March Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 5 years ago

Wall chalkings expressing solidarity with the leader of the Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, have appeared in parts of Balochistan, confirming the rumours that certain extremist groups in the province probably have an affiliation with the group. These slogans were first seen in some parts of interior Balochistan a few months ago, but the police and administration whitewashed them overnight.

Although Home Secretary Balochistan, Akbar Hussain Durrani, “issued directives to the district administration and police officials in each district to take appropriate and timely measures in the wake of a letter from the federal government, if they notice any suspicious activity relating to the group,” he does not agree that IS or similar activists exist in large numbers. “Why would they want to announce their presence through wall-chalkings on the main roads of the city?” he asks.

But the fact is that pro-IS slogans on the walls are plastered on main roads, in the area close to the red zone and in front of the Iranian Consulate in Quetta, which security forces and the police are known to regularly patrol.

Many political observers in the provincial capital, as well as high-ranking police and administrative officials,  also doubt the presence of IS in Balochistan and firmly believe that the wall chalkings are nothing more than an attention-seeking campaign. However, they agree that if appropriate measures are not taken to curtail the extremism that has already become a menace to society, religious extremists in the shape of IS may surface in different parts of Balochistan.

“If after undergoing some bitter experiences in the past three decades, we still do not take religious extremism and fundamentalism seriously, it means we are not concerned about the country or our future generations,” remarks a senior police official. He, too, believes that all extremist groups are interlinked and extend moral and other kinds of support to each other.

Several extremist groups, pursuing various agendas, are currently operating in different parts of Balochistan.

The banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and other anti-Shia groups have made inroads, particularly in those districts of the province that border neighbouring Iran. The pesh-imams linked with this militant group make vitriolic speeches at public gatherings or in mosques. Additionally, these outfits have been allowed to rename main roads, crossings and bridges of their own accord, without any resistance from the government or its agencies. They are active in building and taking over mosques in order to further their own respective agendas.

Such outfits are increasing their sphere of influence in Baloch-dominated populations settled around the Shia population in Quetta and other Baloch districts. Their focus is on those districts that lead to or border Iran, like Mastung, Naushki, Chaghi, Kharan and Washuk. In a recent development, one of the LeJ’s top leaders, Saifullah Kurd (alias Usman), was killed, along with an activist, in a gun fight with Frontier Corps (FC) personnel on February 15. “It is a major achievement for the government that a man who had Rs 5 million as head money and was the master-mind of assorted deadly attacks, including the on Shikarpur, was finally killed,” Durrani said. Kurd, who received a death sentence from the lower court in 2003 and whose appeal was pending before the high court, had escaped from a well-guarded prison in the cantonment area in January 2008.

Another group called Lashkar-e-Khorasan (LK), which also goes by the name of Daish (IS), has surfaced recently in Kechh, the home district of the Chief Minister, Dr Abdul Malik Baloch. The group comprises Iranian dissidents belonging to Jundullah, certain local elements and others said to be involved in the drug trade and extortion. LK activists are carrying out armed activities against Baloch insurgents in the Kechh district, as well as against the Iranain government across the border.

In a retaliatory armed action, members of the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) attacked LK activists in Bilnagor in Kechh district. The FC personnel rushed to the area in hundreds and repulsed the attack. The same evening, an FC spokesman issued a press release claiming that the miscreants wanted to kill innocent villagers in Bilnagor on a mass scale, and that it was the FC’s timely action of killing 16 of the BLF men that saved them. However, the next morning the BLF claimed that its activists attacked a “government” death squad, and that it was the FC that saved them.

jamesvince_3513380b-584x364

Allegedly, the LK has issued a warning to both the Hindu and Zikri populations in the province to embrace Islam or else be prepared for execution. In two attacks in the Awaran and Kechh districts, LK activists killed nine Zikris and injured several of them. Zikris are the followers of Mullah Mohammad Junpuri, who had stressed upon the concept of ‘Zikr’ as a mode of prayer. Zikris mostly live in the districts of Kechh, Gwadar, Lasbela and Awaran, and in the city of Karachi, and hold their annual congregation in the last week of Ramzan on Koh-e-Murad, a hill top in Turbat town.

