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The Punjabi Taliban

All eyes are now on Muhammed Aquil alias Dr Usman, the only surviving member of the group of nine terrorists, which launched a commando-style attack on the Pakistan Army's General Headquarters (GHQ) at Rawalpindi on October 10, 2009

The interrogation of Muhammed Aquil alias Dr Usman, the only surviving member of the group of nine terrorists, which launched a commando-style attack on the Pakistan Army's General Headquarters (GHQ)  at Rawalpindi on October 10, 2009, which lasted a little over 20 hours, has not yet started. He is reported to have been seriously injured, when he tried to blow himself up inside the GHQ to avoid being captured. He is presently under treatment in a military hospital, where army doctors are desperately trying to save his life. The Pakistani authorities now believe that he was the leader of the commando group, which attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March last and the GHQ on October 10-11.

On the basis of a record check, Pakistani investigators say that he is a Punjabi from the Kahuta Tehsil of the Rawalpindi District. He had served as a sepoy in the  Army Medical Corps. He resigned from the Army after some years and  joined the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ). When the Pashtun-dominated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) came into existence after the Pakistani Army commando raid in the Lal Masjiid of Islamabad in July,2007, some of the Punjabi members of the LEJ , including Aquil, floated a new organisation called the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab. Its leader's name is given as  Farooq. Not much is known about him.

In the 1990s, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which came into existence with the encouragement of the late Zia-ul-Haq, floated the LEJ. The SSP and the LEJ projected themselves as different organisations with no links, but Pakistani police officials believed that the SSP was the political wing of the clandestine LEJ. They further believe that the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab is a newly-created united front of the LEJ, which seeks to bring together the various anti-Shia and pro-Al Qaeda groups of Punjab  to act against the Army as well as the Shias. While the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) is part of  this united front, the Laashkar-e-Toiba (LET) is not.

The Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), now headed by Hakimullah Mehsud, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab share a Wahabist ideology and a common objective of fighting against the Pakistan Army's co-operation with the US. The two organisations share each other's training facilities and sanctuaries. They keep using each other's trained and motivated cadres for their operations. However, the operations of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab are largely confined to the non-tribal belt. The LEJ sometimes acts as the fighting arm of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab  and sometimes independently. Al Qaeda acts as the mentor and motivator of all these organisations.

Police sources say that Aquil's name had earlier figured in the investigations into the assassination of the Surgeon General of the Pakistan Army Hafiz Mirza Muhammad Mushtaq Baig last year, the firing of a rocket at a plane carrying Perevez Musharraf in July,2007, and the attack on the SL cricket team in Lahore in March last.

Both the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and the LEJ are members of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People. Both are strongly Wahabi organisations, but whereas the LEJ is strongly anti-US, anti-Israel, anti-India, anti-Iran and anti-Shia, the LET is only anti-US, anti-Israel and anti-India, but not anti-Iran or anti-Shia.

There is no confirmed instance of the LET indulging in planned anti-Shia violence in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but the LEJ has been responsible for most of the targeted attacks on Shias and their places of worship in Pakistan and on the Hazaras--who are Shias--in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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The Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which are also members of the IIF, strongly share the anti-Shia feelings of the LEJ, but they do not indulge in targeted attacks on Shias and their places of worship. Many of the leaders of these organisations, including Maulana Masood Azhar, the Amir of the JEM, started their jihadi career in the SSP, but later drifted away from it since they felt uncomfortable with its targeted attacks on Shias and their places of worship. Despite being separate now, they do co-operate with the LEJ in its operations directed against US interests and the Pakistani armed forces. The LET prefers to operate independently without getting involved with the SSP or the LEJ. The LET avoids attacks on Pakistani security forces.

The strong action taken by the international community against known and suspected Arab members of Al Qaeda created difficulties for them in travelling freely and in carrying out operations in non-Muslim countries. Consequently, it started depending increasingly on the Pakistani members of the LET for its operations. Post-9/11, the LET  opened its sleeper cells in countries such as Australia, Singapore, the UK, France and the US to help Al Qaeda in its operations by collecting information, motivating the members of the Pakistani diaspora and other means.

The discovery of LET sleeper cells in the Western countries post-2002 brought increased focus on the LET in the West.Next to the Arab members of Al Qaeda, suspected Pakistani members of the LET were placed under close surveillance in many countries. This created difficulties in the movement and activities of the LET. The LET is no longer able to operate outside the Indian sub-continent and the Gulf countries as freely as it used to do in the past.

Moreover, the LET started feeling uncomfortable over the anti-Shia violence unleashed by Al Qaeda and its surrogates in Iraq. While continuing to be a member of the IIF, it tried to avoid being associated with Al Qaeda's anti-Shia and anti-Saudi policies. Saudi charity organisations have been one of the main funders of the LET, which has an active branch in Saudi Arabia to recruit members from the Indian Muslim diaspora in the Gulf countries.

In view of these developments, Al Qaeda has started increasingly using the  LEJ for its operations in Pakistan itself as well as in the non-Muslim countries. The LEJ was actively involved in supporting the students of the two madrasas of the Lal Masjid of Islamabad before they were raided by Pakistani military commandoes in July, 2007. Many of the women, who were targeted by the girl students for allegedly running a call girl racket, were reportedly Shias. It has been actively backing the tribals, who have taken to arms against the Pakistani security forces in North and South Waziristan and in the Swat Valley in the Provincially-Administered Tribal Areas (PATA) of the North-West Frontier Province. Under the influence of the LEJ, the tribals have been beheading or otherwise killing only the Shias among the security forces personnel captured by them. Well-informed Police sources say that all the para-military personnel beheaded so far by the tribals were Shias. According to them, there has not been a single instance of the beheading of a Sunni member of the security forces though many Sunnis have been killed in explosions.

The JEM is also actively involved in supporting the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in its fight against the security forces in the Swat Valley.  There have been targeted attacks on members of the local Shia community. The anti-Shia dimension of the current violence in the tribal areas was also  corroborated by the well-informed "Daily Times" of Lahore in an editorial titled "Two Oppressions" carried by it on November 10, 2007. The editorial said: ' The latest news from Waziristan is that a well-known Shia personality has been gunned down. This is a part of the sectarian violence that Al Qaeda commits in the territories it captures. Earlier, Shias among the captured Pakistani troops were casually beheaded while the Sunnis were returned. In the Shia-majority Parachinar in the Kurram Agency, suicide-bombers have been killing indiscriminately."

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Al Qaeda's use of the LEJ is not confined to Pakistani territory.  Police sources  say that in view of the difficulties now faced by suspected LET members in Western countries and in South-east Asia, Al Qaeda is encouraging the SSP and the LEJ to gradually take over the role of the LET as the motivators and mobilisers of members of the overseas Pakistani diaspora for assisting Al Qaeda in its operations. They claim that some sleeper cells of the SSP and the LEJ have already come up in the US, the UK, Spain, Portugal, France, Singapore and Australia. Since the foreign intelligence agencies do not have much information about the SSP and the LEJ, they are able to operate without creating suspicions about them. 


B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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AUTHORS: B. Raman
PLACES: Pakistan
SECTION: International
SUBSECTION: Opinion
OUTLOOK 12 October, 2009
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