Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi: Pakistan's terror problem

Sunday's attack on a Peshawar church again highlighted the dangers faced by Pakistan's religious minorities. 

Mirza Ghulam Qadir Ahmad watches his daughter play

"'To Allah we belong and to Him shall we return,' said Dr Mubashar. From that, I knew Qadir had passed away," says Amtul-Nasir Nusrat Ahmad, recalling how she learnt her husband had been brutally murdered. Even after fourteen years, her voice breaks with emotion over the words ‘Qadir had passed away’ and she becomes quiet. The memory of that awful moment lingers in the silence.

Yet, the silence cannot last: her husband's story is one of many worth telling for Pakistan's beleaguered minorities.

Raised in the Punjab province, Mirza Ghulam Qadir Ahmad was a talented student. He studied in the USA, where he graduated with an MSc in Computer Science from George Mason University. Qadir had many potential career opportunities, but instead chose to return to his hometown of Rabwah and began working on numerous projects, including developing IT programmes for Fazle Umar Hospital, a medical institute which offers free health care to the poor.

However, Qadir belonged to the minority Islamic sect called Ahmadiyya, who others consider heretics. In Pakistan, attacks on the sect are common and often fatal. Being the great-grandson of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyya movement, and living in Rabwah - a predominantly Ahmadi town - made Qadir an obvious target for religious extremists.

*
On the morning of 14 April, 1999, Amtul-Nasir was cooking in her kitchen when her sister-in-law arrived and told her Qadir had been injured near the city of Chiniot.

"She said I must go to see him, but I didn't realise how serious his condition was," says Amtul-Nasir, speaking in her native Urdu. "I said I would come after changing from my kitchen clothes, but she kept insisting there was no time."

That day, Qadir had been travelling from his home on an errand for his elderly parents, when his car was stopped and he was kidnapped by four gunmen.
"Their plan was to cause an explosion among the Shias and let Qadir take the blame. If successful, it would have led to violence against Ahmadis across Pakistan."
"Near Chiniot there was a gathering of Shias [another minority Muslim sect] being prepared for the holy period of Muharram," says Amtul-Nasir. "They filled a car with guns, rocket launchers and hand grenades and began to drive him there. Their plan was to cause an explosion among the Shias and let Qadir take the blame. If successful, it would have led to violence against Ahmadis across Pakistan."

The gunmen's plans failed, because Qadir began to struggle. Already injured, he escaped from his car onto the road, where he was shot twice and left for dead. The owner of a nearby petrol station helped Qadir, driving him to Chiniot's hospital. En route - in his final moments of consciousness - Qadir asked for his family to be called. They arrived in time to see doctors working frantically to save his life.

"His body had cuts from a knife on his nose and forehead and rings around his neck where they had tried to strangle him, but the fatal wound was a bullet that pierced an artery near his heart."

Qadir, only 37, left behind Amtul-Nasir and their eight-year-old daughter, seven-year-old son and two-year-old twin boys.

Meanwhile, his assassins took refuge in a mosque and were killed in a subsequent police shoot-out. All four gunmen were already notorious with government authorities and a reward of 2 million rupees had previously been offered for the capture of their leader.

Who were these murderers? "Lashkar-e-Jhangvi."

*
The Ahmadis are not the only minority to have suffered at the hands of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Formed in 1996, the Lashkar works with other extremist organisations such as the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. The rise of these groups has seen more than 49,000 Pakistanis killed in terrorist attacks since 2003. This onslaught has contributed towards religious minorities (Hindus, Sikhs, Christians etc) in Pakistan being reduced from 23% of the population in 1947 to estimates as low as 3% today. Now, the extremists are exporting their terror and earlier this month the Lashkar attacked a Shia mosque in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi are particularly ruthless in their attacks on the Shia community. In the first seven weeks of 2013, the group claimed responsibility for a bombing campaign in the city of Quetta, Balochistan province, which killed more than 260 people. Shias of the Hazara ethnicity were especially targeted in what Pakistanis began to call the ‘Shia Genocide’.

Farhan Ali, 32, escaped from Pakistan with his family during those terrifying weeks. His work in Karachi for a national newspaper of the Shia community had made him a target for the Lashkar. In January, Farhan had been stopped on his way home from work by two armed men on a motorbike.

"They began to beat me and told me I must leave the city or they will kill me and my family," says Farhan in a passionate tone. "Some of my friends and colleagues had already been killed and others had fled from the city."

Behind Farhan's painful story lurks an even darker allegation. "Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is supported by the authorities," Farhan asserts. "When I went to the police they wouldn't even lodge a complaint against them. They refused to act upon it."
"It's an open fact they're backed by the Saudis and it comes down to politics. Nobody from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is ever caught. Even when an arrest is made they are quickly released."
Surely though, the authorities would have no interest in supporting a terrorist organisation? "They are like-minded people," Farhan insists. "It's an open fact they're backed by the Saudis and it comes down to politics. Nobody from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is ever caught. Even when an arrest is made they are quickly released."

Farhan has a point about extremists being released from Pakistani prisons. Last week, media outlets reported Taliban leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, had contacted the government to request the release of 50 Taliban and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi fighters. While Mehsud denied the story, a day later notorious Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar, was released.

