Punjab the epicenter of Taliban terrorism


The recent spate of gory suicide bombings in Lahore, the iconic city of the ruling Punjabi establishment, suggests that after being driven out of Swat and South Waziristan in the wake of two successful military operations, the Punjabi and Pushtun Taliban have made Punjab the new epicenter of their battle against the Punjab-dominated military establishment in its own heartland which was earlier known for having produced several lethal Sunni Deobandi sectarian organizations as well as numerous anti-India militant groups to wage jehad in Jammu & Kashmir.

Investigations by the Pakistani authorities have abundantly made it clear that the Taliban-led insurgency has penetrated into the urban areas of Punjab and most of the recent terrorist attacks targeting the security forces and the law enforcement agencies in the province were actually coordinated operations jointly carried out by the Punjabi Taliban with the assistance of their Pushtun ‘brethren’. Those investigating the March 8, 2010 car suicide bombings targeting the Special Intelligence Unit (SIU) office in Model Town area of Lahore, followed by twin suicide attacks targeting the security forces vehicles in the Cantonment area of Lahore on March 12, are of the view that most of these attacks have been carried out by Punjabi Taliban belonging to several Sunni Deobandi sectarian-cum-jehadi groups which are working in tandem with the Pushtun-dominated Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

The investigations show that the Pushtun Taliban, who are in search of new havens after being evicted from the Pak-Afghan tribal belt in the wake of the ongoing military operation there coupled with unending American drone attacks, have teamed up with local militant groups in Punjab and brought their war to the most populous and prosperous province of the country, which is home to the General Headquarters (GHQ) of Pakistan Army, the headquarters of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) and many key nuclear installations. Therefore, a triangular syndicate of militancy involving the Punjabi and Pushtun Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and several Deobandi-Sunni sectarian and jehadi groups currently seems to be at work and carrying out fidayeen style suicide bombings against the Pakistani security forces, accusing them of siding with the forces of the infidel in the war against terror.

Previously, the Punjab-based militant and sectarian organizations which were either ‘waging jehad’ in Jammu & Kashmir or carrying out sectarian killings in the country, had confined their role to facilitating the Pushtun Taliban coming from the tribal belt and the NWFP by providing them logistical support for conducting terrorist operations. However, recent investigations reveal that many of these largely South Punjab-based jehadi and sectarian groups have now become entangled with Al-Qaeda-linked militants who are currently operating under the banner of the TTP. Perhaps the best explanation of the Punjabi Taliban’s organizational structure is given by Tariq Pervez, the chief of the National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA): “Ideas, logistics and cash comes from the Gulf. Arab guys, mainly Egyptians and Saudis, are on hand to provide the chemistry. Punjabi extremists plot the attacks, while the Pushtun Taliban provides the martyrs”.

In fact, there were only two familiar types of the Taliban in this region until recently – the Taliban of Afghanistan and the Pakistani ones. Although both kinds of Taliban used to share the same philosophy and culture due to their Pushtun connection, they differed in goals. But it now appears that the Pakistani Taliban have revised their strategy and adopted the one being pursued by their Al-Qaeda-linked Afghan counterparts – challenging the state with a view to pull it down. The Taliban family apparently got extended with the dawn of the year 2009 with a new addition of the ‘Punjabi Taliban’ which has since been operating its ‘franchises’ in Punjab under the banner of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Punjab.

As a result, Lahore had to suffer three major suicide attacks in 2009, resulting in 101 killings, including 80 civilians and 21 security forces personnel. The same year, the Lahorites also witnessed three fidayeen-cum-suicide attacks carried out by the Punjabi-Pushtun Taliban duo: the first one targeting a luxury bus carrying the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team [on March 3, 2009, killing seven people], the second one targeting the Police Training Centre in Manawan near Lahore with guns and grenades [on March 30, 2009, killing eight Police recruits]and the third one targeting the provincial headquarters of the ISI before detonating a vehicle loaded with 100 kilograms of explosives at its main entrance [on May 27, 2009, killing 28 people including a serving colonel of the ISI and 15 Police officials].

In addition to these attacks, the first two and a half months of 2010 (January 1 to March 15) have already seen three major suicide car bombings in the Punjab capital, killing 83 people in the posh urban localities of Model Town and Cantonment areas. Two ferocious suicide assaults in Lahore over a gap of three days in the second week of March have clearly demonstrated that Lahore is literally under siege by the Taliban network which is striking at will. Investigations show that the March 8 suicide bombing targeting the Model Town office of the Punjab Police’s Special Investigation Unit (SIU) in Lahore, where hardened sectarian and jehadi terrorists were being interrogated, was carried out by the Punjabi Taliban to avenge the killings of their two key commanders. The first one was Commander Qari Zafar, the acting ameer of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, who was killed in a US drone strike in North Waziristan on February 24, 2010 while the second one was Dr Mauz alias Omar Kundi, formerly associated with the Lashkar-e-Toiba but lately heading a breakaway group of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, called Fidayeen-e-Islam which had links with Al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan.

