At first, locals in the Khyber region thought Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI) would deliver a fairer and more orderly system of governance in the region. They are now wiser, as LeI has unleashed a reign of terror for four years.
Members of the banned outfit are unapologetic and uncompromising in their outlook. “We believe in terrorism and instilling fear in the hearts of the unbelievers and those Muslims who do not follow the true Islamic way of life,” says Omar, an LeI spokesperson, from an undisclosed location in Khyber Agency.
The rise of this armed militia did not happen overnight. A mixture of sectarian violence, control over key smuggling routes and an unfair system of justice gave the initial impetus to LeI.
Omar boasts that they have support beyond the tribal belt: from Peshawar through to Punjab. He says he just came back from the troubled area of Tirah. Mangal Bagh, the group’s leader, was reportedly killed in a suicide attack there earlier this month. According to Omar, the news is false. “Our opponents are spreading rumours about our leadership but I can assure you that he is alive,” he says.
Locals say the first sign of trouble started in 2004, when Mufti Munir Shakir, a cleric from Kurram Agency, came to settle in Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency after being thrown out of his hometown for inciting sectarian hatred. His arrival in Khyber Agency went unnoticed at first.
He then launched a local radio station and again started gathering supporters under his hard-line interpretation of Islam. This time his target was a Barelvi religious scholar, Pir Saifur Rehman, who had migrated from Afghanistan in the 1980s and now lived in Khyber Agency, running a seminary. After a series of violent clashes between the two groups, in 2006 a Jirga was convened which decided to expel both clerics. While Pir Saifur Rehman abided by the decision, Mufti Munir Shakir at first resisted the expulsion but was forced to leave by locals. He made Mangal Bagh, then a local transporter, his successor in the armed militia which came to be known as Lashkar-e-Islam.
With Mangal Bagh in power, many residents of Khyber Agency thought life would change for the better. “At first we supported Mangal Bagh because he was a local and was helping ensure justice for common people,” says Shah Jahan, a resident of Bara, a former LeI stronghold. “But then he started killing those who opposed their version of Islam, including some of my family members,” he alleges.
Many like Shah Jahan fled the area in fear. When asked, the LeI spokesperson said that, except for those who follow their strict interpretation of Islam, all others are not proper Muslims and should not be spared. This, he said, is the true spirit of shariah, which his movement wants to implement all over Pakistan.
The LeI has now lost most of this local support, but analysts feel that the movement was supported by locals at first because it talked about delivering justice.
“The LeI introduced itself as a reformist movement initially and wanted a uniform Islamic system based on Deobandi ideology,” says Rustum Shah Mohmand, a former political agent from the tribal belt. He also alleges that local authorities, instead of dealing with them head on to re-establish the writ of the state, started to support another armed force in the area, known as Ansarul Islam. “After that strategy failed, an operation was launched, but forces have been unable to control the area for four years because it did not contain it in the beginning which it should have,” he complains.
A military official who looks after intelligence affairs in Fata says that Khyber Agency has been virtually occupied by smugglers. “The LeI has taken control of those routes to generate funds for themselves,” he says.
Interestingly everyone, including the military and tribal elders, say the solution to the conflict is through talks. Even the LeI feels the same, but Omar, their representative, says certain elements are not letting talks happen. “The government is lying since it tells us one thing and tells the public another.”
For the intelligence officer, the situation is still hugely challenging, but an end is in sight. “It will take a few years more before we gain full control but we believe Khyber Agency is the last battlefield,” he added.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 28th, 2012.