Pakistan's threat within: The Sunni-Shia divide

Published: October 24, 2012

For an outlawed group accused of fomenting such mayhem, the leader of LeJ is surprisingly easy to find. PHOTO: REUTERS

GILGIT: About 20 men dressed as Pakistani soldiers boarded a bus bound for a Muslim festival outside this mountain town and checked the identification cards of the passengers. They singled out 19 Shias, drew weapons and slaughtered them, most with a bullet to the head.

The shooters weren’t soldiers. They were a hit squad linked to the Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). They had trekked in along a high Himalayan pass that hot August morning to waylay a convoy of pilgrims.

Here and across Pakistan, violent Sunni radicals are on the march against the nation’s Shia minority.

With a few hundred hard-core cadres, the highly secretive LeJ aims to trigger sectarian violence that would pave the way for a Sunni theocracy in US-allied Pakistan, say Pakistan police and intelligence officials. Its immediate goal, they say, is to stoke the intense Sunni-Shia violence that has pushed countries like Iraq close to civil war.

More than 300 Shias have been killed in Pakistan so far this year in sectarian conflict, according to human rights groups. The campaign is gathering pace in rural as well as urban areas such as Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city. The Shias are a big target, accounting for up to 20 percent of this nation of 180 million.

In January, LeJ claimed responsibility for a homemade bomb that exploded in a crowd of Shias in Punjab province, killing 18 and wounding 30. LeJ’s reach extends beyond Pakistan: Late last year, LeJ claimed responsibility for bombings in Afghanistan that killed 59 people, the worst sectarian attacks since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.

“No doubt – (LeJ) are the most dangerous group,” said Chaudhry Aslam, a top counter-terrorism police commando based in Karachi, whose house was blown up by the LeJ. “We will fight them until the last drop of blood.”

For an outlawed group accused of fomenting such mayhem, the leader of LeJ is surprisingly easy to find.

Malik Ishaq spent 14 years in jail in connection with dozens of murder and terrorism cases. He was released after the charges could not be proved – partly because of witness intimidation, officials say – and showered with rose petals by hundreds of supporters when he left prison in July 2011.

Although Ishaq is one of Pakistan’s most feared militants, he enjoys the protection of followers clutching AK-47 assault rifles in the narrow lane outside his home. There, in the town of Rahim Yar Khan in southern Punjab province, Reuters visited him for an interview.

“The state should declare Shias as non-Muslims on the basis of their beliefs,” said Ishaq, calling them the “greatest infidels on earth.” Young supporters with shoulder-length hair hung on every word.

Following the trail

To assess the LeJ threat, Reuters followed the group’s trail across Pakistan – from Ishaq’s compound, to Gilgit in the foothills of the Himalayas, recruiting grounds in central Punjab, and the backstreets of Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast.

In interviews, police, intelligence officials, clerics and LeJ members described a group that has grown more robust and appears to be operating across a much wider area in Pakistan than just a few years ago. But it had a head start.

Since being outlawed after the attacks of September 11, 2001, LeJ has worked with Sunni radical groups al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban in several high-profile strikes. Among them were assaults in 2009 on Pakistan’s military headquarters and on Sri Lanka’s visiting cricket team. Washington says LeJ was involved in the killing of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Now it is gathering strength anew. The risks are heightened by Pakistan’s long-standing role as a battlefield in a proxy war between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran, which have been competing for influence in Asia and the Middle East since the 1979 Iranian revolution.

That competition has heated up since the United States toppled secularist dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq and left the country under the control of an Iranian-influenced Shi’ite government. Intelligence officials say the LeJ is drawing financial support from Saudi donors and other Sunni sources.

“Unfortunately, the state for strategic reasons turned a blind eye to the LeJ for a long time,” said a retired army general. “Now we have a situation where it has become Pakistan’s Frankenstein.”

Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who is in charge of internal security, told Reuters that “we always take action” against the LeJ when the group is suspected of murder or terrorism. “We track people and arrest them.”

When asked why those arrested are often freed, he said: “Look, my job is to arrest people, not to let them go. We all know who lets them off the hook and why,” he said, referring to local politicians and elements of the military who turn a blind eye to their activities or even support them in some cases.

Sacred calling

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose name means Soldiers of Jhangvi (after its founder, Haq Maulana Nawab Jhangvi), isn’t the only lethal militant group.

One is Lashkar-e-Taiba (Soldiers of the Pure), which fights against Indian control in disputed Kashmir. It is blamed for several deadly attacks on Indian soil, including the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, and an audacious raid on India’s parliament in December 2001 with another Kashmiri militant group, Jaishi-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad). That raid brought India and Pakistan to the brink of war.

Another is the Pakistani Taliban. Its attack this month on 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Swat was only the most recent in a long list of strikes on civilian and military targets, mainly in the unruly tribal area along the Afghan border.

What makes LeJ particularly dangerous, however, is that the group is based in Pakistan’s Punjab heartland. And it is not just attacking targets in Pakistan’s neighbors, but has also targeted the state, including the 2009 attack on Pakistan’s military headquarters.

LeJ was established as an offshoot of another anti-Shia organization called Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of Mohammad’s Companions).

LeJ believes it has a sacred calling – to protect the legacy of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad – and it sees Shias as the main threat.

Mahmood Baber, educated in a madrassa, was drawn by LeJ’s call to holy war against Shia infidels. His 16-year career in the movement ended in October, when he and other LeJ members were arrested.

Handcuffed and with a cloth thrown over his head at a Karachi police station, Baber described for Reuters the “great satisfaction” he felt killing 14 Shia “terrorists” over the years. His voice choked with emotion when he said that for 1,400 years Shias had insulted the companions of the Prophet.

“Get rid of Shias. That is our goal. May God help us,” he said, before intelligence agents led him away for a fresh round of interrogation.

Demonising Iran

The LeJ’s leader, Ishaq, lives in a house whose gate bears a sign inviting residents of the town to debate whether Shias are infidels.

These days Ishaq calls himself a leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, the LeJ parent group. Pakistani officials say he still runs, or at least inspires, LeJ. Ishaq denies any wrongdoing, repeatedly saying: “I’ve been acquitted.” He has indeed been acquitted 34 times on charges of culpable homicide and terrorism.

He does not hide his feelings about Shias, his voice growing strident as he opened a plastic folder filled with printouts from what he describes as Shia Internet sites.

One contained a photo of a pig, an animal considered by Muslims to be dirty, and is accompanied by an insult to Sunnis.

“Whoever insults the companions of the Holy Prophet should be given a death sentence,” Ishaq declares.

Ishaq and other hardline Sunnis believe that Iran is trying to foment revolution in Pakistan to turn it into a Shia state, though no evidence for that is offered.

The Saudi connection

In the Punjab town of Jhang, LeJ’s birthplace, SSP leader Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi describes what he says are Tehran’s grand designs. Iranian consular offices and cultural centers, he alleges, are actually a front for its intelligence agencies.

“If Iranian interference continues it will destroy this country,” said Ludhianvi in an interview in his home. The state provides him with armed guards, fearful any harm done to him could trigger sectarian bloodletting.

The Iranian embassy in Islamabad, asked for a response to that allegation, issued a statement denouncing sectarian violence.

“What is happening today in the name of sectarianism has nothing to do with Muslims and their ideologies,” it said.

Ludhianvi insisted he was just a politician. “I would like to tell you that I am not a murderer, I am not a killer, I am not a terrorist. We are a political party.”

After a meal of chicken, curry and spinach, Ludhianvi and his aides stood up to warmly welcome a visitor: Saudi Arabia-based cleric Malik Abdul Haq al-Meqqi.

A Pakistani cleric knowledgeable about Sunni groups described Meqqi as a middleman between Saudi donors and intelligence agencies and the LeJ, the SSP and other groups.

“Of course, Saudi Arabia supports these groups. They want to keep Iranian influence in check in Pakistan, so they pay,” the Pakistani cleric said. His account squared with that of a Pakistani intelligence agent, who said jailed militants had confessed that LeJ received Saudi funding.

