Newsline has a must-read article on the critical role the southern half of Pakistan’s Punjab province plays in the jihadi network. Read the whole thing; I’ve excerpted some interesting portions below:
Four major militant outfits, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), are all comfortably ensconced in South Punjab (see article “Brothers in Arms”). Sources claim that there are about 5,000 to 9,000 youth from South Punjab fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan. A renowned Pakistani researcher, Hassan Abbas cites a figure of 2,000 youth engaged in Waziristan. The area has become critical to planning, recruitment and logistical support for terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In fact, in his study on the Punjabi Taliban, Abbas has quoted Tariq Pervez, the chief of a new government outfit named the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NCTA), as saying that the jihad veterans in South Punjab are instrumental in providing the foot soldiers and implementing terror plans conceived and funded mainly by Al-Qaeda operatives. This shouldn’t come as a surprise considering that the force that conquered Khost in 1988-89 comprised numerous South Punjabi commanders who fought for the armies of various Afghan warlords such as Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Even now, all the four major organisations are involved in Afghanistan.
The article explains the important function the Punjabi madrassas, or religious seminaries, serve in fueling the jihad; and the article also throws light on state support for jihadi organizations. The author claims, for example, that truckloads of weapons have been delivered to the headquarters of the radical, al Qaeda-allied Jaish-e-Mohammed:
The number of seminaries had increased during and after the 1980s. According to a 1996 report, there were 883 madrassas in Bahawalpur, 361 in Dera Ghazi Khan, 325 in Multan and 149 in Sargodha district. The madrassas in Bahawalpur outnumbered all other cities, including Lahore. These numbers relate to Deobandi madrassas only and do not include the Ahl-e-Hadith, Barelvi and other sects. Newer estimates from the intelligence bureau for 2008 show approximately 1,383 madrassas in the Bahawalpur division that house 84,000 students. Although the highest number of madrassas is in Rahim Yar Khan district (559) followed by Bahawalpur (481) and Bahawalnagar (310), it is Bahawalpur in which the highest number of students (36,000) is enlisted. The total number of madrassa students in Pakistan has reached about one million.
Everyone has been so focused on FATA and the NWFP that they failed to notice the huge increase in religious seminaries in these districts of South Punjab. According to a study conducted by historian Tahir Kamran, the total number of madrassas in the Punjab rose from 1,320 in 1988 to 3,153 in 2000, an increase of almost 140%. These madrassas were meant to provide a rapid supply of jihadis to the Afghan war of the 1980s. At the time of 9/11, the Bahawalpur division alone could boast of approximately 15,000-20,000 trained militants, some of whom had resettled in their areas during the period that Musharraf claimed to have clamped down on the jihad industry. Many went into the education sector, opened private schools and even joined the media.
These madrassas play three essential roles. First, they convert people to Salafism and neutralise resistance to a more rabid interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah in society. Consequently, the majority of the Barelvis cannot present a logical resistance to the opposing ideology. In many instances, the Barelvis themselves get converted to the idea of jihad. Secondly, these madrassas are used to train youth, who are then inducted into jihad. Most of the foot soldiers come from the religious seminaries. One of the principles taught to the students pertains to the concept of jihad as being a sacred duty that has to continue until the end of a Muslim’s life or the end of the world. Lastly, madrassas are an essential transit point for the youth, who are recruited from government schools. They are usually put through the conversion process after they have attended a 21-day initial training programme in the Frontier province or Kashmir (see box “A Different Breed”).
State support, which follows two distinct tracks, is also instrumental in the growth of jihadism in this region. On the one hand, there has generally been a link or understanding between political parties and militant groups. Since political parties are unable to eliminate militants or most politicians are sympathetic towards the militants, they tend to curb their activities through political deal-making. The understanding between the SSP and Benazir Bhutto after the 1993 elections, or the alleged deal between the PML-N and the SSP during the 2008 elections, denote the relationship between major political parties and the jihadis. Currently, the SSP in South Punjab is more supportive of the PML-N.
The second track involves operational links between the outfits and the state’s intelligence apparatus. As mentioned earlier, some of the outfits claim to have received training from the country’s intelligence agencies. Even now, local people talk of truckloads of weapons arriving at the doorstep of the JeM headquarters and other sites in the middle of the night. While official sources continue to claim that the outfit was banned and does not exist, or that Masood Azhar is on the run from his hometown of Bahawalpur, the facts prove otherwise. For instance, the outfit continues to acquire real estate in the area, such as a new site near Chowk Azam in Bahawalpur, which many believe is being used as a training site. Although the new police chief has put restraints on the JeM and disallowed it from constructing on the site, the outfit continues to appropriate more land around the area. Junior police officials even claim seeing tunnels being dug inside the premises. The new facility is on the bank of the Lahore-Karachi national highway, which means that in the event of a crisis, the JeM could block the road as has happened in Kohat and elsewhere. Furthermore, the outfit’s main headquarters in the city is guarded by AK-47-armed men who harass any journalist trying to take a photograph of the building. In one instance, even a police official was shooed away and later intimidated by spooks of an intelligence agency for spying on the outfit. Despite the claim that the SSP, the LeJ and the JeM have broken ties with intelligence agencies and are now fighting the army in Waziristan, the fact remains that their presence in the towns of South Punjab continues unhindered.