September Issue 2009
Terror’s Training Ground
A few years ago, I met some young boys from my village near Bahawalpur who were preparing to go on jihad. They smirked politely when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine their future. “We can tell you without closing our eyes that we don’t see anything.”
It was not entirely surprising. South Punjab is a region mired in poverty and underdevelopment. There are few job prospects for the youth. While the government has built airports and a few hospitals, these projects are symbolic and barely meet the needs of the area. It’s in areas like this, amid economic stagnation and hopelessness, that religious extremists find fertile ground to plant and spread their ideology.
The first step is recruitment — and the methodology is straightforward. Young children, or even men, are taken to madrassas in nearby towns. They are fed well and kept in living conditions considerably better than what they are used to. This is a simple psychological strategy meant to help them compare their homes with the alternatives offered by militant organisations. The returning children, like the boys I met, then undergo ideological indoctrination in a madrassa. Those who are indoctrinated always bring more friends and family with them. It is a swelling cycle.
Madrassas nurturing armies of young Islamic militants ready to embrace martyrdom have been on the rise for years in the Punjab. In fact, South Punjab has become the hub of jihadism. Yet, somehow, there are still many people in Pakistan who refuse to acknowledge this threat.
Four major militant outfits, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), are all comfortably ensconced in South Punjab (see article “Brothers in Arms”). Sources claim that there are about 5,000 to 9,000 youth from South Punjab fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan. A renowned Pakistani researcher, Hassan Abbas cites a figure of 2,000 youth engaged in Waziristan. The area has become critical to planning, recruitment and logistical support for terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, in his study on the Punjabi Taliban, Abbas has quoted Tariq Pervez, the chief of a new government outfit named the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NCTA), as saying that the jihad veterans in South Punjab are instrumental in providing the foot soldiers and implementing terror plans conceived and funded mainly by Al-Qaeda operatives. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that the force that conquered Khost in 1988-89 comprised numerous South Punjabi commanders who fought for the armies of various Afghan warlords such as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Even now, all the four major organisations are involved in Afghanistan.
The above facts are not unknown to the provincial and federal governments or the army. It was not too long ago that the federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik equated South Punjab with Swat. The statement was negated by the IG Punjab. Perhaps, the senior police officer was not refuting his superior but challenging the story by Sabrina Tavernese of The New York Times (NYT). The story had highlighted jihadism in South Punjab, especially in Dera Ghazi Khan. The NYT story even drew a reaction from media outlets across the country. No one understood that South Punjab is being rightly equated with Swat, not because of violence but due to the presence of elements that aim at taking the society and state in another direction.
An English-language daily newspaper reacted to the NYT story by dispatching a journalist to South Punjab who wrote a series of articles that attempted to analyse the existing problem. One of the stories highlighted comments by the Bahawalpur Regional Police Officer (RPO) Mushtaq Sukhera, in which he denied that there was a threat of Talibanisation in South Punjab. He said that all such reports pertaining to South Punjab were nothing more than a figment of the western press’s imagination. Many others express a similar opinion. There are five explanations for this.
Firstly, opinion makers and policy makers are in a state of denial regarding the gravity of the problem. Additionally, they believe an overemphasis on this region might draw excessive US attention to South Punjab — an area epitomising mainstream Pakistan. Thus, it is difficult even to find anecdotal evidence regarding the activities of jihadis in this sub-region. We only gain some knowledge about the happenings from coincidental accidents like the blast that took place in a madrassa in Mian Chunoon, exposing the stockpile of arms its owner had stored on the premises.
Secondly, officer Sukhera and others like him do not see any threat because the Punjab-based outfits are “home-grown” and are not seen as directly connected to the war in Afghanistan. This is contestable on two counts: South Punjabi jihadists have been connected with the Afghan jihad since the 1980s and the majority is still engaged in fighting in Afghanistan.