Saudi cleric Meqqi denied that, and SSP leader Ludhianvi concurred: “We have not taken a penny from the Saudi government,” he told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia’s alleged financing of Sunni militant groups has been a sore point in Washington. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned in a December 2009 classified diplomatic cable that charities and donors in Saudi Arabia were the “most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.” In the cable, released by Wikileaks, Clinton said it was “an ongoing challenge” to persuade Saudi officials to treat such activity as a strategic priority. She said the groups funded included al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The Saudi embassy in Islamabad and officials in Saudi Arabia were unavailable for comment.

Shia revenge

Some Shia groups do look to Iran’s clerical establishment for spiritual leadership, but insist they have no aims beyond protecting members from Sunni attacks.

In the offices of a Shi’ite organization in Karachi, images of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are featured on a wall clock. There, a Pakistani Shia woman named Shafqat Batool described what happened to her son, a judge, when he left for work on August 30.

Minutes after Sayid Zulfiqar stepped out of the family home in Quetta, she said, witnesses told the family three men on a motorcycle opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles. One of the assailants then grabbed a weapon from Zulfiqar’s bleeding driver and pumped more bullets into her son.

It prompted Zulfiqar’s family to move to Karachi. “We are not safe anywhere in the country,” his mother said. “People are horrified, people can’t sleep.”

The fear is palpable in Quetta, the mountainous provincial capital of southwestern Baluchistan. LeJ has unleashed an escalating campaign there of suicide bombings and assassinations against ethnic Hazaras – Persian-speaking Shias who mostly emigrated from Afghanistan and are a small minority of the Shia population in Pakistan.

At least 100 Hazaras have been killed this year, according to Human Rights Watch, leaving some 500,000 Hazaras fearful of venturing out of their enclaves.

“We are under siege; we can’t move anywhere,” said Khaliq Hazara, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party. “Hazaras are being killed and there is nobody to take any action.

In Quetta and Karachi, Shia leaders say they are urging young men to exercise restraint and buy weapons only for self-defense.

“We are controlling our youth and stopping them from reacting,” said Syed Sadiq Raza Taqvi, a Karachi cleric, seated beside a calendar with images of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

But with each killing, the temptation to take revenge grows.

Shia extremists have not adopted the kind of attacks favored by LeJ. But they have hunted down members of the SSP.

One such case was an attack survived by Sohaib Nadeem, 27, son of an SSP member. Men he described as “Shia terrorists backed by Iran” opened fire on the Nadeem family in their car. Nadeem survived nine gunshot wounds but his father and brothers were killed. “The Shias are our enemies,” Nadeem said.

Confederation of militants

When the Taliban and al Qaeda want to reach targets outside their strongholds on the Afghan border, they turn to LeJ to provide intelligence, safe houses or young volunteers eager for martyrdom, police and intelligence officials said.

“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is the detonator of terrorism in Pakistan,” said Karachi Police Superintendent Raja Umer Khattab, who has interrogated more than 100 members. “The Taliban needs Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Al Qaeda needs Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They are involved in most terrorism cases.”

The massacre of Shia bus passengers outside Gilgit has had a profound impact on this mountaineering hub in the Himalayan foothills. Never before had Sunni extremists asked for identification to single out Shias and then kill them on such a large scale.

Sunnis and Shias, who had lived in harmony for decades, now cope with sectarian no-go zones.

“Sunnis can’t go to some areas and Shias can’t go to others,” lamented Gilgit shopkeeper Muneer Hussain Shah, a Shia whose brother was killed in a grenade attack.

When violence erupts, text messages circulate rallying one sect or the other. Shops and schools close. Authorities have banned motorcycles to stop drive-by shootings.

Law enforcement itself is a victim of sectarianism in Gilgit, said police chief Usman Zakria. Shia officers are reluctant to investigate crimes committed by Shias, and the same is true of Sunnis.

“They are in disarray,” said Zakria. “None of this has happened before.”

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Reader Comments (12)

  • Hassan Nasir
    Oct 24, 2012 - 3:57PM

    The Islamic ideology does not provoke radicalism and hatred, instead it is a religion of peace and harmony, of brotherhood and tolerance. Pakistan is facing the worst scenario of sectarianism nowadays and this has been happening for decades. This was not the usual case in other parts of the world but with the America-led war on terrorism, several off shoots of the Taliban and other radical islamist organisations have taken flight to countries which lack proper infrastructure and have begun practising their attrocities in such regions! Pakistani authorities and people in dominant positions are to be blamed for not being able to curb the sectarian violence and mark my words, this will continue to grow over the times if considerable and effective measures are not employed soon!

