January issue 2009
Terrorist Group or Welfare Organisation?
When a massive earthquake hit Azad Kashmir and the northern parts of Pakistan on October 8, 2005, Jamaat-ud-Dawa was among the first to start rescue and relief operations in some of the most far-flung and difficult terrain of the mountainous region. Hundreds of bearded volunteers fanned out in the quake-devastated region, working round the clock with other local and foreign relief workers. Even the UN and several other foreign charities provided assistance to the quake victims through this controversial Islamic charity.
“We once carried guns on the directives of our ameer [leader Hafiz Saeed]. Now he has ordered us to serve the people, and we are following his orders,” says a Dawa volunteer, who has transformed from a firebrand militant to a relief worker. This transition was made ostensibly to keep the organisation alive under a new name and a different agenda.
In October 2008, Jamaat-ud-Dawa proved its organisational strength once again: it was among the first ones to reach the victims of the earthquake in Ziarat and Balochistan’s nearby areas.
Abdul Rauf, a spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, claims that it remains one of the best organised charity and welfare organisations, and operates not just educational institutions but medical centres, mobile medical units, blood banks and an ambulance service as well, in all the four provinces of Pakistan. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa has reportedly also dug wells in remote places like Tharparkar, built mosques and launched a number of other welfare projects.
According to the group, it runs 50 religious schools, around 160 regular schools, four colleges and four Islamic universities all over the country. Then there are around 800 other educational institutions that are affiliated with this group. The group also operates 156 medical centres, eight hospitals and more than 100 ambulances.
During the last two years, the Jamaat is said to have vaccinated around 850,000 people for hepatitis, which is especially rampant in the low-income rural areas. No other NGO has launched a campaign against hepatitis in the country, says Rauf.
“Our mobile medical units treat thousands of patients in the remote areas every year. In fact, they have performed around 8,500 surgeries in the last two years. We also give around 8,000 scholarships to poor children and orphans.” This Eid-ul-Azha, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa received donations to sacrifice around 15,000 animals, which is an indicator of its strong network.
Senior members of the group say that the transformation of LeT from a militant group to a charity under the banner of Jamaat-ud-Dawa was part of a well thought-out strategy of keeping the workers engaged after the government banned the militant group in January 2002. “The other militant groups failed to do this and many of their disillusioned and disgruntled workers were used by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda for terrorist activities both in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan. But this did not happen with the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba members,” remarks a senior Jamaat-ud-Dawa member.
This article appears as a box within “Out in the Cold“.
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.