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Pakistan again cultivating Lashkar, Jaish as loyal proxies. And why China’s got its back

LeT's Makki was designated as global terrorist after months of Chinese objection. There's a message: Islamabad can count on its Iron Brother for protection against jihadists.

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Late one summer evening five years ago, an air-conditioned SUV pulled up outside a nondescript home in the dust-blown outskirts of Bahawalpur, Pakistan. The elderly cleric who emerged from the car had arrived to deliver a eulogy for a labourer’s slain son — teenager Muhammad Yakub had been buried weeks earlier in southern Kashmir. Luridly-coloured pamphlets plastered across the town proclaimed he had been “martyred fighting the Indian Army while performing Ghazwa-e-Hind,” the apocalyptic war prophesied to precede the day of judgment.

From accounts of similar funerals, recorded by scholar Mariam Abou Zahab, we know that Lashkar-e-Taiba second-in-command Abdul Rehman Makki likely urged Yakub’s family to celebrate. The day after their son was killed, one family gathered his friends “for walima [reception] to celebrate his shaadi [wedding] with the houris [paradisical maidens].”

Earlier this week, following months of delay due to Chinese objections, Makki was designated a global terrorist by the United Nations Security Council. Four more important terror commanders—26/11 operational commander Sajid Mir, Lashkar charities chief Shahid Mehmood, the organisation’s heir-apparent Talha Saeed, and Jaish-e-Mohammad military chief Abdul Rauf Alvi—remain off the global sanctions list because of China’s Security Council veto.

The message has to do with geopolitics: Islamabad can count on its Iron Brother to protect it from confrontation with its jihadist clients. There is a less obvious story unfolding, too.

Facing the resurgence of anti-State jihadists like the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP), Pakistan is again cultivating the Lashkar and Jaish as loyal proxies. For months now, there has been evidence that the Lashkar’s infrastructure remains active, with the organisation able to mobilise funds and cadre. Last year’s floods saw significant mobilisation by the Lashkar. The Jaish-e-Mohammad, for its part, has expanded its seminary complex and held rallies calling for jihad in Kashmir.

Also read: Killing of Pulwama fugitive Ashiq Nengroo no closure. Jaish-e-Mohammad story far from over

The model sons

Founded in 1986 by three religious studies professors at the Lahore University of Engineering, the birth of the Lashkar had been midwifed by Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, the Palestinian-Jordanian ideologue who served as mentor to generations of Arab jihadists, including Osama Bin Laden. Then known as the ‘Markaz Ud Dawat Wal’Irshad’—or centre for proselytisation—the  Lashkar built a sprawling campus on land gifted by General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s military regime, complete with schools, colleges medical facilities, and factories.

The campus was the kernel of Gen Zia’s hope to rebuild Pakistan as a sharia-governed Islamic State, with the law of God and jihad as its two guiding principles.

Late in 2018, as it battled to emerge from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) terrorist-financing watchlist, Islamabad began promising to dismantle the jihadist empire. The hammer finally fell—but with extraordinary gentleness.

Even though Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2020, he was moved to house arrest. Within weeks of his conviction that year, Makki’s sentence was suspended by the Lahore High Court. The trials of important 26/11 perpetrators like Sajid Mir, moreover, were shrouded in secrecy.

The United States publicly noted that Pakistan’s judicial system had often released convicted terrorists, a fact that fuelled concern about what Islamabad would do once the threat of sanctions was removed.

Last summer, New Delhi moved to have five key jihadists added to the global list maintained by the United Nations. Listing, the argument went, would make it that much more difficult for Pakistan to release the jihadists it had convicted under the threat of sanctions. Efforts to designate the five, though, ran into a diplomatic wall put up by China.

Also read: 4 times Pakistan came close to making peace with India. Civil, military rifts didn’t…

The family man

Even though Kashmir police records suggest Makki had no significant military role in the Lashkar, family ties qualified him as a trustworthy custodian of the empire when Saeed was in jail. A cousin of Saeed — and also his brother-in-law through marriage to two sisters — Makki was given charge of the Lashkar’s international relationships, expert C. Christine Fair has written. That had given Makki links to financiers across West Asia and in Pakistan’s global diaspora.

