The South Punjabi Godzillas hit GHQ
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse Oct 15, 2009
The stunning attack on the General Head Quarters (GHQ) on October 10, and the ensuing 20 hours full of high tension brought home a clear message; from South Waziristan to South Punjab, the al Qaeda –inspired forces have all hooked up to hit at the very core of Pakistan’s security establishment, the institution that had nurtured some of these militants as holy warriors. For them this strategy was extremely cost-effective, the so-called first line of defense. But what we have witnessed within one week – from the attack on the World Food Programme to the carnage in Peshawar on October 8, the GHQ siege followed by the suicide attack in Shangla on October 11 – underscores a new bitter reality. The holy warriors based in Southern Punjab have also begun biting back. Al-Qaeda provides them the ideological glue and several external and domestic factors the financial wherewithal to inflict pain and destruction all over Pakistan.
The GHQ attack bore unmistakable signatures of the kind of Fidayeen Attacks that Lashkar-e-Taiba had unleashed in 1998; it involved ready-to-kill disguised zealots charging military garrisons, sensitive installations and para-military security targets. They simply surprise the target through their surprise unfolding of weapons and use of hand-grenades. The LeT staged scores of such attacks in Kashmir as well as in New Delhi– the siege of the Parliament and those in Mumbai on November 26, 2008.
The Police Training School at Manawan, Lahore witnessed almost similar scenes, and the GHQ raid to a great extent looked an action replay of Manawan or the attempt of the Sri Lankan Cricketers on March3.
The Godzillas – created from the womb of the Iran-Saudi-Arabian proxy war and reinforced through he US desire to beat the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the early 1980s – have begun eating into the vitals of Pakistan.
The journey began with the Saudi funding for the Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in Jhang, southern Punjab, to counter the Iranian Revolution’s expansion to neighboring countries in the early 1980s. It suited the then dictator Zia-ul-Haq and also the American establishment, which found in parties such as SSP ready volunteers to fight the Russians. The Iranian response to SSP was the Tehreek-e-Jafria Pakistan and then the Sipah-e-Mohammad – the militant arm of the TJP. The SSP response to this emerged in the form of Lashkare Jhangvi, which again provided a lot of leadership for Jaish-e-Mohammad. One of the offspring of the Saudi involvement was the wahabite or salafi outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba, which drew spiritual inspiration from Sheikh Jameel-ur-Rehman (Bajaur), closely linked to Dr.Zwahiri also.
The fact that Punjabi Taliban—activists of the Punjab-based organizations mentioned above—are scattered all over FATA, attached either with the TTP, Mulla Nazir (South Waziristan), Mullah Faqir (Bajaur) or Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) also explains the ideological nexus that exists between groups based in and outside FATA.
Soon after former president Pervez Musharraf proscribed most of the sectarian organizations including the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Sipahe Mohammad (SM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Harkatul Mujahideen (HM) in a nationally televised speech on 12 January 2002, their leadership either went underground or was apprehended. Over 2000 zealots associated with these outfits were arrested, only to be released a few months later. Most of their workers also melted into the population for the time being.
A number of these Punjabi outfits, except for the shia Sipahe Mohammad, had their roots in the anti-Soviet Russian jihad, and had moved to Kashmir after the February 1989 Russian pullout from Afghanistan. But their contacts with the mujahideen-turned Taliban remained; in fact during the 1990s, with the Jaish-e-Muhammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkt-ul-Mujahideen running several training camps in Afghanistan. Not only did they help out the Taliban in their fight against the Afghan Northern Alliance, but also trained people for the jihad in Kashmir.
