|Extremist Groups Renew Activity in Pakistan - W.Post|
Support of Kashmir Militants Is at Odds With the War on Terrorism
By John Lancaster and Kamran Khan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, February 8, 2003; Page A01
MURIDKE, Pakistan -- A year after President Pervez Musharraf announced a ban on Muslim extremist groups, a move hailed in Washington as a turning point for Pakistan, several of the organizations have reconstituted under different names and are once again raising money and proselytizing for jihad against India and the West, according to Pakistani officials and members of the groups.
Over the past few months, leaders of four groups banned by Musharraf have been released from house arrest or jail. One of them, Hafiz Sayeed of Lashkar-i-Taiba, has been traveling around the country to meet with supporters and whip up enthusiasm for renewed attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir, according to a top aide. Another, Azam Tariq of Sipah-i-Sahaba, serves in parliament.
Pakistani authorities have released almost all of the hundreds of militants detained after Musharraf pledged on Jan. 12, 2002, to dismantle extremist groups that he said were "bringing a bad name to our faith," according to Pakistani officials and Western diplomats. His landmark speech came as Pakistani and Indian military forces were massing along their common border, one month after an attack on India's Parliament complex by guerrillas that India alleged were supported by Pakistan.
Since Musharraf's address, however, no effort has been made to disarm the groups, Pakistani officials acknowledge, and donation boxes for the supposedly outlawed organizations have reappeared in stores, mosques and other public places.
At the same time, Pakistani officials deny that Musharraf has reneged on his commitment to curb extremist groups, noting that scores of al Qaeda operatives have been rounded up in Pakistan in recent months, frequently in cooperation with the FBI. They say the government had no choice but to release Pakistani militant leaders and their followers because courts in many cases found insufficient evidence to continue holding them.
Perhaps nowhere is Musharraf's unfinished business more visible than on the outskirts of this farming community near Lahore, where a group called Jamaat ul-Dawa -- the religious and political affiliate to Lashkar-i-Taiba and now its apparent successor -- occupies a sprawling, 190-acre compound protected by barbed wire and bearded men with Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Though spokesmen for the organization say it has nothing to do with violence, the group continues to churn out books and periodicals preaching the virtues of jihad, or holy war, in Kashmir, Chechnya, the Middle East and elsewhere.
Sayeed, who founded Lashkar-i-Taiba in the early 1990s and now runs Jamaat ul-Dawa, said in a telephone interview last week that his organization remains dedicated to the armed struggle against Indian forces in Kashmir. Since Muslim Pakistan and Hindu-majority India were carved out of British-ruled India in 1947, each has claimed Kashmir as its own. The two countries' military forces occupy separate portions of Kashmir, and Muslims in the Indian portion have been waging an insurrection with Pakistani support since 1989.
Sayeed said he does not recognize Musharraf's pledge last spring to "permanently" end militant crossings of the Line of Control dividing Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. "Despite my detention here, jihad didn't stop even for one day in Kashmir throughout last year," Sayeed said, asserting that about 1,000 of his supporters have "embraced martyrdom" in Kashmir in the past two years. "India should believe me that it is beyond General Musharraf to blow a whistle and stop the jihad in Kashmir."
Another hard-line group banned by Musharraf, Jaish-i-Muhammad, is reorganizing under the name of al-Furqan, according to officials with the group.
The reemergence of "jihadi groups," several of which have been linked to the Taliban and al Qaeda, has caused deep concern among Western diplomats. They say it holds the potential for renewed confrontation between Pakistan and India, both of which possess nuclear arms and nearly went to war last spring, and calls into question the depth of Musharraf's commitment to the U.S.-led war on terrorism.
In that regard, the groups' reappearance is further evidence of the shift that has occurred in the country since hard-line religious parties opposed to Pakistan's cooperation with the United States staged an unexpectedly strong showing in national and provincial elections last fall.
"At one point I think [the government was] very seriously committed to reining them in," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Now I think that commitment has probably flagged."
Last month, American frustration with Musharraf flared into the open when the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Nancy Powell, during a speech to businessmen in Karachi, called on the government to fulfill its pledges to "end the use of Pakistan as a platform for terrorism." Although U.S. officials subsequently played down its significance, the remark caused an uproar in Pakistan, whose government is unaccustomed to such blunt talk from Washington's envoy.
