Lal Masjid siege

12 Jul 2017

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TEN years ago today, militancy in Pakistan took a darker and more ominous turn. On July 12, 2007, the army’s siege of the Lal Masjid religious complex in Islamabad exploded into a pitched battle that lasted several hours. The encounter, which saw commandos storming the complex and fighting heavily armed militants from room to room, left at least 100 insurgents dead, including Lal Masjid’s charismatic deputy imam Abdul Rashid Ghazi, and claimed the lives of 11 armed forces personnel. Aided by a huge stockpile of weapons inside, the long stand-off and the bloody denouement illustrated the tenacity of anti-state elements determined to fight to the death. The conclusion of the assault also brought to an end the moral vigilantism unleashed by Lal Masjid’s ‘vice’ squads across the capital.

On the face of it, Operation Sunrise was a triumph for the state, a demonstration of its fearsome power. Soon enough though, it became clear that it was more of a pyrrhic victory for the state, but an enduring one for the militants. A mishandled operation that resulted in a large number of fatalities, the siege proved to be a propaganda coup for the militants. Instead of being a deterrent, it catalysed violent extremists — already in revolt against the state following what they saw as a betrayal of the jihadist cause after 9/11 — to unite under the umbrella of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. Terrorist attacks, particularly suicide bombings, saw a marked escalation. Now that a decade has passed, and kinetic operations have dismantled much of the militant infrastructure, it is time to reflect upon what lessons have been learnt. After all, the siege was not inevitable: it need not have come to pass had the state not winked at radical elements establishing a stronghold in the very heart of Pakistan’s capital. It acted belatedly after the situation had spiralled out of control. However, even today, many madressahs are run by religious organisations whose allegiance to extremist ideologies should be cause for concern — some of them are even on the interior ministry’s watch list. Resisting government oversight, they cultivate in their students the same radical mindset that has already proven so costly for the nation. And even though Lal Masjid’s Shuhada Foundation was rightly denied permission to hold a remembrance ceremony for the ‘martyrs’ of the siege, it illustrates how the ultra right continues to push the boundaries. The question is: are we pushing back hard enough?

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2017