Jundullah, a Sunni Iranian group, was in fact formed by Malik Recki, who was executed by the Iranian government in June 2010. His brother, Mullah Zahir, succeeded him and ran the group for some time. The group  later split into three factions: Jaish-e-Adal (JA), Jaish-ul-Nasar (JN) and Jundullah. Mullah Omar, allegedly a drug baron, heads the splinter group of Jundullah. Although the activists and leaders of the other two groups, JA and JN, operate from the bordering areas of Pakistan, they keep themselves aloof from Pakistani politics.

The Iranian government has often lodged strong protests with Pakistani authorities over Pakistani soil being used as a sanctuary by Iranian outlaws. In the past few months, Iranian revolutionary guards in hot pursuit of the Jundullahs have entered Pakistani areas several times and either arrested or gunned down their outlaws. Often, the Iranian border forces have resorted to heavy shelling of the villages that they suspect of harbouring their outlaws. In one such incident, Mohammad Farooq, a leader of JA, was killed after being hit by a missile fired from across the border.

The relations between the two countries took an ugly turn when Iranian forces hit an FC vehicle in Kechh, resulting in the death of one soldier and injuries to two others. However, at a high level meeting, the authorities of Pakistani and Iranian Balochistan reviewed their relations in light of their agreements.

Another leader, Mir Shafiq Mengal of the extremist group Musalla Difa Army (MDA), has declared that he is fighting against Baloch separatist groups, particularly in his home district of Khuzdar. Backed allegedly by the security forces, his group has also remained active in Quetta, Awaran and Kechh. However, its activists have been confined to the Wadh tehsil of Khuzdar for the last one year after constant pressure from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, following requests from Sardar Akhtar Mengal, the head of the Balochistan National Party (BNP). According to police investigators, the MDA is closely associated with the LeJ and has been providing shelter to its target killers in Quetta and Khuzdar.  The group, as mentioned in the findings of the tribunal headed by Justice Noor Mohammad Maskanzai, Chief Justice Balochistan High Court, is behind Tutak’s mass grave. It is allegedly also involved in the killing of hundreds of young Baloch separatists besides nearly 40 political activists of the BNP.

Incidentally, Akhtar Mengal and Shafiq Mengal (son of the former caretaker chief minister and federal minister, Mir Naseer Mengal) have been locked in a bloody feud for the past few years. Shafiq’s group is also notorious for its involvement in criminal activities such as extortion, abduction, car-snatching and highway robbery and enjoys a free hand under the patronage of Atta-ur-Rahman, Shafiq’s elder brother. Over 100 members of the local Hindu community appeared at the press conference of Deputy Commissioner Khuzdar Syed Waheed Shah last June, and submitted evidence to prove that they had paid bhatta to Mussallah Defa. “The security agencies distanced themselves from Shafiq and his group as they were involved in criminal activities, bringing a bad name to the former,” said a security official while talking informally to a group of newsmen. Shafiq Mengal, however, denies these charges.

There are official reports that Shafiq Mengal has powerful connections with the TTP and assorted banned sectarian organisations and uses their activists for settling his tribal scores with Sardar Akhtar Mengal and his supporters.

“Certain activists of the TTP, including Uzbeks, Arabs and Tajiks, have taken shelter with Shafiq Mengal and we have strong evidence that TTP activists have been used in the murder of eight personnel of the Levy force in May 2014,” says a senior administrative official.

In the wake of Zarb-e-Azb, hundreds of TTP activists have fled FATA and are holed up in the northern parts of Balochistan, particularly in the adjoining districts of Zhob, Sheerani, Killa Saifullah, Musakhail, Ziarat and Pishin. Although paramilitary forces, with the aid of intelligence agencies, had started an operation against these outlaws, they accelerated the drive after the Army Public School carnage in Peshawar that shook the whole world. Dozens of them, including a couple of TTP commanders and suicide bombers, were killed in encounters, while some of them were arrested. The bullet-riddled bodies of around two dozen, who are believed to have been in the custody of security forces for some time, have been found in different areas.

In a recent meeting of the Apex Committee with Army Chief General Raheel Sharif in Quetta chaired by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it was decided to further accelerate the pace of operation against all terrorist groups, including Baloch separatists.

Unless both government and the military authorities are on the same page it will be virtually impossible to eradicate the conglomerate of terrorists that stalks the province of Balochistan.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s March 2015 issue.

The writer is a journalist based in Quetta and is President of Quetta Press Club (QPC).