With mil­i­tary nod, pak ter­ror groups seek role in pol­i­tics

Hafiz Saeed’s re­li­gious char­ity launched the Milli Mus­lim League party within two weeks af­ter the court ousted Sharif over cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions.

The Sunday Guardian - - World - REUTERS

Anew Pak­istani po­lit­i­cal party con­trolled by an Is­lamist with a $10 mil­lion US bounty on his head is back­ing a can­di­date in a by-elec­tion on Sun­day, in what a for­mer se­nior army of­fi­cer says is a key step in a mil­i­tary-pro­posed plan to main­stream mil­i­tant groups.

The Milli Mus­lim League party loyal to Hafiz Saeed - who the United States and In­dia ac­cuse of mas­ter­mind­ing the 2008 Mum­bai at­tacks that killed 166 peo­ple - has lit­tle chance of see­ing its fa­vored can­di­date win the seat va­cated when Prime Min­is­ter Nawaz Sharif was re­moved from of­fice by the Supreme Court in July.

But the foray into pol­i­tics by Saeed’s Is­lamist char­ity is fol­low­ing a blue­print that Sharif him­self re­jected when the mil­i­tary pro­posed it last year, re­tired Lieu­tenant Gen­eral Am­jad Shuaib told Reuters.

Three close Sharif con­fi­dants with knowl­edge of the dis­cus­sions con­firmed that Sharif had op­posed the “main­stream­ing” plan, which se­nior mil­i­tary fig­ures and some an­a­lysts see as a way of steer­ing ul­tra-re­li­gious groups away from vi­o­lent ji­had.

“We have to sep­a­rate those el­e­ments who are peace­ful from the el­e­ments who are pick­ing up weapons,” Shuaib said.

Pak­istan’s pow­er­ful mil­i­tary has long been ac­cused of fos­ter­ing mil­i­tant groups as proxy fight­ers op­pos­ing neigh­bor­ing arch- en­emy In­dia.

Saeed’s re­li­gious char­ity launched the Milli Mus­lim League party within two weeks af­ter the court ousted Sharif over cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions. Yaqoob Sheikh, the La­hore can­di­date for Milli Mus­lim League, is stand­ing as an in­de­pen­dent af­ter the Elec­toral Com­mis­sion said the party was not yet legally reg­is­tered.

But Saeed’s lieu­tenants, JUD work­ers and Milli Mus­lim League of­fi­cials are run­ning his cam­paign and por­traits of Saeed adorn every poster pro­mot­ing Sheikh.

An­other Is­lamist des­ig­nated a ter­ror­ist by the United States, Fa­zlur Rehman Khalil, has told Reuters he too plans to soon form his own party to ad­vo­cate strict Is­lamic law.

“God will­ing, we will come into the main­stream - our coun­try right now needs pa­tri­otic peo­ple,” Khalil said, vow­ing to turn Pak­istan into a state govern­ment by strict Is­lamic law.

Saeed’s char­ity and Khalil’s An­sar ul-Umma or­gan­i­sa­tion are both seen by the United States as fronts for mil­i­tant groups the army has been ac­cused of spon­sor­ing.

Hun­dreds of MML sup­port­ers, wav­ing posters of Saeed and de­mand­ing his re­lease from house ar­rest, chanted “Long live Hafiz Saeed! Long live the Pak­istan army!” at po­lit­i­cal ral­lies dur­ing the past week.

“Any­one who is In­dia’s friend is a traitor, a traitor,” went an­other cam­paign slo­gan, a ref­er­ence to Sharif’s at­tempts to im­prove re­la­tions with long-time foe In­dia that was a source of ten­sion with the mil­i­tary. Both Saeed and Khalil are pro­po­nents of a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of Is­lam and have a his­tory of sup­port­ing vi­o­lence - each man was re­port­edly a sig­na­tory to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declar­ing war on the United States.

They have since es­tab­lished re­li­gious groups that they say are un­con­nected to vi­o­lence, though the United States main­tains those groups are fronts for fun­nelling money and fight­ers to mil­i­tants tar­get­ing In­dia.

An­a­lyst Khaled Ahmed, who has re­searched Saeed’s Ja­maat-ud-Dawa char­ity and its con­nec­tions to the mil­i­tary, says the new po­lit­i­cal party is clearly an at­tempt by the gener­als to pur­sue an al­ter­na­tive to dis­man­tling its mil­i­tant prox­ies.

“One thing is the army wants these guys to sur­vive,” Ahmed said. “The other thing is that they want to also bal­ance the politi­cians who are more and more in­clined to nor­mal­ize re­la­tions with In­dia.” The mil­i­tary’s In­terSer­vices In­tel­li­gence agency first be­gan push­ing the po­lit­i­cal main­stream­ing plan in April 2016, ac­cord­ing to re­tired gen­eral Shuaib, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the army’s mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence wing that is sep­a­rate from the ISI.

