By Ajit Kumar Singh*
With the United States exerting more pressure, there seems to be urgency among terrorist formations/individual leaders operating out of Pakistani soil to gain ‘political legitimacy’ to counter any further existential threat.
On September 30, 2014, Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, founder of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) which operates in Indian Jammu & Kashmir, reportedly decided to form his own political party. Khalil was declared a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US on September 30, 2014.
Khalil confirmed this decision in an August 25, 2017, report:
Yes, I have been in touch with my colleagues and followers and we have even finalized a name for the party – Islah-e-Watan Party (IWP). For this purpose, the central Shura (executive committee) would soon meet to finalise details… We would like to condemn the derogatory statement made recently by US President (Donald) Trump. The US needs to know that Pakistan is neither Syria nor Iraq. If any step is taken against Pakistan, we would turn our lands into a graveyard for aggressive forces.”
Media reports quoted an unnamed source in the group as saying, “Maulana (Khalil) has taken a lead from Maulana Makki’s [Abdul Rehman Makki] decision to mainstream his (banned) outfit.” Abdul Rehman Makki is the second in command of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD).
It is pertinent to recall here that Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the ‘chief’ of JuD, the frontal organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, launched his political party, Milli Muslim League (MML), on August 7, 2017.
Currently under ‘house arrest’ in Lahore, Saeed has ‘nominated’ Saifullah Khalid as the President of MML.
Saifullah Khalid, a religious scholar and longtime ‘official’ of the JuD, at the formal launch of the MML party in Islamabad, announced,
We have decided to make a new political party, so that Pakistan is made a real Islamic and welfare state. Once he [Saeed] is released we will seek his guidance and ask what role he wants in this political party. We demand an immediate release of Hafiz Saeed.
Tabish Qayoum, a JuD activist who will work as spokesman for MML, disclosed that JuD had filed registration papers for the new party with Pakistan’s election commission.
Saeed along with another four JuD members was put under house arrest in Lahore on January 30, 2017. They were detained under Section 11-EEE of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act, which gives the Government the power to arrest or detain terrorism suspects for up to 12 months. The other four included Abdullah Ubaid, Zafar Iqbal, Abdur Rehman Abid and Qazi Kashif Niaz. Significantly, Saeed was put under ‘house arrest’ soon after Donald Trump assumed power in the US on January 20, 2017.
Saeed had been declared a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” by the US on May 27, 2008, and was added to the UN 1267/1989 Consolidated List on December 10, 2008. On April 2, 2012, the US announced a bounty of USD 10 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Saeed for his alleged involvement in terrorist attacks, including the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed at least 166 people, including six Americans.
Meanwhile, on August 16, 2017, the US designated Hizb-ul-Mujahiddeen (HM) a “Foreign Terrorist Organisation”, within two months of declaring the its ‘chief’ Yusuf Shah aka Syed Salahuddin as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” on June 26, 2017. Salahuddin has for long been holding mass rallies across Pakistan and is believed to have strong mass base.
With mounting international pressure (especially the US), more such terrorist formations are likely to join the ‘political mainstream’ at a time when National Assembly elections are due in less than a year. Significantly, established political parties are currently in a crises, with the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), facing serious problems in the aftermath of the ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Panama Papers case. The main opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) are also not on a strong footing, each riddled with its own controversies and scandals.
Given the past track record of all these parties – PML-N, PPP, PTI – there will be no surprise if they readily agree to ally with any of these ‘terrorist political parties’ to win the upcoming elections, or in a situation of weak or no majorities for any single formation.
Significantly, each of these parties had tried to woo Islamist extremists, and particularly the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), before the 2014 elections. Despite then-TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud’s declaration that “democracy is the system of infidels”, Nawaz Sharif repeatedly advocated a policy of appeasement towards the Taliban. In May 2013, he had declared, “A few weeks ago, the Taliban (TTP) offered dialogue to the Government of Pakistan and said, ‘we are prepared to talk’. I think the Government of Pakistan should have taken that seriously. [It] did not take it seriously.”
