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Earthquake Jihad: The Role of Jihadis and Islamist Groups after the October 2005 Earthquake
Earthquake Jihad: The Role of Jihadis and Islamist Groups after the October 2005 Earthquake
Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy
Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy
Op-Ed / Asia

Earthquake Jihad: The Role of Jihadis and Islamist Groups after the October 2005 Earthquake

Originally published in Humanitarian Practice Network

Pakistan’s jihadi groups and other Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups played a prominent role in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the aftermath of the 8 October earthquake. They conducted relief and reconstruction work, provided health services, organised and managed displacement camps and carried out needs assessments. This article explores the part these groups played, reviews how international humanitarian actors engaged with them and outlines the political consequences of their activities, locally, nationally and regionally.

The jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ response

Pakistan has 58 Islamic religious parties, and 24 known Islamist militant groups operate in the country. At least 17 Islamist groups banned by President Pervez Musharraf’s government undertook relief and reconstruction work in the aftermath of the earthquake. These jihadi and Islamist organisations were also prominent in camp management, running 37 out of the 73 organised camps in and around Pakistani-administered Kashmir’s capital, Muzaffarabad. These groups had a presence in every affected district of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) in the Neelum and Jehlum valleys, including Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Hattian, Dhir Kot, Rawalakot, Haveli and Athmuqam. In their response to the earthquake, jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups drew on their existing infrastructure in AJK, their knowledge of the local terrain and their close cooperation with the Pakistan army, which provided logistical support and other facilities, including helicopters, to enable the jihadis to continue their work.

Prominent Islamist ‘humanitarian’ foundations and jihadi groups

The Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) are the two largest Islamist political parties in Pakistan. Both have prominent social wings. The JUI is in a coalition government with Musharraf’s Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid-I-Azam (PML-Q) in NWFP and Balochistan provinces. The JUI is an ardent supporter of the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan, while the JI controls the Hizbul Mujahideen, a major militant organisation operating in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Al Khair Trust, which is connected to JUI, has been heavily supported by the Pakistani military in its relief and reconstruction work, especially in AJK. The Al Khidmat Foundation, set up by JI, was one of the main organisations coordinating, collecting and distributing goods in the earthquake-affected region, and also coordinated manpower from other international organisations. The Al Khidmat Foundation’s subsidiary organisations include the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association, the Pakistan Engineers Forum, the Ghazali Education Trust, and the JI’s Islami Jamiat Talaba (student wing) and Tanzeem al-Asataza (teachers’ wing).

Other prominent jihadi groups conducting relief work include:

  • The Al Rasheed Trust, a Sunni organisation based in Karachi which grew out of the banned Islamist group Jaish-e-Mohammad. Jaish-e-Mohammad was proscribed by the Pakistani government in 2002. The Al Rasheed Trust is banned by the United Nations Security Council, but the Pakistani government has not outlawed it.
     
  • Jamaat-ud-Dawa grew out of the banned Islamist militant organisation Lashkar-e-Taiba. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is known to have militant training camps in AJK, and has been at the forefront of the fighting in Indian-administered Kashmir. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s ‘humanitarian arm’, the Idara Khidmat-e-Khalq, maintained a field hospital in Muzaffarabad and Balakot. It also operated ambulance services and surgical camps, constructed 1,000 shelters and provided electricity through generators.

Jihadi and Islamist groups were the first to conduct rescue operations, establish initial medical emergency camps, surgical units and dispensaries for earthquake survivors and send assessment teams to isolated areas. They raised a volunteer army of thousands of madrassa students. Jihadi outfits and Islamist groups provided doctors, clinics, x-ray services, dental care, reconstruction materials, ambulance services, burials and mosque rebuilding. They also cared for orphans, the displaced and widows. They organised mule transport for relief goods to isolated areas, and commandeered lifting equipment and tents. In the reconstruction phase, these groups have established programmes providing cheap reconstruction materials and subsidised saw mills.

