By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
On September 20, 2011, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants shot dead 29 Shias in two separate incidents in Balochistan. In the first incident, a bus carrying 45 Shia pilgrims, travelling from Quetta, the provincial capital, to Taftan (Iran), came under attack in Mastung. About 10 assailants, riding on a twin-cab pick-up and armed with AK-47 rifles and rocket launchers, intercepted the bus, ordered all the passengers out and then opened indiscriminate fire, killing 26 and injuring another five. An hour after the first attack, militants killed another three Shias, who Police said were relatives of victims of the first incident en route to collect their bodies, on the outskirts of Quetta. Claiming the attack, LeJ ‘spokesperson’ Ali Sher Haideri declared that his outfit would continue to target people from the Shia community.
Three days later, on September 23, three Shias were killed and another four injured in an attack on a passenger van on the outskirts of Quetta.
On August 31, 2011, an LeJ suicide bomber had killed at least 11 Shias and injured 22 during Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations in a Shiite mosque in Quetta.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management a total of 2,555 sectarian attacks have taken place across Pakistan since 1989, inflicting a total of 3,622 fatalities.
Some of the major attacks (involving three or more fatalities) in 2010-11 include:
July 29, 2011: LeJ militants killed at least seven people, including four Shias, waiting to travel to Mashhad in Iran, at a bus terminal on Saryab Road in Quetta.
May 18, 2011: At least seven Shias, including a passerby, were killed and six others sustained bullet injuries in an attack near the Killi Kamalo area of Quetta.
September 1, 2010: 43 persons were killed and another 230 injured in two suicide attacks and one grenade attack on a Shia procession marking Hazrat Ali’s martyrdom in Lahore. LeJ Al-Alami claimed responsibility for the three attacks, which occurred minutes apart in the Bhaati Gate locality of Lahore.
April 17, 2010: Two burqa-clad suicide bombers targeted a crowd of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) waiting to get registered and receive relief goods at the Kacha Pakka IDP camp on the outskirts of Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), formerly known as North West Frontier Province (NWFP), killing at least 44 and injuring more than 70. The Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Al-Aalmi faction claimed responsibility for the bombings, and cited the presence of Shias at the IDP camp as the reason for the attack.
April 16, 2010: A suicide bomber blew himself up in an attack inside the Civil Hospital in Quetta, killing 11 persons and injuring 35 others. Unidentified assailants riding a motorcycle killed Arshad Zaidi, the son of the chief of the Shia Conference Balochistan, Syed Ashraf Zaidi. Hundreds of supporters, including Member of the National Assembly (MNA) Nasir Ali Shah and dozens of journalists, rushed to the hospital where the body was lying. The suicide bombing occurred when a large crowd had gathered at the casualty ward. The LeJ claimed that it had carried out the suicide bombing that also injured MNA Shah of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
March 12, 2010: At least 57 persons, including eight soldiers, were killed and more than 90 persons were injured as twin suicide blasts, moments apart from each other, ripped through the Lahore’s RA Bazaar in the cantonment area. The primary target was a Shia Imambargah during Friday prayers. LeJ claimed responsibility for the attack.
Rising sectarianism in Pakistani society has emboldened militant groups that espouse sectarian violence. The primary player, here, is the LeJ, which was formed in 1996, when it formally separated from Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). The LeJ aims to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violence. Muhammad Ajmal alias Akram Lahori is the present Saalar-i-Aala (‘Commander-in-Chief’) of the LeJ. Lahori is currently in Police custody following his arrest from Orangi Town in Karachi on June 17, 2002. Although Lahori officially remains the LeJ chief, Qari Mohammad Zafar is now believed to be the strategic ‘commander’, while operational command is understood to have moved to middle ranking leaders.
The LeJ consists of eight loosely co-ordinated cells spread across Pakistan with independent chiefs for each cell. Headed by Maulana Abdul Khalil, a fugitive militant leader from central Punjab, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Aalmi (the ‘international’ wing) operates mostly in central parts of Punjab and the tribal areas. The group works in close connection with al Qaeda and its activists have been used as foot soldiers by Arab-dominated terror groups in their plots inside Pakistan. Asian Tigers, another LeJ cell, is dominated by Punjabi militants, though some Pakhtoon militants of the Mehsud tribe are affiliated with it as well. The third cell is Junoodul Hafsa, comprising militants who aim to exact revenge for the storming of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid and its affiliated female seminary, Jamia Hafsa, in a military operation in 2007. The group operates in close coordination with the Ghazi Force, a network named after one of the two clerics of Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, who was killed in the operation. The outfit, led by a former student of Lal Masjid, Maulana Niaz Rahim, operates out of Ghaljo area of the Orakzai Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the adjacent Hangu District in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and targets military installations and personnel in parts of KP and upper Punjab, especially Islamabad. The fourth cell affiliated to LeJ is the Punjabi Taliban. Other small cells, which operate under this umbrella outfit, include those commanded by Usman Punjabi, Qari Imran, Amjad Farooqi and Qari Zafar. These cells generally operate within Punjab.
