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Challenging conventions

February 12, 2017


THE recent action against Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) leaders is being interpreted in many ways. Some say it is an attempt to avoid sanctions by Donald Trump’s administration. Others link it with Chinese pressure. Only a few look at the development from an internal perspective.

The emerging debate on internal security in recent months has mainly revolved around the status of banned organisations, madressahs and operations against militant networks in the urban areas mainly in Punjab. One of the major challenges confronting the state is about how to deal with conventional militant groups, including the JuD. These groups have developed huge infrastructures inside the country. Contrary to anti-Pakistan militant groups, these conventional groups are fairly visible on the ground and active within the domains of politics and social welfare. They are not involved in terrorist activities inside Pakistan, and are gradually becoming part of the far-right politics in the country.

Security institutions are nonetheless worried about the members of such groups, who are being targeted for recruitment by various terrorist groups including the militant Islamic State (IS) group, Al Qaeda and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

How should the state neutralise groups that once served a strategic purpose?

These conventional militant groups also contribute to shaping Pakistan’s international image and often cause the state diplomatic stress — the JuD is on top among these groups. The dilemma for security institutions is that the world believes such groups are under the complete control of certain state institutions. It is difficult for the world to conceive of these groups operating independently when they exploit the state’s ideological and nationalist narratives and present themselves as custodians of state interests.

Another major challenge for the state is how to neutralise groups that once served its strategic purpose. The most practised way in a post-insurgency perspective is to reintegrate them into mainstream society. However, many experts and most of Pakistan’s civil society believe that these groups should be treated under the rule of the law and that Pakistan must fulfil its commitments under UN Security Council resolutions.

There is a need to reassess the ways of bringing such groups under the rule of law completely. The state can freeze their assets, shut down their charity and organisational operations, put their leaderships under different schedules of anti-terrorism laws, try their leaders in courts of law, and, in the worst case, strip them of their nationality. But will this eliminate the problem? Do we have an idea about the penetration of these groups in society, different layers of their members from mid to lower ranks, and their numerical strength? How will they behave and what kind of responses can they evolve?

The case study of a self-proclaimed ‘second line of defence of every Muslim state’, Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami (HJI) may provide some insight. Once the biggest Pakistani jihadist group, active in Afghanistan and India-held Kashmir, it became a parasite of Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban pre-9/11 owing to internal rifts. Its founder, Qari Saifullah Akhtar, was killed last month while fighting against the Afghan security forces. It is significant that the once mythical jihadist leader’s death did not receive much coverage in mainstream or the militants’ media.

The first Pakistani group to launch attacks on its own soil was HJI. Before the Lal Masjid siege in 2007, HJI and Lashkar-i-Jhangvi factions were behind most of the terrorist attacks carried out in Pakistan, mainly between 2002 and 2006. The Pakistani state had decided to dismantle HJI in 2003. Although a small group, HJI took more than nine years to become non-functional. During that time, it not only caused enormous damage to the country through terrorist attacks but also provided trained militants to other terrorist groups. It contributed towards the formation of the Punjabi Taliban groups, which comprised HJI’s splinter terrorist cells besides others. Militants from HJI also joined the ranks of Al Qaeda and the TTP.

Those who oppose the reintegration of conventional militant groups argue that it will only encourage these groups, who will reconnect with their radical and violent agendas once the pressure is off them. They fear that these groups will continue nurturing hate narratives among Pakistani society. Few also see a design behind such initiatives by state institutions to cover up their proxies.

However, the more important question is: what kind of the options are available for reintegration? Some look towards Saudi Arabian and certain Western models, which are mainly based on individual rehabilitation. Pakistan also has such models of detainees’ rehabilitation programmes and one can argue about their effectiveness. But reintegration of conventional militant groups is a different sort of challenge that requires our own local framework. Certain conventional groups, including JuD, have already developed far-right credentials, and their political reintegration can help to neutralise their radical tendencies.

Certainly, the reintegration approach can be more effective for conventional groups; even among them, some will have a greater tendency to reintegrate as compared with others. Here one may argue that reintegration cannot resolve the whole issue of militancy and extremism in Pakistan, and that the possibilities of more radical ideological inspirations will remain in place — pushing the youth towards more organised militant groups. Despite all its weaknesses, IS is still able to inspire members of more conventional groups.

Can the state evolve a reintegration framework with a zero-tolerance approach to violence? Can state institutions explore such probabilities within the limits of the rule of law and the Constitution? There remains the need to deconstruct radical narratives that have been nurtured over the past decades — without this, such narratives will continue to haunt members of these groups put to reintegration. Disconnecting conventional groups from anti-Pakistan terrorist groups will also be a challenge.

It seems that the state is thinking about the future of these conventional groups, but it is not yet clear where this thinking process is headed.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, February 12th, 2017