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Q&A: Operation Silence

Why did it take the Pakistani security forces more than 24 hours to clear the Lal Masjid? Why were Ghazi and his followers choose to fight instead of surrendering and other such questions. Updates

Q&A: Operation Silence
AP
Q&A: Operation Silence
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

Recorded at 12-30 PM Indian Standard Time on July 11, 2007. To be read in continuation of my earlier article on the Lal Masjid operation 

What is the present stage of "Operation Silence", the code-name for the raid into the Lal Masjid complex of Islamabad launched by the Pakistani security forces at 4 AM on July 10, 2007?

The exchange of firing between the security forces and the surviving inmates of the masjid is continuing, but the intensity is much less than it was on July 10. The security forces describe this as the mopping-up phase.

Why has it taken the security forces more than 24 hours to overcome the resistance of the inmates and assume effective control over the complex?

The security forces attribute this to their anxiety to avoid killing the young students of the girls' madrasa located inside the complex and also to the labyrinthine construction of the complex, which, according to them, has 85 rooms and two tunnels. They do not say whether they were aware of the existence of the tunnels before they undertook the raid or what the tunnels are meant for or when they were constructed. Before undertaking the raid, the security forces had questioned in detail Maulana Abdul Aziz, the head of the masjid, who is the elder brother of Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who died during the exchange of firing. Maulana Aziz was arrested when he tried to escape from the masjid on July 6 wearing a burqa. The security forces claim to have obtained a lot of details from Maulana Aziz on the topography of the complex. However, it is not known whether he told them about the tunnels.

Why were Ghazi and his followers putting up such a fierce fight instead of surrendering? Why did they choose to die rather than surrender?

According to police sources, two explanations for their determined fight are in circulation. The first is they had taken a vow to seek martyrdom rather than accept the conditions laid down by a government which they look upon as acting at the US behest. The second explanation is that some high profile jihadi leader or leaders were living inside. Well-trained Commandoes of the jihadis, therefore, kept the security forces at bay with fierce resistance till other jihadis were able to spirit them out so that they would not fall into the custody of the security forces.

Any idea who these high-profile leaders could be?

There is no reliable information. According to some speculation, Mulla Mohammad Omar, the Amir of the Neo Taliban, was living inside the complex. According to some other speculation, some leaders of the Uighur jihadi movement in Xinjiang and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were living inside.

Are there any reports of Osama bin Laden or other leaders of Al Qaeda living inside?

No. There is not even any speculation on this subject.

Is it conceivable that high-profile jihadi leaders like Mulla Omar could take shelter inside a masjid complex in the heart of the capital without being detected by the Pakistani intelligence agencies?

Yes, it is. At the time of his arrest in March, 2003, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad (KSM), who orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist strikes in the US, was living in Rawalpindi in the house of a woman office-bearer of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI), who was closely connected with the Lal Masjid.

Who are the local jihadis inside?

Police sources confirm the presence of at least 20 members of the Sunni extremist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They also speak of the presence of some trained militants of the TNSM. Gen.Pervez Musharraf has been claiming that some members of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) are also inside. Some civilian members of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz have been speaking of the presence of some jihadis of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JUD), the political wing of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET), and the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI).

What is the background of the TNSM?

It is a jihadi terrorist organisation of Malakand, which is not very well known outside Pakistan. It is very close to Al Qaeda. Its name is the Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), the Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws. The Malakand Division, which is part of the Provincially-Administered Tribal Areas of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is its stronghold. It has its jihadi training infrastructure there, where it trains the members of the Neo Taliban for their operations in Afghanistan against the NATO troops. It does not allow any other Pakistani jihadi organisation to set up training camps in the Malakand area. It has a large number of tribal ex-servicemen in its ranks. 

Maulana Sufi Mohammad, a local leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JEI) in the Malakand area, left the JEI in 1992 due to differences with its leadership and formed the TNSM. When the Americans began their air strikes in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, Sufi Mohammad called for a jihad against the US and entered Afghanistan along with thousands of his followers. Many of them were mowed down by US air strikes. The survivors, including Sufi Mohammad, fled back into Malakand. Gen. Pervez Musharraf banned the TNSM as a terrorist organisation on January 15, 2002, and had Sufi Mohammad arrested. He is believed to be still in jail. The organisation became dormant. 

When an earthquake struck Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and parts of the NWFP in October, 2005, volunteers of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) and members of the TNSM were in the forefront of the humanitarian relief work. Since the Army's own relief work was found wanting, their popularity shot up and Musharraf refrained from acting against them though both had been banned as terrorist organisations on January 15, 2002. There has since then been a significant resurgence in the activities of the TNSM in the Malakand Division of the NWFP and in the Bajaur Agency of the FATA. 

It has been organising pro-Taliban activities and is generally referred to by the local tribals as the Pakistani Taliban to distinguish it from the Afghan Taliban led by Mulla Mohammad Omar. The TNSM is presently headed by Maulana Fazalullah, the son-in-law of Sufi Mohammad. It is now very close to Maulana Samiul-Haq, the head of one of the factions of the JEI. A large number of students and clerics of the Lal Masjid and the two madrasas attached to it had participated in the quake relief work organised by the TNSM.

Reports from Pakistan also speak of the presence of foreign militants inside the Lal Masjid complex. Who are they?

Army spokesmen have said that they would not be able to say anything on this subject till all dead bodies and those captured have been identified. However, police sources say that the two madrasas controlled by the masjid had about 300 foreign students. The largest group consisted of Afghan children of refugees living in the camps in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan. There were also small numbers of Uighurs, Uzbecks and South African Muslims.

Before the raid, a delegation led by Chaudhry Shujjat Hussain, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaide Azam), had held talks with Maulana Ghazi and other clerics. Why did the talks fail?

Ghazi reportedly voiced the following demands: 

  • There should be a review of all laws which are contrary to the Sharia; 
  • The seven unauthorised mosques in Islamabad demolished by the Islamabad administration in January should be re-built at the same place; 
  • After Ghazi and his associates vacated the Lal Masjid, it should be maintained by a committee of eminent mullas and should not be taken over by the government; 
  • He should be kept under house arrest and not detained by the police; and 
  • All foreign students should be safely conducted to the tribal areas and should not be detained by the Police. 

Many clerics have claimed that while the delegation accepted these conditions, Musharraf vetoed them.

What kind of backlash is feared?

  • Increased threats to the life of Musharraf from jihadis as well as his own armed forces, particularly the tribal soldiers.
  • Escalation of terrorist attacks in the tribal areas, particularly by the TNSM, directed against the security forces and other public servants.
  • Escalation of Jundullah (soldiers of Allah) type acts of suicide terrorism by angry tribals.
  • Acts of violence on the Chinese nationals working in Pakistan because of the belief that it was Chinese pressure, which forced Musharraf to act against the Lal Masjid.
  • Greater voter support for the Islamic fundamentalist parties in the elections due later this year.

Any other worrisome aspects?

The increasing influence of Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda organisations on the minds and behaviour of children of serving and retired members of the Armed Forces--particularly from the Pashtun belt.

The aggravation of anti-Americanism in the younger generation of Pakistan. 


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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