The Pakistani government was aware of a network of radical madrassas that were recruiting, indoctrinating, and training young boys and girls in Punjab province to fight with the Taliban and other terrorist groups, but failed to move against them, according to a leaked US State Department cable. The network of madrassas was receiving much of its funding from “missionary” and “Islamic charitable organizations” in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The secret US diplomatic cable, dated Oct 13, 2008, and titled “Extremist recruitment on the rise in south Punjab madrassas,” is one of thousands released by WikiLeaks and published at Dawn. The cable paints a disturbing picture of radical Islamic groups running rampant in the Pakistani province of Punjab, and a government unwilling or unable to stop the spread of terrorist groups that have been sowing havoc in Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, and beyond.
The cable was sparked by the US State Department’s “Principal Officer’s discussions with religious, political, and civil society leaders” during a visit to the southern Punjabi cities of Multan and Bahawalpur. Pakistani government officials and religious leaders described “a strengthening network of Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith mosques and madrassas, which they claimed had grown exponentially since late 2005.”
The network of radical mosques and madrassas was being funded by religious and nonprofit entities based in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who are thought to be backed by those governments.
Officials estimated that about $100 million a year “was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from ‘missionary’ and ‘Islamic charitable’ organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments,” the cable states. A group of wealthy donors known as the Golden Chain based in the Persian Gulf continues to fund terrorist entities despite a supposed crackdown by Saudi and other Gulf nations.
Child recruits radicalized in hundreds of madrassas
The cable detained the recruitment process, which began with recruiters going to the homes of poor families in South Punjab. The target age of the recruits is between 8 and 15 (although 8- to 12-year-olds are preferred). Even daughters were recruited:
The local Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith maulana will generally be introduced to the family through these organizations. He will work to convince the parents that their poverty is a direct result of their family’s deviation from ‘the true path of Islam’ through ‘idolatrous’ worship at local Sufi shrines and/or with local Sufi Peers. The maulana suggests that the quickest way to return to ‘favor’ would be to devote the lives of one or two of their sons to Islam. The maulana will offer to educate these children at his madrassa and to find them employment in the service of Islam. The concept of ‘martyrdom’ is often discussed and the family is promised that if their sons are ‘martyred’ both the sons and the family will attain ‘salvation’ and the family will obtain God’s favor in this life, as well. An immediate cash payment is finally made to the parents to compensate the family for its ‘sacrifice’ to Islam. Local sources claim that the current average rate is approximately Rps. 500,000 (approximately USD 6500) per son. A small number of Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in Dera Ghazi Khan district are reportedly recruiting daughters as well.
The young jihadist recruits would then be sent to one of several hundred small madrassas dotting the South Punjab countryside, the cable continued. The children are “isolated” from their families and the outside world, and are “taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy.”
“Locals were uncertain as to the exact number of madrassas used for this initial indoctrination purpose, although they believed that with the recent expansion, they could number up to 200,” the cable said. “These madrassas are generally in isolated areas and are kept small enough (under 100 students) so as not to draw significant
The Pakistanis told the US State Department official that three large radical madrassas were in operation and are used to funnel the recruits to “more established training camps” in Pakistan’s Taliban-controlled tribal areas. The larger complexes are located in the village of Ahmedpur East in Bahawalpur District; in the city of Bahawalpur; and in the city of Dera Ghazi Khan. The Bahawalpur complex is operated by Maulana Al Hajii, “a devotee of Jaish-e-Mohammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar.”
“These sites were primarily used for indoctrination and very limited military/terrorist tactic training,” the State cable said. “They claimed that following several months of indoctrination at these centers youth were generally sent on to more established training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and then on to jihad either in FATA, NWFP [Northwest Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa], or as suicide bombers in settled areas.”
Pakistani government fails to act
Several Pakistani officials complained to the US State Department official that their government refused to take action against the terrorist groups despite promises to do so.
“The provincial and federal governments, while fully aware of the problem, appear to fear direct confrontation with these extremist groups,” the cable said.
“Interlocutors repeatedly chastised the government for its failure to act decisively against indoctrination centers, extremist madrassas, or known prominent leaders such as Jaish-e-Mohammad’s Masood Azhar,” who is on the US and UN’s lists of the known terrorists.
“One leading Sufi scholar and a Member of the Provincial Assembly informed Principal Officer that he had personally provided large amounts of information on the location of these centers, madrassas, and personalities to provincial and national leaders, as well as the local police,” the cable said. “He was repeatedly told that ‘plans’ to deal with the threat were being ‘evolved’ but that direct confrontation was considered ‘too dangerous.'”
Another local official claimed that the political climate in Pakistan led to an unwillingness to deal with the problem. “Neither the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz provincial [government] nor the Pakistan Peoples Party federal governments would take his requests seriously,” the cable stated.
A prominent Sufi scholar, whose brother was the Federal Minister for Religious Affairs, observed that the “the bureaucracy in the Religious Affairs, Education, and Defense Ministries remained dominated by Zia-ul-Haq appointees who favored the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious philosophies.” Zia-ul-Haq was President of Pakistan from 1977 to 1988 and pushed radical Islamic causes into the mainstream of Pakistani politics. “This bureaucracy, Qasmi claimed, had repeatedly blocked his brother’s efforts to push policy in a different direction.”
South Punjab has long been known to be an engine of jihad. In the summer of 2009, Newline published an article detailing the rapid expansion of madrassas in South Punjab and their importance in providing recruits to the Taliban, al Qaeda, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. As many as 9,000 jihadists from South Punjab were estimated to be fighting in Afghanistan and South Waziristan alone.
Pakistan’s initial response to accusations about the jihadist problem in the South Punjab was denial. Police and government officials claimed that there was no problem. But when reporters began to travel to South Punjab to document the problem, government officials responded by banning journalists and forcing them to obtain permission from the government.
“All foreign journalists are required to get permission from foreign affairs as well as from interior ministries for visiting any specific place especially in South Punjab,” a senior officer of the Punjab government told PTI. The official claimed that journalists were publishing “twisted and unfounded” facts. A local police chief expressed outrage when a British television channel showed footage of a religious school run by Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar.
Are you a dedicated reader of FDD's Long War Journal? Has our research benefitted you or your team over the years? Support our independent reporting and analysis today by considering a one-time or monthly donation. Thanks for reading! You can make a tax-deductible donation here.