Thirdly, since all these outfits were created by the ISI to support General Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation process, in essence to fight a proxy war for Saudi Arabia against Iran by targeting the Shia community, and later the Kashmir war, the officials feel comfortable that they will never spin out of control. Those that become uncontrollable, such as Al-Furqan, are then abandoned. This outfit was involved in the second assassination attempt on Musharraf and had initially broken away from the JeM after the leadership developed differences over assets, power and ideology. Thus, the district officials and intelligence agencies turned a blind eye to the killing of the district amir of Al-Furqan in Bahawalpur in May 2009. As far as the JeM is concerned, it continues its engagement with the establishment. In any case, groups that are partly committed to the Kashmir cause and confrontation with India continue to survive. This is certainly the perception about the LeT. But in reality, the Wahhabi outfit has also been engaged in other regions, such as the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Badakhshan since 2004.
Fourthly, there is confusion at the operational level in the government regarding the definition of Talibanisation, which is then reflected in the larger debate on the issue. Many, including the RPO, define the process as an effort by an armed group to use force to change the social conditioning in an area. Ostensibly, the militant outfits in the Punjab continue to coexist with the pirs, prostitutes and the drug mafia, and there is no reason that they will follow in the footsteps of Sufi Mohammad and Maulana Fazlullah, or Baitullah Mehsud. Since the authorities only recognise the pattern followed by the Afghan warlords or those in Pakistan’s tribal areas, they tend not to understand that what is happening in the Punjab may not be Talibanisation but could eventually prove to be as lethal as what they call Talibanisation.
Finally, many believe that Talibanisation cannot take place in a region known for practicing the Sufi version of Islam. There are many, besides the Bahawalpur RPO, who subscribe to the above theory. A year ago in an interview with an American channel, Farahnaz Ispahani, an MNA and wife of Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington, Husain Haqqani, stated that extremism couldn’t flourish in South Punjab because it was a land of Sufi shrines. This is partially true. The Sufi influence would work as a bulwark against this Talibanisation of society. However, Sufi Islam cannot fight poverty, underdevelopment and poor governance — all key factors that encourage Talibanisation.
South Punjab boasts names such as the Mazaris, Legharis and Gilanis, most of whom are not just politicians and big landowners but also belong to significant pir families. But they have done little to alleviate the sufferings of their constituents. A visit to Dera Ghazi Khan is depressing. Despite the fact that the division produced a president, Farooq Khan Leghari, the state of underdevelopment there is shocking. Reportedly, people living in the area in the immediate vicinity of the Leghari tribe could not sell their land without permission from the head of the tribe, the former president, who has been the tribal chief for many years. Under the circumstances, the poor and the dispossessed became attractive targets for militant outfits offering money. The country’s current economic downturn could raise the popularity of militant outfits.
In recent history, the gap created due to the non-performance of Sufi shrines and Barelvi Islam, or the exploitative nature of these institutions, has been filled partly by the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith madrassa conversion teams and groups, such as the Tableeghi Jamaat, and militant outfits. This alternative, unfortunately, is equally exploitative in nature. Sadly, today the shrines and Barelvi Islam have little to offer in terms of “marketing” to counter the package deal offered by the Salafists for the life hereafter, especially to a shaheed: 70 hoors (virgins), a queen hoor (virgin queen), a crown of jewels and forgiveness for 70 additional people. This promise means a lot for the poor youth who cannot hope for any change in a pre-capitalist socio-economic and political environment, where power is hard to re-negotiate. Furthermore, as stated by the former information minister Mohammad Ali Durrani, who had been a jihadi from 1984-90, a poor youth suddenly turning into a jihadi commander is a tremendous story of social mobility and recognition that he would never get in his existing socio-economic system. More importantly, the Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith offer a textual basis for their package, which is difficult for the pirs to refute due to the lack of an internal religious discourse in the Islamic world. The modern generation of pirs has not engaged in an internal discourse to counter this ideological onslaught by the Salafis. The main belief of Salafism is that all Muslims should practice Islam as it was during the time of Prophet Muhammad. The religion at that time, according to them, was perfect. Salafism — which pre-dates Wahhabism — is often used interchangeably with Wahhabism, which is actually an extension of Salafism.
