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The Punjab: The Geography of Fundamentalism | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Islamabad, Asharq Al-Awsat – What is the link between Ajmal Kasab (the lone surviving gunman of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack), Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi (the alleged mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai attacks) and Hafiz Muhammad Saeed (the former leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba)?

The answer is geography. Apart from their shared militant backgrounds, and their links or alleged links to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks, all three men come from the Punjab region which is one of the wealthiest and most populated provinces in Pakistan.

Since last year, the names of militant leaders from the Punjab have come to overshadow the dreaded Taliban icons from Pakistan’s tribal regions, such as Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud. The reason for this is that Pakistani media has to provide balanced media coverage of the terrorist attacks that have been taking place in the Punjab and Islamabad (which is both culturally and geographically part of the Punjab), and in most cases these attacks take precedence in the media over the chaotic situation in the tribal areas.

Islamabad’s iconic Marriott Hotel went up in flames. The only foreign cricket team willing to play in Pakistan was terrorized by gunmen in the heart of Lahore. The police training academy in Manawan was besieged by gunmen. Although the Taliban militants from tribal areas play a pivotal role in planning these attacks, the majority of these attacks were actually carried out by Punjab locals.

In the latest terrorist attack, this time on the Pakistani army stationed in Rawalpindi, the attackers were led by a disgruntled former employee of the Army Medical Corp who was originally from Punjab province. In fact of the group of ten attackers, five were from the Punjab, with the other five coming from the tribal areas.

Most of Pakistani’s political and military elite come from the Punjab, which is also home to more than 60 percent of the country’s entire population. The Punjab province is politically and economically the most influential region of Pakistan, and with its expanding urban centers, the Punjab has also become the hub for Pakistani commercial and industrial activity.

At the same time, Punjab society has strong historic links with the Islamic revivalist movement. Nadeem Malik, a Pakistani sociologist at Melbourne University said “Historically speaking, most of the religious revivalist movements in British Northern India were born and prospered in the Punjab.”

The scourge of sectarian terrorism is deeply rooted in the urban centers of the Punjab province. Most of the sectarian militant organizations (which are offshoots of the Islamic Revivalist movement in 19th century British-ruled India) are based in the city of the Punjab.

These religious revivalist movements and sectarian organizations have always remained on the fringes of the Punjab’s mainstream politics. Fashir-ur-Rehman, a senior [Pakistani] journalist and political commentator said, “Not even once in the 60-year history of Pakistan has any religious political party succeeded in electoral politics in the Punjab.”

However some of these religious political parties have strong ties to armed sectarian militant organizations that threaten the peace of the Punjab, whose stability is vital to the overall stability of Pakistan.

The Taliban have proven themselves capable of adapting to new circumstances in order to further strengthen themselves and expand their range of operations, with the Punjab being their latest base.

According to Pakistani government and police officials, an alliance between the “Punjabi Taliban” which is a group of outlawed militant organizations focused upon sectarian violence and fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir, and the Tehrik-i-Taliban, has emerged as a major threat to the country.

This partnership is apparently aiding the Tehrik-i-Taliban to spread its influence southwards into Punjabi cities like Dera Ghazi Khan, Mianwali, and Bhakkar, where a large number of their citizens are Deobandis (an Islamic revivalist movement) and therefore open to Taliban recruitment, or at the very least sympathetic to Taliban ideology.

Pakistani officials believe that the Punjabi Taliban is providing sanctuary and information about Punjab cities to tribal militants, who utilize this link to carry out terrorist attacks there. In return, Taliban militants offer refuge to the Punjabi Taliban which has been pursued by Pakistani police and intelligence forces since 2002 when these Punjab-based militant organizations were outlawed by the government of former President Pervez Musharraf.

Pakistani officials are able to cite specific examples of the cooperation between the tribal militants and the Punjabi Taliban. For example, the truck used in the 2008 Islamabad Marriot Hotel bombing was traced to the city of Jhang in the Punjab province, whilst the suicide bomber and explosives were traced to southern Waziristan.

Officials also claim that whilst the gunmen who attacked the Sir Lankan cricket team in Lahore were from the tribal areas, those who provided aid and sanctuary to these gunmen were Lahore and Dera Ghazi Khan locals.

