Hundreds of followers and relatives of Pakistan’s most feared Islamic militant leader, Malik Ishaq, attended his burial under tight security, at his hometown of Rahim Yar Khan in central Pakistan on July 30. The mourners included members of Ishaq’s Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). A day earlier Ishaq had been gunned down along with 13 other militants, including his two sons, during an assault on a police convoy in which he was being moved. Pakistani police claimed that the assault on its convoy by the militants was aimed at freeing Ishaq. It is largely believed that the incident was an extra-judicial killing of a hardened Sunni leader who had spent a good part of last two decades getting in and out of jail.
The elimination of Ishaq by the Pakistan police raises issues in two domains flowing mainly from the answers to questions, on the manner and the reasons for which he was killed. The first points to the inadequacies of Pakistan’s judicial system; its inability to bring to book home-grown terror organisations – hindered to an extent by the support such groups receive, especially those operating with a religious or sectarian agenda, from within the Pakistani society and more disturbing from the covert security establishment.
The second, points to the dispensability of such groups (and their leaders) when they lose their utility in relation to the state’s changing internal and external security policies. The policy change maybe brought about by the need to conform to an international treaty obligation or something more profound such as discarding a certain policy direction; no targeting of Shias or cross-border activities in a certain neighbouring country.
The ‘extra judicial’ killing of Malik Ishaq and nature of LeJ’s activities over last almost 20 years straddles both these issues; ills of Pakistan’s judicial system and the possible irrelevance of the LeJ in the short term, under the policies of the current Pakistani security dispensation. This article examines the latter.
Some analysts’ view Ishaq’s killing (including that of his two sons) as an extrajudicial slaying, disposal of an asset that has outlived its utility, the closing of a chapter; an insignificant event. Many felt that the writing had been on the wall after LeJ’s other co-founder Akram Lahori had been executed by Pakistani authorities in January 2015, amongst the spate of hangings carried out by the Pakistani establishment post the Peshawar tragedy, and that of Usman Saifullah Kurd, the head of LJ’s Balochistan chapter, by the Frontier Corps in Quetta in February.
Though it is a distinct possibility that Ishaq’s killing was mere ‘retiring’ of a redundant asset, its analysis is important because of two aspects. One, LeJ stands out tall amongst the Pakistani terror groups for its single minded targeting of Shias – within Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Ishaq, along with Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori, founded the LeJ in 1996 after breaking from the Sunni militant group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The LeJ is virulently anti-Shia and since inception has carried on a relentless campaign of suicide bombings, armed assaults and kidnappings against Shia targets. In Pakistan, it has also been repeatedly targeting Iranian nationals including diplomats. LeJ was proscribed as a terror group by Pakistan on August 14, 2001.
Two, it received funding from outside the country, with which it motivated other groups, including those based and operating in Balochistan, to secure their assistance in its targeting of Shias. Hence killing of Ishaq could indicate a perceptible shift in Pakistani policy – a decision to create an environment to improve relations with Iran and at the same time shut a major conduit of Saudi funding for sectarian activities. Some see it as a strategic attempt to prevent Pakistan from being the staging ground of proxy sectarian warfare between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The killing of Ishaq is possibly a trigger to bring about a leadership change in LeJ resulting in a shift in the nature of its activities, both inside Pakistan and outside the country. These activities maybe diametrically opposite in substance, as was in the case of Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab, which recently gave up violence inside Pakistan (and made peace with the security establishment) but retained its ‘jihadist’ outlook towards India. LeJ too maybe expected to take this path. However the impact of its transformation will be felt more in Afghanistan.
The Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), the political arm of the LeJ, released statements to the media assuring that it would not protest Ishaq’s death. It describing itself as a “peace loving” party and went on to disown Ishaq’s sectarian militancy. Yet, Arif Jamal, an independent US-based journalist and author, is of the view that the Pakistani military has been paving the way for the Afghan Salafists to replace the Deobandi Taliban in Afghanistan. The Deobandi Taliban groups, such as LeJ, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, have been drifting towards Salafism and joining the Islamic State (IS). According to his sources Ishaq was refusing to accept the IS and had developed serious differences with the Pakistani military establishment over supporting Salafism.
Security analysts appear to be divided right down the middle with respect to Pakistan’s chosen course of action, particular post-Peshawar and the launch of operation Zarb-e-azb. There are those who see no change in the Pakistani approach to counter terrorism and those that feel post-Yemen, Pakistan would like to re-invent itself as a moderate Islamic nation providing equally space to the Shias, thereby balancing its relations with Iran and subsequently the West.
So is Malik Ishaq’s killing another step by the Pakistani security establishment towards abandonment of the ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ policy? Even if it is, in the case of India, the ‘good Taliban’ will still be the one that showed its presence at Dinanagar, Gurdaspur last week.
*Monish Gulati is Associate Director (Strategic Affairs) with the Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at [email protected] This article appeared in South Asia Monitor.