September Issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan

The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) was formed in 1985 in Jhang mainly by four anti-Shia clerics: Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Zia-ur-Rehman Faruqi, Maulana Easar-ul-Haq Qasmi and Maulana Azam Tariq. The group had grown out of the Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba, and was supported by the Zia regime to deal with what was considered in Islamabad and Riyadh as the Iranian threat. Moreover, as renowned academic Vali Nasr claims, establishing the SSP was part of Zia’s strategy to counter the Shia sect in Pakistan, as he considered it inimical to the Islamisation of the state and society. Allegedly, the ISI was therefore involved in sectarian killings and was supportive of such rabid Sunni outfits. The deliberate ouster of Shia-based militant outfits after 1989 is evidence of the enigmatic agency’s support for a particular ideology.

According to writer and columnist Khaled Ahmed, whose book on sectarian violence in Pakistan will be published soon, the initial financing for the SSP was secured from both internal and external sources. The internal source was mainly the local trader-merchant class in Jhang, especially the likes of local businessman Sheikh Yusuf, who was also a primary contractor for the army. The external source, on the other hand, comprised funding received from the Arab rulers of the Gulf, who used to visit Rahim Yar Khan on hunting trips. He claims that Maulana Jhangvi also enriched himself through this connection. Moreover, due to the links of its leaders with South Punjab, the outfit grew most exponentially in this particular region. It is hence not surprising to see a rise in sectarian violence in South Punjab, especially during the 1980s and the 1990s.

For those who forget that there was ever the influence of such militant outfits in the Punjab, it would be advisable to recall SSP terrorists like Riaz Basra, who had 300 murders to his credit before he was finally killed in 2002. The SSP was also responsible for an attack on former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1997/98. Sharif escaped a bomb explosion on a bridge en route to his farmhouse in Raiwind. The rivalry between the SSP and the Sharifs began after Shahbaz Sharif had some SSP terrorists eliminated. It has, however, been reported that the divide between the PML-N and the SSP and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) has been bridged recently through negotiations between the parties. Ostensibly, a deal was struck, in which the PML-N Punjab government promised to create job quotas for SSP members in exchange for the withdrawal of the LeJ candidate standing against Shahbaz Sharif in Bhakkar.

The SSP advocates Deobandi ideology and served as the basic ideological and militant curry paste out of which several other jihadi outfits grew, such as the LeJ, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Harkat-ul-Ansar and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

The SSP has been involved in both sectarian violence and war, initially against the former Soviet Union, and later the US. In fact, Ramzi Yusuf, who was involved in trying to blow up the World Trade Centre in 1993, was linked to this militant outfit. This group is also reputed to have been the first to dispatch its jihadis to join Al-Qaeda. In any case, it had gone to fight in Afghanistan in 1985. Domestically, it was involved in a spate of Shia killings, particularly those of Shia doctors in Karachi in 2001. However, the SSP also developed itself as a political entity, with some of its prominent members contesting elections. For instance, Maulana Azam Tariq, who was one of its founding members and became its head in 1997, contested the 1990, 1993 and 2002 elections. The political and militant wings of the SSP, like those of Hamas, are difficult to distinguish — the latter continues to be involved in jihad and now supports the Taliban.

The SSP seems to have been resurrected in South Punjab in the past couple of years and also has links with other outfits such as the JeM. Apparently, in a meeting in October 2008, Masood Azhar performed the dastaarbandi of SSP’s Maulana Zia-ul-Haq Qasmi, who was appointed the chairman of the supreme council of the SSP.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP


Ideologically different from the other organisations, the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT) is an organisation based in Central Punjab that has now spread its tentacles throughout South Punjab as well. Established during the early 1990s in the province of Kunar in Afghanistan, by Hafiz Saeed, the LeT has its headquarters in Muridke, near Lahore. However, this might only be the token centre of the operation, which has franchises in other sub-regions including South Punjab, particularly Punjabi ethnic settlements in Seraiki-speaking areas. For instance, in the Bahawalpur division, it has greater influence in villages with Punjabi settlements, e.g. Yazman, Shahiwala, Kalanchwala, Bahawalnagar and those parts of Cholistan where there are new settlements.

