February issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 22 years ago

It was, perhaps, the toughest moment for President Musharraf when he went on national television last month to announce his decision to outlaw five Islamic militant groups.  The move, in the midst of Indian threats of war and increasing pressure from the United States to crack down on terrorism, was meant to set a new direction for Pakistan.  For more than two decades, the militant groups had thrived under the patronage of the military establishment.  The time had come to break away from the past, and it took a military man to do so.

While it may be true that General Musharraf was moving in that direction from the beginning, the changed international environment in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks undoubtedly precipitated the action.  Can General Musharraf succeed in his fight against extremism and reverse the political course set by erstwhile military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq?  It may not be easy for General Musharraf to curb well-trained and armed extremists, particularly given their continuing links with a section of the military establishment.

The kidnapping of an American journalist, Daniel Pearl, allegedly by the activists of the outlawed militant organisations, and the resurgence of sectarian killings in Karachi signals a backlash from religious fanatics against the crackdown.  Pearl was taken hostage just 10 days after President Musharraf’s January 12 speech in what appears to be a retaliatory action by defiant Islamic militants.  This is the first political kidnapping of a foreigner in Pakistan’s history involving an extremist group.  Not only is it in retaliation to the military government’s action against Islamic activists, but it is also meant to send a signal to the United States that its war against Al Qaeda is far from over and that its treatment of Al Qaeda prisoners can have serious repercussions for US citizens.

Most observers agree that the kidnapping was planned to embarrass General Musharraf, particularly in light of the fact that it has come at a crucial time when he is due to meet with President Bush at the White House, a reward for his response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

Investigations into the kidnapping so far have revealed that the kidnapping of Pearl, the South Asia bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, was immaculately planned and masterminded by British Muslim, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a senior leader of Jaish-e-Mohammed, one of the groups outlawed by the military government.  Sheikh, the prime suspect, is a 28-year-old militant who was educated at the London School of Economics, then imprisoned in India for five years after being charged with a case of kidnapping there.  In 1999, along with two other militants, including Maulana Masood Azhar, he was set free in Afghanistan in an exchange won by hijackers who had taken control of an Indian Airlines jet with 155 passengers.

Following his release, Sheikh apparently never went back to England and instead joined the Jaish-e-Mohammed organisation formed by his mentor Maulana Masood Azhar.  A breakaway group of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, the Jaish emerged as a major guerrilla group fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan.  The group was responsible for the first suicide bombing in Kashmir when “Bilal”, a British Muslim, rammed a truck loaded with ammunition into an Indian army post last year.  Interestingly, Sheikh is on the list of 20 men whose extradition has been demanded by India.  Jaish has close links with the Taliban and hundreds of its activists participated in the fratricidal war in Afghanistan.  There is strong evidence of Jaish’s close affinity with another banned sectarian group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba.  According to security officials, Jaish activists have also been directly involved in sectarian killings.

It is not surprising that the kidnapping of the US journalist has been accompanied by a resurgence in sectarian killings in Karachi.  At least five people have been killed over the last few weeks, showing a clear defiance by the banned sectarian group.  Understandably, Jaish was one of the first groups to be placed on the terrorist list by the United States soon after September 11.  Although General Musharraf’s decision to ban the group and arrest its firebrand leader Maulana Azhar, along with thousands of other activists, is a move in the right direction, there remain questions about his government’s capacity to rein in the Frankensteins created by the establishment itself.  Some reports suggest that rogue elements within the intelligence agencies continue to maintain ties with the Muslim militant groups.  The arrest of a special branch cop who also happens to be an activist of the Jaish in Pearl’s kidnapping case indicates the penetration of jihadi groups in state institutions.  Some reports suggest they have sympathisers in the military and the intelligence agencies.  The two-decade long ties between the military and the jihadi groups are not likely to break easily despite General Musharraf’s commitment.  Many observers believe the action against militant and sectarian groups has come too late in the day, exacerbating the difficulties for General Musharraf.

India’s bellicosity and its efforts to crush the self-determination struggle in Kashmir is another constraining factor in dealing with the problem of militancy.  The military government has already been accused of buckling under Indian and American pressure and Delhi’s increasingly hostile attitude has placed further impediments in the government’s way.  It is, however, in Pakistan’s own national interest to eliminate extremism from society.

Pakistani military officials maintain that in order to avoid sharpening the polarisation between the moderates and the conservatives, they do not want to resort to heavy-handed measures.  “We don’t want an Algeria-like situation in Pakistan with Islamic militants up in arms against the government,” said a senior official.  However, the Algerian analogy is not applicable to the situation in today’s Pakistan.  Pakistani “jihadi” forces owe their rise largely to the active patronage of the establishment and do not have any strong political base of their own.  They thrive simply on violence and a lack of the writ of the state.  It can justifiably be argued that moderate forces in the country are politically too strong to allow the conservative theocratic forces to take over.

Another challenge for the Musharraf government is to regulate the madrassas that have been the hub of militancy and sectarianism.  A majority of the students in these madrassas belong to the poorest sections of society and are sent to seminaries because their parents cannot afford to educate them in private or public schools.   Socially alienated, they tend to develop a fierce hatred towards anything they consider modern or western.  Their education having hardly equipped them to qualify for a decent job, the hundreds of thousands of graduates from madrassas across Pakistan have few choices in life.  Over the last two decades, however, many of them discovered a strong ideological purpose to their existence — jihad.

State patronage in the form of an “unholy alliance” between the mullahs and the military which began in the 1980s saw an unprecedented rise of radical Islam.  Huge funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some Gulf countries brought about a massive increase in the number of madrassas in Pakistan, particularly in the North-West Frontier and western Balochistan provinces.  Most of them became centres for the recruitment of “holy warriors” to fight in Afghanistan and against Indian forces in Kashmir.  More than a dozen Islamic militant groups which emerged during this period gave the jihadis a new sense of identity.   The concept of jihad was taught as a special subject to prepare the students to fight against “infidels” and for the cause of Islam.  The “jihad” in Afghanistan drew thousands of volunteers from the madrassas in Pakistan.  Government officials confirm that many madrassas have provided arms training and students would take time off from their studies to go and participate in “jihad” in Afghanistan and other places.

The end of the Taliban rule in Afghanistan has been an unprecedented setback to the Islamic conservative forces, but it needs firm resolve on the part of the Musharraf government to fight a decisive battle against extremism which threatens to tear apart the fabric of Pakistani society.  This is one battle it cannot afford to lose.

The writer is a senior journalist and author. He has been associated to the Newsline as senior editor at.