Interaction with international humanitarian actors

Whether knowingly or out of ignorance, international humanitarian actors (NGOs, the UN and foreign military assistance teams) established working relationships with some of the banned jihadi groups and other Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups, either supplying relief goods to jihadi camps or coordinating distributions with Islamist groups. UNHCR supplied camps managed by the JI and Al Rasheed with shelters, Jamaat-ud-Dawa distributed US relief aid and an American surgeon operated in a Jamaat-ud-Dawa relief camp. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is reported to have worked with the ICRC, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR and Khalsa Aid (a pan-Sikh humanitarian agency). Jamaat-ud-Dawa claimed that it received funding from Indonesia and Turkey, and Indonesian and Turkish doctors worked as volunteers in hospitals and clinics that it sponsored. Meanwhile, non-sectarian organisations like the Edhi Foundation were overlooked by the UN and international NGOs.

There is no reason why international NGOs, regardless of the urgency of the earthquake, interacted with these banned jihadi groups or Islamist humanitarian actors. The jihadis were brought in from outside the region in the aftermath of the earthquake, although options existed in secular mainstream civil society groups or NGOs, which were instead marginalised or not engaged by the international NGOs. This has contributed to building the capacity and legitimacy of Islamist groups in AJK, and has raised their profile as humanitarian actors. A number of possible consequences flow from this.

The ramifications of the role of jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups in the earthquake response

The most important implications of jihadi and Islamist involvement in the earthquake response are likely to be felt in the education sector. AJK is one of the country’s most literate regions, and the earthquake destroyed almost all of its education institutions. Integral to jihadi and Islamist relief efforts was the establishment of schools and madrassas for young people in AJK. The Deobandi Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabiya (Pakistan’s largest union of madrassas) plans to build 1,500 mosques and 300 madrassas in AJK and NWFP. The purely Islamic education that these institutions will provide will inevitably sideline provincial/state curricula. In the medium and long term, if the jihadis and Islamist groups are allowed to continue with their rigid religious curriculum this will radicalise the young in AJK, and will form a convenient recruiting base for the militant activities of these organisations. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa has openly called for all orphans to be handed over to the organisation for an ‘Islamic education’.

The second effect is likely to be political. AJK has a history of functioning mainstream secular and nationalist political parties, but the ‘goodwill’ created by the jihadi groups means that they were likely to increase their political influence following elections in the region scheduled for July 2006. Such an outcome would distort the development and reconstruction priorities of AJK since the jihadis and the Islamists are working towards a limited Islamist social and political agenda for the region. The presence of Islamist groups in the AJK legislature would also do little to help relations with India over Kashmir. There were signs ahead of the polls that the Pakistani government and military were strengthening their cooperation with jihadi and Islamist groups. The Pakistani government had indicated in April 2006 that the Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba could enter politics if it undertook not to use its political platform to engage in sectarianism.

Conclusion

The earthquake has exposed the precarious political situation confronting international humanitarian actors in Pakistan. Their close cooperation with the Pakistani military and jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups has raised concerns as to how the UN and other international NGOs should engage in a country under military rule. In the future, the following recommendations for international humanitarian actors may address some of the challenges such an environment can pose:

  • Stress local partnerships with secular NGOs and civil society groups, rather than ideological or missionary groups.
     
  • Maintain knowledge of, and links with, local NGOs and civil society groups, especially in disaster-prone areas.
     
  • Seek to ensure that elected federal and provincial legislative bodies, rather than the military, oversee and scrutinise relief and reconstruction operations.
     
  • Donors and international humanitarian actors should encourage the government to create mechanisms to allow local NGOs and civil society groups to participate in relief and reconstruction.

This article is based on the Crisis Group Policy Briefing Pakistan: Political Impact of the Earthquake, Asia Briefing 46, 15 March 2006.

Commentary / Asia

Pakistan: Challenges of a Weak Democracy

The new government of Imran Khan is repressing opposition voices and yielding to parties propagating sectarianism. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2019 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to help Pakistan abide by its international commitments and keep supporting democratic governance.

On 30 October 2018, after Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of a Christian woman, Aasia Masih (also known as Aasia Bibi) on blasphemy charges, a hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent demonstrations countrywide demanding the verdict’s reversal. The protests ended after Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government offered immunity to Labaik’s leadership and violent activists and permitted the movement to submit a review petition calling on the court to reinstate Bibi’s death penalty. The government’s actions appeared to relent to a group that propagates sectarian hatred and threatens the lives of religious and other minorities. Meanwhile, the military-sponsored “mainstreaming” of anti-India jihadists (notably the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba/Jamaat-ud-Dawa), which permits such groups to rebrand and enter politics without renouncing militancy, risks further fuelling intolerance and sectarianism. Mainstreaming could also entail international sanction, given that it contravenes Pakistan’s counter-terrorism commitments. Yet another challenge lies in persistent political tensions: having come to power after contested elections in July 2018, Khan’s government thus far has done little to bridge divisions between it and opposition parties. The government has targeted opposition leaders in politicised corruption trials, while security forces’ have cracked down on dissenting voices within civil society and the media.

