Foreign hands fuel Pakistan's sectarian strife

Posted in Broader Middle East | 15-Oct-04 | Author: Syed Saleem Shahzad| Source: Asia Times

A handout photo of militant Amjad Hussain Farooqi's National Identity Card, who was killed after the encounter in the small southern city of Nawabshah, 130 km (80 miles) northeast of Karachi, September 26, 2004.
KARACHI - The latest round of countrywide sectarian violence in Pakistan that has claimed scores of lives is fueled in part by general hatred and the desire to create chaos and anarchy, as well as strong feelings among militants of both Sunni and Shi'ite groups to eliminate "foreign connections".

As a result of the sectarian violence, which has claimed more than 75 lives in the past fortnight, a countrywide crackdown has begun on all types of religious organizations, including non-sectarian religious political groups, such as the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam, and non-sectarian jihadi outfits, such as the Jaish-i-Mohammed and Harkatul Mujahideen.

Law-enforcement agencies have rounded up more than 500 activists from central and southern Punjab in the past few days, and the volatile southern port city of Karachi has been placed on high alert after a tipoff of a further large sectarian incident.

The current wave of violence began with the killing late last month of Amjad Farooqi in the southern city of Nawabshah. Farooqi, a suspected senior al-Qaeda figure, was gunned down by security forces, setting off a chain reaction.

Sectarian minefield
Most of the cases of apparent sectarian violence in 2003-04 are in fact less a result of religious differences than a struggle between pro- and anti-Taliban people.

The recently arrested high-profile serial killer of Shi'ites from the southwestern province of Balochistan, Daud Badini, informed his interrogators that he and his accomplices had taken up arms against the Hazara community, which happens to be Shi'ite, and anti-Taliban.

The Hazaras originally hailed from the Afghan province of Bamiyan. Hundreds of families migrated to Iran and (present Pakistani) Balochistan about a century ago, yet they retained their family ties in Afghanistan and even kept their culture alive. After the mass migration from Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion of 1979, the numbers of the Hazara community in Quetta soared to 300,000, outnumbering the locals almost three to one.

According to security officials, the suicide bomber of the Shi'ite mosque Ali Raza in May, Mohammed Ali Memon, in which several dozen people were killed, had previously stated that the mosque was being used to spy on the activities of jihadis in the area.

After the recent incident in Multan, in which more than 50 Sunni members of the defunct Sepah-i-Sahab (renamed as the Millat-i-Islamia) were blown up in a car-bomb attack, Asia Times Online contacted the central spokesperson of the organization, Mujeeb Inqalabi, who was quick to blame intelligence agents from Shi'ite-majority Iran for supporting the attack.

The first sectarian organization in the country was founded soon after the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Fiqah-i-Jaferia - TNFJ - which was banned and subsequently renamed the Islamic Movement. The organization emerged to demand religious rights for the Shi'ite minority in Pakistan, including a separate syllabus of Islamic learning and national public holidays on Shi'ite mourning days. General Zia ul-Haq's government succumbed to all demands.

There is no census available in the country that confirms the exact number of Shi'ites and Sunnis, but the Shi'ites claim 20%, while different Sunni organizations claim that Shi'ites only constitute 7-8% of the country's 150 million population. The median of these figures is probably closer to the truth.

Pakistani intelligence quarters believed that the TNFJ had connections with Iran as its leader, Ariful Hussaini, later murdered in the 1980s, was close to the Iranian clergy and acted as an intermediary between the two countries on a number of occasions.

Pakistan had traditionally been a part of the US camp and therefore also friendly to Iran, but after the Islamic Revolution things changed. Tehran suspected Pakistan of allowing the US Central Intelligence Agency to launch intelligence operations from Balochistan to fan anti-revolutionary movements in Zahedan, a bordering Iranian province. In turn, Iran allowed India to open a consulate in far-flag Zahedan, and funded the TNFJ to increase Iranian influence in Pakistan.

Even though Pakistan and Iran had minimal trade ties, Iran opened consulates in the Pakistani cities of Quetta, Lahore and Peshawar, besides its embassy in Islamabad and a powerful consulate in Karachi. In addition, cultural centers were used to project the Iranian revolution, notably in smaller places such as Multan.

The emergence of the Sepah-i-Sahabah in the 1980s is largely seen as a reaction to the TNFJ, although its rapid rise can also be attributed to the Arab money it received. The Iranian revolution was largely perceived as a threat to Arab dictators and kings and they made all-out efforts to contain its spread. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq were at forefront in this regard and they showered millions of dollars on anti-Shi'ite organizations, which, along with the Sepah-i-Sahabah, had mushroomed in the 1980s in Pakistan.

The growth of anti-Shi'ite organizations forced Iran to revamp its operations, and instead of being obsessed with the TNFJ, Iranian intelligence invested in anti-Salafi Sunni organizations such as Sunni Tehrik. Sunni Tehrik activists were trained in Iran and then launched into Pakistan, where they only took on jihadi outfits. However, the timely intervention of the state machinery largely marginalized the Sunni Tehrik in Pakistan.

After the Gulf War of 1991, defeated Iraq was no longer in a position to support anti-Shi'ite organizations, and US-friendly Saudi Arabia was also not interested in funding countries that had sided with Saddam Hussein.

At this time Pakistan's state machinery gradually took Sepah-i-Sahabah under its fold and persuaded it to give up its militancy. The mainstream organization agreed, but a rebellious splinter group emerged in the form of the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), with the sole objective of killing Shi'ites and harming their interests. In reaction, a splinter group emerged among Shi'ites, called the Sepah-i-Mohammed. The LJ flourished in the Taliban's military training camps in Afghanistan, while Sepah-i-Mohammed militants were trained in Iran.

According to security documents of the Punjab police on Shi'ite terrorists, Zulqarnain Haider, who hails from central Punjab, is an example of someone who acquired his religious education from Qum, Iran, and remained in constant touch with Iranian intelligence. At present, he is in the Netherlands. Another person with the same name is from Karachi and is believed to have killed seven people.

Dr Qaisar Raza of Multan is another example cited in Punjab police records. He was funded by Iranian intelligence to carry out a bomb attack in a Lahore court on January 18, 1997. He is now in Iran. In this attack, the chief of the Sepah-i-Sahabah was seriously wounded. Police arrested one Mehram Ali, who during interrogation admitted that Iranian intelligence had provided funds for the operation. Mehram Ali was later hanged for his part in the attack. Mureed Abbas of Muzzafar Gargh was president of the TNFJ in a medical college in Bahawalpur, and is accused of killing several people in Bahawalpur. He now works in Iran as a medical teacher.

Security sources say that Sunni terrorists are generally linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda and have little or no interaction with the underworld. On the other hand, many Shi'ite terrorists came from the underworld before they became religious zealots. For instance, Zohair Abbass of Tokar Niaz Baig and Anwar Haider Shah of Lahore and Tahir Abbas, alias Tony of Tokar Niaz Baig, were all known dacoits (bandits) and cases are registered against them. They are all office bearers of the Sepah-i-Mohammed.

The recent murder of high-profile pro-Taliban cleric Mufti Jameel Ahmed Khan is reckoned to have been committed by members of a Shi'ite militant organization, with foreign funding.

Security sources tell Asia Times Online that more sectarian trouble is likely, with a strong proxy war being fought under its cover.

Syed Saleem Shahzad is Bureau Chief, Pakistan, Asia Times Online. He can be reached at