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Of Pakistani jehadi groups and their al-Qaeda and intelligence links

Tuesday 24 March 2009

LAHORE: The monster of al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked Islamic militancy keeps spreading its tentacles in Pakistan by establishing an effective modus operandi which increasingly exploits its local affiliates – militant outfits active in Kashmir and Afghanistan — to carry on the global jehadi agenda of the Osama-led terror outfit.

Almost seven and a half years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the subsequent war on terror launched by the Bush administration, the most worrying aspect of the prevailing situation remains the growing American belief that if there is one country that matters most to the future of al-Qaeda, it is none other than Pakistan. American intelligence agencies believe that with a gush of motivated youth flooding towards the realm of jehad and joining the al-Qaeda-cadres, Pakistan continues to be a potential site of jehadi recruiting and training, where the fugitive al-Qaeda leaders keep hiring local recruits with the help of their local affiliates to bolster the manpower of the group that has grown from strength to strength despite the capture of over 500 of its operatives from within Pakistan. Resultantly, the jehadi-linked terrorist activity has increased manifold in almost all parts of Pakistan — from Waziristan to Islamabad.

A majority of the Pakistani jehadi groups can well be described as the civilian face of the Pakistan Army which has been nurturing and exporting militancy in the name of Islam in order to pursue its geo-strategic agenda not only in the immediate region comprising India and Afghanistan, but also in Central Asia, Chechnya and the West. Subsequently, Pakistan has become home to plenty of jehadi organisations [having links with al-Qaeda and Taliban] whose goals are easily compatible with those of the Pakistani state. These militant groups could not have achieved their present size without the active support of the Pakistan establishment. These very groups now seek to reduce Pakistan to the status of a captive territory which can be used to pursue the global jehadi agenda of Osama bin Laden. However, the dilemma is that the Pakistani establishment apparently lacks the will and the capacity to effectively confront and counter this enterprise. Let’s now briefly examine the key militant groups based in Pakistan and their hidden and known links with al-Qaeda, Taliban and the ISI.

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Baitullah Mehsud

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is quite a recent phenomenon as it came into being on December 12, 2007 when a shura or council of 40 senior militant leaders commanding an army of around 50,000 gathered in Peshawar and decided to unite under a single banner. Baitullah from South Waziristan was appointed the ameer of the TTP, Maulana Hafiz Gul Bahadur from North Waziristan was made the senior naib ameer (senior vice chief) while Maulana Faqir Muhammad of the Bajaur Agency was made the naib ameer (vice chief). The TTP shura not only had representation from all the seven tribal agencies of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but also from the settled districts of the North Western Frontier Province including the districts of Swat, Bannu, Tank, Lakki Marwat, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohistan, Buner and Malakand.

A subsequent statement by Baitullah’s spokesman Maulvi Omar on December 13, 2007 stated that the sole objective behind the launching of the TTP is to unite the Pakistani Taliban and set up a centralized organization against the NATO forces in Afghanistan, besides waging a ‘defensive jehad’ against the Pakistani forces, carrying out military operations against innocent civilians in the FATA and the NWFP. In an interview with Al Jazeera correspondent Ahmed Zaidan after the launching of the TTP, Baitullah Mehsud had declared: “Our main aim is to finish Britain and United States and to crush the pride of the non-Muslims. We pray to God to give us the ability to destroy the White House, New York and London. And we have trust in God. Very soon, we will be witnessing jehad’s miracles”.

Baitullah Mehsud, who prefers being called a Pakistani Talib, virtually controls much of the South Waziristan Agency on the restive Pak-Afghan border where militancy has given birth to a new generation of militant leaders. Already named by the Musharraf regime as the prime suspect in the Benazir Bhutto murder case, 35 year old Baitullah reportedly commands a force of 40,000 to 50,000 fighters, who are willing to die for the cause of Islam. Being Pakistan’s most influential Taliban leader, Baitullah has trained and lined up a whole new bunch of diehard commanders, all set and ready to take on the security forces in case of any major offensive.

Baitullah had pledged himself to Mullah Omar in March 2005 in the presence of five leading Taliban commanders including Mullah Dadullah who was killed in Afghanistan. Like Mullah Omar’s Taliban militia, the private army of Baitullah too, has hundreds of foreigners, mostly Uzbeks, imposes Shariat with a view to prevent ‘vice’ and promotes ‘virtue’. The Pakistani authorities accuse Baitullah of receiving money from al-Qaeda and the Taliban to run the affairs of his parallel state in South Waziristan. He has been in the limelight for almost four years due to his well-known role in spearheading with the help of his suicide bombers a bloody insurgency against the Pakistani security forces, which are busy hunting fugitive al-Qaeda and Taliban militants in the trouble stricken tribal areas on the Pak-Afghan border.

Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammad (TNSM) led by Sufi Mohammad Generally referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, primarily to distinguish itself from the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi or the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws, led by Maulana Sufi Mohammad, is a militant Wahabi group which has fast emerged in the Malakand Division of the North West Frontier Province and in the Bajuar Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas as a private army to reckon with.

Known as a pro-Taliban jehadi organisation having sympathies with Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, the TNSM motto is ‘Shariat ya Shahadat’ (Islamic laws or martyrdom) which rejects all political and religio-political parties for they follow the western style of democracy and openly condone the use of force in jehad. The members of the group are identified by their shoulder-length hair and camouflage vests over traditional shalwar kameez clothing, being the trade mark of Sufi, as well as black turbans which has become their identity. The TNSM members are therefore referred to as the black turbans. Ideologically, the TNSM is dedicated to transform Pakistan into a Taliban style Islamic state where Shariat should be the supreme law of the land.

In the words of Sufi: “Those opposing the imposition of Sharia in Pakistan are Wajibul Qatl (worthy of death). The TNSM rejects democracy as un-Islamic: “We want enforcement of Islamic judicial system in totality: judicial, political, economic, jehad, fi sabilillah (holy war in the name of Allah), education and health. In my opinion the life of the faithful will automatically be moulded according to the Islamic system when the Islamic judicial system is enforced”, Sufi had declared in November 2001 before proceeding to Afghanistan along with thousands of his armed followers to join the Taliban in Afghanistan in their fight against the US-led Allied Forces. Upon his return home, Sufi was jailed on terrorism charges where he had to spend the next seven years, before being released as a result of a peace deal with the government.

The Swat chapter of TNSM is headed by Sufi Mohammad’s son-in-law Maulana Fazlullah, who has already become a house hold name in the picturesque valley in the wake of the fierce resistance given by his private army to the Pakistan army when it launched a military operation in Swat in October 2007 to dismantle the militant network and demolish the infrastructure of the TNSM headquarters and its privately run FM Radio station. However, one and a half year later, the forces of Fazlullah eventually compelled the government to sign a peace deal with Sufi to restore peace in Swat. As things stand, Fazlullah, having a fighting strength of over 5,000 in Swat, has growing links with al-Qaeda and Taliban, amidst intelligence reports describing the valley as crucial from the point of view of a larger front that al-Qaeda is in the process of creating in Pakistan. And remember Swat is just 160 kilometers from Islamabad.

Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI) led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar

Led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, who has already been accused by Benazir Bhutto in her posthumous book as the mastermind of the October 18, 2007 suicide attack during her welcome procession in Karachi, the Harkatul Jehadul Islami (HUJI) is a Pakistan-based jehadi group with affiliates in India and Bangladesh. While the exact formation date of the group is not known, its origin is traced to the Soviet-Afghan war. Qari Saifullah along with two of his associates, seminary students from Karachi, were instrumental in laying the foundation of the Jamiat Ansarul Afghaneen (the Party of the Friends of Afghan People), in 1980. Towards the end of the Afghan jehad, the Jamiat rechristened itself as HUJI and reoriented its strategy to fight for the cause of fellow Muslims in the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir.

Considered close to the ameer of the Afghan Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar, Qari had attempted to stage a coup in 1985 to topple the second government of Benazir Bhutto. He was subsequently arrested and tried, before being freed by the security agencies in 1996 soon after the dismissal of the Bhutto government. He subsequently traveled to Afghanistan, where he became advisor to Mullah Omar on political affairs. Before the US invasion of Afghanistan in November 2001, the HUJI had got membership among the Taliban cabinet as three Taliban ministers and 22 judges belonged to it. Qari was one of the few jehadi leaders who had escaped with Mullah Omar after the Allied Forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001.

He first took shelter in the South Waziristan Agency; then moved to Peshawar and eventually fled to Saudi Arabia, from where he decided to move to the UAE. Three years later, on August 6, 2004, he was arrested by the UAE authorities and handed over to the Pakistani agencies, only to be deported. He was arrested after revelations during investigations of the December 2003 twin suicide attacks on Musharraf that he had been executing terrorist operations in Pakistan with the help of his men in Pakistan. But instead of trying to prosecute and convict him after his arrest, the authorities chose to keep him under detention for the next two years and nine months, without even filing any criminal charges against him in any court of law. However, a few months before Benazir’s return home, he was quietly released, before being arrested again in February after Bhutto’s claim in her posthumous book pertaining to his alleged involvement in the Karachi suicide bombing and the subsequent pressure created by the international community. Yet he was released after a couple of months following a series of suicide bombings in Lahore, targeting the Naval War College and the Federal Investigation Agency head office.

