The legacy of Lal Masjid

The siege and assault on Lal Masjid took place in July 10 years ago. Eos looks at how that moment impacted militancy.
Published July 13, 2017


It was a scene from hell when I visited the Lal Masjid and its affiliated women’s seminary Jamia Hafsa on July 12, a day after the end of the military action named Operation Sunrise.

Every part of the sprawling complex was scarred by the battle and the acrid stench of battle still hung in the air.

The walls of the blackened basement, where the Lal Masjid’s Deputy Imam Abdul Rashid Ghazi and half a dozen of his followers had made a last stand, were shattered by the explosives. Metal furniture lay piled in a corner. The windowless room inside the Jamia Hafsa was charred; a suicide bomber had detonated his charge as the commandos had stormed the building.

In the next room, swarms of flies buzzed over the bloodstained floor and rubble was scattered where the militants had built a bunker. Walls that had been painted with Quranic verses were riddled with bullet holes, evidence of a vicious 35-hour assault in which the commandos fought from room to room against the heavily armed militants belonging to the seminary.

The remnants of deadly arsenal were strewn everywhere: ammunition, machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and a crate of petrol bombs made from green Sprite bottles. Homemade bombs, gas masks, electronic scanners, and scores of jihadi DVDs were among the debris.

The Lal Masjid siege was the deadliest battle between the army and homegrown militants since Pakistan entered into alliance with the United States following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The violent end of the standoff left more than 100 militants dead and took the lives of 11 armed forces personnel. It marked a significant period in Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militancy.

Al Qaeda leaders were quick to respond, calling for revenge. In an audio message Osama bin Laden described Ghazi as a “hero of Islam” and declared an all-out war against the Pakistani military.

The Lal Masjid itself was spared the worst of the fighting, but its entrance hall was destroyed by fire and chunks of masonry were blown from the minarets, which gunmen were said to have used as a vantage point. The resistance was indeed beyond the expectations of the armed forces.

The violent end of the standoff left more than 100 militants dead and took the lives of 11 armed forces personnel. It marked a significant period in Pakistan’s struggle with Islamic militancy.

Ten years later, the Lal Masjid episode continues to haunt Pakistan and inspire global jihadi movements.

In his death Rashid Ghazi became the source of inspiration for the militants. Al Qaeda and other militant groups have since used the storming of the Lal Masjid as a rallying cry to fight the Pakistani government and its military.

More than 88 bombings killed 1,188 people and wounded 3,209 in the first year following the Lal Masjid siege alone.

Two months after the Lal Masjid siege, an 18-year-old boy blew himself up inside the high-security base of Zarrar Company, the elite commando unit of the Pakistan Army responsible for Operation Sunrise; 22 soldiers were killed. It was a major blow to the force, which had been specially trained to carry out counter-terrorism operations.

For the first time, military and intelligence personnel and installations in high-security zones in cities such as Rawalpindi, Islamabad, and Lahore were targeted.

Organised under the banner of the Ghazi Force, Abdul Rashid’s disciples have been responsible for some of the most audacious terrorist attacks.

Ghazi had predicted that any violent end to the siege would help speed an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. His words resonated powerfully in northwestern Pakistan, where tribal militant leaders declared holy war against the government and the military. It also spurred the loosely connected militant groups to come together.

Until then, disparate Taliban groups had operated independently of each other in their own regions.

But the storming of the mosque and subsequent military operations inspired them to unite.

Six months after Operation Sunrise on December 14, 2007, some 40 militant leaders, commanding 40,000 militant fighters, gathered in South Waziristan to form a united front under the banner of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The TTP included representatives from all the seven tribal regions as well as parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, including Swat, Malakand, Buner, and Dera Ismail Khan, where the Taliban movement was already active.

The birth of the TTP was another major turning point in the rise of insurgency in northwestern Pakistan and the tribal areas.

There was already a nexus between the clerics of Lal Masjid and militant leaders such as Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and Mullah Fazlullah in the Swat Valley.

But the formation of the TTP gave fresh impetus to the militant movement. It vowed to avenge the death of Abdul Rashid.

About 70 per cent of the students of the madressahs attached to Lal Masjid came from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) territories and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and many of them returned home to join the insurgency.

Breaches in the boundary wall of the madressah complex. ─ ISPR
Breaches in the boundary wall of the madressah complex. ─ ISPR

By 2008 the Taliban were virtually in control of all the seven Fata agencies and had expanded their influence to a large part of KP.

After dominating Swat, the Taliban had advanced to Buner and were just 60 miles away from capital Islamabad.

