February issue 2002

By | News & Politics | Published 17 years ago

A few months ago, the Karachi police received an invaluable tip from an informer, the registration number of a motorcycle believed to have been used by Akram Lahori, one of the most notorious sectarian terrorists at large in the country.  Tracing the number, they found the vehicle now in possession of a man named Talha, whom they tailed for a day.  Their patience paid off; they apprehended him in Malir while riding the motorcycle with one Shahid Mufti.  Two other men suspected of links to sectarian organisations were also arrested in the same operation.

Shahid Mufti was a pesh imam (prayer leader) in Malir district’s Noorani Masjid, situated in the Shia majority area of Mohammedi Dera.  Virtually every Friday,  Shahid Mufti had cases registered against him for his vitriolic, anti-Shia speeches.  During interrogation by the police, Mufti confessed to his direct involvement in 11 sectarian murders.  His victims included the director research, ministry of defence Zafar Zaidi, the pesh imam of Babul Ilm, Hasnain Naqvi, Dr. Raza Mehdi, one of the many Shia doctors slain in Karachi last year, as well as Dr. Ishrat Hussain, a Sunni who, by virtue of his name, was mistaken for a Shia.  Both Talha, who had also had a hand in sectarian murders, and Shahid Mufti, named Akram Lahori as the mastermind behind the killings who had assigned them their targets.

In the course of the investigation, it emerged that Lahori had also given Mufti a picture of the Pakistan State Oil managing director, Shaukat Mirza from a magazine cutting, telling him that the executive was a prominent member of the Shia community who must be eliminated.  Lahori  directed Mufti to watch the target’s residence in order to observe his routine. When, after some difficulty, he found the PSO executive’s residence, Mufti was discomfited by the presence of the security guards posted outside and, aware that his beard gave him a distinctive appearance, he passed on the job to Talha.  But Talha was also chary of carrying out the assassination as he happened to be working in a shop located within the Clifton Shopping Galleria opposite the PSO office building and was thus well known in the area.  It is believed that finally Lahori himself pulled the trigger on Shaukat Mirza on July 26, 2001. While it had long been suspected that sectarian activists had slain the PSO managing director, no arrests had been made and the trail had gone cold.  Thus, with the arrest of Talha and Shahid Mufti, the Karachi police hit pay dirt.  Police sources also contend without hesitation that Lahori was also the hitman in the murder of Ehteshamuddin Haider, Interior Minister Moinuddin Haider’s brother.

Akram Lahori, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s second in command after Riaz Basra, has a price of 40 lakh rupees on his head, including 20 lakhs each placed by the Punjab and Sindh governments.  With another 25 lakhs announced as reward money in connection with the murder of Ehteshamuddin Haider, and 25 lakhs more offered by PSO for the arrest of its chief executive’s killer, the head money on Akram Lahori may well add up to 90 lakh rupees.

A manual issued by the Crime Investigation Department (CID), Punjab, listing the “the most dangerous terrorists” describes Lahori, who is also Riaz Basra’s brother-in-law, as between 32 and 33 years of age, 6 foot one inch tall with a heavy build and fair complexion. Ironically for a man believed responsible for masterminding and committing scores of cold-blooded murders, he is also mentioned as being “extremely soft-spoken.”  According to the manual, Lahori was last seen in November 1999 in Lahore.

Following a steep increase in sectarian murders over the past few years, including some horrific massacres of worshippers in mosques, a ban had been announced on the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ), and the Shia sectarian organisation Sipah-e-Mohammed back in August 2001.  Nevertheless, until January 12, 2002, when President Musharraf also banned their respective parent organisations, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Tehrik-e-Jaffaria Pakistan (TJP), along with Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Tanzeem-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammedi, activists of both outfits continued to be provided safe havens in imposing madrassas that were veritable states within the state.  To add insult to injury, police mobiles used to be stationed outside the premises of all major extremist organisations’ offices for “protection” of those within, while innocent, unarmed citizens outside paid with their lives.  Says a senior police official: “Our officers were very careful and diplomatic in their investigations, so no real threat was created for jihadi and sectarian organisations.  In fact, the police automatically refrained when they saw the involvement of a major extremist organisation; individuals were a different story. If we took any action against SSP activists, they would start contacting different tiers in the government and drum up so much support that we would be compelled to retreat.”