Similarly, PTI has taken a soft line on the extremists. Its leader Imran Khan continuously advocated a negotiated settlement with the TTP and its affiliates and, on April 22, 2013, had observed, “the Pakistan Tehrik-e-insaf will pull the Army out of the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas and restore peace through talks if it comes to power in the May 11 (2014) general election”. Earlier, in October 2012, Imran Khan had claimed that the Taliban were fighting a ‘holy war’ justified by Islam in neighbouring Afghanistan: “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad… The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad.”
The PPP’s approach towards TTP and its affiliates was comparably accommodating. On February 4, 2013, the then Federal Minister for Interior Rehman Malik declared, “We are ready to start talks with you (TTP). You tell us what team you would like to talk to, and let’s set an agenda.” Further, PPP leader and former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari had close ties with the Taliban. According to a June 14, 2010, media report, while meeting 50 captured Taliban leaders including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in a prison to assure them that their outfit had his Government’s full support and that they would be freed soon, Zardari had reportedly stated, “You are our people, we are friends, and after your release we will of course support you to do your operations.”
The Sharif brothers’ (Shahbaz Sharif has been the longtime Chief Minister of the Punjab Province) closeness to JuD is also well known. In the most brazen move, Saeed reportedly (April 2016 reports) set up a Sharia’h (Islamic law) court in Lahore to dispense “speedy justice”, taking up citizens’ complaints and issuing summons carrying a warning of strict action in case of non-compliance. It was the first instance of such a parallel judicial system being established in the Punjab province. JuD claimed the ‘court’ only offers arbitration and resolves disputes in accordance with the Islamic judicial system, but failed to justify the summons. The impunity with which Saeed operated clearly confirms the support he receives from the ruling Pakistani establishment, in addition to the significant resources his organization has received from the state exchequer.
More recently, photographs featuring the then Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan with Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the ‘banned’ sectarian terrorist Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat (ASWJ), had surfaced on social media. When a hue and cry was raised, the Minister was unrepentant and, indeed, offered a defence of ASWJ, stating, on January 14, 2017, that the Shia-Sunni conflict dated back 1300 years and was a part of Islamic history, and it was unfair (with regard to terrorism) to “link everything with ASWJ’s Chief”. Responding to a question in the Senate about his remarks that outlawed sectarian organisations should not be equated with terrorist outfits, Nisar raised the question whether it was “a crime” to suggest that separate laws should be formed to deal with groups proscribed on sectarian basis to remedy the “confusion being created”. In a reply to the criticism he faced from PPP for meeting with Maulana Ahmad Ludhianvi, Nisar inquired, “How is it fair to link everything to Maulana Ludhianvi? Which PPP leader did not meet leaders of proscribed organisations in their time?” PPP’s association with the banned Peoples’ Aman Committee (PAC), a Karachi based gang, is widely known . PAC, a Lyari criminal network linked to numerous targeted killings, reportedly works as PPP’s armed wing.
Meanwhile, religious fundamentalism continues to increase across Pakistan, with more and more people being killed in the name of god. According to the latest World Report, 2017, published by Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 19 people remained on death row after being convicted under Pakistan’s draconian Blasphemy Law, and hundreds awaited trial. Most of those facing blasphemy are members of religious minorities, often victimized by these charges due to personal disputes. Further, the HRW 2015 Report suggested that, since 1990, 60 people have been murdered after being accused of blasphemy. In 2015, the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) reported that a total of 724 Muslims, 501 Ahmadis, 185 Christians and 26 Hindus, who had been accused under innumerable clauses of the Blasphemy Law since 1987. The majority of these cases were for desecration of the Quran followed by blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
In such a scenario, the danger of more terror elements infiltrating into mainstream politics is very real. Worse, it is unlikely that these groupings will give up their terrorist activities, even as a measure of political impunity is secured by engaging in the electoral process. The ‘legitimacy’ that would be gained would also tend to amplify the ambivalence that has characterized international attitudes and policies with regard to such groupings.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow; Institute for Conflict Management