August Issue 2003
Valley of Death
By Massoud Ansari | News & Politics | Published 20 years ago
“Aur laro unsay, jab tak na rahay baqi fitna aur hukum rahay Allah ka.” (Fight them, slay them, until they are eliminated and God’s order prevails) — Al-Quran.
Thus reads the cover of a recently published booklet, ironically going by the name of ‘The Red Book,’ prepared by the Sindh police as a motivational guide for the force.
Apart from a one-page preface, explaining the genesis of this publication, the document profiles the country’s 31 most wanted Sunni and eight Shia sectarian terrorists, and offers a reward for their capture.
That the police needs all the motivation it can get is evidenced by the recent escalation in sectarian violence in the country, most graphically illustrated by the massacre at an imambargah in Quetta last month.
On July 4, three gunmen opened fire on a congregation offering prayers at the imambargah, killing at least 50 and injuring over 60 others. The attack was carried out during the midday Friday sermon, when the maximum number of faithful gather to offer prayers. There are several Shiite mosques in Quetta city, but the attackers chose the Imambargah Asna-e-Asharia, located at Mechaniki Road, which is the busiest of all these mosques. According to Mohammed Rahim Kakar, the nazim of Quetta city, “Over 450 worshippers were offering prayers when they were attacked.”
Eyewitness accounts reveal that three men in the garb of fruit-sellers stationed themselves outside the imambargah as the worshippers filed into the mosque. Once the mosque was full, the men wheeled a fruit cart up to the main entrance and proceeded to go inside and shut the gate. Making their way inside the mosque, the men positioned themselves to strike. “One of them moved towards the southern part of the mosque, while the other two went to the north-eastern side,” says a senior police official.
Suddenly the attackers opened fire on the worshippers, simultaneously hurling hand grenades at them. Hearing the gunfire, two police officials rushed towards the mosque and entering it, opened fire on the assailants, injuring one of them. At this development, the two others, who it turned out, had explosives strapped to their bodies, blew themselves up. The third attacker who had received bullet wounds, meanwhile, died while he was being taken to hospital.
Thirty-six year old Mohammed Sharif, a worshipper who received shrapnel wounds during the attack, disclosed that once the firing started, there was a stampede in the mosque as the worshippers ran helter skelter in panic. According to him, a number of young children were killed in the melÃ©e. “There was complete chaos. Everybody was running in different directions. Seventeen children between five to 15 years of age, died; some due to the firing, others in the stampede,” Sharif recollects. Police sources revealed that they managed to defuse three powerful locally made bombs, one weighing five kg, and the two others, 2.5 kg each, which were planted under the fruit cart. “Had these bombs not been defused, the death toll would have been at least twice as high,” said a senior police official in Quetta.
Soon after the incident, an angry mob collected and went on the rampage, destroying public property including two banks, and setting ablaze dozens of vehicles. Large numbers of armed Shia youths also attacked a Sunni seminary in the Marriabad area of Quetta, killing one of the students. Timely intervention by paramilitary troops saved the lives of several other students who were residing in this religious school.
Following the attacks, the Quetta administration imposed curfew in the city, and army and paramilitary troops were called in to assist the civilian administration in maintaining law and order. “We called in the army and the paramilitary troops when we realised that the civil administration was unable to control the situation,” maintained Quetta’s city nazim. The authorities also disallowed a mass burial for the victims and restricted the number of mourners at the last rites for individual victims. “We were clearly told no more than 10 people could be present at each burial,” said Khadim Hussain Noori, whose brother died in the attack.
The fallout of the attack was felt not just in Quetta, but across the country which went into a state of red alert. Security measures were beefed up at diplomatic missions, the residences and work places of prominent personalities and at religious sites. Despite these measures however, unidentified operators set ablaze five buses in Karachi the day after the Quetta attack.
While sectarian conflict has increasingly factored in Pakistani life in recent years, this is the first time the sectarian violence has included suicide bombing. Although several suicide attacks have been perpetrated in the country in the past, most of these were executed against western targets, such as the attack on the church in Islamabad, the killing of 11 French engineers in Karachi, and the attack on the US Consulate in Karachi.
The attack on the Shiite mosque came at a time when Pakistan President, Pervez Musharraf, was concluding his four-nation European tour. It was while he was in France, trying to sell Pakistan as a ‘safe haven’ for foreign investors, that the attack took place. Musharraf did not mince his words while condemning the attack, describing the assailants as illiterate and wild extremists who had no love for Islam. “I have fought to have the travel advisories against Pakistan removed. But due to such terrible acts, this is extremely difficult,” he said at a news conference at Chaklala airbase soon after returning from Paris.
