THE terrorist sectarian outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), which has been active in Pakistan since the mid-1990s, has become a strategic asset for many including Al Qaeda, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the so-called non-violent religious sectarian parties.
Lately divided into many factions and small terrorist cells, the LJ is once again coming under a unified command, which could be a major reason for the escalated sectarian violence during the last few weeks.
The outfit has undoubtedly become the second most lethal terrorist group in Pakistan after the TTP. A comparison of the geographical spread of incidents of sectarian violence from 2009 to 2012 suggests that Karachi, Quetta, Gilgit and Kurram Agency have become regular hotspots of sectarian violence, the areas where the group is largely operational either alone or in collaboration with the TTP and foreign militants.
Although the nexus between the militant sectarian Sunni groups and the TTP was already well-established it was for the first time that in 2012 the TTP claimed responsibility for several attacks on the Shia community in different parts of Pakistan.
The LJ was believed to be involved in 128 terrorist attacks across the country in 2012, largely in Karachi and Quetta; these attacks ranged from sectarian assaults to strikes on the security forces. LJ and other such terrorist sectarian groups, which had absorbed Al Qaeda and Taliban ideological tendencies, increasingly returned to their primary sectarian agendas.
Once a breakaway faction of the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi has an ever more violent anti-Shia agenda. Although it claims to be a separate entity, whatever it does furthers the cause of the SSP in one way or the other. The group solely depends on the SSP for human resources and justifies the killing of Shias in Pakistan. A recent statement circulated by a faction of LJ led by Asif Chotu declared Shia Muslims the major obstacle in the way of enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan. The SSP denies any direct link with the terrorist group, but the LJ is the major source of its vigour that it exploits for political gains. Though a faction within the SSP is against sectarian violence its voice is diminutive in the larger discourse of the organisation.
The LJ had lost central command when the police launched an extensive operation against the group in the late 1990s and later when it was proscribed in August 2000. These steps caused the emergence of internal differences and divisions among the group. Thus many splinter groups emerged.
After 9/11, LJ terrorists had joined the angry Kashmiri jihadists and tribal Taliban, who were not happy with the sudden change in the state’s policy that abandoned jihad in the region. The major terrorist attacks between 2001 and 2007 in the country were launched by this emerging alliance. The nexus was further strengthened when these small groups joined Al Qaeda and the tribal Taliban. Such alliances ideologically transformed the sectarian groups injecting in them global jihadist tendencies.
This was the time when the LJ was losing its sectarian identity and the group was become a tag name for small terrorist cells. Qari Hussain, the trainer of suicide bombers who was killed in a drone strike in 2010, had infused new life into the group while recruiting Punjab- and Karachi-based youths and re-initiating sectarian terrorist attacks.
Tariq Afridi, head of the TTP’s Darra Adam Khel chapter, was the second person who revitalised the violent sectarian agenda of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi and launched deadly terrorist attacks in Fata and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The release of Malik Ishaq, founding member of the group who was facing trial in the killings of more than 100 Shia scholars and community leaders, further emboldened the group.
Although these facts injected new life into the agenda and operations of the group, on the organisational level it remained splintered and disconnected until recently. Its Balochistan chapter, led by Usman Kurd, which targets the Hazara Shia community in Quetta, had little interaction with groups in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Seven other LJ groups are active in Karachi and Punjab, including the Attaur Rehman alias Naeem Bukhari, Qasim Rasheed, Muhammad Babar, Ghaffar, Muaviya, Akram Lahori and Malik Ishaq groups. These groups have devised their local agendas as well and indulge in local turf wars.
Asif Chotu, once a close aide of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi founder Riaz Basra, is reorganising the group. He had joined the TTP in 2010 and reunited the scattered members of LJ and on behalf of the TTP launched several operations across the country. He has approached other factions as well and now most of the splinter groups have come under one umbrella because of his efforts.
It is a dangerous development, which can lead to an escalation of sectarian violence across the country. The LJ nexus with Al Qaeda and TTP has not only broadened its ideological horizon but also equipped it with lethal operational tactics. It may not be the LJ of the 1990s, which was mostly involved in targeted killings, but its new face is extensively lethal in terms of operational capabilities and connections with terrorist groups.
The TTP will not let the group focus only on sectarian killings but could use it to hit other targets as well such as security forces, foreign interests and political leadership.
On the other hand, the state and political leadership seem ignorant of the fact that a new nexus is causing a new, critical threat to loom. A few mainstream parties appeared to have kept links with sectarian organisations for electoral success. Sectarian groups welcome all political parties because they seek political legitimacy through these alliances.
Law-enforcement agencies appear to have no clear countering strategy mainly because of the frail threat perception and lack of inspiration to take action against homegrown terrorist threats.
The writer is editor of the quarterly research journal Conflict and Peace Studies.