October Issue 2008
The Punjab Connection
NWFP governor, Owais Ghani, during a visit to Lahore on September 22, revealed that the jihadi organisations in the Northern Areas were in the process of extending their network into the Punjab. “These organisations are preparing the people of southern Punjab for suicide attacks in the name of jihad, which is a dangerous carry over from the troubled FATA region.”
The Frontier governor’s warning that militant groups operating in his province have established firm links with similar groups operating in the Punjab, especially in southern Punjab, may come as a surprise to many, but actually these groups have always had strong links with each other.
The southern Punjab has always been a choice recruiting base for many militant organisations. It has hosted some of Pakistan’s most radical militant Islamist groups, namely Jaish-i-Mohammad, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba, Lashkar-i-Tayyaba, Harkat-ul-Ansar, Hizbul Tahrir, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Tehrik-i-Jafria and Sipah-i-Mohammad. These southern Punjab-based groups, in fact, introduced terrorism to this country in the early 1980s, in the guise of sectarianism. Later, they raised the spectre of suicide attacks. In March 2002, two ‘fidayeen’ (the term introduced by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi for suicide bombers) bombed the International Protestant Church in Islamabad. It was believed to be the first suicide attack by a jihadi outfit in Pakistan.
These organisations are believed to have instigated a number of local suicide bombers. On February 23, 2007, three suicide bombers, Adeel, Mohammad Akhtar and Maqsood, died when their explosives went off accidentally in Chichawatni, Sahiwal district. Police believed that they were going to carry out a suicide bombing during the qul of slain police inspector Rana Mohammad Saeed, which senior police officials were scheduled to attend. Adeel and Akhtar were students of a local madrassa, the Madrassa Aziz-ul-Aloom, and Maqsood belonged to the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. In December 2007, two suspected suicide bombers died in Bahawalnagar city when they prematurely detonated their explosives near the residence of the PML-Q’s Ejaz-ul-Haq.
Security agencies suspect that the recent Marriott attack may be linked to southern Punjab-based militant organisations. Reportedly, law enforcement personnel investigating the blast, visited Central Jail Bahawalpur to question prisoners who had been involved in terrorist activities. Security officials have also directed police in southern Punjab to arrest more than 250 active members of militant organisations after the Marriot blast.
Madrassas have always been accused of having links with militant organisations. While they number around 20,000 in Pakistan, 13,000 are registered with the ITMD (Ittehad Tanzeemat Madaris Deenia) federal board, which liases between the madrassas and the government.
Two million students currently attend these religious seminaries, and the alumni network is about five million strong. The overwhelming majority of these madrassas — around 12,000 registered madrassas — belong to the Deobandi school of thought. All militant organisations in Pakistan sans the Lashkar-e-Tayabba, are headed by people belonging to the Deobandi school. A majority of these were established after 1980 during the Zia years. In Taunsa Sharif, a small tehsil of Dera Ghazi Khan District, there are more than 70 registered Deobandi madrassas. The situation in other districts of southern Punjab is no different.
According to a report on Pakistan by the US Institute of Peace (USIP) in 2007, while most madrassa students come from low-income families, children from higher-income families are also found in madrassas. A small percentage of all madrassa students and alumni, not just within Pakistan but also from its diaspora communities, are said to be directly or indirectly linked to various militant organisations. For example, some of the UK-born 7/7 suicide bombers attended a Pakistani madrassa in Faisalabad in the Punjab shortly before carrying out their attacks last year.
Dr Rasool Baksh Rais, professor of political science at the department of social sciences, LUMS, says, “While it is true that these madrassas are the main source of education in the backward areas of southern Punjab, they do serve as a major source of recruitment for fresh militants.” He says that it is incorrect to consider all Taliban as Pushtoons. “Even the Taliban who are active in Afghanistan include people from different areas of Pakistan, especially the Punjab. Additionally, they have people back in the Punjab who not only arrange funds for them but also send them new recruits.” According to him, the non-tax paying traders and contractors of cities like Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad are the main source of funding for militant organisations and madrassas.
According to an influential and well-informed person in Bahawalpur who does not wish to be identified, militant groups have flourished in southern Punjab since the Zia regime, organising themselves in the name of the Afghan jihad. “They went underground after 9/11 but that does not mean they were not functioning.” He says that everybody knows that Maulana Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-i-Mohammad, is constructing a huge fortress-type madrassa and mosque in the middle of Bahawalpur city, which could be a Lal Masjid in the making.
Muhammad Ibrahim (not his real name), a 25-year-old ex-jihadi from Bahawalpur who fought in Afghanistan with the Taliban before 9/11, tells Newsline that the Lashkar-i-Tayyaba and Jaish-i-Muhammad are very active in the Seraiki belt. “They have a very coordinated underground network in this region,” he says. “Their activities are at a peak during Ramazan and they solicit Zakat money openly. I know that at least 250 jihadis, who have fought in Afghanistan, belong to Ahmadpur Sharqia, a tehsil headquarter in Bahawalpur district. The majority are in regular contact with militant outfits and are recruiting for them.” He reveals that many young people from his area are still going to the tribal areas to fight against the Pakistan Army.
According to Ibrahim, these militant organisations have gradually started to intimidate people in the area. “They are forcing people to follow their version of Islam or get ready to face the consequences. Recently, owners of many video and CD shops in the Seraiki belt have received threats from militant organisations to close down their shops and stop selling immoral items,” he informs Newsline. He believes that the September 26 bomb attack on a train in Bahawalpur, in which six people were killed, could be the start of terrorist activity by these militant groups in the Punjab.
On September 24, some unidentified militants reportedly wrote a letter to the principal of Nishtar Medical College, Multan demanding that he abolish the co-education system in the college or be prepared to face the consequences. A week before the incident, two bearded young men came to a mosque in Jahanian, in district Khanewal, during Namaz-e-Fajr and introduced themselves as friends of Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. They asked the people present in the mosque to get ready to offer their wealth and sacrifice their lives for Islam, as this was a testing time for all Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan. After that, they disappeared on their motorcycles.
Ahmed Rashid, an authority on Pakistani militant groups, maintains that the Punjab-based terrorist outfits and groups have, for long, had close links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. “They have fought with them in Afghanistan. Terrorist attacks on Islamabad and cities of the Punjab are managed by the urban-based local terrorists and not by the tribal terrorists,” says Rashid. In his view such groups have taken over the majority of the madrassas in southern Punjab and Sindh. “Even the genuine madrassas are now controlled by their people.”
According to him, the militants are gaining strength with every passing day. “The Musharraf regime used to say that they are streamlining the madrassas but we saw a huge expansion during its tenure as well.”
He admits, though, that the major terrorists groups such as Harkat-ul-Ansar, Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lashkar-i-Tayyaba have split. However, their militant hard core has joined hands with Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban. All these groups have once again started to develop a well-knit network, with coordination being handled from FATA . As a consequence of this nexus, the militants are reacting to the army operation in Bajaur by striking back in the big cities of Punjab, such as Islamabad through bomb blasts.” Rashid says this phenomenon confirms the presence of a strong network of terrorist organisations in the Punjab and other urban areas of Pakistan.