Sectarian conflict has taken a heavy toll on both Sunnis and Shias in Pakistan over the years, with many victims falling prey to assailants’ fire even as they prayed in their respective mosques, but the toll has been heavier for the Shia community. Officials maintain that during the last 10 years, more than 90 doctors, 34 lawyers, and various scholars and religious figures have been assassinated in the ongoing sectarian violence across the country, and most of them have belonged to the Shia sect.
And since the military coup on October 12, 1999, 137 people have been killed in 55 different incidents of sectarian violence in Karachi alone. While there are no confirmed statistics for sectarian assassinations across the country during this period, according to one estimate, the number of victims hovers around the 1000 mark to date.
According to a spring 2000 US State Department report, South Asia has replaced the Middle East as the world’s leading locus of terrorism.
Prior to the 1980s, religion was not an overly contentious issue in Pakistan. However, society changed radically after the installation of a Soviet-backed communist regime in Afghanistan and the subsequent backlash. While the US saw an opportunity to fight a proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and flooded the region with money to further its interests by funding the mujahideen, local youth were being stirred by the call of jihad emanating from pulpits across the country. The two agendas coincided and the war against the Soviets became a 20th century guns and rockets jihad against ‘infidel invaders.’
Between 1979 and 1988 the Pakistan government, led by military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq encouraged jihadi culture and strengthened the hand of the Muslim clergy. It also legitimised fundamentalism by introducing elements of Sharia law into the legal system. And official funds were increasingly used to establish religious seminaries, which began to mushroom across the country.
A few years later, the struggle for the liberation of Kashmir was given fresh impetus, and Pakistani youths were encouraged to take part in the new jihad. They began to travel to Afghanistan and Kashmir to enlist in the ranks of the freedom fighters. Some even joined militant forces in Sudan and Algeria, while others went to Sinkiang province in China to lend their support to the nascent Islamic movement there.
But Pakistan’s extremist pigeons have also come home to roost. Religious wars are not merely being exported now, but are increasingly being fought on local turf. Today, highly disciplined and motivated groups of Islamic militant organisations operate in almost every neighbourhood of Pakistan, attracting college and university students and medical, engineering and computer professionals to their ranks. Most zealous of course remain the clerics. The pesh imam of a Sunni mosque in Karachi’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal was arrested last year for his involvement in 12 sectarian murders — the sentence for which is the death penalty. Unrepentant, the clergyman said if had the opportunity, he would go out and kill another 12, or more Shias.
The machinations and institutional support given to extremist elements to pursue the establishment’s agenda abroad, have come home to haunt them.
In its 2001 annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) observed that Pakistan’s religious minorities were being stalked and persecuted. The report reads: “Nearly 1,000 people died each year in Pakistan throughout the ’90s in religiously or ethnically motivated violence… the 1990s saw the ‘surge of religious militancy.’”
After the US launched its war against terrorism in Afghanistan, there was a lull in sectarian violence in the country. It is a fact that the Musharraf government’s campaign against sectarian extremists, especially after 9/11, has led to the arrest and conviction of a number of leading members of militant sectarian groups. Many others are currently facing trial and some others are on the run. In 2001, the military government banned five militant outfits, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Taiyaba, both of whom were involved in the armed separatist struggle in Indian-controlled Kashmir. However, these measures notwithstanding, the ranks of the extremist groups continue to swell and the organisations just keep getting more organised. A case in point: the finance secretary, Karachi, of the SSP, who was arrested two years ago for his involvement in the murder of Sunni Tehrik chief, Saleem Qadri, disclosed that party headquarters disbursed 32 lakh rupees each month to his office, to be distributed among party members in jail requiring bail, incarcerated colleagues’ families, and as compensation for “martyred” SSP workers.
It is hardly surprising then that the sectarian war rages unabated and the incidents in the past month indicate its growing ferocity. This was the fourth major incident in the recent past in which members of the minority Shia sect were targeted, and all these attacks were carried out in a similar fashion.
On May 23, two gunmen riding a motorbike shot dead a Shiite Muslim prayer leader in Quetta while he was on his way home. On May 31, two gunmen riding motorcycles ambushed a car carrying Ghulam Nabi, a prominent local Shiite, wounding him and killing his son. And on June 8, a bus carrying Hazara policemen — all members of Pakistan’s Shiite community — were fired upon by two gunmen on motorcycles. Twelve recruits were killed on the spot, while eight others were injured in the attack.
Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, and the police in Quetta claim to have identified all three militants involved in the imambargah attack. The two suicide bombers have been identified as Khan Mohammad and Noor Ahmed respectively, both of whom are said to belong to the Mastung district. The identity of the third has not yet been divulged. According to some reports, Noor Ahmed was affiliated with Al-Badar, a group fighting Indian forces in occupied Kashmir. However, there are various theories about the assailants’ ideological and political affiliations.
