The bearded men holding a green flag with white stripes at the launch of this new political party were all familiar faces, except for a handful of clean-shaven ones who were representing non-Muslims. Born out of jihad, the newly-formed Milli Muslim League (MML) presents itself as a moderate mainstream political party claiming to uphold the legacy of the founder of Pakistan and protectors of the rights of religious minorities.
But its campaign in last month’s Lahore NA-120 by-elections exposed what lay behind the veneer. Banners with life-size portraits of Hafiz Saeed, the detained founder of the outlawed militant group, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and radical slogans in violation of electoral laws bore testament to its real face.
Despite the Election Commission’s refusal to register it, the party continued to campaign for the candidate it supported. Ultimately he bagged 5,000 votes — more than double the number that was received by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) candidate. More shocking was the performance of another newly-formed sectarian-based political party called Tehreek-i-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLY) that owes its allegiance to Mumtaz Qadri, the convicted and executed murderer of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer. The party stood third behind the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI).
Some forces hope that bringing extremists into the political process will defuse a delicate situation. But doing so without a clear policy will open another can of worms
These two parties, the MML and TLY, accounted for 11 percent of the votes cast. Their sudden emergence on the electoral scene during a crucial by-election gave currency to all kinds of conspiracy theories. Some analysts and even senior members of the ruling party suspected a plot by the “deep state” to cut into the PML-N vote bank. Indeed, in the past, the vote of the religious right in most constituencies in Punjab had tilted more towards PML-N. Yet it is too farfetched to attribute the emergence of these parties to any grand design of the “establishment” to undermine the ruling party.
Intriguingly, no action was taken by the government against a banned militant organisation and followers of a convicted murderer seeking votes on their extremist agenda. Although there has not been a formal state policy regarding mainstreaming radical groups, it is quite evident that the new party has the blessing of the of the military establishment
A recent statement by the military spokesman that every Pakistani has a right to form a political party gives credence to the notion that the formation of the MML is a part of the plan to legitimise the political role of old militant clients. Perhaps what we are witnessing is a policy by stealth of mainstreaming the “good militants” who once fought the state’s proxy war and have not been directly involved in terrorist activities at home, though they had allegedly continued their “ jihad” outside.
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) that has been operating under the banner of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) has certainly been more amenable to the security agencies. Though it never participated in electoral politics, the very formation of the JuD as charity organisation was seen as an attempt to provide a cover to the LeT’s militant activities.
It failed to convince the international community that JuD is a benign charity organisation but the charity work allowed the group to expand its network across the country. Now the formation of MML seems to be a move to baptise it as a mainstream political force using the JuD’s extensive support base.
Although the JuD traditionally relied on the support of Muslims belonging to the Ahle Hadith school of thought, in recent years the group and its charitable wing, Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), has expanded their network to other communities including non Muslims particularly in Tharparkar district in Sindh. Hafiz Abdur Rauf, in-charge of the FIF has been chosen as president of the MML. The mainstreaming of the LeT started soon after the militant group was outlawed in 2002 with the formation of the JuD. The so-called charitable group continued to operate freely under Hafiz Saeed despite it being placed on the US list of terrorist groups.
THE RISE OF JIHADI GROUPS
The first Pakistani jihadist groups emerged in 1980 when thousands of volunteers, mainly students from religious seminaries, joined the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. By 2001, Pakistan had become home to 24 militant groups. Highly disciplined paramilitary organisations operated in every neighbourhood, pursuing their own internal and external agenda. All these paramilitary groups, originally from the same source, had similar motivations and goals, and recruited from the same segment of society — often unemployed youth from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Those militant organisations were not clandestine, nor had they sprouted surreptitiously. Their growth, if not actually sponsored, had certainly been looked upon with favour by the state. Their activities were not secret, and found expression in graffiti, wall posters and pamphlets all over the country, inviting all Muslims to join forces with them. The state’s patronage helped the jihadists spread their militant agenda. The militant groups had developed a powerful propaganda machinery.
During the 1980s and 1990s, the objective of jihadist movements in Pakistan was not, like that of Arab Salafists, seeking to establish a global Islamic caliphate. Their objectives were more in line with the regional strategy of the Pakistani military establishment: the liberation of Kashmir from India and the propping up of pro-Pakistani forces in Afghanistan.