Jamiatul Ansar (JUA) led by Maulana Fazalur Rehman Khalil Known as the only jehadi organisation from Pakistan with a record of closeness to Osama bin Laden, Jamiatul Ansar (JUA) is led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman Khalil who has enjoyed a long career in the ISI-sponsored Afghan and Kashmir jehads. Originally launched as the Harkatul Ansar, the group was renamed as the Harkatul Mujahideen (HUM or the Movement of the Holy Warriors) after the US designated it a Foreign Terrorist Organization in October 1997 and then re-named as the Jamiatul Ansar after the Musharraf regime banned the HUM in January 2002, under American pressure. Believed to be a Wahabi member of Laden’s International Islamic Front (IIF) for “Jehad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People” and a co-signatory of bin Laden’s first fatwa issued in 1998 calling for attacks against the US, Maulana Khalil was in the al-Qaeda training camps struck by the US cruise missiles in Khost and Jalalabad in August 1998. The JUA leadership represents Deobandi School of Islamic thought whose members are fanatic Sunni Muslims. With a pan-Islamic ideology, the jehadi organization struggles to achieve secession of Jammu & Kashmir from India through militant means and its eventual merger with Pakistan. Following the August 1998 American missile attacks on al-Qaeda training camps in eastern Afghanistan, Khalil had vowed at a press conference in Islamabad that the harm done to the members of his jehadi group by the US strikes, would not go unanswered. And the Americans still take seriously his 1998 public warning at the news conference: “For each of us killed or wounded in the cowardly US attack, at least 100 Americans will be killed. I may not be alive, but you will remember my words”, Khalil had stated.

As of today, the US intelligence agencies believe that the Harkatul Mujahideen still retains links, like most of other jehadi groups, with the Taliban remnants and al-Qaeda operatives hiding on the Pak-Afghan border. Khalil took hundreds of his men to Afghanistan after the US-led Allied Forces had attacked Afghanistan in 2001. The Harkat chief returned home safely in January 2002 and lived for next six months in an Islamabad sanctuary, with no constraints until August 2002 when he was placed under house arrest. However, the intelligence circles say he was taken into protective custody after American intelligence sleuths stationed in Islamabad had sought his custody to debrief him. The Pakistani authorities, however, had refused to oblige. Maulana Khalil was released a few months later.

Yet Khalil’s name once again hit the international media headlines following the June 5, 2005 arrest of a pair of Pakistani-Americans by the FBI from the sleepy little farming town of Lodi, California. Hamid Hayat and his father, Umer Hayat were later charged with lying to the authorities regarding their connection with jehadi training camps in Pakistan. They told the FBI they had received training in terrorism at a military training camp being run by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, who maintains a jehadi facility at Dhamial area in Rawalpindi.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) led by Mohammad Akram Lahori

Most of the major terrorist operations carried out against the Western targets in Pakistan since the 9/11 terror attacks appear to have a common grandmother – the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) – a Sunni Deobandi organization which is the group of choice today for hard-core militants who are adamant to pursue their ambitious jehadi agenda in Pakistan.

Launched in 1996 as a militant sectarian Sunni group, the LeJ today is the most violent terrorist group operating in Pakistan with the help of its lethal suicide squad. As with most of the Sunni sectarian and militant groups, almost the entire LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan and most of its cadre strength has been drawn from numerous Sunni madrassas in Pakistan. The LeJ was formed by a break away faction of the Sunni extremists of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which walked out of the outfit, accusing its parent organisation of deviating from the ideals of its co-founder, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was allegedly assassinated by his Shia rivals in February 1990. The LeJ was actually launched by Riaz Basra who was succeeded by Akram Lahori, presently behind the bars in Karachi on terrorism charges.

