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.