Dec 13, 2008

World - At Headquarters of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba

Harinder Baweja

"You are in an educational complex, but you are from India and you work for Tehelka, so it will take you time to change your mind."

That's what Abdullah Muntazir, (my guide and the spokesperson for the foreign media), told me within minutes of reaching Muridke, commonly believed to be the headquarters of the Lashkar-e-Taiyyebba (LeT).

It was for the first time that due permission had been granted to any Indian journalist to visit the sprawling campus that lies forty km out of Lahore. The barricade that leads to the complex is heavily guarded and no one can enter without prior consent.

The guided tour took me through a neatly laid out 60-bed hospital, schools for boys and girls, a madarsa, a mosque, an exorbitantly large swimming pool and a guest house.

Nestled between tall trees and a meshed wire boundary, the 75-acre complex has manicured lawns, turnip farms and a fish-breeding centre. The students who enroll in the school pay a fee while those who study in the madarsa and pass out as masters in Islamic studies can come for free. Learning English and Arabic from class one on is elementary and so is a course in computers.

Trimmed lawns and microscopes
The administrators of the complex, drawn from the LeT's political wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, are clearly at pains to disassociate themselves from the group widely believed to be behind the terror attack in Mumbai on 27/11. Other foreign journalists were guided through the complex a few days before my visit and during their orchestrated tour, saw students working in chemistry and physics laboratories, peering into microscopes and connecting electric circuits.

None of us went there thinking we would see firing ranges or target shooting in progress, but the tour itself is surreal. As you walk through the neatly trimmed lawns and veer left or right to see the hostel or the mosque or the hospital, the conversation itself is dotted entirely with words like terrorism, Lashkar and in my case, Kashmir.

Even though the gates have been opened - after clearance from Pakistan's security agencies (read ISI) - to dispel the impression of Muridke being the training camp that "India has made it out to be," the conversation is not about the school syllabus but wholly about how India is an enemy.

A day after I visited Muridke, I met a family whose sister-in-law lives right next to the complex. "But of course it's a training ground. You can hear slogans for jehad blaring out of loud speakers in full volume and you can also sometimes hear the sound of gunfire,'' members of this family confided. But during the two hours that I spent within the complex, there was enough conversation about jehad even if there were no signs of it being a sanctuary not just for the Lashkar-e-Taiyyebba but also believed to have been used as a hideout by al-Qaeda operatives, including Ramzi Yousef, one of the conspirators of the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing.

'Without doubt, you are the enemy'
Ajmal Amir Kasab, the lone terrorist who was captured alive in Mumbai, is supposed to have studied here, according to his interrogators, and it's time to ask some straight questions.

So did Kasab study here, in Muridke?
"Even if he did, we are not responsible for what any one of our students do after passing out."

Do you support the Lashkar-e-Taiyyebba?
"We used to."

You used to?
"Yes, we were like-minded but the group was banned after Indian propaganda following the attack on its Parliament which was done by the Jaish-e-Mohammad and not the LeT. We use to provide logistical help to the Lashkar, collect funds for them and look after their publicity."

Did you also provide them with arms?
"They must have bought weapons with the money we gave them. They were obviously not using the money to buy flowers for the Indian army."

The Lashkar has claimed responsibility for the attack on the Red Fort in Delhi and the airport in Srinagar.

"We do not consider Kashmir to be a part of India. It is a part of Pakistan. Those who attack the security forces are not terrorists, they are freedom fighters."

President Musharraf moved away from the position that Kashmir either secede or be given independence. He proposed joint control.

"Musharraf did not have any legitimacy. He had no business making such proposals."
Do you consider India an enemy?
"Without doubt. India is responsible for the attack on Islamabad's Marriot hotel, for the bomb blasts in Peshawar. Sarabjit Singh has been convicted for being a RAW agent."
Your Amir, Hafiz Sayeed has given calls for jehad.

