By Amir Mir, Asia Times Online October 05-11
ISLAMABAD – The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ – Army of Jhangvi), a Pakistan-based, al-Qaeda-linked, anti-United States, Sunni Deobandi sectarian-turned-jihadi group, has let loose a reign of terror against the Shi’ite minority.
In its latest attack, the LeJ on Tuesday killed 13 Shi’ites traveling on a bus to work in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan province. The attackers forced the Shi’ites off the bus, made them stand in a line and then opened fire.
This followed the July 14 release of Malik Mohammad Ishaq, one of the founding members of the LeJ, which has already claimed responsibility for the September 20 cold-blooded execution-style killing of 29 Shi’ite pilgrims of the Hazara community in the Mastung area of Balochistan.
All those killed were on their way to Iran from Quetta. Armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket launchers, the attackers stopped the bus and forced the pilgrims to get off. While women and children were spared, they were made to witness the execution of their dear ones who were lined up and sprayed with bullets.
It was the deadliest attack on the Shi’ite community in Pakistan since September 4, 2010, when a suicide bomber killed 57 people at a procession in Quetta. The Mastung attack is not an isolated incident, but part of a systematic campaign of violence directed towards the Shi’ite community. Over 400 Shi’ite Hazaras have been killed in Balochistan by the LeJ since 1999.
The Hazaras are Persian-speakers who mainly live in central Afghanistan. They are overwhelmingly Shi’ites and comprise the third-largest ethnic group of Afghanistan. Over half a million Hazaras live in Pakistan, especially in the Quetta district.
They are the frequent target of attacks in Afghanistan as well as in Pakistan by anti-Shi’ite Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-militant groups like the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (Pakistan Taliban – TTP) and the LeJ, which suspect them of assisting and aiding US intelligence agencies in their hunt for the fugitive leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, believed to be hiding in Pakistan.
One would recall the massacre of the Hazaras in Afghanistan after the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar took power in Kabul in September 1996 and allowed the LeJ to operate in Pakistan from sanctuaries in Afghan territory.
While claiming responsibility for killing the 29 pilgrims in Mastung, a spokesman of the LeJ, said: “Our activists will continue to target the Shi’ite community.” The massacre was carried out amid the usual hate speech and wall-chalking, branding Shi’ites as apostate and worthy to be killed.
A few weeks before the massacre, the LeJ had circulated an open letter addressed to Hazaras in Quetta. Written in the Urdu language, the letter stated:
All Shi’ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi’ites have no right to live in this country. We have the edict and signatures of revered scholars, declaring Shi’ites infidels. Just as our fighters have waged a successful jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras in Afghanistan, our mission in Pakistan is the abolition of this impure sect and its followers from every city, every village and every nook and corner of Pakistan.
Like in the past, our successful jihad against the Hazaras in Pakistan and, in particular, in Quetta, is ongoing and will continue in the future. We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi’ite Hazaras and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. We will only rest when we will be able to fly the flag of true Islam on this land of the pure. Jihad against the Shi’ite Hazaras has now become our duty.
Those investigating the recent surge in anti-Shi’ite attacks believe it has something to do with the release on bail of Malik Ishaq, the feared LeJ leader who had been charged with involvement in 100-plus sectarian murders.
His release instantly caused sectarian tensions that were prompted by the anti-Shi’ite sermons he began delivering after his release. Therefore, on September 21, hardly 24 hours after the bloodbath in Mastung, Ishaq was placed under temporary house arrest in the Rahim Yar Khan district of Punjab province, with district police officer Sohail Chattha saying: “Malik Mohammad Ishaq’s conduct has endangered sectarian harmony and caused a sudden rise in the sectarian temperature in the country.”
According to an official document of Punjab Home Department, soon after his release, Ishaq had vowed while addressing a public meeting in Multan to continue to kill the enemies of “Sahaba” (the Prophet Mohammad’s companions). “All those against Sahaba are not our personal enemies, but the enemies of Islam. And we will fight them … we cannot tolerate these elements at any cost,” Ishaq said during his address, the document reported. The document, titled “Highly objectionable activities of Malik Ishaq”, further read: “On September 6, 2011, Malik Ishaq visited the house of a high-profile terrorist, Abdul Wahab alias Aenak Wala Jin, whose name is included in the Red Book, comprising particulars of most-wanted terrorists.”