Fighters in the organisation, moreover, respected Makki as an ideologue. Political scientist Stephen Tankel has noted that Makki played a key role in crafting theological justifications of the Lashkar’s suicide-squad operations. The testimony of 26/11 perpetrator David Headley to the National Investigation Agency shows he regularly lectured at jihadist gatherings in Lahore, together with Saeed.

Makki, the UN notes, was a key figure in “raising funds, recruiting, and radicalising youth to violence and planning attacks”.

Following 26/11, with Saeed under growing international pressure, Makki continued to speak for the organisation, playing a key role in efforts by the Lashkar to emerge at the head of an Islamist political coalition called the Difa-e-Pakistan Council.

The Lashkar second-in-command made clear his opposition to former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s efforts to normalise the relationship with India. “If India is not our enemy,” Makki wrote in 2017, “then why do we need a nuclear bomb? India is our enemy, and the enmity is due to the Kashmir issue.”

Talha, Saeed’s son, had been groomed to succeed his elderly father, but with few jihadist credentials, he was less credible than the Lashkar’s rank-and-file. With the father in jail, it was vital for Makki to remain free to secure the succession. Abdul Rauf Alvi, brother to the seriously-ill Jaish chief Masood Azhar Alvi, was handed a similar role.

Also read: Vajpayee to Modi, why India-Pakistan secret peace dialogues on Kashmir have always failed

The jihadi dynasts

Like all dynasts, the heirs to the Lashkar and Jaish will control empires built over decades. The Lashkar’s al-Dawa school network, notably, continues to operate, though under the notional administration of the government. Tankel has noted that the organisation’s education wing was its “most profitable and powerful department.”  First set up in 1994, the organisation’s al-Dawa system was claimed to be operating 127 schools with 15,000 students and 800 teachers, with subsidised tuitions for the poor.

Textbooks published by the organisation, expert Muhammad Amir Rana has recorded, modified standard information — ‘C is for cat and G is for goat’ to ‘C is for cannon and G is for gun’. Teachers at its institutions were required to have received jihadist military instruction. The Jaish-e-Mohammad continues to publish jihadist literature for children, which is taught to students at its network of seminaries.

Likewise, institutions like the al-Dawa medical missions—initially set up to care for jihadists injured in Kashmir—have spawned elaborate networks that provide the organisation with reach and influence among Pakistan’s poor.

Following a ban imposed on jihadist charity network in 2018, journalists Asif Shehzad and Mubasher Bukhari reported, “a few government representatives were on site and new signs hung to rename the facilities, but little else appeared to have changed”.

The jihad factory

For generations of Generals helming Pakistan’s national security, State-sanctioned jihadism has seemed a useful tool to ensure internal order. Lashkar membership, Abou Zahab has perceptively noted, serves as “safety valve for surplus manpower: Joining a jihadi movement gives young boys, who cannot afford to migrate to the West or to the Gulf and are socially frustrated, a substitute identity and compensates for their frustrations”.

The financial incentives to join the group, the scholar noted, are not insignificant. “Being a martyr is, in addition, an opportunity for lower-class boys to become famous.”

Ever since 2001, when General Pervez Musharraf’s break with the jihadist movement pushed thousands toward anti-regime organisations like the TTP and al-Qaeda, the rationale for loyal, subservient proxies like the Jaish and Lashkar has seemed even more compelling.

Four times, though, terrorism has almost led Pakistan into a war its Generals know the country simply cannot afford, economically and militarily. The crisis of 2001-2002, 26/11, 2016, and 2019 were all outcomes of terrorist strikes that had consequences far larger than what the Generals had anticipated. The fifth crisis could well lie ahead, with Pakistan determined not to turn off the lights in the public-sector jihad factory founded by General Zia.

Praveen Swami is ThePrint’s National Security Editor. Views are personal.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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