The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi uses terror tactics as a part of its grand strategy to force the state into accepting its narrow interpretations of the Sunni sectarian doctrines as official doctrines. Besides targeting the US interests in Pakistan, the victims of its terror tactics have been leaders and workers of rival Shia outfits, bureaucrats, policemen and worshippers. On August 14, 2001, General Musharraf, in the face of growing public criticism of his failure to control anti-Shia violence, announced the banning of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. On January 15, 2002, Musharraf banned the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). Soon afterwards, the regime rounded up a large number of the activists of the two sectarian outfits. However, despite being outlawed almost seven years ago, both the groups continue to carry out terrorist activities across Pakistan. Since 2002, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has provided services for large-scale suicide attacks. A suicide operation in March 2002 in an Islamabad church in the well-guarded sensitive diplomatic enclave killed five Christians, including two American nationals.

In May 2002, eleven Frenchmen, who were mistaken for being Americans, were blown up in Karachi and on June 14, 2002, twelve Pakistanis were killed in a suicide attack on US diplomats. Five of the 10 terrorists identified belonged to the LeJ cadres. It was also the first occasion that police identified LeJ as being involved in all the three incidents. One of the photographed men, Asif Ramzi, was already wanted in the Daniel Pearl murder case, with a three million rupees-reward offered for his capture. According to investigators, the al-Qaeda network worked in close coordination with the LeJ cadres to plan both the car bomb attacks in Karachi. On January 30, 2003, the US State Department added the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to its List of Foreign Terrorist Organisations and to those outfits covered under an Executive Order.

Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) led by Maulana Masood Azhar

The Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) or the Army of the Prophet Mohammad, one of the deadliest militant groups operating from Pakistan and waging ‘jehad’ against the Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir, was launched by Maulana Masood Azhar at the behest of the Inter Services Intelligence in February 2000, shortly after he was released from an Indian jail, in exchange for hostages on board an Indian Airlines plane which was hijacked by five armed Kashmiri militants and taken to Kandahar in December 1999.

While resuming his activities in Pakistan almost immediately after his release, Azhar announced the formation of Jaish-e-Mohammad with the prime objective of fighting out the Indian security forces in Kashmir. Along with Masood Azhar, the Indian government had to release two more militants who had been arrested on terrorism charges - Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed and Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar. Strong Deobandi creed forms the primary religious and ideological base for the JeM as well as the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban movement was launched by the students of the very network of 9000 madrassas which the Jaish’s (formerly Harkat) parent organisation – Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman runs across Pakistan.

Masood Azhar only knit the ties stronger after his release as he toured Kandhar to secure the blessings of Taliban leadership after he had planned to launch Jaish. Having gone through many ups and downs in the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, it was in 2007 that the slowing down of the Indo-Pak peace process by the decision makers in New Delhi made the Musharraf regime to reactivate the Jaish - apparently to re-launch cross border offensives in ‘Occupied’ Jammu & Kashmir. The Jaish was subsequently reorganized under the command of Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Masood Azhar. In July 2005, the British intelligence agencies investigating the 7/7 (2005) suicide bombings in London informed their Pakistani counterparts that two of the four suicide bombers Shehzad Tanweer and Siddique Khan, had met Osama Nazir, a Jaish suicide trainer, in Faisalabad, a few months before the 7/7 attacks when they had visited Pakistan.

A year later, the Jaish once again became the focus of world attention in August 2006 after it transpired that Rashid Rauf, an alleged al-Qaeda member named as the main plotter of a terrorist plan to blow up US-bound British airliners with the help of liquid explosives, was a close relative of Masood Azhar. Rashid Rauf was accused of helping train plotters in the use of explosives in readiness for their attempt to commit mass murder in the sky. He was arrested on August 9, 2007 from a Jaish-run religious seminary in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur. In December 2007, Rashid Rauf escaped from police custody under mysterious circumstances, only to be killed almost one year later in an American predator strike at an al-Qaeda hide-out in Waziristan.

In a latest development, Azhar has reportedly abandoned his headquarters in the Model Town area of Bahawalpur and temporarily shifted his base to the South Waziristan region in the wake the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks. There are reports that Masood Azhar was asked to restrict his activities following Indian government’s recent demand to hand him over to New Delhi on terrorism charges. While foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi and information minister Sherry Rehman have already stated that Azhar was missing and that the government was unaware of his whereabouts, his close circles say the Jaish chief had first left for Muzaffarabad, but eventually decided to temporarily shift his based to the North Waziristan Agency, thinking it safer than any other place under the present circumstances.

Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) led by Prof Hafiz Mohammad Saeed

Literally meaning “Army of the Pure”, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), founded by Prof Hafiz Mohammad Saeed in 1991 at the Kunar province of Afghanistan, dreaded for its guerrilla attacks in Jammu & Kashmir and known for the infamous fidayeen attack on the Red Fort in New Delhi, has proved to be one of the most dangerous jehadi groups operating out of Pakistan and fighting the Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir.