He said the pro­posal was shared with him in writ­ing by the then-ISI chief, adding that he him­self had spo­ken with Khalil as well as Saeed in an un­of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity about the plan.

“Fa­zlur Rehman Khalil was very pos­i­tive. Hafiz Saeed was very pos­i­tive,” Shuaib said. “My con­ver­sa­tion with them was just to con­firm those things which I had been told by the ISI and other peo­ple.”

Saeed has been un­der house ar­rest since Jan­uary at his house in the east­ern city of La­hore. The United States has of­fered a $10 mil­lion re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to his con­vic­tion over the Mum­bai at­tacks.

Then-Prime Min­is­ter Sharif, how­ever, was strongly against the mil­i­tary’s main­stream­ing plan, ac­cord­ing to Shuaib and three mem­bers of Sharif’s in­ner cir­cle, in­clud­ing one who was in some of the tense meet­ings over the is­sue.

Sharif wanted to com­pletely dis­man­tle groups like JuD. Dis­agree­ment on what to do about anti-In­dia proxy fight­ers was a ma­jor source of ran­cour with the mil­i­tary, ac­cord­ing to one of the close Sharif con­fi­dants.

In re­cent weeks sev­eral se­nior fig­ures from the rul­ing PML-N party have pub­licly im­plied that el­e­ments of the mil­i­tary - which has run Pak­istan for al­most half its modern his­tory and pre­vi­ously ousted Sharif in a 1999 coup - had a hand in the court ouster of Sharif, a charge both the army and the court re­ject.

A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the PML-N, which last month re­placed him as prime min­is­ter with close ally Shahid Khaqi Ab­basi, said the party was “not aware” of any main- stream­ing plan be­ing brought to the ta­ble.

Some an­a­lysts worry that main­stream­ing such con­tro­ver­sial groups would be a risky strat­egy for Pak­istan.

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has threat­ened sanc­tions against mem­bers of Pak­istan’s mil­i­tary and even raised the specter of declar­ing Pak­istan a state spon­sor of ter­ror­ism.

“It will send a wrong mes­sage,” said an­a­lyst Zahid Hus­sain, who nev­er­the­less thought that Saeed’s new party would have a “neg­li­gi­ble” ef­fect on Pak­istani elec­tions be­cause re­li­gious par­ties have never won more than a few seats in par­lia­ment. Sheikh, the MML can­di­date in Sun­day’s by-elec­tion who says he was hand­picked by Hafiz Saeed, vowed to es­tab­lish strict Is­lamic rule and “break” lib­er­al­ism and sec­u­lar­ism.

An­a­lyst Ahmed warned that few ex­ist­ing re­li­gious par­ties have a charis­matic leader like Saeed, and Pak­istan may find it­self un­able to con­trol a ris­ing tide of Is­lamist sen­ti­ment.

“If Hafiz Saeed comes into the main­stream, it’s not that he is go­ing to be politi­cized,” he added. “It’s that he is go­ing to make pol­i­tics more re­li­gious.” Bri­tish po­lice ar­rested an 18-year-old man in the port of Dover and raided a prop­erty in a small town out­side Lon­don on Saturday as they hunted for who­ever planted a bomb on a Lon­don com­muter train that in­jured 30 peo­ple a day ear­lier.

Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May put Bri­tain on the high­est se­cu­rity level of “crit­i­cal” late on Friday, mean­ing an at­tack may be im­mi­nent, and sol­diers and armed po­lice de­ployed to se­cure strate­gic sites and hunt down the per­pe­tra­tors.

The home-made bomb shot flames through a packed com­muter train dur­ing the Friday morn­ing rush hour in west Lon­don but ap­par­ently failed to det­o­nate fully. Some suf­fered burns and oth­ers were in­jured in a stam­pede to es­cape from the sta­tion.

The blast on the Lon­don tube train at the Par­sons Green un­der­ground sta­tion was the fifth ma­jor ter­ror­ism at­tack in Bri­tain this year and was claimed by Is­lamic State.

Bri­tain de­ployed hun­dreds of sol­diers at strate­gic sites such as nu­clear power plants and min­istry of de­fense sites on Saturday to free up armed po­lice to help in the hunt for those be­hind the bomb­ing. The last time Bri­tain was put on “crit­i­cal” alert was af­ter a man killed 22 peo­ple at an Ari­ana Grande con­cert in Manch­ester in May. Prior to that it had not been trig­gered since 2007. “For this pe­riod, mil­i­tary per­son­nel will re­place po­lice of­fi­cers on guard du­ties at cer­tain pro­tected sites,” May said in a tele­vised state­ment.

Hafiz Saeed

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