"He supports the freedom movement in Kashmir. We think it is right. It is ridiculous to call him a terrorist. Even when a thorn pricks India, the whole world stands up. Why did Condoleeza Rice not put pressure on India for handing over Narendra Modi after the Gujarat carnage?"

Kashmir is no longer entirely indigenous. Foreign fighters like Maulana Masood Azhar were arrested in Anantnag.

"He was a journalist and still is an inspirational writer. Anyone from here can go to Kashmir. We don't see it as part of India."

Did you sanitise this place before bringing me in?
"This is an educational complex and the Jamaat ud Dawah is a charitable organisation. There are very few people here because of the Eid break."

Does the ISI support you?
He just laughs.

A Pakistani Hamas
Jamaat ud Dawah, banned by the US in 2005 for being a Lashkar alias, draws patronage from the ISI and though proscribed abroad, has a free run in Pakistan. It has branches all across the country and is as famous for its social work as for its terror activities. It sees itself as a movement and not an organisation and has appeal to many in rural and urban areas.

When a correspondent from London's The Observer newspaper went to Kasab's village in Faridkot, close to the border with India, to establish if he indeed was a Pakistani, he was told that "religious clerics were brainwashing youth in the area and that LeT's founder Hafiz Sayeed had visited nearby Depalpur. There was a LeT office in Depalpur but that had hurriedly been closed down in the past few days. The LeT paper is distributed in Depalpur and Faridkot."

The Jamaat ud Dawah has a wide base and operates 140 schools and 29 seminaries in different towns and cities of Pakistan. According to the Jamaat's website: "Islam does not mean following a few rituals like performing prayers, keeping fasts, performing the pilgrimage to the Ka'ba (Hajj), giving alms (Zakat), or donating to charitable works, but in fact, it is a complete "Code of Life".

That is why Jamaat-ud-Dawah's struggle is not limited to any particular aspect of life only; rather, Jamaat-ud-Da'wah addresses each and every field of life according to the teachings of Islam. Jamaat-ud-Dawah is a movement that aims to spread the true teachings of Islam, and to establish a pure and peaceful society by building the character of individuals according to those teachings."

Its appeal extends to urban professionals like doctors who were out in large numbers in Muzaffarabad (the capital of Azad Kashmir or POK, depending on which side of the line of control you are on) in 2005, after a devastating earthquake. Unlike the Taliban, the Jamaat is modelled after Hamas and is not merely an army with gun-toting members but a complex and intricate organization with a social and political agenda. It has a huge following and reports have often indicated that in its annual congregations, where Hafiz Sayeed gives a call for jehad, , as many as 100,000 people are present in the sprawling Muridke compound.

It is groups like the Jamaat and the Jaish-e-Mohammad -- started by Maulana Masood Azhar soon after he was set free in Kandahar - which both India and Pakistan are up against.

Not the time to pick a fight
The complete U-turn, post 9/11 when General Musharraf lent complete support to George Bush, saw Pakistan take a slow but sure journey that has today placed it in a dangerous crosshairs.

While Musharraf joined the war against terror - forced to by Bush who had infamously said you are either with us or against us - he also got isolated from the his own people. They took to the streets, openly protesting his support of America that was bombing and strafing civilians, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq.

The last straw came when his own Army stormed the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in mid-2007. Reports of machine guns being used against innocents who got trapped in the Masjid, converted many within the Army and the ISI and those who had retired from these outfits.

It was the tipping point, said former ISI chief, Lt Gen Assad Durrani: "It was the most blatant homage paid to the Americans. The mosque is located under the nose of the ISI headquarters, and you can't first allow it to become a fortress and then fire on people who were willing to surrender. "

The storming of the Lal Masjid was a tipping point in more ways than one. If the release of Masood Azhar and the subsequent formation of the Jaish saw the advent of fidayeen attacks in Kashmir, the Lal Masjid operation led equally to the birth of intense attacks by suicide bombers.

