By Ambreen Agha*
On February 19, 2016, at least three Policemen were killed in an attack near Miran Wala Bangla Bypass in Faisalabad District. Terrorists opened fire when they were stopped by the Policemen.
At least seven terrorists belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), were killed in an encounter in the Sharaqpur area of in Sheikhupura District on February 17, 2016. Later in the day, two Police Constables manning a security check post in the Chanab Pulli area of Iqbal Town in provincial capital Lahore were shot dead by three unidentified militants.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least six security force (SF) personnel and 11 militants have been killed in the Province in the current year (data till February 28, 2016). During the corresponding period of 2015, the number of fatalities stood at 29, including 23 civilians, two SF personnel, and four militants.
Punjab recorded a total of 176 fatalities, including 90 civilians, nine SF personnel and 77 terrorists in 2015, as against 180 fatalities, including 132 civilians, 20 SF personnel and 28 terrorists in 2014. Significantly, civilian fatalities declined by 61.18 per cent in 2015, and no civilian fatality has been recorded thus far in 2016.
Fatalities in the SF category registered a decline of 55 per cent in 2015. On the other hand, terrorist fatalities increased by 36.36 per cent. The ratio of SF personnel to militants killed in 2015 thus stood at 1:8.5 as against 1:1.4 in 2014.
Nevertheless, a range of parameters indicates that a widespread threat persists. As in 2014, 21 major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) were recorded in 2015, but the resultant fatalities increased from 129 in 2014 to 142 in 2015. In the worst attack of the year, on August 16, 2015, at least 23 persons, including Provincial Home Minister, Colonel Shuja Khanzada (Retired) and Deputy Superintendent of Police Shaukat Shah, were killed, and another 23 were injured, in a suicide attack during a jirga (council) at Khanzada’s political office in the Shadi Khan Village of Attock District. The Province recorded eight suicide attacks in 2015, as against four in 2014; resultant fatalities stood at 79 and 83 respectively. An equal number of explosions (16) were recorded in 2015 as in the preceding year. The resultant fatalities and injuries were 94 and 236, respectively, in 2015, as against 111 and 352 in 2014. Though incidents of sectarian violence registered a sharp decline, from 19 in 2014 to five in 2015, fatalities rose from 18 to 23.
According to SATP data, there has been a considerable and increasing presence of at least 70 extremist and terrorist groups in Punjab. Significantly, on January 14, 2015, Federal Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, during a briefing on the status of the implementation of the National Action Plan (NAP) to counter terrorism and extremism, disclosed that the number of proscribed organisations actively engaged in terrorism and extremism in the Province had reached 95. Further, according to a report dated February 19, 2016, Pakistani authorities are set to launch an anti-terror campaign to purge the “no-go areas” along Punjab’s borders. According to an unnamed official, “Frontier Corps has already launched intelligence-based ‘chase operations’ to hunt the activists of the banned outfits in some areas of Balochistan that connect the volatile province with the Punjab”
Meanwhile, according to a February 15, 2016, report, as many as 56 of the 13,849 religious seminaries geo-tagged by the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) were in Category-A for their suspected links with banned organistions. The seminaries were geo-tagged – marking the geographical location of the madrassas – as part of the NAP against terrorism. There are a total of three categories. Seminaries that have been found actively involved in terrorism and sectarian activities belong to Category-A. Category-B includes seminaries that are facilitators of such activities. The seminaries that are not involved in terrorism and sectarian violence come under Category-C.
In another development, the head cleric of Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Maulana Mohammad Abdul Aziz, who is also known for his links with TTP and al Qaeda, in a breach of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) 1997, on November 13, 2015, orchestrated a rally in Islamabad Capital Territory to launch a “movement to enforce Shariah” in Pakistan. On December 14, 2014, in a media interview, Aziz denied any direct links with the leadership of the Islamic State (IS/ also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-ISIS/ Deash), but made it clear that he respected the terrorist group because of similarities in their missions. Earlier, on November 26, 2014, the girls-only religious school, Jamia Hafsa, had released a video with Aziz’s consent, declaring their support for IS and its chief Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi. In his December 14 interview, Aziz defended Jamia Hafsa, declaring,
…they did not commit a crime by doing so… girls announced their support for IS only after losing hope in the country’s political elite which remained silent when they had to suffer in the wake of the military operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in 2007.
