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The Red Scare

by Khaled Ahmed


Retaking, and repainting, the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, July 27, 2007. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Retaking, and repainting, the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, July 27, 2007. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Pakistan has woken up to the danger within, but it has a long fight ahead of it.

On Dec. 8, the BBC announced that a girls’ seminary in the heart of Islamabad had declared allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, “caliph” of the Islamic State militant group. The seminary, Jamia Hafsa, is linked to the infamous Lal Masjid, the mosque which brought down President Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

Umm-e-Hassan, the Jamia Hafsa chief, decided to retain Lal Masjid’s original link to Al Qaeda by asserting that Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Omar would “still be our Amir-ul-Momineen” (Commander of the Faithful) but al-Baghdadi “our caliph.” She had to make this quaint somersault of loyalty even after knowing that a caliph is supposed to be the Commander of the Faithful and that sacred loyalty (bayat) can’t be bestowed on two people. The rub here was that Al Qaeda owed allegiance to Omar and opposed al-Baghdadi; and Hassan couldn’t get attached to the latter without breaking with the former.

Hassan is the wife of Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi, head of Lal Masjid, which Musharraf decided to attack in 2007 after its seminarians assaulted a Chinese shop in the capital as part of a wave of Islamic rejectionism inspired by Al Qaeda. Around the same time Musharraf also dismissed the country’s chief justice, triggering the lawyers’ movement against him. He lost on both counts: the restored Iftikhar Chaudhry sided with Lal Masjid, compensating it for the material damage done to it by Operation Silence, forcing all politicians and the media to lionize the Al Qaeda-linked preachers.

Lal Masjid was the node of Al Qaeda’s network in Pakistan. The military operation against it had brought about the formation of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan at the behest of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s No. 2. “This crime can only be washed by repentance or blood,” al-Zawahiri declared after the operation, “If you do not retaliate… Musharraf will not spare any of you. Your salvation is only through jihad.”

Two months after the Lal Masjid siege, an 18-year-old boy blew himself up inside the high-security base of Zarrar Company, the elite commando unit of the Army responsible for Operation Silence. At least 22 soldiers were killed. It was an insider job, planned by two brothers serving as captains in the Army—one would die in Helmand fighting NATO troops and the other would be arrested in Rawalpindi for killing a Pakistani major-general. An Al Qaeda video swearing revenge marked the first anniversary of the destruction of Lal Masjid. On July 6, 2008, the Taliban, ordered by Al Qaeda, killed 19 people—15 of them policemen—in Islamabad through a suicide-bomber.

Much before Operation Silence was launched by the Army, Lal Masjid had become known to the world as a center of radical Islamic learning, housing several thousand male and female students in adjacent seminaries culled from hardline students from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas where support for the Taliban and Al Qaeda was quite strong. Elements from militant and nonstate actor groups, like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Harkat-ul-Jihad-ul-Islami, used the seminary as their watering hole.

Islamabad was besieged by the mushroom growth of illegal mosques and madrassahs in a creeping makeover of the state to caliphate in its very capital. As Musharraf fought a losing battle with the mosque, there were 88 seminaries in Islamabad imparting religious education to more than 16,000 students. Today, all sorts of outfits linked to Al Qaeda have moved to the peripheries of the capital, including Bani Gala, possibly affecting the worldview of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, whose leader lives there.

Lal Masjid was founded by Maulana Abdullah Ghazi, a South Punjabi graduate of Jamia Binoria, Karachi, whose indulgence in sectarianism—a la Binoria—caused his death at the hands of the community he apostatized. His sons Abdul Aziz Ghazi and Abdul Rashid Ghazi ran the seminary aggressively, targeting elements they thought were flouting the Shariah. They fed youths into state-sponsored jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir, connecting the state to training camps run by terrorist organizations under Al Qaeda. Abdul Rashid was killed in Operation Silence; the elder son now runs the Lal Masjid complex together with his more aggressive wife.

Abdullah Ghazi was shown much favor by military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq—who gave him prime property in Islamabad for his mosque-cum-madrassah—during the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. But after meeting bin Laden in Afghanistan, Ghazi’s loyalty became divided and ultimately leaned to the program of Al Qaeda of forcibly transforming Pakistan into a caliphate.

During the “peace talks” between the Pakistani Taliban and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government in early 2014, the Taliban had nominated PTI chief Imran Khan and Abdul Aziz as its representatives, but it was Aziz who ultimately sat in the committee that negotiated with the government. He was clearly more unbending than the Taliban and least inclined to compromise with the state of Pakistan, which actually foreshadowed the final shifting of loyalty from the Taliban to I.S. despite the “double pledge” announced by his wife.

Islamabad denies that I.S. has any traction in Pakistan. But the fact is that Pakistan has actually inspired the violence now being witnessed in the region—and the Islamic world—by becoming the first nursery of extremism during the Afghan jihad of the 1980s, which was the decade of its own Islamization. Many Pakistani analysts accept the received wisdom that Pakistan is endangered because it lives in a “volatile neighborhood.” Pakistan’s neighborhood, including China, instead feels that it has been destabilized by the violent extremism nurtured by the seminaries of Pakistan and its nonstate actors. To set the record straight, two Pakistan Army chiefs, one after the other, have also gone public with the observation that Pakistan is endangered from within and not “from the region.”

Pakistan has woken up to the danger within and its Army has finally decided to grasp the nettle of North Waziristan where “friendly Taliban” threatening the world with violence trained their suicide-bombers. But it has a long battle ahead with elements that it has allowed over time to get embedded in its civil society and live off extortion. The latest manifestation of the difficulties that lie ahead is the announcement made by Jamia Hafsa from Islamabad. Any normal state enjoying the “monopoly of violence” could tackle this manifestation, but Pakistan with its writ—and will—much eroded by decades of covert jihad and the compromises made with its nonstate actors may yet find it difficult to confront the looming threat of the Islamic State.