Two weeks later, on September 19, Ishaq’s gunmen who were escorting his rally in Muzaffargarh district clashed with the Shi’ite community, resulting in two deaths. Ishaq had undertaken the procession in defiance of government orders since he is on an anti-terrorism watch list and is required to request permission before leaving the jurisdiction of his local police station. It was after these killings that the Punjab government decided to place him under house arrest, but for a brief period of one month, after which he will again be free to spit venom and preach hatred in the name of Islam.
According to Punjab police records, after being arrested by Punjab police in 1997 on charges of involvement in 102 murders, Ishaq confessed to committing 11 and abetting 57 other killings. But according to Ishaq’s lawyer, Misbahul Haq, who pleaded his bail case in the Supreme Court, his client was acquitted in 35 cases because of “lack of evidence”, and granted bail in eight cases and discharged in one case.
The last charge leveled against him was masterminding from his jail cell the March 2009 terrorist attack targeting a bus carrying the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore. During subsequent investigations, it transpired that the LeJ attackers wanted to take hostage the cricket team to get Ishaq released. He was bailed out anyway by the Supreme Court in July “due to lack of evidence and the weak case of the prosecution”, as observed by two apex court judges while bailing him out against a surety bond of a million rupees (US$11,436.)
While giving their verdict, a division bench of the apex court comprising Justice Shahid Siddiqui and Justice Asif Khosa expressed dissatisfaction over the performance of the prosecution in establishing its case against the accused. The court observed that the prosecution produced only two witnesses who stated that they had heard conversations between some people planning to take the Sri Lankan cricket team hostage to get Ishaq released. The bench censured the prosecutor general of Punjab, saying: “The judiciary has to face the wrath of the public when it releases such accused due to lack of evidence and weak case of the prosecution.”
On the other hand, Ishaq said in a brief media talk after being set free: “We were never terrorists and killers and the apex court has also proven that.” He was cheered by hundreds of LeJ activists and showered with rose petals as he walked from a high-security prison in Lahore to a waiting land cruiser that was surrounded by his arms-wielding supporters.
Rise to infamy
Born in 1959, Ishaq is the son of Ali Ahmad Awan, who owned a cloth shop in the village Taranda Sawaey Khan in Rahim Yar Khan district of southern Punjab. He left school in the sixth grade in the early 1980s to assist his father.
He eventually started a business distributing cigarettes before joining a Sunni Deobandi sectarian organization, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), in 1989 after he met Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, its founder who was based in the Jhang district of Punjab. Ishaq started his hardline sectarian activism from the SSP platform soon afterwards and launched the LeJ in 1996 with the support of his close aides, Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori. Ishaq was arrested the same year but he managed to escape from police custody a few months later, only to be arrested again in 1997.
But Ishaq’s release was a foregone conclusion that had even been predicted by the foreign media almost two years before the Supreme Court set him free. On August 7, 2009, the New York Times reported that one Fida Hussein Ghalvi, who had testified 12 years ago against Ishaq for killing his 12 family members, “feared the imminent release of the terrorist leader, thus adding horror to Ghalvi’s life of grief, already reduced to the limits of his house in Multan”. The newspaper said that Ghalvi still received threats from followers of Ishaq, who has has never had a conviction that stuck, though Punjab police records show a dizzying tally of murders against his name.
“When Malik Ishaq was arrested in 1997, he unleashed his broad network against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating police, leading nearly all of the prosecutions against him to collapse eventually,” said the New York Times. “Now, with the cases against him mostly exhausted, Ishaq – a ‘jihadi hero’ – could be out on bail very soon. That prospect terrifies Ghalvi.” The Times quoting him as having said: “My life is totally constrained. I can’t even go to funerals. What have I gotten from 13 years of struggle except grief?”
In fact, when Ghalvi and three other men had identified Ishaq, he told them in front of the trial court judge that “dead men can’t talk”. Subsequently, five witnesses and three of their relatives were killed during the trial. Ishaq was also the prime accused in the 1997 bombing of the Iranian culture center in Multan, which killed eight people. When investigating officer Ejaz Shafi persuaded two witnesses to appear in court and testify against Ishaq, his car was sprayed with bullets by unidentified assailants in broad daylight.
Anti-Terrorism Court judge Bashir Ahmed Bhatti eventually convicted Ishaq in the same case, but the Supreme Court overturned the conviction in 2006 because of “lack of evidence”. In March 2007, the same judge, scheduled to hear another case against Ishaq, was on his way to the court when a remote-controlled bicycle bomb exploded near his car, killing his driver and two policemen. Ishaq was charged with planning the attack but was eventually acquitted in April 2009, once again due to “lack of evidence”.