On December 28, 2015, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) claimed to have neutralized an IS cell operating in the Sialkot District of Punjab, and arrested eight suspects, also seizing weapons, explosives and laptops, as well as a large number of compact discs containing publicity material from their possession. The investigators claimed that the suspects had taken an oath to “overthrow democracy and introduce Khilafat (Caliphate) in Pakistan through armed struggle”. According to interrogation details, the suspects belonged to different Districts of Punjab, but Sialkot served as the base of their operations. They had already established infrastructure in the District to carry out operations across the country.
Nevertheless, the Provincial and Federal Governments have demonstrated no consensus regarding the presence of the IS in the Province, and also in the country. On February 17, 2016, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah asserted that there is no organised network of Daesh in Punjab. He elaborated that other terrorist groups, which are involved in activities against the state, are using the name of Daesh in their terrorist activities. In contrast, the Director-General Intelligence Bureau Aftab Sultan had testified before the Senate Standing Committee on February 10, 2016, that IS was an emerging threat in Pakistan, as all other terrorist groups had a soft corner for it.
There are dense linkages between terrorist groups. Significantly, the eight IS suspects arrested in Sialkot District on December 28, 2015, also had links with Hafiz Muhammad Saeed’s Jama’at-ud-Dawa (JuD), one among the several terrorist formations that has enjoyed the support of the establishment over an extended period of time. JuD is the front organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that is accused of involvement in the November 26, 2008, Mumbai terror (also known as 26/11) attacks, as well as hundreds of terrorist operations in Jammu & Kashmir. As in the past, Hafiz Saeed continues to be allowed to propagate his ideology of hate and violence freely across the country, including the capital, Islamabad, organising and conducting anti-India and anti-West rallies through the year. Indeed, in an anti-India rally in Islamabad this year on ‘Kashmir Solidarity Day’ that is observed every year on February 5, he declared, “On the occasion of Kashmir Day, I want more intensity in the freedom struggle. Every child in Pakistan is ready to sacrifice his life for Kashmir’s freedom.” A day earlier, on February 4, 2016, in another provocative remark, Saeed had warned India of more terror attacks. Referring to the Pathankot terror attack on January 2, 2016, Saeed stated, “You have only seen one attack on Pathankot. Matters could easily escalate.” Saeed has a USD 10 million bounty placed on his head by Washington, but continues to enjoy complete impunity from the law and the NAP. The Pakistani Government refuses to officially ban the terror outfit. Lal Masjid’s Maulana Aziz also enjoys the same impunity.
Even if a ban is imposed, JuD is likely to continue to operate under another identity, as its precursor, LeT did after its apparent ban in January 2002. JuD already has a number of other identities in place, including Tehreek-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool (Movement for defending the honour of Prophet), Tehreek-e-Azadi-e-Kashmir (Movement for the Liberation of Kashmir), Paasbaan-e-Ahl-e-Hadith (Defender of the Prophetic Tradition) , Paasban-e-Kashmir (Defender of Kashmir), Al-Mansoorian (The Victorious), Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq (Establishment for the Service of Humanity), Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (Foundation for the success of humanity), Tehreek-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awal (Movement for Safeguarding the Holy Ka’ba).
Pakistan has, unfailingly, proved to be a country where hard core domestic and foreign terrorists find widespread public and official support. As Islamabad continues to strengthen its dangerous friendships with the preachers of terror, Punjab, like other Provinces of the country, has also seen the proliferation and consolidation of radical Salafi ideology and the terrorist spinoff it entails.
* Ambreen Agha
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management