A day’s fighting at Islamabad’s Red Mosque

The Lal Masjid in relation to the government buildings. Click to view.

Ten killed, 150 wounded during running gun battles in Islamabad; Government buildings burned; 111 Brigade deployed; uncertainty about Pakistani government’s next move

President Pervez Musharraf is in full crisis mode after a days worth for fighting at the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque. At least 10 were killed, including a Pakistani Ranger and a journalist, and 150 were wounded after the Taliban-supporting members of the Red Mosque opened fire on government troops cordoning the mosque. The fighting is occurring in the heart of Islamabad, less than one mile from the Parliament building, the residence of the Prime Minister, the headquarters of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence agency, and the Pakistani Supreme Court.

Pakistan’s Dawn has a breakdown on the fighting in Islamabad. As reported earlier, the students of the Red Mosque initiated the fighting with the Pakistani Rangers who have been assigned to patrol around the mosque. After a series of scuffles, which resulted in the capture of weapons and equipment from the Rangers, the Red Mosque students opened fire, killing a Ranger and wounding others. Red Mosque students torched the government buildings belonging to the Environment Ministry and the Estate Office. Followers of nearby mosques flocked to the Red Mosque to provide support against the government.

The Lal Masjid. Click to view.

Violence started after a large number of Lal Masjid students tried to storm the Estate Office and, during the scuffle, snatched a number of assault rifles from policemen posted there. Soon after, several hundred students of the women madressah came out and marched up to the government offices in the area to register their protest against the authority’s plans for a security operation.

In the meantime, paramilitary troops were rushed in to intensify patrolling. Tempers had already started to flare up. As more provocation came from inside the mosque in the form of rocks and bricks targeting the patrolling Rangers, the riot police responded with heavy tear-gassing. The retaliation came from inside the seminary in the form of dozens of rounds from automatic guns. One such bullet hit a Ranger’s lance naik, Mubarik Hussain, who died in hospital. Within no time, the Rangers started firing back with automatic guns, with the area between the nearby residential quarters and a few government buildings and Lal Masjid looking like a battled-ground.

As several people were injured on the both sides, including many girl students, better sense prevailed for a while, with security troops withdrawing to their nearby camps, or in the sidelines. This proved counter-productive as hundreds of supporters of Lal Masjid joined in from two nearby mosques. The armed seminary students were freely roaming the streets, not only flashing their Kalashnikovs and other automatic weapons with straps of magazines and grenades wrapped around their waist, some of them were even wearing gas-masks with many other carrying home-made petrol bombs in both their hands.

As the madressah students tried to gain more ground in the area and started to gradually move in two directions on the main road, Rangers and riot police made a forceful comeback, this time with larger force. Soon they started firing tear-gas shells and bullets. The madressah militants, who had taken position on the mosque’s roof and behind several trees, returned fire at will. So abrupt was this second round of clash that many journalists and local residents and onlookers were caught off-guard. Several of them found themselves in the midst of the cross-fire.

The situation is tense as Maulana Abdul Aziz and Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, the leaders of the Red Mosque, permitted their suicide bombers to strike. While the Pakistani government attempted to back down from escalating the fighting throughout the day in a failed effort to defuse the situation, the Pakistani government is signaling it will act.

“The government decided late on Tuesday to launch an operation against Lal Masjid in Islamabad to enforce the writ of the state,” Daily Times stated, based on government sources. “It was decided that the Lal Masjid administration would be given a brief ultimatum to surrender and vacate the mosque and its allied madrassas. They would also be asked to hand over madrassa students accused of taking the law into their own hands and attacking law enforcement officials. If the demands are not met, security forces would start an operation, possibly amidst a curfew.” A curfew has been imposed and utilities are reported to have been cut to the mosque.

Dawn also reported the 111 Brigade of the Pakistani Army has been deployed around the Red Mosque compound. The 111 Brigade is an elite force responsible for the security of Islamabad. The brigade was instrumental in President Musharraf’s coup in 1999 against former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, as they surrounded the Prime Minister’s home and secured the airport to allow Musharraf to reenter the country and take control of the Army.

But the Daily Times reported the government is also signaling its willingness to talk. “Despite unprovoked firing by the students of Lal Masjid, the government still wants to settle the issue through dialogue,” State Interior Minister Zafar Warraich told PTV. Members of the Taliban supporting Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal have attempted to broker a cease-fire.

While the Taliban has successfully chipped away at the government’s writ in the hinterlands of the settled districts of the Northwest Frontier Province and the wild tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan, the clerics of the Red Mosque have directly changed the writ of the government in its seat of power. The Pakistani government has repeatedly backed down to the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier Province and against lesser infractions by the leaders and followers of the Red Mosque. With the current political crisis over the dismissal of Pakistan’s Chief Justice, President Musharraf is politically weak while his military has repeatedly signaled it is unwilling to act against the Taliban.