The LeT is extremely ingenuous and creative in attracting people, including women, to its fold. It probably has to work harder than other outfits in this area, as it is predominantly known as a Barelvi stronghold with only a secondary influence of Deobandism. Most of the Deobandi followers view the LeT with suspicion. However, outright conflicts between the Deobandi groups and the LeT have not yet occurred.

The LeT continues to draw people to its fold through intelligent propaganda mechanisms, which include large congregations at the ghaibana namaz-e-janaza and wall graffiti. In the past few years, the LeT has also earned a name for its welfare activities and for helping the Pakistan Army in Kashmir, especially in the wake of the 2006 earthquake. The organisation seems to now be active once more, as it has been allowed to operate in the refugee camps for the Swat IDPs, providing welfare and relief.

Photo: AFP

Photo: AFP


The mastermind behind the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) is Maulana Masood Azhar of Bahawalpur, who created the outfit after returning from India in 2000. Azhar was initially a member of the SSP. Later, he joined the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), and  was instrumental in forming the Hartak-ul-Ansar (HuA) by combining the HuM and another outfit called the Harkat-ul-Jihad (HuJ). The HuA was deeply involved in Afghanistan. According to one report, 39 out of 113 jihadis caught in Afghanistan in 1997 belonged to this group.

Azhar was caught in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1993, from where  he managed to return to Pakistan in 2000, courtesy of the Taliban and Pakistan’s intelligence agencies. Subsequently, he established the JeM, due to his differences with the Pashtoon militant leader Fazlul Rehman Khalil. Reportedly, they had separated due to ideological differences, including the fact that Khalil did not necessarily support the Kashmir jihad on grounds that the majority of Kashmiris were Barelvis.

In any case, breaking up old organisations and building newer ones is not an anomaly. It must be remembered that at the time of 9/11 there were about 72 militant outfits operating in the Punjab. Many of these splinter groups were created by breaking up parent organisations, if they were seen as not delivering or spinning out of control.

Masood Azhar and his party have a long-standing relationship with the intelligence agencies who have, on several occasions, come to his rescue, even helping to free him in 2002/2003. Sources claim that Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, who was close to both the Shujaat Hussain/Pervaiz Elahi government and the secret agencies, was instrumental in the release, which went through despite the opposition of the district police. The ISI was also allegedly instrumental in building up the JeM.

Azhar belonged to a humble family of Bahawalpur. Born to Ustad Allah Bakhsh, a primary school teacher with nine children who lived in a one-and-a-half marla house inside the old city, Masood Azhar and his family now own about four kanals of property in Bahawalpur, and another six-and-a-half acres outside the city. The value of their vehicles and military equipment runs into further millions of rupees that are unaccounted for. The group itself recently purchased land in Bahawalpur, which many believe is being used as a training camp. It seems a payment of Rs 7,600,000 was made from untraceable sources. The general perception about the organisation is that it has more than sufficient resources, obtained from multiple sources, including its welfare susidiary, the Al-Rehmat Trust.

A former jihadi and JeM accountant told me he was frustrated to see the money received for the martyrs and their families being used by Masood Azhar for the construction of a new room and a toilet for his residence after his marriage. Similarly, police officials responsible for keeping an eye on the organisation talk about the questionable behaviour of Azhar’s younger brother, Abdul Rauf Azhar.

It is possibly due to the overly centralised structure of the organisation that Masood Azhar’s brother-in-law parted ways with him and set up another group called Al-Furqan, which was allegedly involved in the assassination attempts against Musharraf. One of the proclaimed offenders in this case, Hafiz Ahsan, and his family are from Khankah Sharif, Bahawalpur.

A common link between the JeM, SSP and the LeJ is that they all follow the Deobandi ideology, which is also subscribed to by the Taliban. Furthermore, all three drew upon human resources that were trained during the initial Afghan war.

