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Punjabis here, Pusthtuns there, Taliban everywhere

Sunday 25 October 2009

Preliminary investigations by the Pakistani authorities indicate that the terrorists who had targeted the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi on October 10, 2009 and those involved in the October 15, 2009 multiple terrorist attacks in Lahore at three different places were in fact Punjabi Taliban belonging to at least three Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-jihadi organisations which are working in tandem with the Pashtun-dominated South Waziristan-based Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to carry out joint terrorist operations in almost every nook and corner of the country.

The GHQ attack has not only highlighted the growing threat from the Waziristan-based Pashtun Taliban, but also from the Punjabi Taliban. As a matter of fact, Aqeel alias Dr Usman, the ring leader of the GHQ attackers, too happens to be a Punjabi Taliban from the Kahuta area of Rawalpindi who had been affiliated with the Army Medical Corps till 2006. According to his interrogators, in the aftermath of the July 2007 Lal Masjid operation in the heart of Islamabad, Aqeel and several other hardcore jihadi elements floated a new organisation by the name of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab, which is currently led by one Farooq Bhai, who had been affiliated with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Jaish-e-Mohammad in the past. The two organisations of the Punjabi and the Pashtun Taliban reportedly share a Sunni-Deobandi ideology and a common objective to wage jihad against the Pakistan Army which is siding with the forces of the infidel in the ongoing war against terror. The Punjabi-Pashtun nexus of the two Taliban organisations reportedly share each other’s religious seminaries, training facilities, sanctuaries as well as jihadi cadres to carry out terrorist operations across Pakistan. However, the terrorist activities of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab have so far been limited to the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad as well as Lahore.

Much before the TTP henchmen targeted the GHQ building the Pakistani intelligence agencies had informed the government that some of the southern Punjab-based banned militant-cum-sectarian groups were gaining military strength, especially after joining hands with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. As per the intelligence information, several activists of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and the Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HUJI), who had taken part in the Afghan jihad, have tied up with the TTP to carry out terrorist operations against important government and security installations. The facilitators of the terrorists who targeted the provincial headquarters of the Inter Services Intelligence and the Federal Investigation Agency in Lahore recently, besides attacking the training facilities of the Punjab police as well as the Sri Lankan cricket team were all Punjabi Taliban.

South Punjab actually grabbed the attention of the intelligence agencies over the past couple of years due to involvement of the Punjabi Taliban who were arrested from different parts of the province after a spate of terrorist attacks targeting the country’s security and intelligence establishment. However, two years down the road since then, the growing power of the Punjabi Taliban poses a serious threat. While Punjab has been the hub of religious extremism and radical Islamists for long, it is the southern part of Punjab, also known as the Seraiki region, which faces the most threat serious of Talibanisation. Investigators believe local militant groups in Punjab provide logistical support and human resource to the Pashtun Taliban for carrying out their terrorist operations in Punjab.

Initially made up largely of Pashtuns, the Taliban movement in Pakistan is now largely dominated by Punjabi militant groups created by the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment with a view to ’liberate’ Jammu and Kashmir. However, like Frankenstein’s monster, these jihadi groups, which are mostly based in Punjab, have joined hands with the Taliban and al-Qaeda to take on their creator. With a population of approximately 27 million, South Punjab comprises 13 districts: Multan, Bahawalpur, Rahimyar Khan, Jhang, Layyah, Lodhran, Khanewal, Muzaffargarh, Bahawalnagar, Rajanpur, Bhakkar, Vehari and Dera Ghazi Khan. The investigators believe that local militant groups in Punjab provide logistical support and human resource to the Pashtun Taliban for carrying out their terrorist operations in Punjab. But fresh recruits for most of the Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-militant jihadi groups come from the religious seminaries of Jhang, Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur and Muzaffargarh.

Once indoctrinated at these religious seminaries, the young madrassa students from Punjab are taken to the terrorist training camps in the country’s Pashtun tribal belt. According to rough estimates, over five thousand youngsters from the religious seminaries of southern and northern Punjab Province have reportedly moved to South and North Waziristan in the backdrop of the Lal Masjid operation. Once they completed their military training, these youngsters eventually proved themselves to be valuable partners for the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, keeping in view their first hand knowledge of the important urban centres of Punjab, such as Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad. These very elements have apparently let loose a reign of terror in both the federal capital Islamabad and the provincial capital Lahore by launching unprecedented fidayeen attacks on key military and police installations.