Indeed the Milli Muslim League’s leaders may not have taken up arms against the state, but they have allegedly been involved in terrorist activities outside the country. It raises serious doubt about whether we are really committed to our pledge of not condoning any kind of terrorism.
Almost all Islamist militant groups served as instruments of Pakistan’s regional policy. The security agencies needed them as much as they needed the state’s support. The Wahabi-inspired LeT, the most radical face of jihad in Pakistan, was also more amenable to the security forces than any other militant outfits.
Hafiz Saeed founded the LeT in 1990, soon after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, to wage jihad against the Indian authorities in Kashmir. The LeT announced its arrival on the Kashmir jihad scene in 1993 with a series of ferocious attacks on the Indian military. Since then, the outfit has been responsible for hundreds of guerrilla raids in the disputed territory. Within a short span, LeT emerged as the fiercest militant organisation. It possessed not only thousands of well-trained and highly motivated fighters, but also a huge propaganda network.
Its several publications in different languages had a circulation of hundreds of thousands. LeT was an extremely secretive organisation. Except for the top leadership, the identity of its members was not disclosed. Since its inception in 1990, it has produced thousands of highly motivated fighters, who have given a new dimension to guerrilla warfare in Kashmir.
LeT, unlike some of the other jihadist groups, drew its recruits from the universities and colleges as well as from among unemployed youth. The traditional Islamic madressahs provided only about 10 percent of volunteers. Influenced by radical Islamic literature, many university and college students joined the group.
The majority of LeT recruits came from Punjab, particularly from Lahore, Gujranwala and Multan, where Ahle Hadith had its strongholds. In some central Punjab district villages, LeT also had considerable influence because of support for the Kashmir jihad. In recent years, LeT had started attracting an increasing number of volunteers from Pakistan’s southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan where Wahabi influence has increased. Muslims from other countries including Britain have also joined the LeT.
THE TURNAROUND BUT NOT REALLY
After 9/11, Pakistan’s support for the American-led war on terror forced the military government to act against jihadi groups. On 12 January 2002, the military ruler General Pervez Musharraf outlawed five Islamic extremists groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba. He strongly asserted that the state should exercise a monopoly over external policy and it should be determined not by Islamic solidarity, but by the country’s national interests.
But this did not mean that support to these groups from the state security apparatus was completely withdrawn. It was hard to root out a deeply entrenched jihadist culture nurtured by the state for more than two decades. The ban affected the LeT’s activities only a little. While an entirely new Kashmiri leadership was appointed to run the military wing, in Pakistan the outfit started working under the banner of its social welfare wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, with Hafiz Saeed as its head.
The new organisation ostensibly restricted its role to preaching, education and social welfare. But in reality it never ceased working in support of the Kashmiri jihad. LeT leaders admitted that the proscription slowed down their operation in Kashmir, but it certainly didn’t stop it.
Instead of challenging the state, it agreed to work within new parameters and restrict its activities to a ‘controlled jihad’ in Kashmir while keeping a low-profile inside Pakistan. However, this tactical truce was a strained one. Islamist groups, even government-friendly ones such as the LeT, were becoming radicalised by the ideological currents of the region. It was apparent that the JuD was just a cover to avoid international scrutiny.
Almost all Islamist militant groups served as instruments of Pakistan’s regional policy. The security agencies needed them as much as they needed the state’s support.
Under intense international pressure, the Pakistan government placed JuD on the ‘terror watch list’ in 2003, but the action did not affect its activities, which included running a huge network of hospitals and schools. While continuing to support the struggle in Kashmir, LeT had its own reason not to take on the government.
The case of the LeT was indicative of Islamabad’s continuing flexibility towards those organisations which had restricted their activities to Kashmir and did not indulge in terrorism at home. Pakistani authorities defended their stance saying that LeT did not present any threat to the country’s internal security, so there was no need to crack down on it. According to them, the organisation strictly controlled its cadres and none of its members had ever indulged in any act of terrorism inside the country.
But some of its commanders did join the militants in the tribal areas and the insurgents fighting the American and NATO forces in Afghanistan. There had also been strong evidence of LeT activists providing shelter to al-Qaeda members. Abu Zubaydah, a close associate of Osama bin Laden, for example, was captured in 2002 in a house in the Pakistani central city of Faisalabad rented by a LeT member.
As well as the desire to avoid unnecessary confrontations, Islamabad’s attitude towards LeT also reflected the thinking that controlled militant activity is necessary to keep the Kashmir issue alive. But the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that killed more than 160 people brought the LeT under greater scrutiny and intensified pressure on Pakistan to act against the group and its leaders.