Investigations into both of these attackers revealed that they were committed by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a sectarian militant organization based in the Punjab that was following the instructions of Baitullah Mehsud.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is a sectarian militant group that has been implicated in the death of Shiite leaders in Pakistan. This group has served as a focal point for Punjabi militants as it is considered to be most experienced group that carries out attacks against Western targets in Pakistan. Pakistani investigators hold Lashkar-e-Jhangvi responsible for the May 2002 terrorist attack on the US consulate in Karachi, and the March 2002 attack on the International Protestant Church in Islamabad.

Analysts believe that the closer cooperation between Tehrik-i-Taliban and the Punjabi Taliban is not surprising since members of both groups attended the same training camps in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan; however their conducting of cooperative operations is a new development.

Officials said that this cooperation could be traced back to 2001 when former President Pervez Musharraf banned the militant groups based in the Punjab, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed, Harakat ul-Jihad-al-Islami, and Jamiat-ul-Ansar. Several of these groups escaped into North and South Waziristan, where they later established training camps for Punjabi recruits.

Pakistani security officials believe that putting an end to this alliance is the key to defeating both groups. One [Pakistani] official said “the tribal militants can be easily identified and distinguished from the Punjab population due to their language and fair complexion, and it will be highly difficult for them to seek shelter in the cities of the Punjab.”

In the sixty years since independence, the different regions of Pakistan’s Punjab province has witnessed uneven economic development, and the prosperous and fully developed areas of the Punjab clearly belies the oft-quoted sociological theories linking religious extremism to poverty and underdevelopment.

Ajmal Kasab is from an economically vibrant area of the Punjab. His village has a strong agricultural output, and there are plenty of agricultural-based jobs to offer steady employment to its rising youthful population. Other economically rich areas in the Punjab province have similarly become hotbeds of religious extremism.

A case in point is the town of Kabirwala, which is close to Ajmal Kasab’s village, Faridkot. Kabirwala is located in the heart of the cotton producing region of the Punjab; it also has one of the largest Deobandi Madrassas [in the Punjab].

On the other hand, no other area [in the world] proves the direct link between poverty and underdevelopment and religious extremism better than the southern parts of Punjab. Industry is almost non-existent here, and private and public sector jobs are few and far between. Even the agricultural industry is dominated by tribal chiefs.

In 2008, a suicide bomber attacked a Shiite congregation in Dera Ghazi Khan, killing more than 30 people. Investigators say that Qari Ismail and Mustafa Qisani, two locals arrested for the attack, planned this with the support of Baitullah Mehsud.

South Waziristan borders the Punjab, and the chief of the local Keysari tribe that lives in this region, Mir Badshah Khan Kesarani, who is a member of the Punjab provincial legislature, admitted that some of his tribesmen cross into the tribal areas to fight in Afghanistan.

The Deobandi school of thought never achieved the status of a popular movement in the Punjab. Despite this, the Deobandi Madrassas have spread across the region, and some of these Madrassas are infamous for producing world famous terrorists and sectarian militants.

The prime example of this is Rashid Rauf, a British national of Pakistani origin, who was allegedly involved in a plot to blow up international passenger airplanes in the air. Rauf was arrested in Pakistan, where he famously escaped from custody after being detained for more than a year. He fled to the tribal areas, and was reported to have been killed in a US drone attack last year. Rashid Rauf studied Islamic law in the Deobandi Madrassa in Bahawalpur, a city in southern Punjab.

Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is another example. Jhangvi founded the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in the 1980s, and this sectarian militant organization has been involved in the death of hundreds of Shiite leaders, and numerous attacks on Western targets in Pakistan. Jhangvi studied at a Deobandi Madrassa in Kabirwala.

Since the Punjabi Taliban allied with the Tehrik-i-Taliban one year ago, they have attracted the attention of Pakistani and international media, as well as the attention of the US military and intelligence agencies. The US drone attacks in Pakistan’s tribal areas are also increasingly focused upon the Punjabi Taliban hiding in the areas close to the Afghan border, and so it is no coincidence that Pakistan has decreased its opposition to US drone attacks in the last 8 to 12 months. Perhaps the importance of targeting the deadly Punjabi Taliban force in the context of international efforts against terrorism has finally been recognized, if belatedly.