The EU and its member states should:

  • Leverage Pakistan’s sensitivity to its international standing and aversion to isolation, urge Pakistan to prosecute Labaik leaders and activists, through fair trials and with due process, for threatening judges and public officials, attacking police and citizens, and destroying public and private properties during the November 2018 protests; at the same time, call for parliament to enact legislation to prevent the misuse of the blasphemy laws that threaten the security of marginalised communities;
     
  • Also call on the government to implement existing and enact additional laws that meet international human rights standards to ban jihadists from fundraising, recruiting, and conducting attacks within the country and in the region;
     
  • Continue to support democratic governance and the rule of law in Pakistan, including calling for due process in prosecution of cases against the opposition and press the government to protect individual freedoms. Warn Islamabad that its failure to respect freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Rising Religious Intolerance and Violence

On 31 October 2018, the Supreme Court acquitted and ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges in November 2010. In response, religious groups, spearheaded by Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan, the political front of the Sunni Barelvi Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah, launched violent protests countrywide, attacking police officers and citizens and destroying public and private property. By invoking highly-provocative claims of blasphemy, the several thousand Labaik protesters gained the support of many conservative Muslims. Holding “Hang Aasia Bibi” rallies, Labaik leaders accused Supreme Court judges of blasphemy, called for their assassination, and urged soldiers to mutiny against army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whose religious faith they questioned. On 2 November, Imran Khan’s government struck a deal with Labaik. Arguing that to do otherwise would lead to more violence, the government agreed not to take any action against Labaik leaders and supporters, releasing those responsible for inciting sectarian hatred and resorting to violence during the protests. It also agreed not to oppose a review petition to reinstate Bibi’s death sentence, to bar her from leaving the country until the Supreme Court has reached a decision on that petition, and to release those responsible for violence during the protests. Though the government may have faced a short-term dilemma in looking for a way to defuse the protests and avoid provoking wider unrest, the tensions provoked by intolerant and sectarian groups like Labaik is a problem of Pakistani authorities’ own making over decades, one that is reinforced, not lessened, by a pattern of capitulation to such groups.

Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death [in Pakistan], and those defending the innocent [...] have often been silenced.

Emboldened by the government’s backing down, Labaik threatened another protest on 24 November. The government, fearing more violence, quickly placed the group’s leaders and hundreds of activists under preventive detention. Although cases have been filed, including in anti-terrorism courts against Labaik’s top leadership, those men are still awaiting prosecution. The outcome of these cases is uncertain, but in similar instances in the past, the filing of charges has not led to prosecution, once immediate pressures are relieved and public attention wanes. Bibi, though freed by the courts, remains in hiding. Her case has fuelled the fears of religious minorities that the state cannot protect them if those responsible for inciting and using violence against their communities operate with impunity. Mere accusations of blasphemy can lead to death, and those defending the innocent, such as Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, killed by his guard in 2011 for supporting Aasia Bibi, have often been silenced.

Labaik’s emergence and growing influence is closely tied to Pakistan’s military and intelligence services’ longstanding use of Islamists to challenge civilian rivals by supporting their forays into political life. Reportedly backed by the military to destabilise the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) government in November 2017, Labaik at that time accused the law minister of blasphemy and besieged Islamabad, attacking police officers and civilians. The siege ended after the military concluded a deal whereby the law minister resigned and the state gave Labaik leaders and activists immunity from criminal prosecution. In another bid to undermine the PML-N by cutting into its support base in the July 2018 election, Labaik created a political front to contest the vote even as it continued to encourage and deploy violence. Exploiting popular sentiment about blasphemy, Labaik won 2.2 million votes and emerged as the third-largest party in parliament after the PTI and PML-N. It now uses its newfound political legitimacy to raise funds, recruit and propagate a hardline sectarian agenda.