The suicide attacks were not just targeting civilians, they were seeking men in uniform and the figures, in fact, tell the story. The first half of 2007 saw 12 such attacks all over Pakistan between January and July 3, and an estimated 75 people were killed. But after the Lal Masjid operation which reduced large parts of it to rubble, 44 suicide attacks took place between July and December, killing 567 people, mostly the members of the military and para-military forces, Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and the police. December also saw the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, a grim reminder of the fact that the militants had declared a war against their ex-masters. The attack on Islamabad's Marriot Hotel, the city's most high-profile landmark, only confirmed the fact that terror can strike at will, any time and anywhere. It confirmed also that terror was not restricted to Pakistan's tribal belt alone. President Musharraf himself had in fact also survived three assassination attempts and now lives under extremely tight security. The terror threat in Pakistan, can in fact, be gauged from the fact that both President Asif Zardari and the Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, in a complete first, offered Eid prayers at their respective residences on December 9.

The wave of suicide attacks in Pakistan and neighbouring Afghanistan does not just testify to the revival of al Qaeda and the Taliban networks but as Ahmed Rashid, strategic writer and author of several books on the jehadi networks, said: "The army is embroiled in fighting these forces in the Frontier and one third of the country is not even in the state's control. This is hardly the time to pick a fight with India."

More Lashkar than Lashkar: Retired soldiers
The ratcheting up of tension and animosity between India and Pakistan after the Mumbai terror attack on 27/11, points to another dangerous faultline - while the Pakistani Army joined the global war against terror, it never completely gave up its support to the jehadi network that is active on its border with India.

Even after the Lashkar and Jaish were banned, neither was their back accounts frozen, nor was they're any attempt at forcing them to shut shop. The Army and the ISI continued to support fronts like the Jamaat-ud-Dawah, which does more than just equip men with arms.

It motivates and indoctrinates minds and as Rashid pointed out, "Musharraf used to place Hafiz Sayed and Masood Azhar under house arrest for Western consumption. He may have stopped infiltrating them into Kashmir too under international pressure but there was no attempt to stop their activities in Pakistan after they were banned. They were just allowed to hang loose." Former interior secretary, Tasneem Noorani, said: "There was no effort to mainstream the radicals."

Kasab's journey from a remote village in Faridkot to Mumbai is a testimony to this. So is his revelation to his interrogators that a 'Major' trained him.

Zardari may have been right when he attributed the Mumbai attack to 'non-state actors' because the Major does not necessarily have to be a serving officer employed with the ISI.

"Retired ISI officers are helping the Pakistani Taliban and they have become more Lashkar than the Lashkar,'' said Rashid. Any number of strategic and security analysts will testify to this dangerous trend - to how ex-ISI officers are still in business because they have now attached themselves as advisors to militant organizations like the Lashkar and the Jaish.

"You don't need large training camps," admitted one such analyst who prefers not to be named. "Ex servicemen are imparting arms training within the compounds of their homes. Different officials are attached with different groups."

The switch from one alias to another - Lashkar-e-Toiba, Markaz-e-Toiba, Markaz-e-Dawah-Irshad, Jamaat ud Dawah - speaks of the Establishment's (the Army and ISI combine are referred to as the Establishment in Pakistan) more than subtle support of groups that are used against India. The long-standing relationship between the Establishment and the India-bound militants is now under pressure. The overriding message from America after the Mumbai attack is for these groups to be reigned in and this is testing not just the Army's carefully crafted support for the militants but has also focused attention on yet another faultline - the equation between the Establishment and the civilian government.

The effect of Indian television
Committed to better relations with India, Pakistan's top-most civilian representatives responded instinctively to the horror in Mumbai, in keeping with what Zardari had told the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, held a few days before the gun and grenade battle at Nariman House and the Taj and Oberoi hotels.

In what took the Indian government by surprise, Zardari committed Pakistan to a no-first-use of nuclear weapons. It was the first major security-related statement to come from Pakistan's government after the February 18 election and more than just surprise the Indian government; it caused unrest amongst its own Establishment.