It was quite evident that the attack was masterminded and carried out by some senior LeT commanders who were arrested and tried. But they were let out by the courts without conviction. No action was taken against Hafiz Saeed. In fact the LeT supremo has raised his public profile in the past few years leading rallies organised under the banner of “Defence of Pakistan” provoking intense international reaction.
The United States in 2012 declared him a terrorist putting a bounty of 10 million dollars on information leading to his arrest for his alleged involvement in Mumbai terrorist attacks that also killed six Americans. Hafiz Saeed’s activities became a red rag of sorts for the international community and it was used effectively by India to push for Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation. The militant leader has finally been put under house detention, but it has not helped ease the pressure on Islamabad.
Predictably, the launching of the Milli Muslim League as a mainstream political party has stirred up a hornet’s nest, provoking criticism from inside and outside the country. The party’s motto of seeking guidance from Hafiz Saeed leaves nothing to the imagination about the MML’s political orientation, though it tries to present itself as a “centrist” and “moderate” political forum unassociated with religious politics.
But its entire campaign in NA 120 by-election had revolved around its radical jihadist ideology.
It raises some relevant questions not only about the rationale behind this undefined and controversial policy of mainstreaming the outlawed militant groups but also the way it is being done. There is surely no national policy in place, adding to the confusion about whether the integration of militant outfits into the mainstream is driven by security agencies. Such moves not only bring into question our national counter-extremism policy, but do not help satisfy the international community.
Yet another example of this arbitrary policy of mainstreaming the so-called “reformed militants” is Ehsanullah Ehsan. The former spokesmen and a key commander of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, and subsequently of the TTP splinter group Jamaatul Ahrar, who had in the past claimed terrorist attacks killing thousand of Pakistanis, was recently declared “kosher” after he surrendered to the security agencies. The man who fits into the definition of “jet black terrorist” earlier this year was presented on a private channel as a “reformed” man. He has apparently been declared “white” or clean without even being tried for his crimes.
Some would argue that such treatment for Ehsan could help lure other militant leaders into surrendering, although it seems highly improbable that it would prompt other hardened terrorists to surrender their arms and reintegrate into society as law-abiding citizens.
A major question is whether there is any legal process through which the hard-core militants are allowed to go scot-free. Indeed, there are precedents where the state has given amnesty to insurgents giving up violence e.g. in the case of the IRA in the United Kingdom. But that option is mostly for fellow travellers or those who have not been directly involved in acts of terrorism. The same rule cannot be applied to terrorists such as Ehsan. In any case, there is no state policy of across-the-board amnesty that has been announced.
Ehsan is certainly not an ordinary militant or a misguided teenage foot-soldier brainwashed into fighting for a holy cause. He was one of the founding members of the TTP and part of the decision-making inner circle of the group. For almost one decade, he was the face of Pakistani jihadi groups. Any amnesty for him will reinforce doubts about the state’s resolve to fight violent extremism.
There are certainly examples of various countries where insurgents are given amnesty after they lay down arms. But they have to go through a legal process before being allowed to become part of mainstream politics. In the case of the MML, no such process was followed. Indeed its leaders may not have taken up arms against the state, but they have allegedly been involved in terrorist activities outside the country. This raises serious doubts about whether we really are committed to our pledge of not condoning any kind of terrorism.
There is no denying that there has to be a national policy on how to allow the former militants repentant about their crimes back into the society. But arbitrary decisions about mainstreaming militancy could be extremely damaging.
Security agencies contend that it is imperative to reintegrate reformed jihadists into society. According to them there are thousands of well-trained former militants who are to be brought into the mainstream. Allowing them to be part of the political process will help de-radicalise them. It is better if they are involved in overt political activities rather than operate clandestinely, they say. The greatest nightmare for the security agencies is that former LeT militants disintegrate and join terrorist groups in fighting the state. There has also been some suggestion that those having renounced militancy should be accommodated in government and private-sector jobs.
Indeed there may be weight to some of these arguments. But there has to be a clear policy and a strict process of scrutiny before the re-integration of militants into society. Otherwise the dangers of allowing unrepentant militants to operate with impunity and spread their radicalised worldview within the rest of society are only too obvious.
The writer is an author and senior journalist. He tweets @hidhussain
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 29th, 2017