The lethality and operational successes of the LeJ, over the years, are substantially attributed to its multi-cell structure, with each maintaining limited contact with the others. Each sub-group is responsible for carrying out activities in a specific geographic location. Reports indicate that, after each attack, LeJ cadres disperse and subsequently reassemble at the various bases/hideouts to plan future operations.
LeJ’s presence and operations have been reported from locations as varied as Lahore, Rawalpindi, Gujranwala, Multan, Islamabad, Jhang, Khanewal, Layyah, Bhakkar, Sargodha, Rahimyar Khan, Sahiwal, Bahawalpur and Bahawalnagar in Punjab; Orakzai Agency, Bajaur Agency, Parachinar, Kurram Agency, South Waziristan and North Waziristan in FATA; Bannu, Kohat, Chitral, Gilgit and Dera Ismail Khan in KP; Karachi, Sukkur, Hyderabad, Nawabshah, and Mirpur Khas in Sindh; and Mastung and Quetta in Balochistan.
While Shias remain the primary targets of the LeJ, the group has, since 2002, broadened its focus to include other civilian, Government and Western targets. Despite the ban on the group since January 12, 2002, the Pakistani Government has been unable to neutralise its operations. An intelligence agency’s report on August 25, 2011, noted that banned militant organisations, including LeJ, had resumed ‘full-scale public activity’ and had begun recruiting young men from Punjab. Another report forwarded by the Punjab Home Department stated that LeJ had also become more active, particularly after the release of the group’s founder Malik Ishaq in July 2011.
One of the prominent leaders and co-founder of LeJ, Malik Ishaq had been charged in 44 cases, involving the murder of 70 persons, most of them Shias. He was, however, released by the Supreme Court for lack of evidence. Ishaq was suspected to have been involved in the March 3, 2009, attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, but was granted bail on July 14, 2011. Ishaq was arrested in 1997 for a variety of crimes, most of which were of a sectarian nature. Over the years, the cases against him faltered, as many witnesses were too scared to testify. Ishaq was acquitted in 34 out of 44 cases, while, in the remaining 10, including the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team, he had already been granted bail.
Significantly, during his stay in jail he received a stipend from the Punjab Government and, like other key terror suspects, was allowed to use a mobile phone. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed the disbursement of the stipend, but clarified that it was given to Ishaq’s family, not to him, as per orders of the court. Further investigations, however, revealed that there was no such disbursement to the family, nor was there any court order pertaining to the matter.
A US State Department report published on August 31, 2011, observed that Pakistan was incapable of prosecuting terror suspects. It said that, while Pakistan maintained it was committed to prosecuting those accused of terrorism, its Anti-terrorism Court (ATC)’s rulings in 2010 tell a different story, showing that the acquittal rate among suspected terrorists was approximately 75 percent.
Meanwhile, buoyed by his release, Malik Ishaq declared, “We are ready to lay down our lives for the honour of the companions of the Holy Prophet.”
Tariq Ilyas Kyani, an officer at the Lahore Police Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) department, rightly observed, “Terrorist activities did not stop even when [Ishaq] was in captivity.” However, sectarian violence has witnessed a surge since Ishaq’s release. Out of 19 sectarian attacks in 2011, in which 176 persons were killed, seven attacks, resulting in 62 fatalities, have taken place after July 14.
Instead of launching any hard initiatives against the LeJ, the Punjab Government, on September 22, 2011, again placed Malik Ishaq under temporary detention at his home, charging him of stoking Sunni-Shia conflict since his release from prison. The Punjab Government ordered that Ishaq remain at home for 10 days.
Given Islamabad’s lackadaisical approach towards Islamist terrorism in general, and sectarian violence against the country’s minorities, in particular, action against the LeJ has generally been an eye wash, and the present steps hold no promise of reining in the menace of sectarian terror across the country.
Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management