Following Ishaq’s release, the police provided security to Ghalvi, thus highlighting the concerns of the law-enforcement agencies. Ghalvi, meanwhile, has relocated from his native town in Multan district. However, two other key witnesses and one complainant have not been provided any security. The men, identified as Khadim, Sikandar and Abdul Ghafour (complainant) are the only people to have survived the court cases that have taken 20 lives, including eight people who were murdered purely for being associated with the case.
Following Ishaq’s release, Sikandar was quoted by newspapers as saying: “I can be attacked at any time and I do not know if I will be alive tomorrow or not, as you know almost everyone who was a witness or a relative has already been killed.”
Like Sheikh Ahmed Omar Saeed, another terrorist already sentenced to death for the 2002 beheading of American journalist Daniel Pearl, Ishaq was not subdued by jail conditions and allegedly continued to plot acts while behind bars. Perhaps this is no surprise. Ishaq was flown from a Lahore jail to the garrison town of Rawalpindi by the military on a special chartered flight to hold talks with fidayeen (suicide) attackers of the TTP, led by Dr Aqeel alias Mohammad Osman, who had stormed the general headquarters building on October 10, 2009 and taken hostage 42 people, including several military officials.
The terrorists had listed demands and expressed their desire to directly hold talks with the chief of army staff General Ashfaq Kiani. The hostage-takers also gave a list of jailed militants belonging to some Sunni Deobandi militant and sectarian groups, seeking their release, failing which, the hostages were threatened to be killed one by one.
As a time-buying tactic, negotiators roped in key leaders of jihadi and sectarian groups to hold talks with the terrorists. Special planes were subsequently flown to Lahore, Bahawalpur and Rahim Yar Khan to bring to Rawalpindi Ishaq, Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, Maulana Fazalur Rehman Khalil, the amir of the Harkatul Mujahideen, and Mufti Abdul Rauf, the younger brother of Maulana Masood Azhar who is also the acting amir of the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The attackers were subsequently killed in a successful rescue operation, except for Mohammad Aqeel, alias Dr Usman, a former army man who had already been sentenced to death.
Interestingly, these same four jihadi leaders had been roped in by the Pervez Musharraf regime in July 2007 to negotiate with the hardline clerics of the infamous Lal Mosque (Red Mosque) in the heart of the capital, Islamabad. The military later launched a raid on the mosque to flush out militants who had taken sanctuary there.
The clout that Ishaq enjoyed even while in jail can be gauged from the fact that he was not only allowed to use a mobile phone, he continued to receive the regular monthly stipend from the Punjab government that bega when Shehbaz Sharif became provincial chief minister in 2008.
Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the current chief of the SSP, claimed during a media discussion almost a year ago that he had met Ishaq in jail at the request of Sharif, offering Ishaq a conditional release if he remained peaceful for the rest of his life. If close acquaintances of Ludhianvi are to be believed, following intense backdoor diplomacy at the beginning of 2010, the SSP chief and Sharif, who is the younger brother of former premier Nawaz Sharif, held a clandestine meeting in Mecca in Saudi Arabia to sort out their long-drawn-out differences.
The bone of contention was the killing of 36 activists of the SSP and the LeJ in fake police encounters by the provincial government in the first quarter of 1999 when Nawaz was prime minister. Shehbaz was subsequently nominated by the Lahore police in the murder case of the SSP workers, but was eventually acquitted by an anti-terrorism court after the complainants withdrew the charges against him.
During his last days as premier, Nawaz Sharif, whose own life was under threat from the SSP and the LeJ and who had already survived an assassination attempt by them in Lahore, went public in naming Afghanistan as the country providing shelter and training to SSP and LeJ hit men. On January 3, 1999, the two sectarian groups had attempted to blow up a bridge on the Lahore-Raiwind road, close to Nawaz Sharif’s farmhouse, shortly before he was due to pass by.
Returning to the Mecca meeting between Shehbaz Sharif and Ludhianvi, once the two had reached an understanding they reportedly swore on the Holy Koran while standing inside the Holy Kaaba to bury their grievances and not to go against each other.
Although Sharif family circles strongly deny these reports, the fact remains that the slain governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, had accused the Sharif government of courting the SSP in the Jhang district of south Punjab to safeguard its vote bank in the Pakistan People’s Party in a March 2010 by-election for a vacant seat in the Punjab provincial assembly.
Taseer, who was gunned down by his bodyguard for his liberal views, in Islamabad on January 4, 2011, had subsequently written a letter to Shehbaz Sharif on March 5, 2010, demanding drastic action against Law Minister Rana Sanaullah for his public meetings and addresses to rallies in Jhang accompanied by known terrorists of the SSP.