During December 2000, when SSP activists resorted to violence and vandalism upon being prevented from taking out a procession in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, they were promptly arrested by the then SSP East, Captain Mir Zubair.  Shortly after, he received orders to free the detainees.  Upon his refusal to comply, a top police official, who was himself reportedly following directives from intelligence sources, personally intervened to ensure the men’s release.  SSP Zubair was transferred from his post within the next few weeks.

Over the years, the sponsoring of jihadi organisations in the country by intelligence agencies to further foreign policy objectives had given rise to a culture of extreme religious myopia, and with the easy accessibility of weapons, activists of these organisations began to literally get away with murder and other heinous crimes.  Says a federal law-enforcement official: “The intelligence agencies were not directly giving shelter to sectarian outfits; these were taking advantage of the support for the jihadi groups and using it to fight their own proxy wars.  There were two aspects to this situation; one was not approved by the public or the state, while the other was state-sponsored.”

According to another official, “There was a method to this madness.  When Vajpayee came to Lahore during Nawaz Sharif’s time, right-wing parties, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami protested strongly.  The establishment did not support the government’s policy at the time.  Now, although Musharraf is prepared to offer much more, there are no agitational politics apart from a few statements in the newspapers.  Why?”

The situation today has indeed changed dramatically.  Gone are the police mobiles positioned outside places such as the SSP’s headquarters at Nagan Chowrangi. “There was a time when even 20 mobiles could have gone there and done nothing against them because of the party’s links with jihadi organisations and some members of the establishment,” says a federal law-enforcement official.  “Yet on the day of the crackdown, two mobiles were enough to haul off to jail all those present at the Nagan Chowrangi office and seal the premises.  In fact, we encountered no resistance anywhere.”

According to sources, some SSP activists said that had only the Sunni organisations been targeted while the Shia ones continued their business unhindered, there would have been a strong reaction.  The deafening silence from the public over the action also helped render the operation fairly smooth.  As undoubtedly did the fact that the MQM is delighted with the crackdown against the religious parties that had seduced many of their supporters and hard-core militants into deserting their ranks and joining the jihadi organisations.  Sources disclose that MQM militants began to switch over to jihadi organisations when “they realised that having a beard in Pakistan gave them a licence to get away with virtually anything.”  As a result, the funds which they gleaned from various means, including extortion, and the sale of sacrificial hides collected during Eidul Azha — one of the major sources of revenue — had dried up considerably, instead going into the kittys of the religious organisations whose militants were too numerous for the MQM activists to counter.

In the ongoing operation, around 2000 activists belonging to the five banned organisations have so far been arrested and detained under the Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) across the country, including approximately 300 in Karachi.  It was only once before that such a crackdown was launched against sectarian organisations and that was ordered by Shahbaz Sharif in the mid-’90s in the Punjab, in retaliation for which the Sipah-e-Sahaba carried out an abortive assassination attempt on the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.  For the first time, head money was placed on various wanted sectarian terrorists by the Punjab police.  At the top of the list was Riaz Basra, chief of one faction of the LJ on whose arrest 50 lakh rupees has been offered as reward money.  A few months ago, Basra was reportedly arrested from Faisalabad on information obtained from another terrorist with 10 lakh rupees head money.  Although his arrest has not yet been formally announced, police sources say that he is, in all probability, in the custody of intelligence agencies.  After the action in the Punjab, the LJ, in respect of training if not operations, moved to Afghanistan, where the Taliban welcomed it with open arms.  According to the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Farooq Awan, Crime Investigation Department (CID), Sindh, “The Taliban had given Qari Hye, who leads a rival faction of the Lashkar, an office in their defence ministry.  The US war on Afghanistan has done incalculable damage to the organisation.  Now neither Afghanistan nor the madrassas in Pakistan can afford it a safe haven.”

