By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On January 20, 2019, Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) officials of Punjab Police killed two terrorists, identified as Abdur Rehman and Kashif Langra, in a shootout in Gujranwala District of Punjab. The suspects allegedly belonged to Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) and were gunned down in an exchange of fire, an unnamed CTD spokesperson disclosed, claiming that the two were accomplices of IS ‘local commander’ Zeeshan. The deceased were wanted for their involvement in attacks on Security Forces (SFs) and kidnapping of local and foreign citizens, the spokesperson added.
A day earlier, on January 19, 2019, IS ‘local commander’ Zeeshan was killed during an encounter with CTD personnel in Sahiwal District. Three civilians, including a husband, wife and their teenage daughter, were also killed during the encounter.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), Punjab has recorded at least six terrorism-related fatalities (three civilians and three terrorists] in 2019, thus far (data till February 24, 2019). During the corresponding period of 2018, the Province recorded eight terrorism-related fatalities (seven terrorists and one SF trooper).
Through 2018, Punjab registered 39 fatalities (17 civilians, seven SF personnel, and 15 terrorists) as against 158 such fatalities (32 civilians, 27 SF personnel, and 99 terrorists) in 2017. The 2018 fatalities were the second lowest recorded in terrorism related incidents in the Province since 2006, when seven fatalities was recorded.
There were 17 civilian fatalities in 2018, the second lowest in this category since 2006, when six civilian deaths were recorded. There were a total of 32 civilian fatalities in 2017.
The number of fatalities among SF personnel also came down to seven in 2018 from 27 in 2017. Significantly, fatalities among terrorists also came down considerably, from 99 in 2017 to just 15 in 2018. SFs are now less active, with lower terrorist mobilization and fewer operations on the ground.
According to the SATP database, two incidents of explosion were recorded in Punjab in 2018, as against five in 2017, and the resultant fatalities declined from 56 in 2017 to 14 in 2018. Punjab also witnessed two suicide attacks in 2018 as against four in 2017, with fatalities dropping from 55 in 2017 to 14 in 2018.
The number of major incidents decreased from 20 in 2017 to just six in 2018 and resultant fatalities from 146 in 2017 to 31 in 2018, a 78.76 per cent decline. The most prominent major attack of the year came in the night of March 14, 2018, when a suicide bomber hit a check post outside the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in the Raiwind Town of Lahore, the provincial capital of Punjab, in which nine people, including five Policemen, were killed and another 35 were injured. The attack was claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). In a statement sent to AFP, it threatened more attacks on Police in retaliation for killing their “associates” in Punjab.
According to a report of the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), fatalities dropped by 65.58 per cent in Punjab from 154 in 2017to 53 in 2018. The report said this was because of six major and 9,157 intelligence-based operations (IBOs) by SFs.
The Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of Punjab Police claimed on September 17, 2018, that they had neutralisedthe terror network of TTP and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) which had carried out terror attacks. Notably, one of the major success came on March 29, 2018, when the Punjab Police CTD and the Intelligence Bureau neutralised “the biggest network” of TTP in the Province during a joint operation at different places, and arrested six terrorists who had been dispatched by the TTP leadership from a Madrasa located at Gajumata near Ferozepur Road in Lahore to hit the targets. The network had carried out two major suicide attacks –on Army personnel on Bedian Road on April 5, 2017, in which seven persons, including two civilians, four Army personnel and one suicide bomber was killed; and another on Policemen on Ferozepur Road near Arfa Karim Tower on July 24, 2017, in which 17 civilians, one Policemen and one suicide bomber were killed.
Despite broad improvements, several instances through 2018 demonstrated that the Province remained a fertile ground for fundamentalist and extremist groups.
Four people were arrested in Ali Town of Multan District in Punjab on February 14, 2019, for their involvement in hate speech. The action was taken over a speech delivered by one of the apprehended suspects at a mosque in Ali Town on December 28, 2018. In the speech made over a loudspeaker, the primary suspect allegedly incited the audience with statements of a sectarian nature and provoked them against the Government of Pakistan and incumbent rulers, according to the first information report (FIR) registered on the complaint of a Police official against six named and 40 to 45 unidentified people.