"There was a total feeling of unacceptance of what she had said," Maj. Gen. Rashid Qureshi, Musharraf's spokesman, said in an interview. "The president has said that Pakistan will not be used [by militant groups], and the Pakistani army is not allowing any movement across the Line of Control."
By most accounts, the militants are not operating as freely as they did in the past, when they openly campaigned for funds and recruits and celebrated the "martyrdom" of slain fighters at mass rallies. And Musharraf seems to have taken a hard line toward groups involved in sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, regarding them as a serious threat to internal stability, diplomats and analysts say.
From all indications, however, the government still maintains a lenient attitude toward groups focused on the Kashmir conflict, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Muhammad. Trained and supplied by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, these organizations have long been regarded as an instrument of state policy. The government has used them to "bleed" India, with its vastly larger military, as a means of applying pressure for a negotiated settlement of the Kashmir issue.
"I don't think they're terrorists," said a senior military intelligence officer who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Anyone who has a beard -- just put an al Qaeda stamp on him. You have got to be slightly more realistic. We are talking about our own people."
But Pakistan's long-standing support for those it considers "freedom fighters" in Kasmhir has proved increasingly difficult to reconcile with the U.S.-led global war on terrorism. Indian officials regularly argue to their U.S. counterparts that Pakistan is on the wrong side of that war. While Lashkar-i-Taiba, for example, concentrates its military operations on Indian security forces, it has also been blamed for attacks that killed civilians, including the December 2001 assault on the grounds of the Indian Parliament.
Equally alarming to the West and to moderate Pakistanis, some Lashkar-i-Taiba fighters trained in Afghanistan during the Taliban era, and their leader, Sayeed, have professed admiration for Osama bin Laden. For those reasons, President Bush cheered Musharraf's ban on such groups, welcoming his "firm decision to stand against terrorism and extremism and his commitment to the principle that no person or organization will be allowed to indulge in terror as a means to further its cause."
But progress has been spotty at best. Though guerrilla incursions into India were curtailed early last year, pressure on the groups eased in the spring. In May, militants attacked an Indian army camp in Kashmir, killing 34 people, most of them women and children.
The incident brought the two countries to the brink of war, a crisis that was defused only when Musharraf, under intense U.S. pressure, pledged to "permanently" end infiltrations across the Line of Control. American and Indian officials say incursions dropped sharply in June and early July, but U.S. officials now concur with the Indian assessment that they have resumed.
The government has also allowed considerable latitude for militant leaders who were supposed to have been reined in. Even during their detention, for example, Sayeed and two other militant leaders -- Masood Azhar of Jaish-i-Muhammad and Fazlul Rahman Khalil of Harkat ul-Mujaheddin -- stayed in ISI safe houses, where they were permitted visitors and the use of cell phones, according to statements filed by their relatives in court proceedings related to their cases.
The militant leaders were held under a loosely defined "maintenance of public order" law. Human rights groups urged that they be prosecuted under laws barring private groups from conducting military training and operating private armies. But none was ever charged, and courts ordered their release. They moved home a few weeks before they were officially set free.
While Musharraf has by most accounts taken a hard line toward militant groups associated with sectarian killings in Pakistan, there are exceptions: The leader of one such group, Azam Tariq of the banned Sipah-i-Sahaba movement, was allowed to run for parliament from his jail cell. He has since been released and was recently a guest at the wedding of the daughter of one of Musharraf's top aides, according to Pakistani press reports.
Pakistani officials insist that the groups face more restrictions than they did in the past, especially in the area of recruitment. Before Musharraf's speech, for example, Pakistan's Interior Ministry had estimated that at least 5,000 Pakistanis trained in guerrilla warfare were registered with five key militant groups in Pakistan. But over the past year, said a senior Interior Ministry official in Islamabad, there has been little or no recruitment.
But that too may be changing. In the two months since he was released, Sayeed, the Lashkar-i-Taiba founder, has addressed about 100 gatherings around the country to "educate people about the virtues of jihad," according to an aide who spoke on condition of anonymity.
At the entrance to the group's headquarters in Lahore the other day, a clear plastic donation box was plainly visible. Filled with crumpled rupee notes, it invited contributions for jihad in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kashmir.
An official at the headquarters, who declined to give his full name, said he saw nothing unusual in the appeal. "We will help anybody in the world who is helping jihad," he said.
Khan reported from Karachi.