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Punjab offers a different pattern of extremism and jihadism. The pattern is closer to what one saw in Swat, where Sufi Mohammad and his TNSM spent quite a few years indoctrinating the society and building up a social movement before they got embroiled in a conflict with the state. South Punjab’s story is, in a sense, like Swat’s in that there is a gradual strengthening of Salafism and a build-up of militancy in the area. The procedure of conversion though, dates back to pre-1947. Still, the 1980s were clearly a watershed, when both rabid ideology and jihad were introduced to the area. Zia-ul-Haq encouraged the opening up of religious seminaries that, unlike the more traditional madrassas that were usually attached with Sufi shrines, subscribed to Salafi ideology. In later years, South Punjab became critical to inducting people for the Kashmir jihad. The ascendancy of the Tableeghi Jamaat and such madrassas that presented a more rabid version of religion gradually prepared the ground for later invasion by the militant groups. Two reports prepared around 1994, firstly by the district collector Bahawalpur and later by the Punjab government, highlighted the exponential rise in the number of madrassas and how these fanned sectarian and ideological hatred in the province. These reports also stated that all of these seminaries were provided funding by the government through the zakat fund.
The number of seminaries had increased during and after the 1980s. According to a 1996 report, there were 883 madrassas in Bahawalpur, 361 in Dera Ghazi Khan, 325 in Multan and 149 in Sargodha district. The madrassas in Bahawalpur outnumbered all other cities, including Lahore. These numbers relate to Deobandi madrassas only and do not include the Ahl-e-Hadith, Barelvi and other sects. Newer estimates from the intelligence bureau for 2008 show approximately 1,383 madrassas in the Bahawalpur division that house 84,000 students. Although the highest number of madrassas is in Rahim Yar Khan district (559) followed by Bahawalpur (481) and Bahawalnagar (310), it is Bahawalpur in which the highest number of students (36,000) is enlisted. The total number of madrassa students in Pakistan has reached about one million.
Everyone has been so focused on FATA and the NWFP that they failed to notice the huge increase in religious seminaries in these districts of South Punjab. According to a study conducted by historian Tahir Kamran, the total number of madrassas in the Punjab rose from 1,320 in 1988 to 3,153 in 2000, an increase of almost 140%. These madrassas were meant to provide a rapid supply of jihadis to the Afghan war of the 1980s. At the time of 9/11, the Bahawalpur division alone could boast of approximately 15,000-20,000 trained militants, some of whom had resettled in their areas during the period that Musharraf claimed to have clamped down on the jihad industry. Many went into the education sector, opened private schools and even joined the media.
These madrassas play three essential roles. First, they convert people to Salafism and neutralise resistance to a more rabid interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah in society. Consequently, the majority of the Barelvis cannot present a logical resistance to the opposing ideology. In many instances, the Barelvis themselves get converted to the idea of jihad. Secondly, these madrassas are used to train youth, who are then inducted into jihad. Most of the foot soldiers come from the religious seminaries. One of the principles taught to the students pertains to the concept of jihad as being a sacred duty that has to continue until the end of a Muslim’s life or the end of the world. Lastly, madrassas are an essential transit point for the youth, who are recruited from government schools. They are usually put through the conversion process after they have attended a 21-day initial training programme in the Frontier province or Kashmir (see box “A Different Breed”).
State support, which follows two distinct tracks, is also instrumental in the growth of jihadism in this region. On the one hand, there has generally been a link or understanding between political parties and militant groups. Since political parties are unable to eliminate militants or most politicians are sympathetic towards the militants, they tend to curb their activities through political deal-making. The understanding between the SSP and Benazir Bhutto after the 1993 elections, or the alleged deal between the PML-N and the SSP during the 2008 elections, denote the relationship between major political parties and the jihadis. Currently, the SSP in South Punjab is more supportive of the PML-N.
