THE recent surge in sectarian violence has done two things. First, it has highlighted the challenges and vulnerabilities the country’s security and law-enforcement forces face in countering terrorism. Second, it has brought to the fore some critical, long-standing questions about the state’s resolve and efforts to counter religiously inspired extremism, mainly violent sectarianism.

Violent sectarian organisations are apparently shifting their territorial focus while law-enforcement agencies struggle to chase and trace their networks. There is, however, something more worrisome: how are these groups able to restructure and revive themselves so soon after their networks are weakened and leaders eliminated? The question becomes more critical in the context of the recent rebirth of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami (LJ-A).

Resurfacing with a new global outlook, LJ-A offers a new platform for smaller, struggling militant groups and individuals, including those with violent sectarian credentials. LJ-A has widened its ideological and strategic spectrums to develop compatibility with global terrorist groups, including the militant Islamic State (IS) group.

A state that has tried to use religion for national identity has had its agenda hijacked.

Although LJ-A has claimed responsibility for many attacks across the country, it is believed that it has established its operational base on the provincial border areas of upper Sindh and Balochistan, alongside other militant groups like Jundullah, factions of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. In several reports, law-enforcement agencies point to a rapid growth of madressahs in this region. In the last two years, terrorist attacks — including sectarian-related, on shrines and law-enforcement personnel — have increased in upper Sindh, which can be interpreted as the development of a new basin of terrorism in the region.

These groups, always in search of safe spaces, have found such a space in these provincial border regions as they develop new satellites. Military operations in the tribal areas and counterterrorism campaigns have uprooted terrorist networks from their traditional hotbeds. While many found shelter on the other side of the Pak-Afghan border, few found sanctuaries inside Pakistan. Those that relocated to Afghanistan also needed an operational infrastructure within Pakistan, which enhanced the importance of local sectarian groups trying to re-establish themselves in collaboration with TTP remnants.

Therefore, the possibility of more coordinated attacks such as the recent ones in Quetta and Khuzdar cannot be ruled out in the future. Concurrently, Afghanistan-based Pakistani groups can partially shift their organisational set-ups to less secure regions along the Sindh-Balochistan border or elsewhere. In such situations, a growing internal security challenge may require paramilitary forces’ involvement. If that happens, it certainly will have political implications.

Violent sectarian organisations have been critical contributors to the restructuring of Pakistan’s militant landscape; they first created physical safe spaces for themselves and then for other groups. It is noteworthy that the government declared victory over the militants; a decline in the number of terrorist attacks was considered the main indicator of victory. But the enemy is not only embroiled in continuous skirmishes with security forces, it has also managed to carry out sporadic yet significant attacks in addition to frequent low-intensity attacks. The only difference is that major attacks were more frequent in the past.

While security forces try their utmost to deal with the counterterrorism challenge, chronic issues linked to threat perception still persist and need to be fixed. Although the debate on counterterrorism has arrived at strengthening alternative soft measures, hard security approaches need to be readjusted. There is need to focus more on these groups’ sources of strength.

There is still a fundamental question of why particular sectarian groups have yet to be dismantled despite a three-decade long battle against them. LJ-A is the third reincarnation of LJ in the last two decades. Killing its founders, including Riaz Basra, in 2002 provided a brief lull in sectarian attacks, but in 2004 a new wave began that only receded once those leaders were killed in 2008. In 2010, a sudden rise was again observed under the new leadership of Asif Chotu and Naeem Bukhari. Headed by Yousaf Mansoor Khorasani, LJ-A is composed of the remnants of various sectarian and terrorist groups from Sindh and Balochistan.

LJ’s strength lies in sectarian narratives that are nurtured by the country’s religious institutions. The increase in madressahs and sectarianism is correlated; in new territories, they nurture with more pace and inspire low-income groups. This phenomenon can be seen in many parts of interior Sindh and Balochistan’s border districts like Khuzdar and Makran. Sectarian groups are exploiting this, not only recruiting members for themselves but creating avenues for other terrorist groups as well.

Smaller madressahs are more vulnerable because security agencies usually tend to focus less on them, thus making it easy for such groups to infiltrate them, influence their clerics and exploit their economic conditions. While bigger madressahs and religious sectarian organisations cultivate sectarian hatred, the smaller ones have the ability to transform these narratives of hate into violence.

The state is not taking the sectarian issue more seriously — as evident from its absence from any policy priorities — despite the fact that sectarianism binds different local and international terrorist networks together. It is also evident that dominant hate narratives in Pakistan have become sectarian and are undermining its national character. More than national issues, religious-sectarian issues generate the kind of anger that drives people to take to the streets.

For social scientists, it is an interesting phenomenon that a state that has tried to use religion for national identity has had its agenda hijacked and made completely sectarian. Many social scientists consider a sort of asabiyya as an important factor for a sense of shared national purpose, but when it becomes sectarian and violent it turns into a negative social process.

The irony is that the state seems helpless in reclaiming its lost narrative, lacking even the intention of evolving an alternative vision of national identity. The state wants to control violence but not the triggers and drivers of violence. The drivers of sectarian hate are intact yet we continue to wonder why certain groups are resurrected again and again.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2016



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