Militants Deepen their Political Clout

In addition to using Islamists to weaken other parties, Pakistan’s military and intelligence services have also encouraged anti-India jihadists, including some designated by the UN Security Council as terrorist organisations, to enter politics. Most prominent is the now-rebranded Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD) – previously Lashkar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), which was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks – and its charity front, the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation. LeT/JD is included in the UN Security Council’s 1267 sanctions list. In June 2018, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) body that works to combat money laundering and terrorism financing, placed Pakistan on its “grey list” due to lax counter-terrorism financing laws and enforcement. Partly to avert FATF pressure, a presidential ordinance nominally banned LeT/JD and its charity front in February 2018. But the banned group was allowed to take part in the 2018 vote through yet another front, the Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, though it failed to gain even a single seat. The presidential ordinance banning LeT/JD and its charity front has since lapsed.

In principle, encouraging militants to enter politics could help moderate them. In these circumstances, however, little suggests that will happen, given that the political participation of groups allied to the military is not conditioned on their abandoning violence or related recruitment and proselytising. Indeed, their rebranding and entry into politics appears to be a deliberate strategy to keep alive groups regarded as useful foreign policy proxies in the face of international pressure. The mainstreaming strategy, particularly as it pertains to groups on the 1267 list, poses risks for Pakistan at home and abroad. The failure to ban those groups and reform financing laws could see Pakistan listed on the FATF’s “blacklist” of “non-cooperative countries” next fall, with serious implications for the country’s reputation and economy. That failure also hinders any rapprochement with India: New Delhi refuses to resume bilateral dialogue with Islamabad, frozen since a 2016 attack attributed to Pakistan-based militants, until Pakistan takes decisive action against jihadists. For the region, the security risks inherent in the failure to demobilise such groups are grave: another major attack on India by Pakistan-based groups could bring the two nuclear-armed neighbours to the brink of war.

Crackdowns Heighten Political Turmoil

The military’s backing of the PTI and its alleged support for Khan’s government as it targets opponents fuel the political acrimony that already marked the July 2018 election. The two main opposition parties, Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N and former President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), were denied an equal playing field amid reports, as noted in the EU election observation mission’s October report, “of interference in the electoral process by the military-led establishment and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs”.

Reportedly with military and judicial backing, the government is now pursuing the PML-N and PPP leadership through a legal process that is deeply partisan. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his brother Shahbaz, now opposition leader in the federal legislature, have been indicted and imprisoned on corruption charges without due process; the government is also lodging corruption cases against the PPP leadership. Unless the government changes course, political turmoil could increase at a time when militant threats are still acute – over 200 people died in terror attacks during the election. The government would be better served by working with the parliamentary opposition to ban and prosecute groups that refuse to shun violence and that propagate sectarian hatred.

Engaging with Pakistan

The EU should push Pakistani authorities to take steps to ease political acrimony, protect minorities and stop militants entering politics without first renouncing violence. First, in line with its traditional emphasis on the rule of law, the EU should leverage Pakistan’s concerns about its international standing to urge the government to ensure due process in prosecuting cases against opposition leaders and thus help defuse political tensions. It should warn Islamabad that failure to meet its human rights obligations, particularly in respecting freedoms of expression, association, religion and belief, could adversely affect the preferential trading status it receives under the GSP+ scheme.

Second, the EU should press the Pakistan parliament to amend blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse. Aasia Bibi’s case is one of scores in which false accusations of blasphemy have placed innocent people, particularly from religious and ethnic minorities, on death row. The EU Council has repeatedly voiced concerns about the abuse of these laws, including in their most recent conclusions on Pakistan. Updating the legislation is even more important now as Labaik is exploiting the blasphemy issue to foment sectarian hatred among parts of Pakistani society.

Lastly, though the EU has called on Pakistan to work with the FATF to strengthen its counter-terrorism financial oversight regime, it should also highlight the importance of implementing existing or drafting new laws to prevent jihadists and other militants that refuse to abjure violence from operating under changed names. In its October report, the EU Election Observation Mission rightly expressed concern about the “the emergence of extremist parties with affiliations either to terrorist groups, or individuals linked to organisations that have used, incited or advocated violence”. So long as the state fails to take action against such groups, they will continue to fuel religious sectarianism and intolerance at home and threaten the security of Pakistan’s neighbours.