The second track involves operational links between the outfits and the state’s intelligence apparatus. As mentioned earlier, some of the outfits claim to have received training from the country’s intelligence agencies. Even now, local people talk of truckloads of weapons arriving at the doorstep of the JeM headquarters and other sites in the middle of the night. While official sources continue to claim that the outfit was banned and does not exist, or that Masood Azhar is on the run from his hometown of Bahawalpur, the facts prove otherwise. For instance, the outfit continues to acquire real estate in the area, such as a new site near Chowk Azam in Bahawalpur, which many believe is being used as a training site. Although the new police chief has put restraints on the JeM and disallowed it from constructing on the site, the outfit continues to appropriate more land around the area. Junior police officials even claim seeing tunnels being dug inside the premises. The new facility is on the bank of the Lahore-Karachi national highway, which means that in the event of a crisis, the JeM could block the road as has happened in Kohat and elsewhere. Furthermore, the outfit’s main headquarters in the city is guarded by AK-47-armed men who harass any journalist trying to take a photograph of the building. In one instance, even a police official was shooed away and later intimidated by spooks of an intelligence agency for spying on the outfit. Despite the claim that the SSP, the LeJ and the JeM have broken ties with intelligence agencies and are now fighting the army in Waziristan, the fact remains that their presence in the towns of South Punjab continues unhindered.
Is it naivety and inefficiency on the part of officialdom or a deliberate effort to withhold information? The government claims that Maulana Masood Azhar has not visited his hometown in the last three years. But he held a massive book launch of his new publication Fatah-ul-Jawad: Quranic Verses on Jihad, on April 28, 2008, in Bahawalpur. Moreover, JeM’s armed men manned all entrances and exits to the city that day — and there was no police force in sight. The ISI is said to have severed its links with the JeM for assisting the Pashtoon Taliban in inciting violence in the country. Sources from FATA claim, however, that the JeM, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) and LeT are suspected by the Taliban for their links with state agencies.
In addition, intelligence agencies reportedly ward off anyone attempting to probe into the affairs of these outfits. In one case, a local in Bahawalpur city invoked daily visits from a certain agency after he assisted a foreign journalist. Similarly, only six months back, a BBC team was chased out of the area by agency officials. In fact, intelligence officials, who had forgotten about my existence since my last book was published, revisited my village in South Punjab soon after I began writing on militancy in the area and have gone to the extent of planting a story in one of the Urdu newspapers to malign me in my own area. In any case, no serious operation was conducted against these outfits after the Mumbai attacks and the recent spate of violence in the country. Hence, all of them continue to survive.
The Deobandi outfits are not the only ones popular in South Punjab. Ahl-e-Hadith/Wahhabi organisations such as the Tehreek-ul-Mujahidden (TuM) and the LeT also have a following in the region. While TuM, which is relatively a smaller organisation, has support in Dera Ghazi Khan, the LeT is popular in Bahawalpur, Multan and the areas bordering Central Punjab. Headquartered in Muridke, the LeT is popular among the Punjabi and Urdu-speaking Mohajir settlers.
There are obvious sociological reasons for LeT’s relative popularity among these people. The majority of this population represents either the lower-middle-class farmers or middle-class trader-merchants. The middle class is instrumental in providing funding to these outfits. And the support is not confined to South Punjab alone. In fact, middle-class trader-merchants from other parts of the Punjab also feed jihad through their funding. This does not mean that there are no Seraiki speakers in Wahhabi organisations but just that the dominant influence is that of the Punjabis and Mohajirs. The Seraiki-speaking population is mostly associated with the SSP, LeJ and JeM, not to mention the freelancing jihadis that have direct links with the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP).
