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Will the ISI use Lashkar-e-Taiba’s new political party to start a nuclear war?

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In the second of a four-part series on Hafiz Saeed’s new political party, Tufail Ahmad writes that the aims of Lashkar-e-Taiba’s political party Milli Muslim League, coupled with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, should alarm Indians and the world. Read the firstthird and fourth parts. 

Following the 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, an officer of the Pakistani military’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) said, “Of all the things in the world to worry about, the issue you should worry about the least is the safety of our nuclear programme.” His statement reflects a broad consensus among Pakistani leaders: the country’s nuclear weapons are safe and secure.

But this view also assumes that the only threat to these weapons comes via the back door—theft by jihadist organisations—and fails to consider the very real threat posed by organisations embedded in Pakistani society. So, the relevant question to ask is not whether Pakistan’s nuclear weapons will be stolen, but rather, what if jihadist organisations come through the front door and capture them by taking power in Islamabad?

This scenario looks real given the ISI’s role in terror-training, election-rigging and executing jihad against India and Afghanistan. In recent decades, the ISI has also protected jihadists such as the slain Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, the former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) founder Hafiz Saeed and Jaish-e-Muhammad leader Maulana Masood Azhar. Barring specific instances after 9/11 in which the Pakistani military acquiesced to U.S. pressure and took action against jihadist militants, for most of its history the ISI has largely viewed jihadi commanders as ideological brothers in fighting for the establishment of a global caliphate. The only difference is that while Al-Qaeda thinks it is fighting for a Caliphate, the ISI sees Pakistan as the leader of such a global caliphate.

Pakistanis consider the ISI the final arbiter of the country’s political power—a deep state within the state. The ISI has played a substantial role in ensuring the election of compliant politicians. For instance, Asad Durrani, a former ISI chief, admitted in 2012 that then Pakistan Army chief Mirza Aslam Beg forced him to disburse millions of dollars to defeat Benazir Bhutto’s government in 1990.

Because the task of protecting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is in the hands of the Pakistani military, especially the ISI, they are vulnerable to the rise of jihadists in politics. Jihadist commanders like Hafiz Saeed, whom the ISI has nurtured, have openly threatened nuclear war against India. In June 2016, for instance, Saeed told his followers that the Pakistani nuclear power spells trouble for all the infidels of the world.

Throughout its history, the ISI has helped to establish and nurture jihadist groups like LeT, the Haqqani network and Jaish-e-Muhammad, for various political reasons. Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed and Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan currently wield massive organizations across Pakistan, including students’ groups, charities, preachers, and international-aid bodies. Likewise, other jihadist groups including Jaish-e-Muhammad and the Taliban have a robust network of officers in the Pakistani military. Their activities would not be possible without the ISI’s support. In a prior piece, I have even argued that Al-Qaeda should be considered a branch of the ISI.

On August 3, LeT’s charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa announced its intention to establish a political party, following consultations with the leaders of numerous other religious parties and organizations. The party that emerged, named the Milli Muslim League, constitutes a long-term nuclear security threat via the front door. Saifullah Khalid, its president, told a press conference on August 7 that the party will work in coordination with all parties and religious groups that believe Pakistan should lead a Muslim Ummah, declaring that “the fight will continue until the completion of Pakistan (by inclusion of) Kashmir.” These stated aims, coupled with nuclear weapons, should alarm Indians and the world at-large.

On March 12, 2013, in testimony to the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, the director of US National Intelligence James Clapper said that Pakistani jihadist groups will acquire a permanent presence in Pakistan.“Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) will continue to be the most multifaceted and problematic of the Pakistani militant groups… The group has the long-term potential to evolve into a permanent and even Hamas/Hezbollah-like presence in Pakistan.”

Now that Lashkar-e-Taiba has given birth to the Milli Muslim League, it poses a far more significant long-term security threat—especially to India – because such a political party is bound to be work in ideological coordination with the ISI.  A slight hint from the ISI might soon catapult Hafiz Saeed and his associated religious parties into power, possibly through a bloodless coup, and thereby allow jihadists to seize control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Tufail Ahmad is a former BBC journalist and the author of ‘Jihadist Threat to India – The Case for Islamic Reformation by an Indian Muslim’. He tweets @tufailelif

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