Although known for being an organisation dedicated to the Kashmir conflict, the JeM has also been engaged in Afghanistan lately. This is not such a leap, considering that Al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden directly played the role of a benefactor of the organisation when it was being established in 2000. Rumour has it that bin Laden compensated the HeM for JeM’s takeover of the former’s assets, which had caused a conflict between the two. Most negotiations were facilitated and negotiated at the Banuri town madrassa in Karachi. The state, however, was said to have provided most of the logistic support and ensured that law-enforcement agencies stayed away.

In 2000, the JeM got into a confrontation with the local administration in Bahawalpur over the imprisonment of some of its members for their involvement in the harassment of a local transporter. The outfit’s jihadis surrounded the local town hall and Masood Azhar threatened that rivers of blood would flow if the state of Pakistan shifted its attention away from Kashmir. Eventually, most of the group’s members were freed and the senior superintendent of police responsible for the action against the outfit was transferred out — subtle evidence of government support for the JeM. Similarly, the police remained silent about the murder of Al-Furqan activist Rab Nawaz, who died in a shootout between the JeM and Al-Furqan in Bahawalpur a few months ago.

In the recent past, the JeM has won acclaim among its ilk for its links with Umar Saeed Sheikh, who was involved in the murder of Daniel Pearl. However, some experts claim that Sheikh was actually working for the Hizb-ut-Tehreer, with only a minor partnership with the JeM. Yet, it is indisputable that he was seen in the company of Maulana Masood Azhar, the outfit’s domineering leader.


The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) grew out of the SSP and was established by two prominent SSP members in 1996, namely Malik Ishaq and Riaz Basra — one belonging to Khanewal and the other to Sargodha. The group itself was founded in Bhakkar, South Punjab. While Malik Ishaq is currently imprisoned in Sahiwal jail, Riaz Basra was killed in a police encounter in 2002. This only happened, however, after he managed to gain a lease on life from several governments. For instance, he was allowed to escape from police custody in 1994, after the Benazir Bhutto government and the LeJ’s parent organisation — the SSP — had entered into an election partnership.

The organisation was initially focused exclusively on the elimination of Shias. After 9/11, it diverted its attention towards fighting the war on terror against the US. In fact, the LeJ was allegedly one of the first outfits to send recruits to Al-Qaeda. According to renowned journalist Khaled Ahmed, this was due to the SSP and LeJ’s contacts with Arab rulers that visited South Punjab. Later, it had links with Khaled Sheikh Mohammad, who allegedly ordered the attack on the Karachi Corps Commander in 2004. Another prominent Al-Qaeda leader associated with this outfit is Abu Musab Al Zarqawi.

Currently, the group is seen as being instrumental in numerous terrorist attacks in Pakistan, especially in Lahore and Islamabad. The LeJ has developed stronger links with the Taliban as well, and enjoys a growing influence in a number of South Punjab towns and rural areas. This outfit plays a critical role in supplying manpower from within Punjab that is used in terrorist activities inside the province. The Islamabad Marriott bombing and the suicide attack on the police training facility in the capital have been linked with men from South Punjab, organised by the LeJ. More recently, four men from Jhang linked with the SSP and the LeJ were arrested in connection with the attack on the 15 headquarters in Islamabad.

The organisation has also propagated sectarian violence, such as the killing of the Iranian diplomat Sadiq Ganji, a group of Iranian technicians and a group of Iranian Air Force cadets visiting Pakistan. These killings during the 1990s blighted relations between Islamabad and Tehran. However, the state has yet to sentence Malik Ishaq, convicted in the aforementioned murders. A case of non-sectarian domestic violence is the attack against the Christian community in Bahawalpur city. The LeJ’s Shakeen Anwar, who belonged to Bahawalnagar, was instrumental in the attack on a church in October 2001. Although experts tend to argue that the SSP and the LeJ have a different policy from militant groups dedicated to Kashmir, evidence of linkage between the two is visible, especially in South Punjab.

This post is part of a bigger article: see Terror’s Training Ground.

The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter