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Fight to the Finish

By 14 July 2007 No Comment

lal-mosque-1-july07In the end, it was all flesh, bones and blood.

Under thick clouds of smoke, mutilated and bullet-riddled bodies lay scattered across the suburban battlefield. Rocked by heavy fire and shelling, the buildings within Lal Masjid sustained major damage and its frontline runners were crushed. Specially trained commandos were then left to clear the maze of rooms in the mosque compound one-by-one as Operation Silence wrapped up its final stage.

The process of counting and identifying the dead followed. By the end of the day on July 10, the official government line was that 50 militants and eight security personnel were killed. However, some sources stated that the number of dead topped 100. The fact that government officials requested 300 burial shrouds from Maulana Abdul Sattar Edhi – there was reportedly a request for an additional 500 before the next morning – pointed to a devastating number of casualties, and the fear was that students comprised the largest portion of these. Among the identified dead was Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi – the man who took over command of Lal Masjid after Maulana Abdul Aziz, his elder brother and chief cleric, was caught by vigilant security officials when trying to flee in a burqa.

The Lal Masjid crisis that began on July 3 stretched for over a week, traumatising not only the innocent residents who were locked up in the vicinity but the entire nation, which remained glued to their television screens for minute-to-minute details about the crisis. During this period, the government tried every trick of the trade, from imposing a curfew and cutting off electricity and supplies to besieging the mosque and waging a psychological war against the hardline cleric by placing the safety of the students squarely on his shoulders. But the government, after showing considerable restraint, finally resorted to a full-fledged commando operation to end the lingering crisis. .

Government officials blame the highly trained militants belonging to outlawed jihadi outfits, who had reportedly taken over the mosque’s command and were now using hundreds of women and children as “human shields.” The mosque’s private army had access to large stockpiles of weapons and had made tunnels and underground bunkers that helped them resist the highly trained commandos of the army’s Special Service Group (SSG).

lal-mosque-2-july07As the siege continued, the government changed its stance from a position of “no dialogue” to that of “dialogue.” In a last-ditch effort the government sent a delegation comprising the country’s senior clerics, led by Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, to meet with Maulana Ghazi to finalise the terms of the surrender. But the final late night talks collapsed with both sides pointing fingers. Maulana Ghazi’s supporters claimed the government drastically changed the terms of the draft surrender agreement, while government officials described this accusation as an exaggeration. They claimed their alterations were only to give the agreement a “legal shape.” Thus the government’s tactic changed. Securing the release of hundreds of women and children held hostage by the militants through peaceful means had failed, and after a week of waiting, the battle-ready jawans of the SSG were given the green light to take the operation inside the compound walls.

Having done their homework, the army had already conducted a surveillance of the compound through unmanned aircrafts and a global positioning system. Government officials said the militants had positioned themselves inside bunkers and underground tunnels in order to sharp-shoot the “intruders.” Similarly, they had dug up an underground tunnel which connected the Jamia Hafsa with Lal Masjid. The militants had been using this underground tunnel to traverse the compound safely and reach rooftops, from where they were targeting soldiers. There were 75 rooms in Jamia Hafsa where children and women were held hostage; each one of the rooms was guarded by five to ten militants. The army commandos started clearing and taking over these areas one-by-one, and the compounds of the Jamia Hafsa were the last to fall. It took them more than 20 hours before they announced that the Operation Silence was over.

The government managed to recover 1,300 men, women and children during the operation. Some of these women, who were recovered safely on the last day of the operation, had their written death wishes with them. Even though 43-year-old Maulana Ghazi continued denying till the very end that he was held hostage by hardcore militants, some unconfirmed reports insist that he was not only held hostage but was shot by the militants when he tried to surrender. This account of Ghazi’s death suggests that when his bunker was finally found, he was shot in the foot by a militant commander after which he wanted to surrender, but the commander shot him dead.The Interior Ministry, however, claimed that SSG troops killed Maulana Ghazi and 10 of his men while they were holed up in an underground bunker.

Lal Masjid had started making headlines since January, but it was only on July 3 that their defiance against the government blew up into a full-fledged armed conflict. On that fateful day, some Lal Masjid students snatched assorted rifles and walkie-talkies from the police personnel deployed at the estate office building, located adjacent to the mosque.

The situation immediately turned hostile when security officials went inside the madrassah to recover their snatched arms. Heavily armed militants of Lal Masjid, who were already positioned in and outside the mosque, started firing.

Riot police stationed outside the compound responded by lobbing teargas shells to disperse the unruly students. Lal Masjid’s incumbents declared “jihad” against Islamabad, and students were asked to come forward and embrace martyrdom.

Within no time, hordes of students emerged from inside the mosque and started pelting bricks, and home-made bombs at patrolling paramilitary troops. If this was not enough, young students of the seminary, wearing gas masks and with straps of magazines and grenades wrapped around their waist, were seen firing directly at the troops with automatic guns, while fellow students cheered them on with chants of “Sabiloona Sabiloona, Al-Jihad Al-Jihad.”

Thick plumes of smoke covered the skies as angry students torched two nearby government buildings, including that of the Environment Ministry, and set cars ablaze. Masked students were seen hiding behind sandbags on the mosque roof, taking potshots at the police and Rangers in the surrounding streets. They retaliated by launching a full-scale attack. By the evening, at least 10 people were dead and over 100 were wounded, including seminary students, some passers-by and three journalists.

The violence turned the heart of the leafy capital into a war zone. The authorities sealed the entire area surrounding Lal Masjid and imposed a shoot-on-sight curfew for the first time in Islamabad. The battle ensued at a time when the government started reinforcing paramilitary troops around the mosque, following the kidnapping of Chinese nationals who owned a massage parlour in an upscale neighbourhood of Islamabad. The Lal Masjid administration, which had sensed the build-up of troops around the mosque, demanded that the government remove the troops and warned that a failure to do so would unleash suicide bombers all over Islamabad.

Analysts suggest that the Lal Masjid brigade overestimated the situation and clashed with security officials in a bid to show the government its strength and pre-empt a possible attack. The Lal Masjid leadership also erred in its belief that any action against them would invite vociferous criticism of the government, and the students of nearly 127 madrassahs in Islamabad would come out on the streets to protest.

However, their first major setback came after the government launched a commando operation. Over a dozen casualties were reported, and only a few of the country’s religious clerics opposed the offensive.

With the operation officially launched and a curfew clamped, power was cut off in the area and residents were asked to stay indoors. The overnight siege of the area by SSG commandos and Rangers intensified as more security personnel from the Rawalpindi-based 111 Brigade and Mangla arrived. Some suggest that the three-layered plan of the operation put the army on the front line, Rangers at the second line and Islamabad police and Punjab Constabulary at the third line. While five gunship and surveillance helicopters circled over the mosque several times, raising fears that the security forces were preparing to storm the complex, the government announced amnesty for those who would surrender.

As dawn broke, several hundred students left the mosque and Maulana Abdul Aziz, the chief cleric of the mosque, made frantic appeals to his students, urging them not to leave. “Don’t fall into the trap of the enemy. Guard the mosque and the madrassah. Don’t go too far,” he was heard announcing from the mosque loud speakers. “Come and smell the fragrance of the blood of those who have already embraced martyrdom. Paradise is waiting for them, and paradise is waiting for all of us who are going to receive martyrdom soon.”

Maulana Aziz told his students that victory was near. “We have spoken to our brothers in the tribal areas and a host of other warriors, including Baitullah Mehsud, who would soon be coming to Islamabad for our support.” He vowed to wage jihad like Osama bin Laden.

Ironically, the Lal Masjid brigade began to crumble against a determined siege by security forces, particularly when its commander-in-chief, Maulana Abdul Aziz, was caught in a cowardly attempt to flee the mosque in a burqa in the company of over 60 Jamia Hafsa students. “We figured from his unusual demeanour that there was someone trying to escape in a burqa. The rest of the girls looked like girls, but he was taller and had a pot-belly,” said an official. When a lady police constable probed him for his identity, the girl students surrounded the mullah and said, “She is our auntie. She is sick and should be spared from the search.” When they finally removed the headscarf they found a bearded mullah inside. He was reportedly carrying a ladies handbag, from which the authorities recovered 242,000 rupees and 20 Saudi riyals, as well as a lipstick, a woman’s ID card and a diary.

Maulana Aziz’s arrest was the biggest blow to the armed militants trapped inside the compound. Soon after his arrest, a steady stream of students gave up and were screened through metal detectors and frisked by security officials. As authorities feared suicide attacks on their forces, most men were asked to walk out with their shirts off to show that they had no explosives tied to their waists.

Relatives of Lal Masjid students who had come to take them home said that they were not aware of the presence of weapons in the complex until recently. “We sent them to the madrassah to acquire education and not to be taught how to wage jihad,” said Mohammed Sulaiman, father of a 12-year-old girl trapped inside the mosque.

Some parents said that ever since Lal Masjid had stood up against the government in January, they had been trying to withdraw their children from the seminary, but the madrassah administration prevented them from leaving. “They had been holding our children hostage and would not even allow us to meet them,” said a parent.

Mohammed Sarwar, however, was one of the lucky few who managed to recover his daughter nearly two months back, but not without some difficulty. Sarwar said when he went to the madrassah after Lal Masjid’s first confrontation with the government, he was not allowed to meet his daughter for three weeks. “Every time I went there, they either did not allow me to meet her, or they said that if I withdrew my daughter from the madrassah, they would write her a certificate after which no madrassah in Pakistan would ever give her admission.” Sarwar said he finally lied that her mother was sick and only then did he secure his daughter’s release.

However, those who had failed to gauge the seriousness of the situation waited outside the curfew zone in Islamabad to collect their dear ones. Some of them were allowed by security officials to enter the no-go area and collect their children, only to be driven back by the militants calling the shots. Earlier these militants had allowed hordes of students to leave the madrassah, but it transpired later that they stopped an unknown number of students, including young children and orphans, from leaving the premises. Military commandos set off a series of explosions around the compound to create a breach in its outer walls so that children being detained inside the mosque could escape.

What surprised the government the most was the fact that these militants had a big enough stockpile of weapons to sustain them for several days of fighting. When Ghazi Abdul Rashid was asked as to why the madrassah, an institution where people send children to acquire religious education, had piled up the most sophisticated weapons – enough to challenge the might of the Pakistan Army – he said they had begun hoarding arms only when they realised that the government was planning to tighten the noose around them. “We have enough weapons to fight for 25 to 30 days,” he said in one of his TV interviews from inside the mosque compound.

After the escape attempt and subsequent arrest of Maulana Abdul Aziz, many in the government concluded that the militants under Maulana Ghazi would now collapse like a house of cards. However, they didn’t anticipate that the madrassah would be virtually taken over by the hardcore militants holed up inside. Some government officials contend that towards the end, Maulana Ghazi was no longer in control and that it was the hardcore militants, linked to outlawed organisations, who were calling the shots – a charge that Ghazi denied.

Independent analysts believe that these militants had probably formed a shoora or council, and that decisions were being taken through consensus and that no one individual ran the show. Maulana Ghazi was, most probably, the spokesperson.

Meanwhile, as the stalemate continued, Maulana Ghazi, agreed to leave the madrassah along with his comrades-in-arms, provided the government offered them a “safe passage.” He also said that they were ready to hand over the mosque, the madrassah and the children’s library to the Waqaf-ul-Madaris. The government, however, flatly refused, saying, “They have to surrender unconditionally, and there will be no negotiations of any kind.”

In a bid to cow them down, the government continued to put the militants under psychological pressure. On the one hand, it kept on extending the deadline for a commando-style operation, but simultaneously carried out air raids in an attempt to destroy some of the militants’ bunkers inside the mosque.

And while the government continued to push for a peaceful solution, Maulana Ghazi took a final stand and said they would not surrender and would rather die as martyrs. Some officials, who knew the cleric personally, suggest that Ghazi had taken this final decision after he consulted with some senior clerics over the phone. Some suggest that he was advised to stand firm on the issue of safe passage because the government was unlikely to break into the complex, fearing injury or death to the women and children housed inside. He was told that even if he offered to surrender, he would most likely be executed for the serious charges levelled against him. Ghazi also admitted, in one of his phone interviews, that he had adopted a new position after speaking to some of his senior colleagues who were better strategists than him when it came to handling these types of complex situations.

As the siege of the mosque compound lingered on, different stories continued to emerge. There were reports suggesting that suicide jackets had been distributed among the militants and that mines had been laid inside the compound to inflict maximum damage on army commandoes in case of a break-in. But most chilling was the rumour that militants had written wills stating that they would rather die than surrender, and that martyrdom would spark an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. “Our blood will not go to waste,” read their collective will.

Whether their blood sparks an Islamic revolution in Pakistan remains to be seen. But the battle of Jamia Hafsa will continue to reverberate in the collective memory of all Pakistanis for years to come.

Related articles from the July 2007 cover story on Lal Masjid.

The Battle for the Soul of Pakistan
Rendezvous With the ‘Others’




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