January issue 2009

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa leadership is in the eye of the storm once again. And this time round, the radical Wahhabi group appears to be battling for its survival. Never before has it appeared to be so isolated and under so much pressure as it does now, in the aftermath of the Mumbai carnage for which Dawa’s top leaders are being blamed by India. Islamabad has outlawed the group and detained its key leaders, including Hafiz Mohammed Saeed and Zaki-ur-Rahman Lakhvi, following the sanctions imposed on the group by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in December 2008. But India and the western nations, including the United States, are far from satisfied and are demanding more stringent action.

Although Dawa has been quick to deny its involvement in the Mumbai incident, nobody seems to be taking its denials seriously. Even the Pakistani establishment, which at one time maintained links with the group, has been keeping a safe distance from its leaders in recent weeks, while police rounded up dozens of Dawa’s main operators, shuttered their offices and forced several others to go into hiding.

One top US publication, The Wall Street Journal, quoting anonymous Pakistani security officials, has claimed that one of the arrested members of the group — Zarrar Shah — had confessed to being involved in the Mumbai affair. The newspaper claimed that the 10 militants involved in the Mumbai attacks were trained in Azad Kashmir and Karachi.

However, there has been no official confirmation of the report from the government, which has reiterated that no Pakistani citizen will be handed over to the Indians. “It is too premature to say anything about the investigations,” said a foreign office official.

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa also rejected the report, calling it a smear campaign against the group. “This time, the pressure on us is much more,” a Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader requesting anonymity told Newsline in Islamabad. “We feel more insecure today than we did in 2002 following the crackdown by Musharraf’s government. The difference between Musharraf’s crackdown and the present one is that the communication lines with the establishment were open then, but this time round they are closed. Now our biggest concern is how to control our workers following the arrest of our front-line leaders.”zThe signs of the changing times are evident from the manner in which the PPP-led government handled the issue of sanctions on Jamaat-ud-Dawa in the UNSC, where such attempts had been successfully thwarted twice in the past with China’s assistance. Beijing blocked the last such attempt in April 2006, but this time, the government ostensibly made no attempt to lobby its allies, including China, to stop the UNSC from taking action against Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The PPP’s passive approach on this issue, perhaps, stems from its desperation to address international concerns on terrorism. This, despite the fact that New Delhi has yet to provide any conclusive evidence against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. In 2002, the former military-led government also yielded to international pressure and launched a crackdown on Hafiz Saeed and his men in the aftermath of the December 13, 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Subsequently, the armies of the two South Asian nuclear rivals remained eyeball to eyeball for weeks in one of their biggest military stand-offs. In those days, Hafiz Saeed was leading the militant Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which has a history of battling Indians in Indian-administered Kashmir since the early 1990s. Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi was the commander of LeT and operated from a camp on the outskirts of Azad Kashmir’s capital Muzaffarabad. Sensing both the international mood and domestic pressure, Hafiz Saeed announced that he was winding up LeT operations in Pakistan on December 24, 2001 — just a day before the United States placed it on the terrorist list. However, LeT remained operational as a key guerrilla group in Indian-administered Kashmir under the leadership of Qari Abdul Wahid Kashmiri, who still heads the organisation.

Former president Musharraf formally banned Lashkar and four other militant groups on January 12, 2002, in an attempt to normalise relations with India, though his government tacitly allowed some of these groups to operate under a new name and a different mandate.

“We formally severed ties with Lashkar-e-Tayyaba in 2002. The Lashkar-e-Tayyaba that is active in occupied Kashmir is working as a Kashmiri organisation,” said a group insider, challenging Indian allegations that Jamaat-ud-Dawa is, in reality, a front for the militant group.

Hafiz Saeed reorganised his men under the banner of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, focusing on welfare and relief activities.

“Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s mandate is only charity and humanitarian work; it is meant to ensure that our workers do not remain idle. They need to be kept engaged so that their commitment to Islam and jihad is not misused,” he said.

Pakistani security officials claim that LeT is the only jihadi group which has not been involved in terror activities within the country. “While disgruntled elements from other militant groups such as Fazlur Rehman Khalil’s Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and Maulana Masood Azhar’s Jaish-e-Mohammed were found to be involved in terrorism in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba channelised its manpower towards charity and relief work,” said an official.

LeT insiders maintain that strict organisational control, discipline and ideological training ensured that its members accepted the change from militancy to humanitarian work.

“In fact, Hafiz Saeed provoked the Taliban when he openly condemned suicide bombings and said they went against the teachings of Islam,” remarked a Jamaat-ud-Dawa official. “We have not committed any crime under any Pakistani or international law. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is not involved in militancy inside or outside Pakistan,” he insisted.

The Jamaat-ud-Dawa is considering challenging the ban placed against it both in the UN and in Pakistan. It realises that it needs the government’s support to get delisted from the terror list, “but we hardly have any expectations of this government, which is trying to appease foreign powers,” says one its representatives.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s arguments do not seem to cut any ice with Indian and western governments, which continue to remain skeptical about its welfare activities.