Once the international coalition against terrorism swept the Taliban from power in December 2001, followed by the ban that General Musharraf slapped on the militant organizations, most of their leadership and hard-core activists gradually sought sanctuary in FATA, where they created alliances with various pro-Al Qaeda Taliban outfits.In one instance, commander Maulvi Iqbal and several of his fighters fell during skirmishes with US-led coalition forces in the Paktika province, that borders South Waziristan, in March 2008. Iqbal and others were later identified as close Punjabi associates of Mullah Nazir, the Taliban chieftain in Wana. Hence, the dozen or so dead bodies were transported from Paktika and buried in Wana.Maulvi Iqbal was killed along with many other militants including many others some time in June 2008.
In another instance, when a dispute arose in a Mohmand agency village in August 2007 over the control of the shrine of Pashtoon freedom fighter Haji Sahib Turangzai and the mosque adjacent to it, around 300 masked Urdu speaking Taliban members were also among the 3,500 militants who had occupied the site. Most of them were actually ethnic Punjabis and members of the SSP Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Harkatul Mujahideen. ‘No one recognizes the Punjabi/Urdu speakers guarding the shrine. I talked to an Urdu-speaking Talib who belonged to Punjab and could not speak Pushto,’ a man asking not to be named had told anational daily. ‘Some Taliban have a good command over English, Urdu, Arabic and Pashto and are issuing statements in several languages to the national and international media,’ the paper quoted the source as saying. The militants also went on to rename the facility after Islamabad’s Red Mosque, in support of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, a cleric who defied the government and was killed during the bloody army siege in the capital on 11 July, 2007. Most of the Punjabi Taliban are associated with groups like Harkatul Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan, and Al Badar. One of their leaders is Owais Qadri, who comes from Jhang, riven with shia-sunni acrimony. Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan’s Qari Hussain Mehsud, the master trainer in suicide bombings, is blamed for stirring anti-shia sentiment in Kurram agency and is accused of killing a former political agent of the Khyber Agency along with 13 others—members of his family and guests. It also demonstrated the weakness of the government’s writ in the region. Hussein had studied and grew up in the central Pakistani towns of Faisalabad and Jhang, before returning to Waziristan and becoming one of the Taliban’s most important leaders. Scores of activists and fighters of these Pakistani jihadi organizations were based in Afghanistan when the anti-terror war began. They also suffered huge human losses, losing important commanders and hundreds of warriors to the US bombing. Harkatul Jihad-e-Islami lost as many as 340, Harkatul Mujahideen lost 79, Jaish-e-Muhammad 36 and Lashkare-e-Jhangvi 27 militants in the coalition attacks. An elderly Pakistani, called Chacha Akhtar, from the Punjab province used to be in charge of the Pakistani Taliban contingent at the Rishkore camp south of Kabul. Wanted on criminal charges, Akhtar had shifted his family to this camp in early 2001. According to sources in Kabul, most trainers of recruits from the Middle East, African and Central Asian countries were also predominantly Pakistani Punjabis. As many as two-thirds of the 450 prisoners at the notorious Guantanamo Bay Camp X-Ray were from Pakistan, all of them captured inside Afghanistan, among them about 14 of Harkatul Mujahideen, 7 of Jaish-e-Muhammad and 11 of Harkatul Jihad, which underscored the presence of hard-core Punjabi jihadis within the militant ranks—both Taliban and Al Qaeda. Punjabi militants also filled and supplemented the ranks of Kashmiri militants, who have been battling the Indian forces since 1989 for what they call ‘independence from India.’ The state of Pakistan now faces an al-Qaeda-inspired militant challenge – from South Waziristan to South Punjab. Involvement of external factors, intent on destabilizing Pakistan, is almost certain. But how these factors influence the operations of the religiously-driven zealots – ready to kill and die – is a great mystery. No external power would admit to its involvement with some of the militant groups that are inflicting death and destruction on Pakistan. But it would be quite unnatural not to exploit the current situation to avenge what Pakistan did in Eastern Punjab and Kashmir beginning in the early 1980s until 9/11 enforced a turn around in the strategy.
(The author heads the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad. And the author of a recent Penguin publication “The Al-Qaeda Connection – Taliban and Terror in Tribal Areas.”