Farhan’s analysis of this and many similar stories is absolutely explicit: "Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is given government support."

*
Farhan is not alone in thinking Pakistani authorities are somewhat complicit with organisations such as the Lashkar. Until recently, Sadaqat Sajid worked as a section officer in Pakistan’s Ministry of Defence. He admits there is strong evidence backing Farhan’s claims.

"Definitely [some authorities] are sympathetic [with extremists]. Whenever any such type of incident occurs they don't capture any person," says Sajid. "The supervision for these tasks is under the secret intelligence agencies such as the ISI, but whenever the police capture someone of this nature they [the agencies] will intervene [to have the prisoners released]."

Authorities sympathising with extremists is sinister enough, but Sajid believes some officials may even be actively aiding terrorist organisations. In September 2008, explosives were detonated at Marriott Hotel in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, causing 54 deaths. "The deputy director of the Federal Investigation Agency told me directly this incident was designed and supervised by the ISI."

Asked why Pakistan’s intelligence agencies would orchestrate an attack that kills the country's own citizens, Sajid blames the increasing sectarianism of the ruling authorities - a process he says has been ongoing since the military dictatorship of Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

"From the era of Zia the army has been politicised," he says. "They have brought the Wahhabi element into the army. Then, the ministry of defence influences the entire policy making, both in foreign affairs and internal affairs. They put words into the mouths of politicians."
For example, they are specifically against Ahmadis. They try their best not to recruit Ahmadis in official positions and then to stop the promotion of those Ahmadis who are recruited.
Wahhabism - also known as Salafism - is a movement of Islam associated closely with the Saudi monarchy. Sajid believes adherents of Wahhabism are particularly intolerant of other sects: "For example, they are specifically against Ahmadis. They try their best not to recruit Ahmadis in official positions and then to stop the promotion of those Ahmadis who are recruited."

However, Sajid emphasises that the problems Pakistan faces cannot be entirely attributed to either the armed forces or the government. Discussing the recent atrocities against the Shia population in Quetta, he says: "There are multidimensional aspects to the Shia killings. Foreign powers are also involved. The American CIA is involved. India is also involved. It correlates to the gas pipeline from Iran to India. This is to stop that pipeline. So Iran’s enemies want to destabilise Balochistan. Then there is Balochistan’s Gwadar port. It’s location strategically important. It has the potential to be a South Asian Dubai. So China and the US are struggling for influence there. Another problem across the whole of Pakistan are the US’ drone attacks. They were approved by [former Pakistani president] Musharraf and after each attack there is [terrorist] retaliation. These issues are intertwined and complex."

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates there have been hundreds of US drone strikes in recent years, killing thousands of Pakistanis including at least 168 children. Retaliatory attacks are common: earlier this week when a branch of the Taliban killed 85 Christians attending a church in Peshawar, they claimed the attacks were in response to drones.

If drone strikes are such a problem why doesn’t Pakistan prohibit them? "The vested interests of the establishment and the bureaucracy," says Sajid. "The high officials have their children study outside Pakistan in the USA, Dubai, Europe, Saudi Arabia. They take nationality there. They buy properties there. Nawaz Sharif [Pakistan’s current prime minister] is well known to have lived in Saudi Arabia for years [at deceased Saudi king, Fahd’s request]. So the external powers have great influence."

Notably, official reports published by various western governments state Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants receive funding from Saudi Arabia.

*
Many officials secretly agree with Sajid. New Religion recently contacted one of Pakistan’s most senior serving military officials, who has extensive experience of working with intelligence agencies both at home and abroad. He granted an interview on the condition of anonymity. Agreeing with Sajid, he said: "There is some foreign influence in the instability. Pakistan presently has pockets of poor governance and control: places like the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. So, you have hide outs, you have an unchecked flow of money, you have hardened fighters. All you need to do is add fuel to the fire."

However, he doesn’t believe the US has too much direct influence on policy: "We work as closely with US officials as necessary, but it is to meet our own interests and in a non-trusting environment."
There is no other choice for us but to eradicate terrorism. We are combating terrorism with an active physical role, with background intelligence and the use of force, but only as and when required - to avoid collateral damage.
Our military source also denies any official support for organisations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, although he admits this may have happened in the past: "Their funding and training is what we are paying for. There is a serious realisation that this previous strategy has failed. In my opinion, we can’t afford to do it again. There is no other choice for us but to eradicate terrorism. We are combating terrorism with an active physical role, with background intelligence and the use of force, but only as and when required - to avoid collateral damage."

He also believes blaming the military for Pakistan’s problems is unfair. "Pakistan has deteriorated due to weak government and a lack of will at the national level. The military is only one of the instruments of national power. You can’t resolve every issue with this instrument."

Yet, for Amtul-Nasir, the establishment’s realisation of the failure of their policies has come many years too late. "Pakistan barely even exists," she says. "The country is filled with corruption, terrorism and immorality of every sort."

So, is there any possible hope for Pakistan and its persecuted minorities? Amtul-Nasir doesn’t hesitate: "Prayers, only prayers." @Taalay

This is the first in a series of stories being published exclusively at New Religion on religious extremism and the persecution of minorities in Pakistan. 
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