two months ago, suspected rival Shiite activists assassinated Maulana Azam Tariq.

Tens of thousands of trained militants are members of these groups, which have made inroads into society, and their publications including magazines and newspapers carrying jihadi literature are available at roadside book shops. Zarb-e-Momin, a weekly magazine, a daily newspaper Islam run by the banned Al Rasheed Welfare Trust accused of supporting jihadi outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Aqida (Faith) all carry headlines proclaiming the “successes” of Taliban and pro-Islamic forces in Afghanistan, and are sold in the thousands.

Some have clandestine overseas branches in European and Gulf countries and receive huge amount of donations through the hawala system, a parallel banking system that operates through the black market.

Police intelligence sources say some of the groups receive funds from individuals from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, apart from collecting public donations in the name of jihad. “Before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the Sunni militant groups used to receive funds from Iraq as well,” say a police intelligence official. “It is like a web and needs careful uprooting.”

President Musharraf needs to implement the recent ban, to back his words with action. His government is a key ally to the US in its ‘War against Terrorism,’ and is faced with allegations from President Karzai’s government that the Taliban are being supported by, and regrouping in, Pakistan. Tehran has shown concern over the killing of Shias in sectarian motivated killings and Washington is demanding immediate results.

Domestically, meanwhile, enraged religious extremists term Musharraf’s policies anti-Muslim and pledge to ignore them.

Officials say they will hunt down militants and indicate there would be curbs on more Islamic extremist groups in the future if they don’t stop preaching religious hatred and calling for jihad against “infidels.” “We are concentrating on sealing the establishments of the banned groups instead of arresting their leaders,” says a senior interior ministry official, Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema.

About 600 leaders and members of the banned groups have been asked to furnish surety bonds of good conduct, involving surety money of 100,000 rupees. Prominent leaders may submit bonds to evade the arrests — but not activists like Mohammad Ilyas who says he does not need to submit any bond to the government.

“I do not need any certificate from the government. Allah and Islam have allowed me to wage jihad so I do not need permission from Bush or Musharraf,” he says. “The direction of the wind might be blowing against us, but our ultimate destination will remain the same. I have fought in Afghanistan under the alias of Abu Osama. I participated in jihad against the Indian forces with another code name. Now I will use a new code name for myself, so will my party.”