While the police have not still declared that the three assailants were members of the banned extremist Sunni organisation, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a letter and videotape sent to a foreign broadcasting service intimated this was the case. In the two documents the Lashkar appeared to claim responsibility for the Quetta carnage. According to the BBC’s Urdu-language broadcast, “There were three men on the tape. They resemble the suicide bombers in photographs released by the police after the attack.” The broadcast said that only the youngest among the men actually spoke on the tape. He maintained that they belonged to the Lashkar group and railed against the Shias for 10 minutes. The BBC said the letter was written after the July 4 attack.
The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a breakaway faction of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), an extremist Sunni sectarian outfit which has been involved in sectarian-related terrorist violence, mainly targeted against the minority Shia community. Over the years these militant organisations have drawn in hundreds of activists, who have been indoctrinated, trained, and provided weapons to kill anybody said to be an enemy of Islam as they perceive it. SSP, LJ’s parent organisation also operates as a political party and has even contested national elections. An activist of the outfit is, in fact, currently a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly.
While the Inspector General Police, Balochistan, Dr. Shoaib Suddle has stated that, in his view, the tape and letter are genuine, some of the investigators dealing with the case disclosed that they believe the two documents attributed to the LJ may, in fact, have been supplied to the BBC to divert suspicion from the actual perpetrators of the crime. “Since Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s involvement in sectarian violence is an open secret, anybody can take cover behind their name,” said a senior police official requesting anonymity. However, he maintained the police are not making any blanket assumptions. “It could be the handiwork of the LJ, but there is also a possibility that the workers of sectarian organisations were used by a foreign hand,” said another senior police official.
Apart from the Lashkar and other local sectarian outfits, investigators are examining the possible involvement of members of the Taliban in the attack. The Taliban’s involvement is being given more weight because members of the Hazara tribe were the targets in both the Quetta incident and the attack on the scouts, and it is common knowledge that the Hazaras were one of the Taliban’s chief nemeses during the former’s rule in Afghanistan.
Additionally, barely a few weeks before the attack in Quetta, a Sunni religious school in Hazarajat in Afghanistan was attacked, allegedly by local Hazaras. This caused a lot of tension in the area, and leaders of Sunni factions had been aggressively condemning the incident from the pulpits of mosques. “Some of the religious leaders even threatened to settle scores if the perpetrators of the attack were not apprehended,” says a source privy to the ongoing investigation. He maintained that the Quetta carnage may have been retaliatory action for the incident in Afghanistan.
Hazaras are the third-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, based in Hazarajat in the central and northern region of the country. They were persecuted by the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, because of their Shiite beliefs.
Meanwhile, a senior official in Quetta disclosed that the investigating agencies are also looking at possible RAW involvement in the Quetta massacre. He maintained that there has been an increase in terrorist activities in Balochistan since the Indians were allowed free rein in Afghanistan by the Karzai government. “The Indians will be the biggest beneficiaries if Pakistan is in trouble. Therefore, we can never rule out the possibility of their involvement in such incidents,” he contended.
Most officials rule out the involvement of the Al-Qaeda in the Quetta attack. According to them, most of the Al-Qaeda operatives who have been arrested have disclosed that they have strict orders from the Al-Qaeda high command not to involve themselves in the activities of local sectarian organisations. This call for restraint owes, in large part, to the fact that many Al-Qaeda operatives are believed to have taken shelter in Iran, a majority Shia state. “They cannot afford to sour their relationship with Iran,” said an official involved with the investigation.
Insiders disclose that police investigations are largely based on the information extracted from over 50 suspects who are presently being grilled. “All those arrested belong to banned sectarian organisations. They have provided us with vital information,” said one official.
Sources in the Interior Ministry reveal that the police in all four provinces have been directed to compile lists of all the militants working for the sectarian outfits operating in the country, with special emphasis on those who have been involved in incidents of sectarian violence. The government has announced head-money ranging from five hundred thousand to three million rupees for information leading to the arrest of these militants.
Said a senior police official of the Sindh police, “Most of these lists have been prepared, and we have forwarded these and other related information to the federal government. We are now waiting for the centre to issue us directions for our future line of action.”
Sources in the Sindh police also disclosed that the police of Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan have been asked to seek guidance from the Punjab police, who have successfully managed to contain sectarian strife in their province.
While it is imperative that those behind the horriffic attacks be apprehended and awarded exemplary punishment, there is an equally urgent need for the authorities to improve intelligence, enhance security and take preemptive measures to ensure that such incidents do not recur. Until decisive action is seen to be taken, the citizens of the country — particularly its minorities — will continue to live in a state of abject uncertainty.