Lal Masjid massacre still continues to be relevant

Khwaja’s murder points to home truths – By Zaffar Abbas

Courtesy: dawn

ISLAMABAD: Horrific as it was, the brutal killing of an ex-ISI man and pro-Islamist campaigner Khalid Khwaja by members of an Islamist group is also a stark reminder of how the sudden intensification of militancy over the last couple of years, especially by the so-called Punjabi Taliban, is to a large extent a direct reaction to the events of Lal Masjid.

It’s been almost three years since the Pakistan Army stormed the militant-infested Lal Masjid and its adjacent Madressah Hafsa, killing more than a hundred people, including many women and the firebrand cleric Abdur Rasheed Ghazi.

As it turned out, such use of military might was an overreaction by the then president Pervez Musharraf to the killing of some army commandos. Ignoring the advice of some of his commanders against the abandoning of negotiation process, he had ordered the use of brute force against a handful of militants and others holed up inside the mosque and the Madressah.

As it soon dawned on the authorities the killing of armed militants and razing of the women’s Madressah in the heart of Islamabad to the ground sent a wave of anger and hatred amongst Islamist groups.

The blowback was so severe that the country’s security establishment is still trying to cope with the situation.

Khalid Khwaja’s abduction and violent death have added an entirely new dimension to the militant movement. Indications are that his abductors and a few other new factions of the so-called Punjabi Taliban, mostly drawn from the former mainstream pro-Kashmiri groups, regard the Pakistan Army and its intelligence outfits as their biggest enemies.

And Mr Khwaja’s taped ‘confessional statement’, which he was forced to record, clearly shows such militants are not prepared to forget the Lal Masjid saga.

“Khalid Khwaja had very close links with Abdur Rashid Ghazi and the Lal Masjid movement and it seems that some of the militants suspect him of betrayal,” author and security analyst Zahid Hussain said. He also did not rule out the possibility of these men being behind the murder as, according to him, “a large number of Ghazi’s disciples have turned Waziristan into their base and have been involved in recent terrorist attacks”.

The video and press statement released by the abductors a few days before Khalid Khwaja’s murder highlight three significant points. The group, which calls itself ‘Asian Tigers’ and comprises militants from Punjab, made him criticise mainstream pro-Kashmiri groups like Jaish-i-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba as being pro-establishment, made him admit that he was an ‘agent’ of ISI and CIA, and to having played a negative or dubious role in the Lal Masjid affair.

It’s difficult to say what the next move by this militant group will be. But one thing is clear: its members are probably dissident from one or more of the mainstream militant groups they hate the Pakistan Army and ISI and want to avenge the killings in Lal Masjid.

Senior security and intelligence officials privately admit that the ill-planned storming of Lal Masjid, and the resultant blowback, has changed the entire complexion of militancy in the country, particularly in Punjab. Based on available data, some of these officials are convinced the Lal Masjid operation proved to be a turning point in the militant movement, resulting in emergence of more ferocious groups, both from within the existing militant organisations and also from what were described in some intelligence reports as ‘Lal Masjid affectees’.

Chain reaction

“Initially there were a few incidents of terrorism in the aftermath of the Lal Masjid operation, and we thought it was a natural reaction by a group of angry people and will soon die down,” said a senior police officer who had initially dealt with the crisis.

“But none of us could have imagined the kind of chain reaction that we continue to see today,” he said.

And he is not entirely wrong, as is clear from the available statistics. From 2003 till July 2007 (when the Lal Masjid episode occurred), there were six suicide attacks in Punjab. Five of these were during the first two years, there were no incidents during 2005 and 2006, and in 2007 one brutal attack rocked the army training camp in Kharian.

Compared to this, from Aug 2007 to March this year, there have been a total of 33 suicide attacks in the province. The previous year (2009) topped the table with 13 strikes. During these three years, over 600 people have been killed in suicide attacks in Punjab alone. Another 112 have lost their lives in bomb explosions and other incidents of violence in the province.

Although the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata were already in the grip of extremist violence, the post-Lal Masjid backlash has made things worse.

Experts ascribe the aggravation to a number of factors, but admit that the Lal Masjid episode was the trigger for alienating an already fringe group. “The Lal Masjid incident was the turning point for Pakistani militant groups when they declared Jihad against the state and the military,” says Zahid Hussain.

Punjab Nexus

The storming of the mosque and the anger it generated sparked defections from pro-Kashmiri groups like Jaish and Lashkar-e-Taiba, with the dissidents accusing the army and ISI of betrayal, and joining hands with sectarian or militant outfits like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and Harkat-i-Jihad-i-Islami to create a Punjab nexus in the tribal region.

Many security experts believe that this radicalisation process has continued even now, with more and more people either forcing the leadership of mainstream militant organisations to take a tougher stance, or are quitting these groups to move towards ‘Punjabi camps’ in Fata.

In the aftermath of the Lal Masjid episode two distinct groups of the so-called affectees had emerged in Malakand and southern Punjab, one calling itself ‘Hafsa Brigade’ and the other one ‘Ghazi Force’ (named after the slain chief cleric of the mosque).

But on their own these groups were not able to make any real impact, and soon most of their members went and joined the more established militant groups. Among these the one which has continued to remain in the forefront, and is also suspected of being behind the kidnapping of Khalid Khwaja, Col Imam and journalist Asad Qureshi, is Ilyas Kashmiri’s Harkat-i-Jihad-i-Islami, currently hiding its real identity behind a hitherto unknown group Asian Tigers.

Along with Lashkar-i-Jhangvi it is also the most ferocious of Punjabi militant groups.

Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) continues to remain the biggest group and the centrifugal force in the Pakistan-centric suicide and other attacks. It is believed to be assisted by Al Qaeda’s Azmari faction, which was organised by Kenyan-born Al Qaeda man Al-Kinni, who was killed in a drone attack. The TNSM’s Fazlullah faction once provided both logistic and material support to these Punjabi Taliban before it came under heavy attack by the army in Malakand.

And now most of its members have either been killed or are on the run. The anti-Shia Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has been attracting a large number of militants from southern Punjab. It has adopted Fata as a safe heaven to organise and launch attacks in the province.

And although Masood Azhar’s main faction of Jaish-i-Mohammed and its affiliated Al Rehmat Welfare Trust have so far enjoyed an upper hand in lower Punjab, its breakaway faction, Jamaat-ul-Furqan, and its affiliate Al Asr Trust, has been pulling many militants who feel they have been betrayed by the ISI and army on issues like Kashmir and Afghanistan.

Jamaatud Dawa or Lashkar-i-Taiba, being Ahle Hadith rather than Deobandi outfits, do not figure very prominently in this equation, although some believe it too was finding it hard to keep its membership intact in the wake of an anti-establishment wave within the militant movement in the country.

Numerous factors have contributed to this spike in religiously-motivated violence. Among them are the Afghan situation, growing anti-Americanism and a marked shift in the military establishment’s policy vis-a-vis use of militancy as a policy tool. But few could have realised what havoc mishandling of the Lal Masjid episode would wreak. The blowback can be equated to the storming of the Golden Temple by Indian troops in 1984 and the boost it gave to the Khalistan terror movement. Some experts believe, considering the dynamics of the militancy, and the geographical area it is capable of influencing, the ultimate fallout from the Lal Masjid could yet be much bigger and deadlier.

Monday, 03 May, 2010

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