Sana December 9, 2014 - 11:52 pm

What can you expect when a very large number of Clerics and Muftis in the Madrassa are recruits from Afghanistan.. If this person is Mulla Omar follower then he or she us in the wrong place and needs to be despatched to AFGHANISTAN. In fact the Islamic a Parties and all Islamic charities should be dealing with this issue seriously and nip thus evil I the bud. But Alas! The extreme corruption and in competence in the system is encouraging these outfits. This Chaudry Nisar’s responsibility.. Is he aware of this issue?

Sana December 10, 2014 - 12:14 am

FAO Khalid Ahmed.. This is nothing new but I hope you are aware that there has been a steady influx of politicised clerics from Afghanistan since the eighties. I do not think the government has bothered to control this influx.. I was very surprised to learn that a madrassa that some of my friends have a soft spot and they support it financially has numerous young students from Kandahar and other parts of Afghanistan ..Even the Mufti is from Kandahar..!! What business does he have in Pakistan? And has the government even considered thinking as to what form of Islam are these Madrassas preaching?? As it is there is a wide difference between urban and rural ISLAM in Pakistan but to preach Rural Afghani ISLAM seeped with Afghani culture to Pakistanis is madness. What are the educational authorities thinking of?? Of course who ever the head of Jamia Hafsa is he or she is deeply influenced by Afghan culture and Afghan brand of Islam which naturally is all charged up with anti US occupation ideology. The Islami parties need to be summoned by the government and rule and regulations issued to them. Better still the Visas for all Cleric teachers and students in Madrassas should be revoked and reviewed. And new guidelines should be issued for visas and syllabus for Madrassas to be scrutinised.

Ramakant December 20, 2014 - 12:36 am

At least the Peshavar horror of killing innocent children should nudge the decision-makers of Pakistan in the right direction now. But will they be able to curb decisively the wrong mind set of the terror-motivators hiding in the guise of clerics & the conniving politicians? I doubt very much. If bail-issue in the court of justice to a proven terrorist is taken as a yard-stick, I can only regret to say that god help Pakistan. It is a shame on Pakistan to be pushed into wrong interests by wrong people.

Omer January 3, 2015 - 11:17 am

There are few factual inaccuracies in the article such as comment regarding two successive Pakistan Army Chiefs going public that Pakistan is endangered from within and not “from the region.” The latter part is incorrect, while emphasising threat from within they have never relegated latent threat from India. Present escalation along working boundary and LOC is proof of such assertion. Secondly, the comment about Al Qaeda in Bani Gala affecting the worldview of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political party, is scarctic and intellectually shallow. It reflects the writers bias and intellectual mediocrecy.

Asim January 3, 2015 - 11:33 am

Only solution left is to blew up this mudrissa when main cleric are there along with their students. There is no point of engaging in talk or deals with Lal misjid administration after Peshawar attack.

Qaisar January 3, 2015 - 11:40 am

The national agenda to deal with this specific issue has never been agreed upon by political powers in return of notional assembly votes of those, so called religious parties, for their political gains. The leadership of country has never been serious, selflessly, to tackle the ever growing cancer of the society.

dovyhawk January 3, 2015 - 7:31 pm

We do not need so called good Taliban in Afghanistan for any strategic depth. The real strategic depth comes through friendship and Justice. As per last speech of Prophet Muhammad, we must not discriminate between ethnicities of Muslims. Be friends to Pushtoons, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of Afghanistan on equal footing just like Islam expects us to be. Things will become okay after they start trusting us. This will be the real strategic depth……..As for the Indian border, no need for any freedom fighter intrusion there. Freedom fighters end up dangering civilian population when they hide among Kashmiri civilians. The best way to ensure Kashmiri liberation in the future is to voice the problem at all international forums. We do not need a humanitarian situation in Kashmir. Even if Kashmir is quiet, we can raise this issue as it is unfinished partition of India since 1947. It has to be completed. At least 3 more Indian occupied districts of Kashmir need to go to Pakistan as they are Muslim majority. India can keep Jammu and Ladakh. To take care of any Indian offence, at the same time develop more nukes; both strategic and tactical so if India ever decides to attack, we are able to handle them on all fronts; and if they know we are strong, they will never attack. Cultivate good relations with all countries and open up to every country except India. We can continue to deny them land transit to Central Asia unless they resolve Kashmir. As for their interference in Balochistan, we have to increase presence of Army there and educate and train more local Baluchis to fight off the insurgency. Give power to educated Baluchi middle class, train them in Pakistan’s history and its raison d’etre and they will take care of the Baluchi Sardars in the long run. weaken the Sardars and empower educated middle class there. Of course those Sardars who are loyal to Pakistan can be supported.

Tawfik January 5, 2015 - 5:47 am

Whatever happened providing a separation of religion and state ? Pakistan will make no progress as long as it can only think in terms of religion and all actions and decisions are heavily influenced by it. Don’t be impressed by the expressions of wealth which has been acquired through corruption and by donations from the west. There is no strength in the core of the country. The military valiantly fights to defend they best they can. Resources are flowing out including skilled and intelligent people and infrastructure is still minimal. As a ex-citizen who has lived there for over half my life, I have little doubt Pakistan will end up at the bottom 1% of the countries in the world as its overtaken by the hardworking Asian nations to the east and the recovering nations to the west.

Hasan January 5, 2015 - 11:10 pm

Tawfiq… you are right in your .perception but wrong in concluding remarks. Pakistan will recover but only thing lacking is leadership !! Wait an see till Pakistan gets rid of Zardaris an .Sharifs.


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