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Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization take part in an anti-India demonstration to condemn the hanging of Mohammad Afzal Guru, Rawalpindi, 10 February 2013. REUTERS/Mian Khursheed
Report 279 / Asia

Pakistan’s Jihadist Heartland: Southern Punjab

Once-tolerant southern Punjab has become a base for jihadist groups. Socio-economic grievances, political alienation and poor education provide a near endless source of recruits. To reverse the tide, the government must end a climate of impunity, block hate speech, improve rule of law, and refocus counter-terrorist action to target all jihadist groups.

Executive Summary

Southern Punjab must be central to any sustainable effort to counter jihadist violence within and beyond Pakistan’s borders, given the presence of militant groups with local, regional and transnational links and an endless source of recruits, including through large madrasa and mosque networks. The region hosts two of Pakistan’s most radical Deobandi groups, Jaish-e-Mohammed, held responsible by India for the 2 January 2016 attack on its Pathankot airbase; and the sectarian Laskhar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which was at least complicit in, if not solely responsible for, the 27 March Easter Sunday attack that killed more than 70 in Lahore. To reverse the jihadist tide, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s federal and Punjab province governments will have to both end the climate of impunity that allows these groups to operate freely and address political alienation resulting from other governance failures these groups tap into. 

Southern Punjab was once known for a tolerant society, but over the past few decades, state support for jihadist proxies, financial support from foreign, particularly Saudi and other Gulf countries, combined with an explosive mix of political, socio-economic, and geostrategic factors, has enabled jihadist expansion there. Bordering on insurgency-hit and lawless regions of the country and also sharing a border with India, it has long provided a convenient base where these outfits can recruit, train and plan and conduct terror attacks. Although jihadist groups still harbour a fringe minority in a region where the vast majority follows a more tolerant, syncretic form of Islam, their ability to operate freely is largely the result of the state’s policy choices, particularly long reliance on jihadist proxies to promote perceived national security interests. The absence of rule-of-law, combined with political dysfunction and inept governance, also allows these organisations to exercise influence disproportionate to their size and social roots.

With state sponsorship and a pervasive climate of impunity enhancing jihadist groups’ recruitment potential, the risks of joining are far lower than potential gains that include employment and other financial rewards, social status and sense of purpose. These are all the more compelling in Punjab’s largely rural and relatively poorly developed southern regions, where perceptions of exploitation by the industrialised central and north Punjab, referred to by southern Punjabis as Takht Lahore (throne of Lahore), are high, the result of political marginalisation, weak governance, economic neglect and glaring income inequity.

After the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School by a Pakistani Taliban faction that killed over 150, mostly children, the civilian and military leadership vowed to eliminate all extremist groups. Yet, the core goal of the counter-terrorism National Action Plan (NAP) it developed – to end distinctions between “good” jihadists, those perceived to promote strategic objectives in India and Afghanistan, and “ bad” jihadists, those that target the security forces and other Pakistanis – appears to have fallen by the wayside.

A highly selective approach still characterises the ongoing crackdown on militant outfits in southern Punjab and undermines broader counter-terrorism objectives. While the anti-India Jaish continues to operate freely, paramilitary units use indiscriminate force against local criminal groups, and the Punjab government resorts to extrajudicial killings to eliminate the LeJ leadership and foot soldiers. Overreliance on a militarised counter-terrorism approach based on blunt force might yield short-term benefits but, by undermining rule-of-law and fuelling alienation, will prove counterproductive in the long term. 

The lack of progress on other major NAP goals, particularly reform and regulation of the madrasa sector, has especially adverse implications for southern Punjab, with its many Deobandi madrasas. The children of the poor are exposed to sectarian and other radical ideological discourse. The state’s unwillingness to clamp down on it in sectarian madrasas and mosques so as to counter hate speech and prevent dissemination of hate literature increases the potential for radicalisation in the region.

In the poorest region of the country’s richest and most populous province, where economic hardships are compounded by periodic natural disasters, including droughts and floods that destroy homes and livelihoods, jihadist groups, often with state support, their access being facilitated by the bureaucracy, are given opportunities to win hearts and minds through their charity wings. At the same time, civil society organisations capable of filling the gaps in the state’s delivery of services are often subjected to restrictions and intimidation.

Despite jihadist inroads, the vast majority in southern Punjab still adhere to more moderate syncretic forms of Islam: Sufism, and Barelvism, with practices and rituals that Deobandis and Wahhabi/Salafis portray as heretic. Yet, a general climate of impunity is encouraging extreme religious, sectarian and gender discrimination and exclusion. If left unchecked, these groups’ influence will likely spread within and beyond the region.

Lahore and Islamabad should enforce the law against all jihadist organisations, without exception. If they do not, many in southern Punjab may continue to see the rewards of joining such organisations as far outweighing the costs.

Recommendations

To end the climate of impunity 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Replace selective counter-terrorism with an approach that targets all jihadist groups that use violence within or from Pakistani territory, including by thoroughly investigating the alleged role of Pakistan-based jihadists in the Pathankot attack, extending beyond individual operatives to the organisations that sustain them.
     
  2. Focus counter-terrorism efforts on reforming and strengthening the criminal justice system, with a properly resourced, authorised and accountable provincial police force at its heart, so as to moderate reliance on lethal force.
     
  3. Investigate and monitor under the Anti-Terrorism Act or UN Security Council Resolution 1267 and its blacklist all madrasas, mosques and charities with known or suspected links to banned groups, as well as those that maintain armed militias, or whose administrators and/or members incite violence and other criminal acts within or from the country; and act first against those madrasas in southern Punjab already identified as actively training militants and having direct or indirect links with jihadist outfits. 
     
  4. Prevent circulation of hate literature and enforce laws against hate speech in madrasas, mosques and other forums, including by following through on all current cases against hard-line preachers and others accused of violating them.

To redress policy that favours a jihadist fringe over a moderate and diverse civil society

  1. Remove arbitrary official and unofficial restrictions on NGOs and other civil society organisations in southern Punjab and assume responsibility for protecting against jihadist threats.
     
  2. Repeal all legislation that discriminates on the basis of religion, sect and gender and refrain from backtracking on provincial pro-women legislation or yielding to Islamist party pressure to dilute its provisions. 
     
  3. Protect southern Punjab’s religious minorities, in particular Christians and Hindus, and take action against perpetrators of violence against women by acting through the legal system on reports of intimidation and abuse.

To redress the political, social and economic alienation in southern Punjab that contributes to recruitment opportunities for jihadist groups 

To the federal and Punjab governments:

  1. Reform and expand the public school network, including by removing intolerant religious discourse and distorted narratives glorifying jihadist violence from the classroom; and accompany education reform with assistance along the lines of the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP) to help poor families afford to send their children to school.
     
  2. Increase southern Punjab’s development budget, accompanied by meaningful consultations with communities on development programs; and establish and implement requirements to hire a significant proportion of local labour for such programs and provide it related training.

To the ruling and opposition parties:

  1. Respond to the political alienation in southern Punjab by including local leaders within party decision-making processes and structures, and giving them a voice at the local, provincial and national levels. 
     
  2. Redress local grievances by addressing them in the provincial and federal parliaments, including through appropriate legislation.

Islamabad/Brussels, 30 May 2016

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.