Identity, Equality, Unity
Links between violent sectarian groups and the Pakistani Taliban are growing
THE bomb was hidden on a motorcycle parked outside a milk shop in the narrow lanes of Abbas Town, a middle-class, mainly Shia district of Karachi. Ali Mudassar remembers sitting across the road from the milk-seller on the evening of November 18th, chatting to friends. The force of the explosion hurled him backwards into the steel shutters of the shops behind. Three died and at least 15 were injured. “This is a game to break Pakistan,” says 25-year-old Mr Mudassar, whose body is pitted with the tiny metal ball-bearings that were packed around the explosives.
In Karachi’s crowded Shia neighbourhoods, fear and defiance have mingled during Muharram, the month of ritual mourning that began on November 16th. Last week alone, eight bombings struck Shia processions, killing at least 31 people in cities across the country.
All through 2012, Shias, who make up an estimated 30m of Pakistan’s 180m people, have been attacked in Karachi and across Pakistan, with shootings and bombings by extremist groups, many of whom have historic links to Pakistan’s security services. Before the blasts, death squads in Karachi and the western city of Quetta tracked down and shot doctors, lawyers and other professionals, the educated elite of the Shia community. As far afield as the normally serene mountainous region of Gilgit in the north-east, passengers have been pulled off buses, identified as Shias and then shot. In Karachi Shia militants have hit back on a small scale, killing some Sunni activists, but otherwise the slaughter is one-sided. According to Hasan Murtaza, an independent researcher, 456 Shia have been killed in targeted attacks this year, more than double the casualties of 2011.
The violence has been notable not just for its scale, but for what lies beneath it: a growing alliance between established anti-Shia militant groups and the Pakistani Taliban, Sunni extremists who have spun out of the army’s control, allied with al-Qaeda, and are determined to attack the Pakistani state. Sunni militants have long targeted Shias in Pakistan, whom they condemn for following what many Sunnis consider an apostate strain of Islam.
The new venom in 2012 is a result of both the growing ties between Sunni militants and also the reverberations from the broader Shia-Sunni confrontation in the Middle East. Chaudhry Aslam, a senior counter-terrorism police officer in Karachi, says that the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian extremists now share the same agenda. The link-up with sectarian groups has given the Taliban a national network. On November 25th the Pakistani Taliban, which is distinct from the Afghan Taliban to the north-west, claimed responsibility for bombings against Shias and said it “looks forward to more ahead”.
Pakistan’s armed forces have for 30 years supported jihadi groups that they want to be able to use as proxies to fight in Afghanistan and India. But when Pakistan formally sided with the United States, following the attacks of September 11th 2001, and after a bloody special-forces raid on a radical mosque in Islamabad in 2007, a faction of Sunni militants became so extreme that they turned against their former masters in the army and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency.
The armed forces, which control security policy, now differentiate between “good” jihadi groups, which follow its agenda, and “bad” jihadi groups, which attack the state. The desire to have proxies, as well as pressure from Saudi Arabia, a vital ally, to allow Sunni groups to operate in order to counter the perceived influence of Shia Iran, means that Pakistan tolerates some extremist groups, while it is at war with others. That produces monsters which spiral out of control, including sectarian groups that have now taken on the broader agenda of al-Qaeda.
New name, old ideology
Typical of the difficulties this has created is Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), the biggest Sunni sectarian group, which has members almost everywhere in Pakistan and continues to operate openly. Though it was formally banned in 2002, SSP is still free to spread hatred against Shias—by doing nothing more than changing its name, to Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat. It even fields candidates in elections. However, its offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, involved in some of the most spectacular terrorist attacks, is regarded as anti-state.
The leadership of both Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Pakistani Taliban is based in North Waziristan, in Pakistan’s tribal badlands. In recent years Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has expanded its own murderous agenda to include Pakistan’s security forces and other high-profile targets. The two work closely together. The Supreme Court was told in November by the police that some 7,000 Taliban had infiltrated Karachi.
Sitting on the floor in an airless little room above a madrassa in a poor neighbourhood of Karachi, Aurangzeb Farooqi, the city chief of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, cheerfully admits that his organisation is actually Sipah-e-Sahaba. “Only the name was banned,” he says. Mr Farooqi, like other SSP leaders, enjoys armed-police protection, as well as a phalanx of his own commando-style guards. He asserts that Pakistan is a “Sunni country”, describing Shias as kaffirs (infidels), but claims that his organisation never orders attacks.
Mr Farooqi blames Lashkar-e-Jhangvi for the Shia killings. But security officials say that, although men like Mr Farooqi serve as the “political face” of SSP, the organisation is involved in violence and feeds recruits to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi who may then end up in the Pakistani Taliban. The concern is that this flow will only increase. Meanwhile, Shias are being alienated from their own country. Of those who can, many are fleeing for safer shores.