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  • Hassan Nasir
    Oct 24, 2012 - 4:00PM

    It is not the general Sunni faction against the general Shia faction or vice versa but only minor groups who are the miscreants and their covert operations prove to be lethal because they are small in number, making them difficult to track down or identify! People must be vigilant themselves in order to protect their own lives and that of their families! But vigilance does not mean resorting to violence and revenge. May Allah swt enlighten the people of our land and may brotherhood prosper amongst us, amen!

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  • Lord
    Oct 24, 2012 - 4:19PM

    Every community or sect will suffer in this country except who follow , sympathize and Idealize saudi version of islam. Mark my words.

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  • Banday
    Oct 24, 2012 - 5:22PM

    Shia & Sunni sects have existed in Muslim history for centuries. And their conflicts are well-known, then why this blood-letting today. The main reason remains usage of religious-motivated youth in proxy wars against communists in Afghanistan. Once the fanatic has tasted the blood in the name of Jihad, then it is natural that he will search for new ventures to stamp his victory. It was then Kashmir, again Afghanistan, other Muslim countries & so on. For less mobile, religious minority sects are the easy target.

    First it was Qadianis, who were neutralized easily, as they are fewer in number. We, the Sunni majority, are seeing the Shia slaughter with a bit shock & more indifference. We need not to worry, our turn is not going to come so soon. Due to their larger population in Pakistan, Shia solution is going to take more time for Sunni militants…

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  • Sultan Khan
    Oct 24, 2012 - 6:02PM

    Unable to understand as to how from the remarks of the Interior Minister Reuters have drawn the conclusion that he(the minister) was referring to the local politicians and elements of the military. In my opinion he was referring to another institution as the arrests are made by the police and the suspects are presented in the civil courts and not the military courts. There may be pro and anti Americans in the army but as far as sectarianism is concerned Pakistan army is totally free from that malaise.

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  • Oct 24, 2012 - 6:15PM

    The identification papers should not indicate which sect you belong to.

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  • Monty
    Oct 24, 2012 - 8:04PM

    More drones

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  • Dr.A.K.Tewari
    Oct 24, 2012 - 10:02PM

    It is absolutely wrong to say that under the pressure of political leadership or the pressure of army the murderers have been released by the court but the fact is that the judiciary in Pakistan is dominated by the people like present chief justice who blindly support the sharia like laws such as blasphemy law . Such judiciary is openly supporting terrorists and willing to derail the present government working against the terrorists .

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  • Iron hand
    Oct 27, 2012 - 10:17PM

    @Hassan Nasir: Time to get your head out of the sand and stop pretending that all is well with Islam. These murderers consider themselves Muslims and believe they are following Islam precisely. You don’t think so? Time for peace loving Muslims like yourself to challenge these extremist religious beliefs POINT BY POINT, rather than make meaningless declarations that these people aren’t Muslims while ignoring the religious justifications they offer for their behavior. Challenging the extremists will take courage, but it’s the only way out of the hateful, violent mess the Islamic world finds itself in.

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  • Omar
    Oct 30, 2012 - 5:42PM

    I curse the Wahabis. They have turned islam into terror.Recommend

  • Hassan Nasir
    Nov 5, 2012 - 3:50PM

    @Iron Hand…. Mate I am not in hiding like the many other around us, I step out and bring anyone with a pro-Taliban, anti-Muslim mindset on terms of a debate, though I am not a scholar or something but a common student/citizen with little knowledge, I try to rationalize my point and to prove theirs irrational with the support of common everyday examples. I myself do not go against the idea of eradicating the Talibans, I wish that some day, someone from the higher authorities would send these heinous men of disgust and filth to the gallows and put an end to their tyrannous era… but the point I put forward, i.e. the citizens be vigilant and not resort to crime and revenge is a legitimate one

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  • Marium
    Nov 22, 2012 - 3:37PM

    I’d like to see America ‘liberate’ Saudi Arabia, knowing fully well that the main axis of all evil IS in fact Saudi Arabia.

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