The raid on General Headquarters and a series of attacks on the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) offices in high-security zones demonstrated the growing sophistication of the militants.

The Ghazi Force played a critical role in all those attacks.

A strategic asset

Established shortly after Pakistan’s capital was moved from Karachi to the newly built Islamabad in 1965, Lal Masjid was named for its red walls and interiors.

Only a stone’s throw from the headquarters of the ISI and a few blocks from the high-security Red Zone, the mosque since the 1980s had harboured the rise of militant Islam under state patronage.

It had been used for the recruitment and mobilisation of volunteers to fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir, which also brought its chief cleric closer to the intelligence and security establishment.

The first Imam of this state-controlled mosque was Maulana Muhammad Abdullah, who was known for his radical sectarian views.

Under General Zia’s military rule he rose to prominence and General Zia appointed him the member of his Majlis-i-Shura.

After the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, Maulana Abdullah became closely associated with the movement and with Al Qaeda.

In 1998, he travelled to Kandahar to pay homage to Mullah Omar. He took his younger son, Abdul Rashid, with him. During that visit the father and son met with Osama bin Laden.

The mosque’s link with outlawed militant and sectarian groups is an open secret. But the allegiance of the Maulana’s disciples to the militant Islamic State group is much more serious.

Abdul Rashid met with bin Laden alone for an hour.

"The meeting inspired me to work for the establishment of Islam," he said when he fondly narrated the story of the meeting.

At the end of the meeting, he recounted, he picked up bin Laden’s glass of water and drank from it. An amused bin Laden asked him the reason for his action, to which Abdul Rashid replied, "I drank from your glass so that Allah would make me a warrior like you."

Vigilantes of the Lal Masjid torch video cassettes, music CDs and DVDs in a public show of power back in 2007. ─ White Star
Vigilantes of the Lal Masjid torch video cassettes, music CDs and DVDs in a public show of power back in 2007. ─ White Star

After the assassination of Maulana Abdullah, his older son Abdul Aziz was appointed the head cleric of the mosque and Abdul Rashid officiated as his deputy. The two brothers continued to enjoy state patronage despite their growing links with the jihadi and sectarian groups.

But the long-standing links between the Pakistani military establishment and Lal Masjid turned hostile after Pakistan allied itself with the United States following the 9/11 attacks.

For the militants this change of tack was a betrayal of jihad. The Lal Masjid became the centre of anti-government and anti-American protests. Many students of the madressahs affiliated with the mosque joined the Afghan Taliban resistance against the American invasion.

Relations worsened when in 2004, the clerics of the mosque issued a fatwa calling the people to join the militant resistance against the army operation in Waziristan. They declared that those fighting the Pakistani forces were martyrs and urged the people not to give Islamic burial to the soldiers killed in the fighting.

The situation escalated in 2007, when under the leadership of two brothers, the Lal Masjid movement sought to take revolutionary action against Gen (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s government. They announced a charter for proposed Islamic rule of the country, which envisaged a new social, political and judicial system based on the Sharia. The clerics called for the formation of revolutionary committees for the implementation of the charter.

Meanwhile, the mosque became a base for Taliban-style vigilante squads.

Led by fearsome, stick-wielding, burqa-clad young women, radicals poured out of the mosque and the two madressahs affiliated to it, raiding houses allegedly used as brothels, kidnapping suspected prostitutes, and making bonfires of videocassettes and DVDs that they regarded as un-Islamic.

But for months the administration tolerated activities of the self-styled anti-vice squads even after they kidnapped a number of policemen and ransacked government buildings.

The clerics even threatened to launch a wave of suicide attacks if any move was made against them. The military hesitated to take any action, surely due to its long ties with the mosque.

The military-led government finally took action after the Lal Masjid squad kidnapped three Chinese girls and accused them of prostitution. The situation escalated to a point that some feared the militants might take over the capital itself. On July 3, 2007, army troops backed by tanks and artillery guns surrounded the mosque. But the final onslaught was held off in order to allow time for the students to surrender.

For seven consecutive days, positioned behind concrete bunkers and sandbags, the militants responded to the military’s siege with automatic fire, showing little sign of fatigue or shortage of ammunition.

Around midnight on July 7, snipers positioned inside a minaret shot Lieutenant-Colonel Haroon Islam, the commander of the Special Forces leading the operation. He passed away on July 8.

The killing vividly demonstrated how well-trained the militants were; many of the hardliner militants had been schooled in guerrilla warfare in Kashmir and Afghanistan.

The death of the commander was the last straw.