A failure to act will embolden an already bold enemy and promote the spread of the Talibanization of Pakistan. A strike on the mosque will lead to political turmoil and the possibility of an open insurrection from the Islamist parties and the Taliban. The Northwest Frontier Province and swaths of Baluchistan are largely under Taliban and al Qaeda control, and the reaction of the Taliban in these regions to the events in Islamabad bears close watching.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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9 Comments

  • Raj Kumar says:

    Bill,
    ‘A failure to act will embolden an already bold enemy and promote the spread of the Talibanization of Pakistan.’
    I am sorry to say but your analysis is wrong on the above point. The Talibanization of Pakistan is has already taken place and is complete. What you are seeing now is something which has been in the making for the past 30 years.
    USG and by extention the west has backed the wrong horse in Pakistan from 1976 onwards and it will come and haunt us. Consider the numbers, here in the UK their are 1m people of Pakistani descent and a massive movement of people between Pakistan & UK takes place on a monthly basis. Even if a very small % of that movement results in movements of insurgents then we are dealing with a problem which frankly cannot be controlled.
    I would advice that we consider putting in place a ‘quarantine’ procedure around Pakistan. My fear is that if we don’t then we will see repeated attacks here in the UK and courtsey of the ‘Visa Wavier Program’ in the US.

  • Marlin says:

    More than 100 radical Islamic students holed up at an Islamabad mosque compound surrendered Wednesday morning, winding down an intense standoff between militants and government forces, a government source told CNN.
    More were expected to leave the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, and its surrounding area shortly after a government-imposed deadline for their surrender lapsed at 11 a.m. (0600 GMT), the source said.
    No operations have been launched by security forces at the scene, according to the source. They are waiting as militants slowly surrender.
    CNN: Red Mosque students surrender slowly
    A picture of the surrendering students can be seen in the Guardian.
    Guardian: Pakistani army seals off radical mosque after day of violence

  • Tony says:

    It is stated here that many automatic weapons and assault rifles were seized by the militants during a “scuffle”. That term is used twice to describe how the militants seized automatic weapons and assault weapons from the Pakistani Rangers.
    It remains unclear to me how a number of automatic weapons and assault rifles can be seized during a “scuffle”. Is there more here than meets the eye?

  • Tony says:

    The US should have launched a military operation a long time ago to seize all of Pakistan’s nukes.
    Because they failed to do so and have supported Musharraf at all costs up to this point, we now have very little ability to shape possible outcomes in Pakistan.

  • crosspatch says:

    Latest word I have seen is 600 have surrendered with an estimated 1000 still in the mosque. I am assuming that the government controls the water supply to the mosque and it would take quite a bit of food to feed 1000 people for any length of time.
    Lisa: That is an excellent question. It would be complicated and not something that can be undone in a week or a month. But some groundwork has been put into place. You have to show the islamists as having gone back on their word and not being trustworthy; as being troublemakers who say one thing and do another. Then you begin to expose atrocities while at the same time taking measures to whittle away their power base in the territories. Allowing US operations against them is one small step in that direction.
    Tony: That certainly sounds easy sitting a half a world away but we couldn’t be sure of success. To do as you suggest would assume that we knew exactly were they all are. What if we miss some, or even one? Attacking Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal might cause us more problems than it solves.

  • crosspatch says:

    It looks like the leader of the mosque has been captured:

    The leader of a radical mosque besieged by Pakistani security forces in Islamabad has been caught trying to escape wearing a woman’s burqa.

  • tony says:

    Crosspatch, I stated that should have been done “a long time ago”, meaning near the beginning of their rogue state weapons of mass destruction program.
    Now the genie is out of the bottle. I wish I was dead wrong in my analysis, but I see the most likely outcome in Pakistan to be radical Islam, i.e. those who admire death merchants like Zawahiri, getting both the bomb and the long range missiles to launch them in the next five years through seizing power there.
    I hope and pray I am completely wrong. The policies towards Pakistan of every single president since Richard Nixon have been an abject failure over the last 40 years and unfortunately now the results of our profound folly are playing out.
    Again, I pray that I am mistaken. I fear that I am not.

  • Don Vandervelde says:

    Great article and comments. Thanks. We should do what we can be sure the upcoming elections are representative. During the last ‘democratic’ period, the islamists could only get a few reps elected to parliament. We must go with democracy. In the unlikely event that islamists are thus voted in, then the Paks will have to bear full responsibility for their actions, as did the Taliban Afghanis.
    The tribal areas in Waziristan and Baluchistan should be treated as other Taliban controlled areas in Afghanistan. NATO should be given free rein to operate there and attack them by land and air (and sea). Special forces should be in there recruiting anti-Taliban locals and calling down precision bombing on Taliban targets in a repris of their previous conquest of Afghanistan, with the Afghani troops playing the role of the Northern Alliance.

  • crosspatch says:

    “I stated that should have been done “a long time ago”, meaning near the beginning of their rogue state weapons of mass destruction program.”
    I am not sure it would have been any more effective then than now, but it certainly would be more difficult now. One thing that I might suggest is that in looking at the situation now, try to clear your head (and emotions) of past actions or the lack thereof and concentrate instead on the situation as it presents itself now. Then in looking at options, you can apply lessons of the past, but try not to be driven by an emotional response to those lessons, if that makes any sense.
    In other words, it is like a game of chess. You should concentrate right now on the situation as it presents itself and try not to be driven by emotions generated by any bad moves made in the past.

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