Despite reports regarding the existence of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab, analysts say the existing network of the Punjabi Taliban lacks any organisation or command structure and operates as a loose network of elements from distinct jihadi and sectarian organisations, including Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) led by Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) currently led by Qari Mohammad Zafar, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) led by Maulana Masood Azhar, Jamaatul Furqan, the splinter group of the Jaish, led by Maulana Abdul Jabbar and both the Azad Kashmir and the Pakistan chapters of the Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HUJI), led by Commander Ilyas Kashmiri and Qari Saifullah Akhtar respectively. They further believe that the purpose of undertaking terrorist operations under the name of the Punjabi Taliban is to have the freedom to operate without the level of command and control inherent when working for the more established militant outfits.

A careful scrutiny of newspaper files show that the term Punjabi Taliban was first used for ethnic Punjabis affiliated with the Harkatul Jihadul Islami of Qari Saifullah Akhtar, once he had reached Kandahar along with his fellow jihadis after being freed by the Pakistani authorities, following the dismissal of the second Bhutto government in November 1996. Qari had been arrested for plotting to take over the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army in Rawalpindi during the Corps Commanders Conference and later overthrow the Benazir government to eventually enforce their own brand of Islamic Shariah in Pakistan. However, after the dismissal of the Bhutto government, Qari Saifullah Akhtar was released. He went to Afghanistan and was inducted into the cabinet of the Taliban Ameer Mullah Mohammad Omar as his advisor on political affairs.

Once in Afghanistan, the militants of Qari’s HUJI were called Punjabi Taliban and offered employment, something that other jihadi organisations could not get from Mullah Omar. Interestingly, three ministers in the Taliban regime and 22 judges of the superior courts also belonged to the HUJI, whose militants are known to have supported Mullah Omar in difficult times. At least 300 HUJI militants lost their lives while fighting the Northern Alliance troops, prompting Mullah Omar to give HUJI the permission to build six more training camps in Kandahar, Kabul and Khost, where the Taliban army also used to receive military training. Before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent invasion ofAfghanistan, the HUJI had branch offices in 40 districts across Pakistan. While funds were collected from these grass-root offices and from foreign sources, the Harkat had accounts in two branches of the Allied Bank in Islamabad.

While HUJI’s Pakistan chapter is led by Qari Saifullah Akhtar, its Azad Kashmir chapter is autonomous and headed by Commander Ilyas Kashmiri, a veteran of the Kashmir jihad who is considered to be one of the most dangerous al-Qaeda-linked Pakistani commanders. No. 4 on the Pakistani Interior Ministry’s Most Wanted list, Kashmiri had spent several years in an Indian jail before escaping. He was then arrested by the Pakistani authorities following the December 2003 twin suicide attacks on General Musharraf’s presidential cavalcade in Rawalpindi. However, Kashmiri was set free in February 2004 on the intervention of the United Jihad Council’s chief, Syed Salahuddin. He later shifted base to the North Waziristan region on the Pak-Afghan tribal belt and joined hands with Commander Baitullah Mehsud.

Having switched from the freedom struggle in Jammu and Kashmir to the Taliban-led resistance against the NATO forces in Afghanistan, Kashmiri established a training camp in the Razmak area of Waziristan and shifted most of his warriors from his Kotli training camp in Azad Kashmir. In May 2009, Kashmiri was accused of plotting the assassination of Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani, in collusion with al-Qaeda. In September 2009, Kashmiri was reportedly killed in a US predator strike in South Waziristan but he reappeared almost a month later in October to belie official claims of his death, besides vowing retribution against the US and its proxies. As things stand, both the Punjabi Taliban leaders of the HUJI — Ilyas Kashmiri and Saifullah Akhtar — are reportedly operating from South Waziristan and carrying out joint terrorist operations in Punjab with the help of their fellow militants from Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan.

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