Arms, ammunitions and jihadi literature siezed from the mosque premises. ─ White Star
Arms, ammunitions and jihadi literature siezed from the mosque premises. ─ White Star

What happened next sparked changes to militancy at home as well as to pan-Islamist jihadi movements elsewhere.

A global fascination

The Lal Masjid standoff also spurred global jihadi movements.

An Iraq-based militant group known as Ansar al Sham named one of its training camps after Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

In 2014, this Al Qaeda affiliate released a video showing militants receiving training at the same camp.

The video begins with Ghazi’s last message exhorting his followers to continue the struggle. The video then shows visuals of the Lal Masjid itself, along with the Jamia Hafsa and also visuals of troop deployment prior to the operation.

Many of the Pakistanis who have joined jihadi groups fighting in Iraq and Syria are believed to be former students of the madressahs affiliated with Lal Masjid.

Indeed the devastation of Lal Masjid and killing of Abdul Rashid gave new cause to the militants, but it is not the reason for the rise of violent extremism in the country.

It may be argued that the massive use of force by the state was avoidable, but the military action cannot be described as unprovoked.

No government can allow any move to establish a parallel system through the use of force and incite public to revolt against the state.

The Lal Masjid phenomenon did not emerge overnight. It was the product of a decades-long policy of patronising extremist clerics and using militancy as a tool of the country’s foreign policy.

In fact the action came too late which made things much more complicated.

It could have been easier had the administration cleared the mosque from the militants few years earlier when there was a strong evidence of their support for the insurgent fighting Pakistani armed forces in the tribal areas and their links with Al Qaeda.

The state continued to ignore the increasing activity of the self-styled Islamic vigilante groups operating right in the heart of the country’s capital.

The administration and the military failed to realise the degree to which rising extremism among the Pakistani militant groups had taken on a life of its own.

They wilfully looked the other way rather than confront clear signs that the violent extremism was taking root in the country as well as in the capital.

It was perhaps not easy for the security establishment to cull its own creation.

The Lal Masjid phenomenon did not emerge overnight.

It was the product of a decades-long policy of patronising extremist clerics and using militancy as a tool of the country’s foreign policy.

The Lal Masjid had long served that purpose. The argument that the rise of violent extremism and terrorism was the direct consequence of the military action certainly does not hold ground.

It may have precipitated the militant war in the mainland, but an Al Qaeda backed insurgency had already gained ground in most of the tribal region and had spread to parts of KP.

Any further delay in action could have threatened the very existence of the state.

Return to status quo?

Ironically, a decade after the bloody siege, Lal Masjid remains a symbol of radical Islam.

Abdul Aziz who incited armed rebellion against the state and sought to establish his own version of retrogressive Islamic order is now re-installed at the pulpits defending militant actions.

Most of the cases against the cleric have either been quashed by the courts or dropped by the government.

Clearly, the long arm of the law does not reach a proclaimed offender even if he defies the country’s Constitution and openly defends militant violence.

An intelligence report last year warned that the Lal Masjid’s links with militant groups involved in terrorist activities presented a grave security threat.

The report also cited a video message recorded by students of Jamia Hafsa pledging allegiance to the militant group, Islamic State.

The mosque’s link with outlawed militant and sectarian groups is an open secret.

But the allegiance of the Maulana’s disciples to the IS is much more serious.

Unsurprisingly, the intelligence warning and the open support for the global militant group by the women and girls in Jamia Hafsa are ignored by the administration.

The revival of the Lal Masjid as the citadel of extremism exposes the lack of will to effectively deal with the menace of militancy.

The impunity enjoyed by Abdul Aziz and other radical clerics raises fears of the capital returning to a 2007-like situation.

The threat is much more serious with the mushroom growth of madressah populations in the city.

It seems that the state has not learnt any lesson from the events that led to the bloody siege that shook the country.

The writer is an author and senior journalist. He tweets @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 9th, 2017

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From a figure who revelled in his anonymity, Abdul Aziz turned into a media-savvy cleric.  ─ White Star
From a figure who revelled in his anonymity, Abdul Aziz turned into a media-savvy cleric. ─ White Star

Ten years ago as millions watched the spectacle of the Lal Masjid siege that brought the capital to its knees, few could have imagined that one day the protagonist of this huge national embarrassment, the man who triggered the killing of 11 Pakistani soldiers on live television, would ever walk free again.

Even fewer now recall that before his unveiling on national television as the burqa-clad would-be escapee, nobody outside the mosque had ever seen Maulana Abdul Aziz’s face.

Unlike his media savvy brother Abdul Rashid Ghazi, Abdul Aziz (inspired by his hero Mullah Omar) never allowed himself to be photographed, a move that only added to his fearsome repute.