The next statement, made by Prime Minister Gilani - and confirmed through a press release issued by his office - pertained to the civilian government agreeing to sending its top most ISI officer, Lt Gen Ahmed Shuja Pasha to India on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's request.

The sequence of events following Gilani's offer and Zardari's quick retraction, saying they had agreed to send a director and not director general Pasha, in fact speaks of the internal battle of supremacy between the Establishment and the civilian authorities, especially on the crucial issue of national security which the Army believes to be its exclusive domain. As Imtiaz Alam, a peacenick and head of the South Asian Free Media Association, who had dinner with Zardari a day after the Mumbai attack explained: "Zardari is very firm on terrorism. He thinks democracy is a better weapon but the terrorists have succeeded in creating a psychological gulf between India and Pakistan. Instead of Pakistan fighting the jehadis, it has become a fight between India and Pakistan."

Senior journalists in Pakistan admitted that briefings from the ISI changed the post-Mumbai discourse. Reacting perhaps to the loud, jingoistic demands on Indian television channels, for action against Pakistan, the ISI told a select group of journalists that India had in fact 'summoned' their Chief. Jamaat ud Dawah Amir, Hafiz Sayeed - with a clear nod from his handlers - appeared on one news channel after another, making the same points: that the list of 20 most wanted which also includes him, was old hat, that India was playing the blame game without evidence, that India had its own band of 'Hindu terrorists' and India should give freedom to Kashmir and end the matter once in for all.

The leak soon after, of the hoax call, purportedly made by Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherji to President Zardari, sealed the debate - India bashing was back in business. The jingoism overtook the more important debate of the threat Pakistan itself faced from terror networks flourishing on its soil.

Who's in Charge? Not Zardari
Pakistan's news channels went on overdrive and as some even blared war songs, the question that gained importance through the entire din, was - who really runs Pakistan? Who is in control?

The answers to the questions are both easy and complex. Mushahid Hussain, Chairman, Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate was clear about the answer: "War on terror, national security and relations with India, Afghanistan and China are the domain of the army. Thanks to India, the army has been rehabilitated and the war bugles are all over. No one person, no one institution is running Pakistan. Musharraf ran a one-window operation and the Army and the ISI used to report to him but now decision-making is murky and that is causing confusion. The hoax call and the DG ISI controversy are symptomatic of that."

There are other examples. Only a few months ago, Zardari quickly retracted his effort to bring the ISI under the control of the Interior Ministry. And even as the Pakistan government's response to Indian pressure to rein in the terror networks, plays itself out on a day to day basis, it is evident that the civilian authorities have had to embrace the Establishment's point of view vis a vis India. Therefore, the talk that India should provide concrete evidence. Therefore, Zardari's statement that the guilty - if found guilty - will be tried on Pakistani soil. That the 20 most wanted will not be handed over. Even on sourced reports, put out in the local media, that Masood Azhar had been put under house arrest, Prime Minister Gilani went on record to say that no such report had come to him yet.

If India believes that Pakistan's response has been poor - two Lashkar men, Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi and Zarrar Shah have been arrested in Muzaffarbad - it is because the Establishment and pressure from its own people tie down the government here. It cannot be seen to be buckling under pressure either from India or America.

Some moves seem to be on the cards, including the banning of the Jamaat ud Dawah. But Lashkar was banned in the past as was the Jaish. Prime Minister Gilani has committed to not allowing Pakistani soil to be used for terror attacks, but then Musharraf had made the same exact promise on January 12, 2002 soon after the Parliament was attacked in Delhi.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has gone as far as to say that "Pakistan needs to set its own house in order'' (see interview) but he is in the Opposition and he can afford to make such statements. If Pakistan has begun to resemble a house of terror, it is because the Army and the ISI are yet to change their stance, not just vis a vis India but vis a vis the terrorists it creates and supports. Until then, the sprawling compound in Muridke will continue to remain in business. If the Jamaat ud Dawah does get banned, all it will need is another alias.

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