The ban ensures that when and if these activists are released, their activities will be severely curtailed.  They will not be permitted to make speeches, take out rallies, display their parties’ flags, operate bank accounts belonging to their organisations or print propagandist literature in their name.  Most crucial for them perhaps, they will no longer be able to openly solicit any funds, which they have done over the years in contravention of the Charitable Funds (Regulation of Collections) Act, 1953, that expressly forbids collection for charitable funds without approval from the relevant government authority.  The penalty for violation of this Act is imprisonment for up to six months and/or a fine.  However, as the hundreds of donation boxes placed at various points in all 106 districts across the country were evidence, any legal niceties were given short shrift by the organisations themselves while the authorities also turned a blind eye.  Other lucrative sources of income for the extremist organisations were the practice of extortion (‘bhatta’) from commercial establishments, “qabza” (illegally occupied) properties besides of course, the sale of hides of animals sacrificed at the festival of Eidul Azha, which will be celebrated later this month.

The paltry amounts of money discovered in the seized donation boxes as well as in the frozen bank accounts indicate that the organisations had foreseen the ban and taken preemptive action.  “US pressure on the Pakistan government after September 11 had led to the freezing of over 50 accounts belonging to Afghan and pro-Afghan organisations such as Harkatul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed,” says a source.  “It was quite logical for other militant organisations to conclude that the government may do the same with them so most withdrew the contents of their accounts.”  Besides their aggressive fund collection drives within the country, militant organisations are aflush with contributions from Deobandi school acolytes from Saudi Arabia and have also been raising funds in the UK, US and the Gulf countries. “The bank accounts held by the Jaish-e-Mohammed alone in various banks amounted to 172,813,000 rupees some time before they were frozen,” reveals a source.  However, when action was taken late last year, only a fraction of this amount was discovered.  For instance, one of Jaish-e-Mohammed’s accounts, in the Muslim Commercial Bank Peshawar branch, contained only 900 rupees.  “These groups may have either transferred the money to unknown places or deposited it in the name of their low-key supporters who also had the cover of business concerns,” contends another source.

However, it is pertinent to note that much of the transactions also took place on an informal level.  When the SSP’s Karachi finance secretary was arrested after the murder of Sunni Tehreek chief Saleem Qadri, he revealed that his organisation received 32 lakh rupees a year from Karachi for the purposes of posting bail, assisting its imprisoned activists and the families of deceased activists.  This entire amount was reportedly kept as “amanat” (safe custody) with one Maulvi Saadur Rehman, head of a religious school in Karachi and the withdrawals were made through written messages. According to the finance secretary, some time before the SSP activist Arshad Polka was shot dead in the aftermath of Saleem Qadri’s murder, he was caught with an unlicenced pistol.  The 20,000 rupees bribe allegedly given to the police to let him off was also obtained from Maulvi Rehman.  The lawyers fighting the cases of arrested LJ activists are also paid from this source.  Even where the transfer of large amounts of money from foreign countries is concerned, the traditional method of hundi is preferred over formal bank transfers.

Another indication of the fact that the ban did not come as a surprise was the fact that at the concerned organisations’ offices, even at their headquarters which were usually bristling with arms, virtually no weapons were recovered.  Madrassas such as Jamia Farooqia used to be akin to forts, where the minarets served as lookouts for armed guards.  Speculates a police official: “They must have stashed their weapons away with people sympathetic to their cause. Although we have not yet recovered any substantial cache of arms, they are out there somewhere and we will find them one day.”  He adds that while unregistered weapons were used in crimes, many of the weapons that were openly displayed and were ostensibly for security purposes were registered.  “In fact, armed intelligence agency personnel accompanied the entourage of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar.”