Most people watching thought this would likely be the first and last time we would see his face.

But in the years to come, he would not only walk free but also become a regular fixture on the airwaves.

Since 2007 Abdul Aziz has had at least 35 cases registered against him but now stands acquitted in all of these.

For a man who waged war against the state and remains unrepentant — this is unprecedented.

In fact the first cases registered against Aziz were initiated three years before the 2007 siege when he had issued a scathing fatwa against Pakistan army soldiers fighting Taliban militants saying they were not martyrs and did not deserve Islamic funerals.

The Musharraf government dismissed him from service as khateeb (prayer leader) of the government-run mosque in 2004, an order that still stands but has never been implemented.

The Islamabad Capital Administration (ICT) insists that he was never officially re-appointed after this but Abdul Aziz is firmly back in the saddle.

The one time the government tried to appoint a replacement, he was beaten to a pulp by seminary students when he arrived to lead Friday prayers after the reopening of the mosque in July, 2007.

As one analyst remarked, “He [Aziz] is the only khateeb because he says he is. In the case of Abdul Aziz, the state has lost even the ability to replace a Grade 15 government employee.”

How did a man accused of treason, conspiracy against the state, and abetting gruesome terror survive criminal charges?

Despite serious terror charges faced by Abdul Aziz in the past, perhaps the most publicised case against him was brought by civil society activists in December 2014 who claimed they received death threats from the cleric after protesting his refusal to condemn the massacre at Army Public School (APS)-Peshawar.

The case has dogged the current Interior Minister through most of his tenure amid accusations of a secret deal with the cleric.

Even as he rubbished the matter of Abdul Aziz as a “non issue” drummed up by “so-called civil society”, Chaudhry Nisar at a press conference on February 16, 2016 reiterated that the lower courts had noted that Aziz’s acquittals resulted from a “deliberately weak prosecution.”

He argued that the botched trial sprang from of a policy of appeasement instituted by the previous government.

However, Nisar’s critics allege that under him, this policy of appeasement turned into one of wilful protection and that the minister went out of his way to ensure that Abdul Aziz was not held accountable.

“He was very keen to ingratiate himself with the religious lobby and set himself apart from the previous government in this regard,” says Azaz Syed, an Islamabad-based investigative journalist, who has followed the Lal Masjid case closely from the beginning.

“After the APS attacks triggered the civil society movement, there was once again momentum to move against Abdul Aziz, even amongst sections of the military top brass” says Syed, “but this was opposed by Chaudhry Nisar who cautioned against it.”

Syed admits that Nisar’s concerns of a backlash were not unwarranted but in the end the military was not prepared to move without civilian support on this issue which was not forthcoming.

Nisar was later publicly scornful of the protesters gathered outside Lal Masjid calling them “politically motivated” and their political allies [the Pakistan People’s Party] “hypocrites”.

He argued that whereas the previous PPP government had allowed Maulana Aziz to re-assume the position of khateeb at the mosque and also gave him official police protection, it was he who withdrew it.

Responding to the case filed by members of the citizens’ movement against Abdul Aziz for issuing death threats against them, Nisar justified inaction on the matter saying he would not allow the nation’s capital to descend into a bloodbath because of “the political showmanship” of a few activists.

In December 2015, after a year of dragging his feet on the civil society FIR, Chaudhry Nisar came under fire on the floor of the parliament after he denied that there were any cases pending against Maulana Abdul Aziz and that if anyone had any proof against the cleric it should be presented to him.

“To say this at a time when there were warrants out for Aziz’s arrest, was nothing short of a blatant and shameless breach of parliamentary privilege. It’s a disgrace,” says activist Jibran Nasir who filed one of the cases.

In response to the minister’s denials, Nasir and fellow activists mailed every member of Parliament including Nisar, documentary proof of the evidence against Abdul Aziz including arrest warrants issued against him, a court order declaring Aziz an absconder, and a copy of an official notification issued to cellular companies to suspend services in areas in the Lal Masjid vicinity to prevent dissemination of Aziz’s Friday sermons.

Why, the activists asked, if Abdul Aziz posed no threat, did mobile signals have to be jammed every time he gave a sermon?

Nisar shot back at a press conference a few weeks later.

“If they talk of rights, everyone has rights including Maulana Aziz,” thundered the minister. This time he admitted that Aziz was an absconder in the case but scoffed at the charges.

Brushing aside the seriousness of the allegations, Nisar said three similar cases of ‘death threats’ had been dismissed by the previous government so why the criticism of him now?

