“LeJ’s ideology is to strengthen a Sunni state”
— Defense and security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa
By Farah Zia
The News on Sunday: In a recent study that you have conducted “The New Frontiers: Militancy & Radicalism in Punjab” you seem to be suggesting that after 2014, the focus of militancy will be on sectarian violence within the country. Can you briefly explain how do you look at it in strategic terms?
Ayesha Siddiqa: I haven’t said that after 2014 the focus of militancy will be on sectarian violence only but I am saying that these militant organisations that have sectarian violence as part of their larger agenda will strengthen and thrive in the country. Anti-Shiism is one of their agenda. It emanates from their understanding of Islam and Quran. They believe that Shia are not Muslims and so, like anything considered as menace to Islam or fitna, these people should be eliminated. The other part of their philosophy pertains to expanding their political strength within and outside the territory. These organisations have their own concept of war and peace. There is increasingly more material being produced by them to justify jihad against all non-Muslims especially the Christians and Jews. So, as these organisations strengthen they have a lot on their agenda.
TNS: You are also saying that militancy flows from Punjab to other provinces. Should we read the Hazara killings in Balochistan in the same light: LeJ Balochistan as an extension of LeJ Punjab. Are the Hazara being killed because they are more vulnerable?
AS: When Saifullah Kurd of LeJ Baluchistan comes and takes directions from Malik Ishaq in Punjab then what will you call it if not an extension of Punjab based organisation. The main leadership of most Ahl-Hadith/Wahabi and Deobandi networks is based in Punjab. The Hazaras as we know are vulnerable due to the fact that they can be easily distinguished. However, there seems to be a larger plan to kill and threaten Shias as they are considered conduit of Iran. If you read some of the writings of journalists that sit close to the military you can see such suspicions being aired.
TNS: How do you look at LeJ’s cadre, strengths and long term objectives in Pakistan (Sunni state?)?
AS: LeJ is part of the larger Deobandi network that is connected with other groups like SSP, JeM, HuM and HUJI. Also, it has the Tableeghi Jamaat and JUI-F network to depend on. It has over years strengthened itself and is now in a process to establish itself politically. There is a general perception that bringing these parties into politics will indeed result in their mainstreaming and creating an opportunity to wean them away from violence. However, the violent portion will continue to exist and expand. In fact, it will be able to justify itself and hide better due to this mainstreaming.
LeJ and the Deobandi network has expanded quite well in parts of North Punjab and most of South Punjab. They are now getting into Sindh as well. They are playing a role in Sindh Urban and linking up with MQM-H. They are focused on their ideology which means strengthening of a Sunni state that sees the minorities in a certain role. Minorities will always be considered as half citizens.
TNS: How is the Punjab government dealing with this menace of sectarian violence that is a threat to the entire country? Is it engaged with LeJ/SSP or is it in a political coalition of sorts as some people suggest?
AS: The PML-N leadership has a history with the LeJ. It tried to curb it during the 1990s but was taken to task through a terrorist attack aimed at killing the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. In 2008, the PML-N seems to have adopted a new strategy that is based on cooperation rather than conflict with the LeJ. There are stories of a deal struck at that time, negotiated through the good services of some senior police officers according to which Malik Ishaq was to be freed if he was not convicted by any court and the LeJ not harassed. Also, its boys would get accommodated and get jobs in the province at various levels. In return the LeJ would not hurt the leadership and there was an agreement for Malik Ishaq’s younger brother to withdraw from elections from Bakkhar against Mian Shahbaz Sharif.
The Punjab government seems to have tried to make the best of a situation. In an environment where it was not allowed to take any action against these various outfits, and there was the fear factor as well, they decided to deal with it by sleeping with the enemy. There are reports of seat adjustment between PML-N and LeJ which now calls itself ASWJ for 2013 elections. The idea is to give ASWJ 3-4 seats in return for its support in other areas where they have a strong position. Interestingly, the ASWJ is only highlighting the support it has given in the past to some of the PPP candidates. However, LeJ (now ASWJ) has always supported mainstream parties in its areas of strength including PML-N.
But a question worth raising is that what else can a party do when it is not given any option but to survive with the menace. We also need to understand that these various outfits have now created justification for their survival. Most of the financial mafias such as the land mafia, trader-merchants groups etc. are linked with or connected with these groups for help. For instance, if I need to sort out a property matter I would rather go to these groups than to the police or judicial system. In many areas in Punjab like Faisalabad, Lahore and Gujranwala, there is a network of support. These militants are as much into extortion as anyone else.
TNS: What are the linkages between these militant outfits and the TTP, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda?
AS: The TTP, LeJ and Afghan Taliban are all ideologically tied if not organisationally. They keep getting strength from each other and have fought together. Al-Qaeda now has local franchises which means prominence of these local Punjab-based outfits. We also need to understand that the traditional al-Qaeda was dominated by Arabs. The LeJ types have inherited the larger agenda of creating a Sunni Islamic state and fighting all those considered as enemies.
There is always a level of support amongst these various outfits. For instance, JeM was involved in one of the attacks on Musharraf. However, we tend to consider it as a safe and friendly outfit. Even in the case of that attack, it is believed the money and material were provided by the JeM but the actual task was carried out by people from Waziristan. Now, we can call them TTP, bad Taliban or whatever. Their ideological and human resource base is almost shared.
TNS: What is the state of Shiite militancy at the moment. Shia seem to be on the receiving end only?
AS: The Shia militancy started during the 1980s and is confined to target killing. In fact, the Sunni and Shia militants used to engage in target killings of each other. Riaz Basra of LeJ changed the trend when he engaged in mass killings of Shias during the 1990s. Also, Shia militancy has not engaged in mass killing. Generally, their capacity to respond, like they did in the 1990s, has reduced. However, some segments in our security establishment remain concerned about Shias getting close to Iran and threatening Pakistani state politically, especially in areas of concentration such as Gilgit-Baltistan and Hazara. This is also where you see increase in mass murders of Shias.
TNS: You have had a chance to travel to small towns in Punjab. How radicalised is the youth who form the cadre for the police force? Are the people divided on sectarian ground or harmonized?
AS: I remember doing a study in elite universities in Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore in 2010. You will be surprised to find that of these youth (LUMS, IBA, NUST, NCA, Indus Valley School, Kinnaird College, Shifa Medical College, and others), who have better access to resources and exposure, 16 per cent of the sample considered Shias as non-Muslim. This indicates the level of interaction between communities.
I have been to villages that follow JeM and LeJ in South Punjab, for instance, where they express displeasure of the Shias and Barelvis. The Shias are considered a greater enemy than the Barelvis who are only treated as yet as fools who ought to be corrected. This thinking is in the police and other organisations of law and order as well. There is now a natural division in Punjab between Sunnis and Shias. There is Shia concentration in a few areas. However, it must also be kept in mind that these differences have been exploited for political gains. For instance, the uncle of Sheikh Waqas Akram, Sheikh Iqbal and others like the pirs of Sultan Bahu encouraged anti-Shia sentiments for political gains. People do live side by side but with lesser cohesion than we could see during the 1960s or even the 1970s.