Despite the low recovery of weapons or funds in this latest operation, the arrest of significantly larger numbers of activists that has been continuing since August 2001 when the LJ and the Sipah-e-Mohammed were banned has led to some light being shed on some hitherto unsolved murders.  When Dilawar Hussain (head money five lakh rupees) was taken into custody, he told the police that one Abu Bakr alias Chacha, a British national of Pakistani origin, had arrived in Pakistan from London en route to the LJ’s training camp at Sarobi, Afghanistan where he had donated about eight lakh rupees to Qari Hye’s faction. Before he left for London last year, Abu Bakr expressed his wish to participate in “physical jihad”.  Asif Ramzi, chief of Qari Hye’s faction in Karachi, selected the target and provided him with the weapon and the car for the operation.

Accompanied by two others, including Dilawar, Abu Bakr in a drive, by shooting outside Jamia Imamia in Gulbahar, Karachi, killed a cook employed at the madrassa and one of the students.  This was reportedly the first crime by LJ terrorists in which a silencer was used.  While Ramzi remains a hunted man, the driver of the car, Rashid Andha, who had a price of five lakh rupees on his head, has since been apprehended through an informant’s tip.  Abu Bakr returned to London after the incident, but there is no confirmation whether he remained there or returned to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against the US forces.

Although the crackdown has so far been a fairly comprehensive one, and may well bring about a decrease in sectarian killings, there are splinter groups that operate according to their own agenda and are thus difficult to preempt.  For instance, a group of four Shia men, Qasim Zaidi, Hasan, Mushtaq and Mehdi Hasan, were arrested in connection with a firing incident at Rehmania madrassa in which four people were killed.  When they were interrogated, it was found that they were not, as might have been expected, members of Sipah-e-Mohammed, the TJP’s militant wing.  Although they confessed to the murders, they maintained that they had decided to commit them because they were enraged by the frequent sectarian killings of fellow Shias.  According to a senior police official, “The Sipah-e-Mohammed is not such a cohesive force as it was until about 1995.  It was very active then and worked under various different names such as Pasban-e-Islam, Sipah-e-Imam-e-Zamana.  Then many of their leaders were arrested in 1996 in Karachi.  Their main leader, Zulqarnain Haider, is still at large.”

For many terrorists, the driving force is their twisted concept of jihad rather than any material gain from their actions. Shahid Mufti, for instance, was paid only 500 rupees a month plus some more for expenses if he required.  When he was arrested, along with Talha, he expressed no remorse for taking so many lives; on the contrary, he spoke of his “accomplishments” with pride.  Such sentiments are openly expressed in publications such as LJ’s Intiqam-e-Haq, in which the organisation flaunts its role in sectarian murders.

Meanwhile, the Sunni Tehreek, which is a Barelvi organisation unlike the SSP, LJ and the other jihadi organisations that belong to the Deobandi sect, has been placed under observation.  In the words of a police official, “That’s probably the most uncomfortable situation to be in. The SSP and TJP were earlier under observation and now they’re banned; the Sunni Tehreek knows they can’t take this lightly.”  He says that although the party was initially a terrorist wing of the MQM, it is now mainly engaged in taking over mosques of other sects and building mosques on encroached land. “Nevertheless, you can be sure that their dossiers are being compiled and their phones tapped.”

While the government appears to be serious in its aim of putting an end to the politics of extremism, merely arresting the militant cadres of the offending organisations will not prove to be enough.  They cannot be kept behind bars for an indefinite period under the MPO.  A sea change needs to be brought about at the grass roots level so that no more of the country’s youth is drawn into their ranks.  The forthcoming festival of Eidul Azha will be the first real test for the military government, for this is the occasion when militant outfits fill their coffers with the sale of sacrificial hides.  If the interior ministry’s estimate that approximately 5000 militants belong to the five banned organisations is correct, one can safely assume there will still be many more takers for the hides.