He also said that there could be no death threats made because the protesters never came face-to-face with those inside the mosque, implying the charges were fabricated.

Legal experts say that these remarks were prejudicial to the case, which was still in progress and inevitably affected the outcome.

The citizens’ case against Abdul Aziz was finally dismissed in January 2017 after the court cited lack of evidence.

Complainant Jibran Nasir says the case proceeded as far as it did solely because of public pressure but the authorities were never interested in pursuing it.

“The police did not bother to record statements from even a single one of the eight complainants who were threatened. The only statements they recorded were of three of Abdul Aziz’s accomplices who denied his presence in the madressah on the night the threats were issued.”

Nasir maintains that the protesters were threatened by Lal Masjid thugs and that they even issued a written warning against the protestors.

Later, in an audio recording that was made public, Ehsanullah Ehsan, spokesperson of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) called up Nasir and threatened him with dire consequences if he did not stop ‘harassing’ Abdul Aziz.

On New Year’s Day 2015, exactly a year before Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that there was no proof against Maulana Abdul Aziz, an ISI report was leaked to the media that contained details of Abdul Aziz’s links to terror outfits.

Although the TTP threat was eventually doused, another was in the making: Islamic State (IS).

Nasir argues that an even graver crime the interior minister covered up is Abdul Aziz’s public invitation to IS extended on November 26, 2014, to come to Pakistan and exact revenge on the Pakistan army.

“This was an act of treason and constitutes conspiracy to wage war on the state,” he says.

Even before the students of Jamia Hafsa publically pledged allegiance to IS, intelligence reports of Abdul Aziz’s links to militant groups had been surfacing on a regular basis.

On New Year’s Day 2015, exactly a year before Chaudhry Nisar told parliament that there was no proof against Abdul Aziz, an ISI report was leaked to the media that contained details of Abdul Aziz’s links to terror outfits.

The report titled "Activities of Maulana Abdul Aziz" and forwarded to the Ministry of Interior by the ISI, warned the government that Aziz was trying to reorganise a militia in the heart of the federal capital.

“[The] Lal Masjid mafia has links with militant groups and land grabbers and is currently reorganising the Ghazi Force militant group spawned by [his] followers after the Lal Masjid operation. Activities of Maulana Abdul Aziz and Lal Masjid administration, if not checked / contained can subsequently create [a] serious law and order situation in [the] twin cities,” reads the report.

It further reiterated evidence of links between the TTP and the Lal Masjid cleric, noting that the Taliban had nominated him as their representative to negotiate a peace deal with the government.

Three weeks after the report was made public, a suicide bomber blew himself up in a wheat field near Wah after being chased by police who tried to arrest him.

The bomber was later identified as Kausar Ali, a former student of the Lal Masjid-run Jamia Fareedia seminary, who joined the Ghazi Force and was on his way to blow up targets in Rawalpindi.

A day later, the Islamabad Police presented the Senate’s Standing Committee on Interior with yet another report which stated that TTP elements had established contact with Abdul Aziz in a bid to revive the Ghazi Force and target his critics.

“Police and intelligence agencies have identified 198 suspected militants who are believed to be working for the Ghazi Force,” reads the police report.

Former IG Islamabad Bani Amin confirmed to the press at the time that two militant commanders named Mullah Sabir and Mullah Rahim were commanding the force and had previously been involved in 21 suicide attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

Police sources further stated at the time that they were interrogating at least 53 suspects linked to the Ghazi Force who were known to visit Lal Masjid.

The ISI report quoted earlier also links Abdul Aziz to “notorious land grabber” Taji Khokar, whom it states has been arranging for land for the construction of seminaries and also assists Abdul Aziz with his court cases.

The ISI also linked property tycoon Malik Riaz to Abdul Aziz as a ‘sympathiser’ of the cleric. The report makes the claim that Malik had been providing financial help to the Lal Masjid administration, including paying their utility bills and financing the construction of seminaries including one in Bahria Town named Jamia Hafsa which houses 750 girls.

On the issue of Aziz’s operational role in reviving the Ghazi Force, journalist Azaz Syed is sceptical.

“He [Aziz] simply does not have the capacity or competence to organise a militia. He is known to be a bad organiser even as far as day-to-day matters of the seminary are concerned.”

Syed also believes that the threat from the Ghazi Force has now been largely neutralised as most of the members of the group have been killed or captured.

Still many others strongly believe Abdul Aziz’s links to terrorists can never be severed and that his continued liberty without accountability remains a powerful symbol of the state’s ultimate capitulation to theocratic gangsterism.

The writer is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He tweets @ziadzafar

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 9th, 2017

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