BAHAWALPUR: Three burly gunmen stand menacingly at the gate of a mosque complex in the town of Bahawalpur as hundreds of men file in listen to a prayer for victory of Muslim fighters around the world.
This is Osman-o-Ali, the headquarters of Jaish-i-Mohammad, an al-Qaeda-linked militant group which has a long record of violence including an assassination attempt on former president Pervez Musharraf.
While Pakistan's attention is focused on the Taliban and al-Qaeda threat on the Afghan border in the remote northwest, there are fears that the militants are quietly expanding their influence and winning recruits in the country's heartland.
‘South Punjab is a fertile ground for extremists and militants,’ said security analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi.
The flourishing Jaish complex in Bahawalpur, in the south of Punjab province, illustrates the ambivalence that Pakistani authorities have long shown towards hardline Islamists.
Islamist factions were nurtured by the security agencies during the 1980s and 1990s when they sent their fighters into Afghanistan to take on Soviet occupiers and later into Indian-administered Kashmir region to battle security forces.
But Jaish was officially outlawed by Musharraf in early 2002 after it and another group, Lashkar-i-Taiba, were blamed for an attack on the Indian parliament which brought Pakistan and India to the brink of their fourth war.
Despite the ban, and repeated vows by governments to root out militancy, Jaish is thriving. It and an allied group are believed to have thousands of young cadres fighting western forces in Afghanistan and the Pakistani army in the northwest.
Plots hatched here on the dusty plains and shabby towns of southern Punjab can reach around the world.
Rashid Rauf, a British-born al-Qaeda operative and suspect in a 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, was a member of Jaish and was known to have lived in Bahawalpur with his wife.
Security analyst Ayesha Siddiqa says south Punjab has become ‘the hub of jihadism’ and the authorities are in denial.
The region is critical to planning, recruitment and logistical support for terrorist attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, she wrote recently in Newsline magazine.
Punjab provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah acknowledged the hardliners have many thousands of sympathisers but he dismisses talk of a threat to the state.
‘There is no challenge to the government,’ Sanaullah, who is also responsible for security, told Reuters in an interview in his office in the provincial capital of Lahore.
‘They can detonate bombs or carry out suicide attacks but they cannot establish their bases in Punjab,’ he said.
On the outskirts of Bahawalpur, the Jaish group has acquired a plot of land of about five acres (1.7 hectares) which some people fear could be a militant training camp.
The plot is surrounded by a brick wall but from a nearby road one can see cows and buffaloes feeding in stables.
A security official said authorities had turned a blind eye to the acquisition of the land by an outlawed group but said they would not be allowed to pursue militant activities.
‘Let me assure you they don't have the guts to challenge the government,’ said the official, who declined to be identified.
Mohammad Riaz Chughtai, a cleric with links to Jaish leaders, said the group planned to build a madrassah on the land and no militant training was going on.
But youngsters are being recruited in Punjab and sent for training on the Afghan border. Police recently detained five teenagers on charges of receiving militant training in South Waziristan, the main stronghold of the Pakistani Taliban.
‘They wanted me to become a suicide bomber. They told me that jihad was obligatory,’ 16-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim told interrogators, according to a police transcript.
Sanaullah said there were tens of thousands of such people all over Pakistan, including many who previous governments trained for war in Afghanistan and then discarded.
‘We can't kill all of them, arrest them or detain them for interrogation,’ Sanaullah said. ‘What we can do is that the one who is very active will be arrested and interrogated.’
Rizvi said government negligence and lingering sympathy for the militants in some quarters were to blame.
‘There is still sympathy for these militant groups,’ Rizvi said. ‘But they cannot establish a mini-state of their own as they did in the tribal areas.’