Popular support for militants complicates Pakistan crackdown

Masood Azhar (L), chief of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), addresses a press conference in Karachi. (File/AFP/Aamir Qureshi)
Updated 08 March 2019

Popular support for militants complicates Pakistan crackdown

  • Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety
  • Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad

BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan: On the congested streets of Bahawalpur, a city in southern Pakistan's jihadi heartland, emotions run high in favor of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a U.N.-designated terror group that recently pushed nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Such support complicates Prime Minister Imran Khan's latest crackdown on militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. In recent days, Khan has ordered the takeover of assets and property of dozens of banned militant organizations that operate in Pakistan.
Many of the groups are popular among the poor because they operate networks of charities. Some groups have also enjoyed the support of the military and intelligence services.
"Jaish-e-Mohammad is not a terrorist group, they just want to spread Islam," said Tahir Zia, a gray-bearded resident of Bahawalpur, a city whose 18th-century founders claim to be direct descendants of Islam's Prophet Mohammad.
According to Pakistan's counter-terrorism agency, the government has outlawed 68 militant groups. This includes Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lahskar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen — Pakistan-based groups that seek to wrest control of Indian-controlled territory in the disputed Kashmir region.
Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. The region has been the flashpoint of two wars between the South Asian neighbors as well as several lower-level face-offs.
The latest confrontation began Feb. 14 when a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killed 40 Indian soldiers. Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility, even though the attacker was identified as an Indian Kashmiri militant. The bombing escalated tensions between India and Pakistan, with India launching an airstrike against suspected militant training camps. Journalists, who visited the site hours after the bombing, said the area was a deserted forested hilltop.
Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad. Their students and teachers have been barred from talking to the media. Police and paramilitary rangers armed with AK-47s, now guard the group's buildings.
The group's headquarters on the northern outskirts of Bahawalpur, a city of 2 million, are ringed by a 20-foot-high (6-meter) brick wall.
On a recent morning, several bearded men and two Pakistani police officers armed with automatic rifles turned away visitors approaching the compound's large steel gates.
Bahawalpur is located on the edge of Pakistan's Cholistan desert in the southern part of Punjab province. In recent decades, the area has become a jihadi heartland encouraged by state sponsorship and financial support from abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, and several Gulf States.
The donors have financed a vast network of religious schools that cater to the poorest residents, teaching a brand of Islam that promotes sectarianism, brands Shiite Muslims as infidels and espouses jihad, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Khan, who adopted the role of peacemaker in the latest outbreak of hostilities between Pakistan and India, returned a captured Indian pilot, offered peace talks with his Indian counterpart, and launched a crackdown on militant groups from which previous administrations shied away.
On Tuesday, in a gesture aimed at mending relations on the subcontinent, Pakistan announced it had arrested 44 suspected members of several militant organizations, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. Among those arrested was Mufti Abdul Rauf, the brother of Masood Azhar, the founder of the organization. Azhar's whereabouts are unknown.
Rauf was also among those named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan after Khan promised to investigate suspected links between Pakistani-based militants and the February bombing.
On Wednesday, more schools, hospitals and charities run by banned groups were taken over by the government. Padlocks were put on some facilities.
In a tweet Wednesday, Interior Minister Shahryar Afridi promised his government would implement a widely cheered 2015 National Action Plan that calls for zero tolerance of militant groups. Pakistan's previous government devised the 20-point plan to combat terrorism and extremism in Pakistan, only to ignore it.
Still the move by Khan's government is fraught with dangers in a country where militant groups provide social services to poor residents ignored by the government. The 2016 Crisis Group report called south Punjab "the poorest region of the country's richest and most populous province."
In Bahawalpur, Jaish-e-Mohammad and its leader enjoy considerable support.
Storekeeper Sajjad Ali called Azhar a "man of peace" and dismissed accusations that he is a terrorist as Indian propaganda.
Hafiz Muzamil, a fiery young man, railed against India's violent suppression of a 30-year insurgency in Kashmir __ India's only Muslim dominated state __ and championed Jaish-e-Mohammad and Azhar as warriors for Islam. Crowds gathered as he spoke, most nodding vigorously.
Adnan Naseemullah, an expert in international affairs at King's College in London, warned of a short-term backlash against the crackdown.
"Pakistan, if it takes an aggressive, no-tolerance stand against Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat ul-Mujahidin, will suffer a violent backlash domestically," he said.
"But a zero-tolerance policy from the Pakistani state will over time shift the focus back on Kashmir and the treatment of the Kashmiri people, which is in Pakistan's long-term interest," he added.
International human rights groups have accused India of widespread abuses as it seeks to crush dissent in its part of Kashmir. "India's policy on Kashmir under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi is straightforwardly and violently repressive," said Naseemullah.
For Pakistan, the deadly mix of militant groups on its soil is a decades-old problem with roots in the 1980s war in neighboring Afghanistan, when the United States and Pakistan were allies against the former Soviet Union. Together they nurtured an army of mujahedeen, or holy warriors, to oust the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. When the war ended with a Soviet withdrawal in 1989, young Pakistani recruits to jihad were sent to the Indian half of disputed Kashmir to fight for a united Kashmir under the Pakistani flag.
It's a history that analysts like Zahid Hussain, author of two books on militancy, say haunts Pakistan.
"Various Pakistani governments have promised to take action against the many groups but have not done so," said Hussain. "Not only does it pose a danger to Pakistan's own national internal security, there is always the danger they will use Pakistani soil to launch an attack across the border."


Hong Kong leader visits mosque struck by blue water-cannon dye

Updated 19 sec ago

Hong Kong leader visits mosque struck by blue water-cannon dye

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader and the city’s police chief visited a mosque on Monday that was struck with blue dye from a water cannon during the latest bout of violent protests.
The entrance to the Kowloon Mosque, the international hub’s largest, was sprayed by a water cannon truck on Sunday, causing anger among both local Muslims and protesters.
Police use the dye — often mixed with an irritant — as a way to identify protesters but it has frequently left streets and buildings daubed in a garish blue.
Video footage shot Sunday showed the truck pulling up outside the building during confrontations with protesters, pausing and then spraying around half a dozen journalists and bystanders who were gathered on the street outside.
The group, who did not appear to be protesters, was struck twice, with much of the bright blue jet painting the mosque’s entrance and steps.
Police released a statement on Sunday saying the mosque was hit by mistake but did not apologize.
On Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam and police chief Stephen Lo paid a brief visit to the mosque, surrounded by a phalanx of security guards.
They emerged some 20 minutes later without speaking to the media.
Mosque representatives told reporters that the two had apologized for the water cannon incident and that the apology had been accepted.
The representatives also thanked worshippers and Hong Kongers who flocked to clean the mosque soon after the incident.
The original Kowloon Mosque was built in the late nineteenth century to cater for Muslim soldiers from British-ruled India.
It was rebuilt in the early 1980s and remains a center of Hong Kong’s 300,000-strong Muslim community.
Lam’s office and the police did not respond to requests for comment on the visit.
A police source told AFP the commissioner did apologize and further details would be released later in the day.
Hong Kong was convulsed by another day of violence on Sunday as the city nears five months of seething pro-democracy protests.
Tens of thousands joined an unauthorized but peaceful afternoon rally which quickly descended into chaos as small groups of hardcore protesters threw petrol bombs and rocks at a police station, mainland China businesses and multiple subway station entrances.
Police responded with water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes that lasted well into the night.