US & World

In Pakistan, Old Militants Create New Alliances

A Pakistani devotee looks at wreckage the day after a suicide bomb attack at a Sufi shrine in Lahore. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Islamic shrine packed with worshippers on July 1, killing at least 37 people and wounding scores more.
A Pakistani devotee looks at wreckage the day after a suicide bomb attack at a Sufi shrine in Lahore. Two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the Islamic shrine packed with worshippers on July 1, killing at least 37 people and wounding scores more.
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

As disenchanted Pakistani youths grow weary of their government's cozy relationship with U.S., many are turning to religious militancy to fight back. Far from the tribal belt on the border of Afghanistan, an extremist network has taken root in the country's heartland of Punjab province.

The Punjab province is home not only to 80 million of Pakistan's 175 million citizens, but also to an increasingly dangerous web of Punjabi militants who have teamed up with the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e-Taliban, and al-Qaida.

In southern Punjab province, militancy is not a new phenomenon, but it is an ever-evolving one.

The city of Multan is known for its shahid, or martyrs. So-called "Martyrs Street" sits among cluster of rubble-strewn lanes housing families who have lost a male relative to jihad, or "holy war."

Fathers and sons fought in the jihad against the Soviets during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s and later against the Indians in Kashmir, the mountainous region disputed between India and Pakistan.

Then, the Punjab's men joined the fight when the Pakistan government was promoting jihad as a state policy in the 1980's and 1990's.

Today, a new generation in southern Punjab is being raised on a brand of Islam that has effectively declared war against the government and the people of Pakistan.

Southern Punjab Is Different

Khaled Ahmed is one of the foremost experts on Pakistan's militant groups. He says extremists have gained a foothold in southern Punjab because governance is weak and feudal landowners have run things. But the sway of landowners is being supplanted by increasing influential Muslim clerics.

"You have to work in tandem with the big person there. And that big person is being replaced by the clergy, the clergy which is 'weaponized.' So that is why the south Punjab is such a breeding ground," Ahmed says.

A senior law enforcement official in Multan says 19 mosques and madrassas, or religious schools, are known to be patronized by activists suspected of terror activities. Sixty-three people are under strict surveillance in Multan district alone. A dozen more are targets in ongoing anti-terror investigations.

Punjab is home to nearly half of Pakistan's 20,000 madrassas. Hundreds of seminaries in Multan follow the hard-line Deobandi school of Islam, not unlike the puritanical Wahhabism practiced by al-Qaida's founders.

Conspiracy Theories Blame The U.S. For Attacks

Friday sermons in Punjab are instructive. The July 1 bombing of the country's most important Sufi shrine, which killed dozens in the provincial capital Lahore, got prominent mention at one particular Multan mosque. Sufis are a religious minority in Pakistan and follow a version of Islam that is more tolerant than the fundamentalist form of Islam practiced by the Taliban.

While authorities suspect Islamist extremists, in his sermons imam Maulana Muhammad Kafeel Bukhari was quick to blame the Americans. Kafeel said the double suicide attack that left dozens dead was the work of the security firm Blackwater, a private, U.S.-based security company now known as Xe Services.

His sentiments echo those Pakistan's youth who routinely engage in conspiracy theories that often point the blame at the West for the attacks within Pakistan.

"It's so easy to blame the Taliban in southern Punjab," Bukhari told a couple hundred of the faithful. "But I say it's been carried out by the enemies of this country: The foreign intelligence services, to create anarchy and to break Pakistan up," Bukhari said.

Asked later about the claim, Punjab's governor, Salmaan Tasser, scorned the idea that Blackwater was involved as "a load of rubbish."

Distrust Of The West

But Bukhari's sermon falls on receptive young ears. Ali Mardan, 23, ays he believes the United States is supporting local terrorists to destabilize Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons.

Mardan says Washington is "afraid that if any religious man becomes a prime minister or president or he takes over the government, he will create a lot of problems for the U.S."

Mohammad Noman, 17, says an Islamic state like Pakistan has a duty to prepare for jihad "to defend the faith." An aspiring cleric, Noman says militant groups, although banned, must continue to train.

"We consider this training and this preparation for jihad is something good. And it is for our own protection. It is not for terrorism. It is just for our own defense," Noman says.

Old Groups Create New Alliances

Usman Anwar, a senior police investigator in Punjab, says there are as many as 30 armed outfits in the province. Most are splinter groups from organizations that are now outlawed: Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangwi, and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the alleged recruiter of the admitted terrorist Faisal Shahzad, who sought to detonate a bomb in Times Square on May 1.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave these groups renewed fervor.

"Al-Qaida told them, 'Jihandis they have beaten Russia and now it's time for the West to have a taste of its own medicine.' Now they had a greater cause. So the breeding ground was already there and al-Qaida selected these groups," Anwar says.

Anwar says the groups attack Pakistani targets because they regard their government as a tool of the U.S. He says his many interrogations of young militants start out as debates about perceived international injustices and move to local inequities.

"They see a government which is not efficient; they see a road which is broken. They were school drop outs. And at the end of the day they end up outcasts of this society and they got recognition when they joined the Taliban," says Anwar.

Local analyst Haider Abbas Gardezi says a distressed place like the southern Punjab is a Petri dish for extremism.

"Militancy grows in those pockets where there are deprivations, where there is injustice, where there is lack of education. So basically it's a question of backwardness," Gardezi says.

But Ayesha Saddiqa, a Pakistani political analyst and visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, says it's not just madrassas in underprivileged places that are providing recruits. Young, tech-savvy engineers from government-run schools are quietly being pulled into the militant network, too.

"They are coexisting with other social forces as well and that is the trick, she says. "You don't need to convert everyone."

Outlawed Groups Banned in Name Only

Parliamentarian Sheik Waqas Akram says in his district of Jhang the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba it flaunts its identity with flags and gun-toting bodyguards. Akram says you wouldn't know that the group's leader is on a government watch list.

"That man is moving freely, attending funerals, going to madrassas, going to the deputy commissioner's office, going to the police chief's office. What is this?" Akram asks.

Author Khaled Ahmed says these groups thrive because it suits the ruling party of the province, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by the country's main opposition figure Nawaz Sharif. His brother is the chief minister of Punjab. Ahmed says the Sharifs are pulled in two directions.

"They are very much joined at the hips with the clergy and have grown up like that. But they have grown up relating to outside powers like the United State, and grown up knowing that secular societies probably are more tolerant because they are not fanatics," Ahmed says.

"So there is this ideological confusion in the family," he adds.

In the aftermath of the attack on Lahore's Sufi shrine, mainstream clerics have accused the Punjab government of being soft on extremist groups while protesters have taken to the streets of the Punjab capital decrying terrorism.

The two men most responsible for administering the province -- the Gov. Salmaan Taseer, and the chief minister, Shabaz Sharif -- have been at odds over how to treat the growing menace.

A spokesman for Sharif insists that he is taking a tough stance, but in March the chief minister pleaded with the militants to "spare Punjab" because his party shares their anti-Western attitude.

Taseer who is from the ruling People's Party called that "craven."

"If you don't take a strong stance against these people right now and nip in the bud, they'll start spreading. You can't allow them to grow. They're like a cancer virus," Taseer says.

As the debate intensifies, evidence of militant activity continues to surface. A cache of illegal arms, including 500,000 rounds of bullets, was recently uncovered outside Lahore. Detained suspects told investigators of plans to attack 18 new sites.

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