The LeT’s presence in South Punjab is far more obvious than others courtesy of the wall chalkings and social work by its sister outfit, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. Despite the rumours of friction between the LeT and the JuD leadership, the two segments operate in unison in South Punjab. Three of the favourite areas of recruitment in South Punjab for all outfits are Cholistan in Bahawalpur, the Rekh in Dera Ghazi Khan, and the Kacha area in Rajanpur. The first two are desert areas known for their poverty and underdevelopment, while the third is known for dacoits. However, another known feature of Kacha in Rajanpur is that the clerics of the Lal Masjid come from this area and have partly managed to push back the dacoits. Local sources claim that the influence of the clerics has increased since they started receiving cooperation from the police to jointly fight the dacoits.
Organisations such as the LeT have even begun to recruit women in the Punjab. These women undergo 21 days of ideological and military training. The goal is to ensure that these women will be able to fight if their menfolk are out on jihad and an enemy attacks Pakistan.
The militant outfits are rich, both ideologically and materially. They have ample financial resources that flow from four distinct sources: official sources (in some cases); Middle Eastern and Gulf states (not necessarily official channels); donations; and the Punjabi middle class, which is predominantly engaged in funding both madrassas and jihad for social, moral and political ends. With regard to donations, the militant outfits are extremely responsive to the changing environment and have adapted their money-collection tactics. Gone are the days of money-collection boxes. Now, especially in villages, followers are asked to raise money by selling harvested crops. And in terms of the Punjabi middle class, there are traders in Islamabad and other smaller urban centres that contribute regularly to the cause. These trader-merchants and upcoming entrepreneurs see donations to these outfits as a source of atonement for their sins. In Tahir Kamran’s study “Deobandiism in the Punjab,” Deobandiism (and Wahhabiism) is an urban phenomenon. If so, then the existence of these militant outfits in rural Punjab indicates a new social trend. Perhaps, due to greater access to technology (mobiles, television sets, satellite receivers, etc), the landscape (and rustic lifestyles) of Punjab’s rural areas has changed. There is an unplanned urbanisation of the rural areas due to the emergence of small towns with no social development, health and education infrastructure. Socially and politically, there is a gap that is filled by these militant outfits or related ideological institutions.
Fortunately, they have not succeeded in changing the lifestyles of the ordinary people. This is perhaps because there are multiple cultural strands that do not allow the jihadis to impose their norms the way they have in the tribal areas or the Frontier province. This is not to say that there is no threat from them in South Punjab: the liberalism and multi-polarity of society is certainly at risk. The threat is posed by the religious seminaries and the new recruits for jihad, who change social norms slowly and gradually. Sadly nothing, including the powerful political system of the area, which in any case is extremely warped, helps ward off the threat of extremism and jihadism. Ultimately, South Punjab could fall prey to the myopia of its ruling elite.
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So how does the state and society deal with this issue?
Deploying the military is not an option. In the Punjab this will create a division within the powerful army because of regional loyalty. The foremost task is to examine the nature of the state’s relationship with the militants as strategic partners: should this relationship continue to exist to the detriment of the state? Once this mystifying question is resolved, all militant forces can be dealt with through an integrated police-intelligence operation.
This, however, amounts to winning only half the battle. The other half deals with the basic problems faced by the likes of those young jihadis-in-training from Bahawalpur who said, “We don’t see anything” in our futures. Presently, there is hardly any industrialisation in South Punjab and the mainstay of the area, agriculture, is faltering. The region requires economic strengthening: new ideas in agriculture, capital investment and new, relevant industries. This is the time that the government must plan beyond the usual textile and sugar industries that have arguably turned into huge mafias that are draining the local economy rather than feeding it.
Investment in social development is desperately needed. A larger social infrastructure that provides jobs and an educational system that is responsive to the needs of the population can contribute to filling the gaps. The message of militancy is quite potent, especially in terms of the dreams it sells to the youth, such as those disillusioned boys from my village. Jihad elevates youngsters from a state of being dispossessed to an imagined exalted status. They visualise themselves taking their places among great historical figures such as Mohammad bin Qasim and Khalid bin Waleed. It is these dreams for which the state must provide an alternative.
The following sidebars were also part of the print version of this story:
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter