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Terror’s Training Ground

By 9 September 2009 4 Comments

Openning09-09A 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.

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Nothing is off limits: Militants attack the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009.

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.

Del273533Finally, 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.

02Punjab_terror-09-09In 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.

*  *  *

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.

jem_ayeshaThe 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.

Ayesha Siddiqa is an internationally known political analyst based in Pakistan. She is the author of the book Military Inc.


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