ISLAMABAD: A year after Osama bin Laden died in a US raid, Al-Qaeda keeps spreading its message of terror in Pakistan, analysts say, with splinter groups threatening the country’s fragile stability.
A campaign of missile attacks by unmanned US drone aircraft in Pakistan’s lawless northwest, long a hideout for militants, has weakened Al-Qaeda’s structure by eliminating some of its leadership.
But analysts say the group’s ideology, its narrative of brave Muslim resistance against wicked American imperialism and the iconic figurehead that bin Laden represented have all struck a chord in a country beset by economic woes and weak political leadership.
Pakistani security officials say groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi work closely with Al-Qaeda, feed off its ideology and pose a serious threat to security.
In the weeks after bin Laden’s death, the TTP launched a series of high-profile attacks including a double suicide bombing on a police training centre that killed nearly 100 people.
Retired lieutenant general Talat Masood, a Pakistani security analyst, said the chaos in Afghanistan and lawlessness in tribal northwest Pakistan, an area largely beyond government control, have helped these outfits to arm and ally themselves to what he called Al-Qaeda’s “warped pan-Islamism”.
“Today the threat is more from these militant groups which have left their mother group and (splintered) and are creating havoc in the form of sectarian conflicts, ethnic conflicts, developing mafias to gain control and power in pockets of Pakistan,” Masood told AFP.
Sectarian violence between majority Sunni and minority Shia communities has been on the rise, flaring most recently in the far northern city of Gilgit, where at least 14 people were killed in clashes on April 3.
Mariam Abou Zahab, a lecturer at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris, said the July 2007 government raid on extremists preaching at the Red Mosque in Islamabad marked an important moment in the spread of violence.
The TTP was born shortly after the raid, which drew militant Pashtuns from the northwest, Al-Qaeda and extremists from Pakistan’s most populous province Punjab closer together, she said, allowing them to share connections to strike all over Pakistan.
The influence of Al-Qaeda and the public prominence enjoyed by groups associated with its ideology — such as the Defence of Pakistan Council, a coalition of right-wing and Islamist organisations — has made public opinion in Pakistan more conservative, according to Masood.
In the face of weak political leadership in Pakistan, these groups have offered a powerful narrative — evil Americans invading Afghanistan, killing Muslims and harbouring evil designs on Pakistan — and a strong figurehead in bin Laden, he said.
Liberal, moderate opinion has been marginalised by the fiery rhetoric of the extremists, he said, and the politicians have failed to offer a persuasive alternative.
“What Osama bin Laden has done is fill the vacuum of leadership. So it is a failure of Pakistan’s leadership as I see it,” Masood said.
The problem of militancy is economic as well as military. Pakistan’s economy is struggling and, Masood said, the government has spent years neglecting the development of the northwest, where militants have their strongholds.
To the impoverished, disempowered men of these areas, groups such as the TTP offer both an income and the social standing that comes with having a gun in your hand.
Moreover, many extremist groups, such as the banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, have charitable arms which provide social welfare in a country where state provision is limited.
“A lot of these groups are running hundreds of seminaries and these seminaries are providing education to young children, particularly children from poor families,” said analyst and author Imtiaz Gul of the Centre for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad think-tank.
“How does the state take care of these children if it wants to crack down on these seminaries which are indirectly connected to one group or the other?”
There are signs that the military — considered the chief arbiter of power in Pakistan since independence — is recognising the importance of a holistic approach to militancy.
The army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, widely regarded as the most powerful man in Pakistan, recently stressed that national security should be about development and economic progress as much as defending borders.