It’s all very familiar. A man holds a group of people hostage, with an easily available gun, demanding the release of a hostage, or simply firing anyway to avenge a perceived insult to his religion, which the people being held hostage have nothing to do with whatsoever. Even more common is the fact that such a person is very likely to be a Pakistani or one of Pakistani descent. Not Afghan, or even Yemeni, though both countries have suffered severely in terms of protracted conflict. A review of attacks over just a year shows just how far-reaching the effect of the Pakistani vortex is.
The Texas attacker
Little is known about Malik Faisal Akram, the Briton of Pakistani origin who brandished a weapon at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in the suburb of Dallas, Texas. He was 44, from the Blackburn area of Lancashire, and seems to have been focussed on getting his ‘sister’ Aafia Siddiqui freed from a sentence of 86 years. That seems to have been a figurative relationship of causes. Aafia was also Pakistani, a neuroscientist whose husband divorced her for being “violent, manipulative and on the path to terrorism”. She was originally arrested for attempted murder of US military officers in 2008 in Afghanistan, and for suspected al-Qaeda links.
Some years ago, another Pakistani woman from Multan, Tashfeen Malik and her husband, who had lived and prospered in the US, shot dead 14 and injured 22 at the Inland Revenue Centre in San Bernadino in 2015. The institute where she studied, the Al Huda Foundation, was dedicated to hooking in middle class women to the ‘cause’, and the irony? Its Karachi branch was founded by cleric Farhat Hashmi and her husband Idrees Zubair in 1994, both PhDs from Scotland’s famous centre of Islamic learning, the University of Glasgow.
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The UK as a centre of terrorism
In the UK, the involvement of Pakistanis in terror attacks is now on trial. Another ethnic Pakistani Muhammad Gohir Khan was caught in 2021 by British police for the attempted murder of a courageous Pakistani blogger, Ahmed Waqass Goraya who lived in Rotterdam and who had received several threats in the past. The case went to trial this month. At the time of writing, the British are investigating links to the Texas shooter, with two arrested in Manchester, which has a large Pakistani population.
Remember the annoyance of having to leave behind any shampoo or that precious perfume that was over 100 ml at the airport? That originated from a group trained in Pakistan, all UK citizens, who planned to blow up transatlantic airliners using explosives in plastic bottles in 2006, which was busted by Operation Overt. That was the genesis. Then came the various London bombings, tragedy following tragedy, with the last in 2019 when Usman Khan, who had been freed from prison and was still wearing an electronic tag, struck during an event meant for prisoner rehabilitation at London Bridge. His attack stalled the release of another ethnic Pakistani Rangzieb Ahmed who was deported from Pakistan, and was one of the most senior al-Qaeda leaders ever arrested on British soil.
Pakistan cooperated on all these cases, which earned them the status of the perfect ally. That continues to this day, and is the reason why the UK doesn’t talk about the Pakistani connection unless it has to.
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France, Spain, Italy
France is no stranger to extremism from Pakistan. Last year, thousands spilled on the streets of Lahore and other cities for anti-France protests in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s defence of freedom of speech linked to what Pakistanis see as blasphemy. That led to Paris asking all its citizens to leave the country. Earlier in 2020, France arrested another four Pakistanis for links to Zaheer Hassan Mahmoud, a 25-year-old then who had attacked a group of people with a meat cleaver, believing them to be employees of the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo. Mahmoud’s father in Pakistan’s Punjab said he was proud of his son, as did others in the village who flocked to his house to congratulate his family. The attacker was a follower of the fiery preacher Muhammad Illyas Qadri, founder of the Dawat-e-Islami, which has a chain of madrassas in Pakistan. He had two brothers in Italy.
Italy has its own problems with Pakistan. It was part of a Europe-wide investigation that led to the ending of a Pakistani network that smuggled migrants into the heart of Europe. In December 2021, Spain arrested a Pakistani man for dissemination and support of violent jihadi messaging online about the Charlie Hebdo attack by his countryman. The case is still under investigation. Spain has also cracked down on a Pakistani smuggling network, together with a jihadi ring of Pakistanis earlier. Spain’s ‘Salafist corridor’ came into limelight after it emerged that Mohammad Atta, one of the 9/11 attackers, had met a Pakistan-based handler in Salou, in Spain. Don’t forget the trail of the Mumbai 26/11 bombing led to Barcelona, to be the scene of a vicious terror attack later.
Trouble in Central Asia…
Further away, in strike-torn Kazakhstan, Russian security investigations have uncovered a strong role of Pakistan’s Tablighi Jamaat and Afghan-trained extremists in the riots that led to vandalism and loss of lives and property. The Tablighis were banned recently even by Saudi Arabia, who called the group “one of the gates of terrorism”. The reason for the ban seems to centred on the activities of its women’s group, though it seems an unofficial ban has been in place for decades.
The Tablighi Jamaat declares itself as only a purifying movement for Islam, but it has emerged as a springboard for terrorist groups like the Harkat-ul-Jihad Islami, founded by Tablighi members Fazlur Rehman Khalil and Saifullah Akhtar, which then spawned a host of other groups. Now it seems that the Tablighi Jamaat is part of the inevitable Afghan spill over.
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…and in the neighbourhood
In Bangladesh, police arrested the hugely pro-Pakistan Jamaat-e-Islami operatives for their role fanning hatred in the October 2021 violence against Hindu pandals and a disinformation campaign that was based on an alleged burning of the Holy Quran in a Hindu temple. A month later, Dhaka Police busted a Pakistan-run fake currency racket, seizing some Rs 73 million.
Sri Lanka recently arrested three Pakistanis for taking pictures of the Indian High Commission in Colombo. In 2019, the National Investigation Agency had warned Sri Lanka of a Colombo-based Pakistan diplomat plotting to attack the US and Israeli consulates in India, and sent multiple warnings to Sri Lanka ahead of the deadly 2019 Easter bombings that targeted three hotels and three churches, killing over 267 people. Clearly, Colombo is taking no chances. A month earlier, Sri Lanka police arrested Pakistanis and an Iranian with a cargo of some 250 kg of heroin worth $12 million. This was part of a series of arrests off the seas of Colombo, at the same time that such seizures were also being seen off the Indian coast.
There are other cases of Pakistanis being arrested in Indonesia, Thailand and other parts of the world, for criminal or terrorist activity. Each of these countries has a violent history of Pakistani-inspired terrorism; for instance the arrest of Umar Patek, the Bali bomber, in Abbottabad, or the long history of terrorism in the UK, or the arrest of Pakistani Tablighis in Spain even in 2008. Most examples cited here occurred over just one year, indicating that the Pakistani vortex continues to draw in the most radical of persons into its fold, which then spills over into other countries through a complex web of crime, religious passion, and sheer numbers.
The Texas attack is only a symptom of a much larger malaise, evident in the newest report that Pakistan still is home to some 15 groups, 12 of whom are designated international terrorist entities. The prediction from the US Congressional report is of a resurgence of regional terrorism after the victory of the Taliban. That’s however a rather limited conclusion. What is likely is a rise in global terrorism from this troubled country. Just watch the news.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.