The rise and rise of the SSP
The LeJ was launched in 1996 by a breakaway faction of Sunni Deobandi extremists of the SSP, including Ishaq, Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori, who walked out of the outfit after accusing the SSP leadership of deviating from the ideals of its founder, Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who was killed by his Shi’ite rivals in February 1990.
But terrorism experts believe that the SSP is in fact the mother organization that has provided human fodder to the cauldron of the region’s multi-layered violence in the name of Islam.
The SSP – Corps of the Prophet Mohammad’s Companions – is a violently anti-Shi’ite Sunni sectarian group responsible for targeting the Shi’ite minority in Pakistan. The ultra-fanatic sectarian SSP emerged in central Punjab in the mid-1980s as a response to the Iranian Revolution of 1979, seeking proclamation of Pakistan as a Sunni state. Having ideological affinity with the Taliban, the SSP aims at restoring the caliphate system and has declared the Shi’ite minority to be non-Muslim.
The SSP and the LeJ, which is considered to be the military wing of the SSP, were once the strategic assets of the state of Pakistan and have linked with al-Qaeda as its ancillary warriors, killing Pakistani citizens and targeting the security forces to dissuade Pakistan from fighting the “war against terror” as a United States ally.
The LeJ today has deep links with al-Qaeda and the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and is considered to be the most violent terrorist organization operating in Pakistan, with the help of its suicide squad. As with most Sunni Deobandi sectarian and militant groups, almost the entire LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan with the backing of the Pakistani security establishment and most of its cadre are drawn from the numerous Sunni madrassas (seminaries) in Pakistan.
The Lashkar stands out for its secrecy, lethality and unrelenting pursuit of its core objectives – targeting Western interests in Pakistan and the Shi’ite community as a way to the eventual transformation of the country into a Taliban-style Islamic state. It has become the group of choice for hard-core militants who are adamant in pursuing their jihadi agenda in Pakistan.
The LeJ consists of loosely coordinated cells, of approximately five to eight militants each with limited contact with one another, spread across Pakistan with self-regulating chiefs for each of them. The operational successes of the group over the years are attributed to its multi-cell structure.
While not much is known about its structure of operations, intelligence reports indicate that, after each attack, Lashkar cadres disperse and subsequently reassemble at various bases/hideouts to plan future operations. The LeJ’s presence has been reported from locations as varied as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, Islamabad, Jhang, Khanewal, Layyah, Bhakkar, Sargodha, Rahimyar Khan, Orakzai, Sahiwal, Karachi, Dera Ismail Khan, Bannu, Kohat, Sukkur, Bajaur, Parachinar, Kurram, South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Hangu, Hyderabad, Bahawalpur, Nawabshah, Mirpur Khas, Chitral, Gilgit and Quetta.
Although sporadic crackdowns by the security forces since late-2001 have had some success, the LeJ continues to make new recruitments to replace those arrested or killed. And great care is taken in recruiting cadres, while considering both religious conviction and the skill and commitment to carry out attacks.
While Shi’ites remain the primary target of the LeJ, the group has, since 2002, broadened its focus to include other civilian, government and Western targets in Pakistan.
Despite the involvement of the LeJ and its parent party, the SSP, in sectarian violence since its inception in 1996, the Pakistani state has failed to neutralize either group. Being part of a broader jihadi movement with Deobandi ideological affiliation, the LeJ has links with other jihadi groups, including the Jaish-e-Mohammad, the Harkatul Mujahideen and the Harkatul Jehadul Islami.
The LeJ also maintains close operational links with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. There is, in fact, sufficient evidence to indicate that the LeJ has been transformed into a significant al-Qaeda affiliate, which provides not only back-up support but also takes part in terrorist attacks linked to al-Qaeda. Yet, the group stays focused on its home turf and its stated goal of radicalizing Pakistan.
Most terrorism experts agree that LeJ operatives are the most highly trained and equally vicious killers the world of terror has to offer. Intelligence sources say the LeJ has finally moved to center stage and the past claims by Pakistani agencies of its demise after the capture of its salar-e-Aala (commander-in-chief) Akram Lahori have proved to be wide off the mark. This is evident as the group has already started a fresh recruitment drive to form new cells at the district and provincial levels, especially following the release of Ishaq.
Amir Mir is a senior Pakistani journalist and the author of several books on the subject of militant Islam and terrorism, the latest being The Bhutto murder trail: From Waziristan to GHQ.