Political analysts maintain that the Indians want to use the Mumbai carnage as a pretext not only to isolate Pakistan but also to place curbs on those groups that have a history of providing assistance to those Kashmiris who are resisting Indian rule in the valley. New Delhi is convinced that the Jamaat-ud-Dawa is merely a front for its militant wing, the LeT, which remains active in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa — the new name of the outlawed LeT in Pakistan — has been derived from Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad, an organisation which Hafiz Saeed and his associates established in 1986 to preach Islam in line with the Wahhabi school of thought — popularly known as the Ahle-Hadith or Salafi in this region. In the early 1990s, LeT emerged as the militant wing of Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad to wage jihad. Like other Islamic militant groups, the seeds of the LeT were also sown during the days of jihad in Afghanistan against the former Soviet Union. This holy war had the blessings of the US, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and several western countries.

Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad itself made a humble start in 1984 with a group of madrassa students, who managed to convince a few university professors to join them in organising Quran study circles. Among them was Hafiz Saeed, who was a professor in the Islamic Learning department at the Engineering University of Lahore. Hafiz Saeed had studied in Saudi Arabia on a government scholarship and met Afghan resistance leaders, including Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, there.

“Hafiz sahib was a very simple person. He did not even mind sitting on a bicycle with us and going to the Dara-e-Quran classes,” says one of Saeed’s old colleagues.

Hafiz Saeed, whose family hails from Shimla, was born in 1946. He came into contact with radical Islamists in 1984 through Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian professor at the Islamic University in Islamabad. It was Azzam who inspired Hafiz Saeed to lead the first batch of Ahle Hadith followers into the Afghan jihad during those days. Hafiz Saeed took a 25-member group of volunteers, who were trained in an Arab-run camp called Saada in Kurram Agency.

Azzam, who was assassinated in Peshawar on November 24, 1989, was once a mentor of Osama bin Laden but later the two had a falling out.

The first batch of Ahle Hadith volunteers was followed by many other such groups, which all got a taste of war in Afghanistan against the Soviet troops. However, these operations were carried out under the banner of other organisations. In 1986, a few Ahle Hadith clerics formed the Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad, and Hafiz Saeed was handed the responsibility of leading that organisation.

According to insiders, most members of the Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad believed in jihad and were inspired by their peers who operated in Afghanistan. Their aim was to establish an organisation that focused on both preaching and jihad. Around 1988, the organisation managed to establish its own militant training centre — Maskar-e-Tayyaba — in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. Saudi and Pakistani Muslims were its main source of funding. “However, we knew from the start that the real strength of an organisation comes from domestic sources. Consequently, Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad set up an organised system of raising funds at the grassroots level,” said an insider, claiming that the collection, which is done on a zonal level, runs into billions of rupees every year.

The group’s Afghan operations were mainly focused in the Jalalabad, Nooristan and Sarobi areas under the leadership of an Afghan Ahle Hadith commander, Sheikh Jameelur Rahman, who was assassinated by two Arab militants in Bajaur.
Among the Pakistani groups, Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad joined the Afghan resistance much later than many groups belonging to the Deobandi school of thought. Insiders say around 60 of its militants were killed during the Afghan operations, but Afghanistan proved to be a real training ground for the group. Around 2,500 of its members got a practical taste of guerrilla warfare.

The group’s presence in Afghanistan ended by 1993 — at the peak of the infighting between various Afghan factions.
However, before the winding up of the Afghan operations, the group had already commenced its activities in Indian-administered Kashmir in 1989, with the help of a local Kashmiri group Al-Baraq. In the initial two years, the group operated under the cover of Al-Baraq, but in 1991 Hafiz Saeed and his associates decided to form their own militant group, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba.

The Lashkar guerrillas soon earned a reputation as committed and fierce fighters who, for the first time introduced “fidayeen” attacks on Indian troops in Kashmir. “The fidayeen attacks are not suicide attacks. We go after difficult military targets, and try to get out after inflicting maximum damage on the enemy,” one Lashkar militant told this scribe in a 1999 interview. The group maintains that since 1989 nearly 3,000 of its militants have sacrificed their lives for the Kashmiri freedom struggle. Many of those killed belong to the rural areas of Pakistan, especially Punjab and the North West Frontier Province.

A 372-page book, Akhari Tehrir (The Last Writing), published by the group in 1997, lists more than 200 Pakistanis who were killed fighting Indians in Kashmir. The book comprises their last letters and wills to their families.

In LeT’s heyday, hundreds of youngsters made a beeline for its short military courses in Azad Kashmir. But in the initial phase of the training, more stress was placed on Islamic and ideological studies rather than combat training. Only the best among the lot were selected for advanced courses and only a handful among these were sent out on actual combat missions across the border.

Before Musharraf imposed a ban on LeT, it operated four militant training camps in Azad Kashmir where thousands of Pakistani youngsters — mostly hailing from rural areas and with poor backgrounds — had been given religious indoctrination and military training. All these camps were eventually shut down. However, the Markaz Dawaat-ul-Irshad and Jamaat-ud-Dawa continued to operate openly, claiming that militancy was no longer on their agenda.

The Jamaat presently owns a sprawling 65-acre centre in Muridke — around 40 kilometres from Lahore — where it runs several educational centres including an Islamic university, separate boys’ and girls’ colleges, a madrassa and hostels for students and teachers. Around 2,500 students study in Muridke, where the group also operates a hospital and agricultural farms. Pakistani security officials maintain that the Muridke centre remains one of the top potential targets of the Indians. But Jamaat-ud-Dawa insists that Murdike houses only its educational and welfare centres.

But given the present international mood, the future of the Jamaat-ud-Dawaa appears bleak in Pakistan.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.