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Saturday, 17 October 2009

Who are the Punjabi Taliban?

Muhammad Amir Khakwani

On trail of Punjabi Taliban
By Nasir Jamal
Saturday, 17 Oct, 2009
LAHORE, Oct 16: A day after the triple-strike in Lahore, officials, counter-crime experts and academics in the province grappled with the question of how to deal with the upsurge in violence and the discourse was dominated by analysis of who the Punjabi Taliban were and what background they came from.

The province’s security agencies admitted the presence of “individual” militants branded as Punjabi Taliban in southern Punjab as well as elsewhere. “The government and its security agencies are fully alive to the threat and are taking requisite action. But it would be wrong to say that militants have consolidated their position to a level where they can operate under the banner of Punjabi Taliban,” argued a senior Punjab police official who has worked with different intelligence agencies.

This was consistent with a provincial intelligence report prepared some time ago on activities of militant groups operating out of southern Punjab. Although the report dismissed what it termed the much-hyped theory that the Taliban have “set in” in the districts (of Bahawalpur, Multan and D.G. Khan divisions), it acknowledged the potential threat of Talibanisation in some areas if “timely action by law enforcement agencies, coupled with concrete development activity, was not taken”.

The report concluded: “Poverty-stricken, feudalistic, extremely religious and illiterate south Punjab could possibly provide shelter to the Taliban and other jihadi outfits. It has potential to become a nursery or a major centre of recruitment for sectarian organisations. Talibanisation appears to be in its infancy stage. Timely action by law enforcement agencies, coupled with concrete development activity, could avert this danger.”

In a talk with Dawn on Friday, a senior police official listed a number of arrests made in different parts of the province, including southern Punjab, and recovery of arms cache in the recent past and claimed that in doing so, police had averted a number of possible suicide raids and sectarian attacks.

He maintained that militant organisations like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami and Jaish-i-Mohammad operating out of southern Punjab had a long history of linkages with the Taliban in Afghanistan and tribal areas of the NWFP who provide them sanctuary and support.“Nobody denies that the militants belonging to these organisations have strong links with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and facilitate their operations in Punjab. But this is also true for the militants operating from many other parts of Punjab and the rest of the country,” he added.

Another senior police official surmised the term Punjabi Taliban was just a myth coined and being propagated to destabilise Punjab by the so-called friends and foes (read America and India) of Pakistan. “It’s a stable Punjab which is blocking their designs to harm Pakistan,” he said.

A senior police officer from Bahawalpur wondered: “If the so-called Punjabi Taliban from south Punjab are so big in number why none of the thousands of those arrested or killed during the recent military operation in Swat was found to be from this area.”

The Punjab police say that only one militant, Abid alias Hanzala, out of 11 who had blown themselves up or were killed in as many acts of terrorism during 2007 and 2008 was from a southern Punjab district, Rahimyar Khan.

The rest of them were Mehsuds from South Waziristan. Similarly, all the eight suspected suicide attackers who were either arrested or those who were able to escape arrest during 2007 and 2008 came from South and North Waziristan, Mansehra and DI Khan. Five of them belonged to the Mehsud tribe, according to police.

But there have surely been some signs of change this year. Analysts argue that the active involvement of militants operating out of southern districts of Punjab in a series of terror attacks during this year has brought the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ into sharp focus.

“Earlier, the Punjab-based sectarian and jihadi groups, which were either involved in Kashmir or in sectarian killings within the country, used to only facilitate militants coming from tribal areas of the NWFP by providing them logistical support for carrying out terrorist operations. Now they have become entwined with militants operating under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and changed their strategy.

“They are pursuing a different agenda, which is to challenge the state (of Pakistan) and pull it down, and are actively involved in the terrorist acts as indicated by their involvement in terror raids on Sri Lanka team and Manawan police training centre earlier this year (and multiple attacks on security installations this week),” Lahore-based defence and political analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi said.

The official from Bahawalpur acknowledged that southern Punjab had proportionately produced greater number of militants because of the presence there of groups fighting in occupied Kashmir in the past. Also, he conceded, a number of top jihadi and sectarian leaders belonged to southern Punjab. But he insisted that there were no sanctuaries or training camps anywhere in the region.

On the basis of how much the official concede, shall we then say that the militants have an operational network in place in southern Punjab to build on?“That network is intact in spite of the arrests and killings of a number of militants in recent years. The area was never cleared and militant organisations and groups continue to recruit in southern districts of the province, which are also used as sanctuaries by militants after carrying out their operations elsewhere in the country,” an analyst said.

“How can you get rid of militancy without demolishing the ideological infrastructure that helps to create this mindset?” he wondered. But he acknowledged that it was a difficult task and required political consensus.

Amir Rana, an Islamabad-based analyst, said the term Punjabi Taliban was coined by Afghan Taliban groups to distinguish militants from Punjab and it became popular after the militant attack on the Danish embassy in Islamabad last year.

He said the Punjabi Taliban was not a homogenous group and also included Kashmiri and Urdu-speaking people. “You would also find some Burmese and Bengali immigrants living in Karachi in the ranks of the so-called Punjabi Taliban,” he elaborated.

Dr Hasan Rizvi said that linkages between the militants from Punjab and the Taliban in the NWFP had deepened (in recent years) as the militants shifted their training camps in the tribal areas to avoid action by the government.

He said religious extremism was not confined to southern Punjab alone. “You will find a similar situation in central Punjab as well. Religious extremism is very sharply visible in Gujranwala, Faisalabad, etc. But the problem with southern Punjab is that some of its areas are not under effective state control. There are areas in DG Khan where the government’s authority is weak, which helps the militants to find sanctuary there. Further, the close proximity of these areas to Balochistan and tribal areas of the NWFP also provides the militants an easy escape route.”

Dr Rizvi, however, dismissed calls for a military operation in the region. “It (operation) is not needed because these areas, in spite of weak government authority, are not out of the state’s control. The better option would be to gather credible intelligence on the activities of militants in these areas and then take action.” (Dawn)

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