The lethal Lashkar is an Ahle Hadith (Wahhabi) jehadi group which was born as an armed wing of Markaz Dawatul Irshad (MDI) or Centre for Proselytisation and Preaching. The MDI was set up in 1988 by three Islamic scholars — Prof Hafiz Mohammad Saeed and Zafar Iqbal, who were professors of Islamic studies at the University of Engineering and Technology, Lahore, and Dr Abdullah Azzam, a professor of the International Islamic University, Islamabad. Dr Azzam was also the ideologue for the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, besides being the religio-political mentor of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. The main purpose of the MDI was to promote the purification of the society, and to build a society on the basis of Quran and Sunnah. Toward the end of the Afghan war, the MDI set up an armed wing called Lashkar-e-Toiba. With the launching of the Lashkar in 1991, several training camps were set up in the eastern Afghanistan provinces of Kantar and Paktia, both of which had a sizable number of Al Hadith (Wahabi) followers of Islam, with the aim of participating in the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

The participation of the cadres in Afghan jehad is believed to have helped its leadership gain the trust of the Pakistani intelligence establishment. Insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir beginning in 1989 is considered to have provided an active battleground for the LeT militants when its top brass was made to turn its attention from Afghanistan and devote itself to waging jehad in Jammu Kashmir. The LeT soon shot to prominence for launching some deadly guerilla operations against the Indian security forces in the Kashmir Valley, especially the 2001 fidayeen attack on the Red Fort in New Delhi. However, Hafiz Saeed stepped down as the LeT chief in December 2001 and announced the launching of the Jamaatul Daawa (JuD). However, the US State Department which had actually designated the LeT a foreign terrorist organisation in 2002, describes the JuD as the ’front organisation’ of the Lashkar.

The LeT was once again put in the spotlight in the wake of the bloody Mumbai attacks of November 26, 2008. Although the Lashkar-e-Toiba strongly refuted its involvement, the Indian authorities claimed that the lone terrorist captured alive (Ajmal Kasab) has confessed to being member of the LeT, belonging to the Faridkot village of Okara district in Punjab. After the UN banned the JuD as a terrorist group after the 26/11 tragedy, Pakistan subsequently conceded that Ajmal Kasab was its national. The ban was followed by the arrest of the Muzaffarabad-based chief operational commander of the LeT, Maulana Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, being the mastermind of the Mumbai terror attacks. The LeT was once again named in the March 3, 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore that left eight people dead. The attack was described by international media as an attempt to hijack the bus carrying the visiting team to demand in return the release of Lakhvi who is presently detained at the Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi.

Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) led by Syed Salahuddin

The Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) or the Party of Freedom Fighters, is considered to be the mother of ongoing militancy in the Indian-administered Jammu & Kashmir. Led by a militant Sunni Muslim Yusuf Shah alias Pir Syed Salahuddin, the Hizb is politically mentored by the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI) which describes Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of Pakistan and stands for its integration with Pakistan.

Of the jehadi groups operating in Jammu & Kashmir, the Hizbul Mujahideen is the brand name of the Kashmir militancy because of being the largest and the most important in terms of its effectiveness in perpetrating violence across Kashmir. With a cadre base drawn from indigenous and foreign sources, the leadership of the Hizb had established contacts with many Afghan Mujahideen groups such as the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, under which some of its cadre received arms training at camps in Afghanistan. Yet, its leadership has never identified itself with either al-Qaeda or the Taliban, unlike most of the Pakistani jehadi groups. The Rawalpindi based Commander of the Hizb Syed Salahuddin has repeatedly denied any sort of links between his group and al-Qaeda or Taliban.

Unlike the other Kashmiri militant groups fighting in the Indian controlled state, the HM exclusively operates in Jammu & Kashmir and has been held responsible for regular attacks against the Indian security forces since its inception in 1989. Many say the Hizbul was actually formed to keep a check on the growing influence of the pro-Independence Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF). The birth of the Hizbul marked the first ideological division of the militancy in Kashmir - the JKLF advocated complete independence of the State while the Hizbul favoured a merger with Pakistan, in line with the stated policy of the Jamaat-e-Islami. The US State Department included the Hizbul Mujahideen in its “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” list on May 1, 2003, a few days before the US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage’s visit to the subcontinent. The move came after the Hizbul Mujahideen leadership owned up to having acquired shoulder-firing Estrela surface-to-air missiles being used against the Indian security forces in Jammu & Kashmir.

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