Qari Zafar was wanted by the American and Pakistani authorities for his alleged involvement in the March 2, 2006 car bombing outside the US consulate in Karachi which had killed three people including an American diplomat David Foy, thus making the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) to announce a $5 million bounty on his head. Originally coming from Karachi, Qari Zafar had already joined hands with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and was heading Fidayeen-e-Islami which is blamed for carrying out a series of bloody fidayeen attacks in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad in 2009, including the October 10, 2009 assault on the General headquarters of the Pakistan Army in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. The only fidayeen attacker captured alive after the GHQ assault was a Punjabi Taliban Mohammad Aqeel alias Dr Usman, who was a key member of the LeJ and a close associate of Zafar. He was last seen alive with Hakeemullah Mehsud at a press conference somewhere in South Waziristan on October 17, 2009, when the TTP chief, had appeared before the media to refute reports of his death in infighting. Speaking on the occasion, Hakeemullah said commanders like Qari Zafar had formally joined hands with the TTP and hundreds of their suicide bombers were waiting for their turn to hit targets in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Consequently, a series of deadly fidayeen attacks was carried out in Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, including the October 10, 2009 assault on the General headquarters of the Pakistan Army in the garrison town of Rawalpindi. Subsequent investigations by Pakistani authorities revealed that these stunning commando style terrorist attacks were jointly coordinated by Qari Zafar and Qari Hussain Mehsud, a first cousin of Hakeemullah Mehsud and also key commander of the TTP, better known in the Taliban circles as Ustad-e-Fidayeen (Teacher of suicide bombers). Qari Hussain, who used to run his suicide training camp in the Spinkai Ragzai area of South Waziristan before the start of the military operation there, is known in the TTP ranks for his strong anti-Shia views and close ties with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

The GHQ attack was reportedly carried out by the Punjabi Taliban to avenge the August 2009 killing of Commander Baitullah Mehsud, in an American drone attack in South Waziristan. While confirming Qari Zafar’s death in a statement faxed to local journalists on February 25, 2010, a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi spokesman had described him as a martyr and pledged to avenge his death too. “The mujahideen will take revenge from the Pakistani authorities for his killing by resorting to suicide bombings all over the country”, the spokesman added. Another deceased Punjabi Taliban commander, Dr Mauz alias Omar Kundi, had masterminded the March 2009 truck suicide attack on the provincial headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) in Lahore and the May 2009 wagon suicide bombing, targeting the Lawrence Road headquarters of the ISI in Lahore. He had reportedly discarded the Lashkar-e-Toiba after developing differences with Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the chief operational commander of the LeT, in the aftermath of the July 2007 Operation Silence conducted by the Pakistan Army in the heart of Islamabad against the fanatic clerics of the infamous Lal Masjid. Mauz later joined the ranks of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Claiming responsibility for the March 12 twin suicide attacks in the Cantonment area, TTP spokesman Azam Tariq declared: “The attack was meant to avenge the assassination of Commander Mauz Shaheed in Faisalabad, the ongoing US drone attacks in Waziristan and the Pakistani military operations in the Tribal Areas. We have 2,800 to 3,000 more suicide bombers … We will target all Government places, buildings and offices”.

Those studying the phenomenon of the Punjabi Taliban believe they have actually spread their tentacles across the province through the networks of sectarian organisations (like Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi) and the veterans of Jehad-e-Kashmir (like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Toiba) and those of Jehad-e-Afghanistan (like Harkatul Jehadul Islami and Harkatul Mujahideen). A good number of activists of these largely Deobandi-Sunni organizations are increasingly supporting the Taliban elements from the Pakistani tribal regions to unleash bloody terrorism in sensitive urban cities such as Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore. Those investigating the September 2008 truck suicide bombing targeting the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which killed over 50 people, say all evidences of the bombing plan led to South Waziristan via Jhang, the birth place of the SSP, which is considered to be the parent organization of the LeJ.

The explosive-laden truck that was rammed into the Marriot was also dispatched from Jhang, which was in the news recently because of Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan’s controversial act of openly campaigning for the PML-N’s provincial assembly candidate in PP-82 along with the SSP chief Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi. In a related development, an official letter addressed by Governor Punjab Salman Taseer to Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif claimed that the Punjab government recently released two convicted SSP terrorists – Talib Qiamat and Siddiqui Jopoo – ahead of the by-election in PP-82 (Jhang) to garner their support in the polls. The PML-N eventually won the seat with the backing of the SSP.

Analysts say by carrying out a series of suicide bombings in Lahore, the Taliban might also be trying to pressurize the Punjab government not to proceed against them in their new sanctuary. In fact, the ruling Sharif family is well known for its rigid Islamic belief and soft corner for the rightist religio-political parties, and Sunni Deobandi sectarian and jehadi groups, especially Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Therefore, the Punjab government led by Shahbaz Sharif has long been in denial over the presence of sectarian and terrorist outfits in Punjab, particularly South Punjab. However, in a surprised development a day after the March 12 twin suicide attacks in Lahore Cantonment, Shehbaz literally pleaded with the Taliban to spare Punjab from its terrorist attacks. Speaking at a seminar in Lahore at Jamia Naeemia, he argued that his party, the PML-N, shares a common cause with the Taliban – that of opposing Musharraf and his policies and rejecting dictation from abroad – and, therefore, the Taliban should spare Punjab. The next day, a TTP spokesman responded by saying that the Taliban would stop targeting public and government places in Punjab if the provincial government gave an assurance that they would be spared from any action. Talking to a private television channel, Abdul Wali alias Umar Khalid, the deputy of TTP chief Hakeemullah, offered Shahbaz Sharif a conditional end to its activities in the province.

However, groaning under bitter public criticism, Shahbaz Sharif tried to make amends a day after his controversial plea to the Taliban by saying that his words had been taken out of context. Shahbaz reportedly changed his stance in the wake of resentment shown by the military circles which were of the view that his remarks could undermine the entire army operations in Swat and Waziristan in which over 2,000 officers and jawans had laid down their lives. Therefore, the Chief Minister decided to clarify his remarks in an unscheduled meeting with Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani during which he reportedly said that “the Pakistan Army was fighting for the survival of the country and it is necessary for all political parties and politicians to rise above factional and parochial interests to root out terrorism”.


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