Earlier on January 29-30, over 90 members of hard-line religious parties were arrested from different parts of Punjab for holding demonstrations against the Supreme Court’s decision to reject a review plea against the acquittal of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman long held in a blasphemy case. Punjab Police spokesperson Nabila Ghazanfar observed that most of the arrests were made from Lahore, Gujranwala and Rawalpindi: “Police have arrested more than 90 activists of different religious parties mostly of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) cadres, on Tuesday [January 29] and Wednesday [January 30] for creating law and order situation.” On October 31, 2018, the SC reversed the judgements of the Lahore High Court as well as the trial court, setting aside the conviction and death sentence awarded to Aasia Bibi. Following the Supreme Court decision acquitting and ordering the release of Asia Bibi, supporters of TLP took to the streets in several parts of Punjab, including Lahore, Islamabad, and Multan. The Punjab Home Department was forced to impose Section 144 barring the gathering of people in public places. Section 144 was imposed across the Province from October 31 to November 10, 2018.
Aasia Bibi, also known as Asia Noreen, a Christian woman, belongs to Ittan Walivillage in the Sheikhupura District. She was sentenced to death on November 7, 2010, for blasphemy allegedly insulting Prophet Muhammad during a row with neighbouring women in June 2009. Noreen denied that she had committed blasphemy and asserted that she had been accused by her neighbours to “settle an old score”. On November 7, 2010, Muhammed Naveed Iqbal, a judge at the district Court of Sheikhupura, sentenced her to death by hanging. Additionally, a fine of the equivalent of USD 1,100was imposed.
The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP, the Here I Am Movement, Pakistan, derived from the declaration “Here I am to do thy bidding, O Lord”) is Pakistan’s newest far-right religious party, founded by Islamic preacher Khadim Hussain Rizvi on August 1, 2015. It has created a strong base across Punjab in particular, as well as in other regions of the country.
Moreover, while Islamabad has succeeded in targeting domestically oriented terror groups operating in Punjab and thus controlling anti-state terrorism in Punjab, it has continued to openly supported terror groups in directing attacks against India and Afghanistan, and to thrive in Punjab. Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the chief conspirator of February 14, 2019, Pulwama attack, among a long succession of others, has been enjoying state and Army patronage in Punjab though it has notionally been banned since 2002. Media commentator Praveen Swami, in a column on Firstpost on July 27, 2018, disclosed that JeM had been secretly building on a 15-acre complex on the outskirts of the city of Bahawalpur—five times the size of its existing headquarters. The complex, the Jaish hopes, will train thousands of young children from the south Punjab countryside to ‘sacrifice’ themselves to the cause of Jihad.
JeM was also allowed to openly and brazenly continue with its anti-India tirade at the behest of its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) masters. While addressing a rally in Bahawalpur District of Punjab on March 1, 2018, a leader of JeM and brother of JeM chief Maulana Masood Azhar, Maulvi Mufti Abdul Rauf Asghar, threw a challenge at India, declaring that his cadres were heading towards Delhi and if India could stop them, let it do so. More recently, on November 23, 2018, JeM organized a rally in Faisalabad, Punjab, which was attended by hundreds of its members. According to sources, more than 35 JeM fidayeen (suicide attackers) took an oath to carry out attacks on security establishment in India.
Further, the Hafiz Muhammad Saeed-led Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the front organisation of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), is also openly engaged in anti-India activities and operates out of its Headquarters in Murdike in the Sheikhupura District of Punjab. Saeed operates freely across the country, holding rallies dominated by anti-India and Islamist hate speech, inciting cadres to wage jihad against India. On December 18, 2018, addressing a rally at Mall Road in Lahore under the banner of Difa-e-Pakistan Council, Saeed threatened, “You forgot Somnath, Modi. The time is near when this war will be fought in your cities not at the borders. You will not be able to hide your terrorism behind curtains.” Most recently, following the February 5, 2018, rally in Lahore addressed by Saeed, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on February 6 issued a note verbale to the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi and registered India’s strong protest at the “continued use of Pakistan controlled territory by extremist and terrorist elements” to freely propagate and promote violence and terror against India.
As long as radicalized forces find fertile ground in Punjab under state patronage, the problem of terrorism will continue to constitute a threat to the entire region.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management