Pakistan: Trapped in a jihadist quicksand

Rising religious extremism has further polarised Pakistani society and threatens to tear apart its social fabric, with massive implications for the country’s stability.


After 18 months of sheer provocation from the Jihadi militants-dominated Lal Masjid in the adjoining Jamia Hafsa madrasah in the federal capital of Islamabad, President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz responded with an eight-day siege beginning July 3, 2007. Although a relatively modest 154 deaths were reported as a consequence of the siege, it is believed that over 3,000 casualties were reported in the subsequent border altercations with the Taliban and as a consequence of what is referred to as the third major campaign in Waziristan. Here, Jihadi militants wearing gas masks

August 15, 2022

ISLAMABAD – ISLAMIC radicalism and militancy present an existentialist threat to the state of Pakistan. The country has earned the dubious distinction of being one of the largest incubators of extremism. Rising religious extremism has further polarised Pakistani society and threatens to tear apart its social fabric, with massive implications for the country’s stability.

The failure of the state to enforce the rule of law and formulate a comprehensive strategy to combat militancy has given space to the extremists more than their public support implies. Pakistan thus faces daunting challenges as it stands at a critical juncture of its history.

Islamic radicalism first took root in the country during the Afghan war against the Soviets in the 1980s, when the Pakistani government, in collaboration with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), pursued a deliberate policy of sponsoring militancy.

Afghanistan provided inspiration to a whole generation of Pakistani Islamic radicals who considered it their religious duty to fight against oppression of Muslims anywhere in the world. It gave a new dimension to the idea of jihad, which till then had only been employed by the state in the context of mobilising support against arch-rival India.

Born on the battlefields of Afghanistan during the Soviet jihad, Zahid Hussain explains how the modern Pakistani militant, once used as an instrument of state policy, now seeks to overthrow the state and enforce his own brand of religion.

Privatisation of jihad

The Afghan war saw the privatisation of the concept of jihad. Militant groups emerged from the ranks of traditional religious movements, who took the path of an armed struggle. The ISI’s active role brought Pakistani army officers in direct contact with the radicals.

The first Pakistani jihadi groups emerged in the 1980s when thousands of volunteers — mainly students from religious seminaries — joined the anti-Soviet resistance in Afghanistan. They joined the various Afghan groups rather than using their own banners.

Long before the Afghan war was over, the ISI started organising a new jihad front in held Kashmir. Highly disciplined paramilitary organisations operated in the region, pursuing their own internal and external agendas.

The largest among them were Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-i-Mohammad (JM), Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM) and Harkatul Jihad al Islami (HuJI). All these paramilitary groups, originally from the same source, had similar motivations and goals, and recruited from the same kind of people — often unemployed youth from the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The only difference was in patronage: HuM and HuJI were both strongly linked with the Afghan Taliban, while LT had strong links with Wahhabi groups in Saudi Arabia.

Those militant organisations were not clandestine nor had they sprouted surreptitiously. Their growth, if not actually sponsored, had certainly been looked upon with favour by the state. Their activities were not secret, and found expression in graffiti, wall posters and pamphlets all over the country, inviting Muslims to join forces with them.

Instruments of policy

During the 1980s and 1990s, the objective of jihadi movements in Pakistan was not the establishment of a global Islamic caliphate. Their objectives were more in line with the regional strategy of the Pakistani military establishment: the liberation of Kashmir from India and the installing of a Pakhtun Islamist government in Afghanistan. Almost all the Islamic militant groups served as instruments of Pakistan’s regional policy.

The rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s gave a huge boost to Pakistani militant groups like HuM and JM. Afghanistan became a base for their operations. Their leaders shared common origins, personnel and especially patrons. Many of the Pakistani militants came from the same seminaries in the border region from where the Afghan Taliban movement had emerged.

These groups were heavily backed by the Pakistani intelligence agencies, which also patronised the Afghan Taliban. Both were important in furthering Pakistan’s strategic interests — to extend Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. By 2002, Pakistan had become the home of around 24 militant groups.

Policy turnaround

Pakistan Army soldiers walk into the hideout of Islamist militants in Tang Khatta, near the town of Khar, in the troubled Bajaur agency on September 26, 2008, an incident which led to violent clashes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border at the time of President Asif Zardari. – Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP

Pakistan’s policy turnaround following the 9/11 attacks impelled most of the jihadi groups to join Al Qaeda’s war against the West. The presence of US and other Western forces in Afghanistan provided the added incentive for the creation of the new nexus. A large number of Pakistani militant cadres had already received military training in the Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime. That bond was further strengthened with their involvement in the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan against the US-led coalition forces.

As Islamabad closely aligned itself with the US, the militant Muslim youth increasingly turned inwards and targeted the military and other state institutions. For militants, the Western presence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan was a threat to Islamic identity. This view became the ultimate rationale for jihadist militancy in Pakistan. Anything representing the enemy or anyone who did not stand with their creed, such as Nato convoys, civilians, moderate clerics, the government and its agents, were considered targets.

The American war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Pakistan’s position as a frontline state in the so-called US war on terrorism. had contributed to the rise of a new and more violent militancy and turned the country into an Al Qaeda base.

A ‘new’ militant

A new generation of young educated militants from urban areas, most of them splinters of mainstream Islamic political parties, like the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI), joined the new jihadist movement making it a formidable terrorist network challenging the Pakistani state.

They were ideologically motivated young, middle-class professionals, products of universities rather than school dropouts or graduates of seminaries. Children of opportunity rather than deprivation, they have been the planners of many of the terrorist attacks targeting sensitive installations in Pakistan’s major cities, heralding a new phase of militancy that swept the country after 2007.

Over the years, Al Qaeda operating from borderlands had transformed with new recruits from among the Pakistani militant groups joining the ranks. The cadre Al Qaeda attracted was ideologically and politically motivated. Thousands of well-trained militants who were battle-hardened in Kashmir and Afghanistan provided ready recruits for the terrorist network.

Pakistani militant groups disintegrated into small cells after they were proscribed in 2002 and became an extension of Al Qaeda, providing the network with foot soldiers ready to die for the cause.

There were many other Pakistanis coming from the ranks of Islamist parties who also got involved with Al Qaeda operating from the mountainous border region, giving the group a new depth in Pakistan. The association of Al Qaeda operatives with the Islamist parties was not accidental; they had been the original face of jihad in Pakistan. Thousands of their members had joined the Mujahideen fighting against the Soviet forces. It was also the period when these parties, especially the JI, had developed close contacts with Arabs jihadists, many of whom were associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

TTP is born

It was on December 14, 2007, that some 40 militant leaders commanding some 400,000 militants gathered in South Waziristan to form a united front under the banner of Tehreek-i- Taliban Pakistan (TTP). It was a major attempt to unite different Pakistani militant groups under one umbrella.

Almost all the top militant leaders in the tribal region who formed the nucleus of the Pakistani Taliban movement were initially associated with one right-wing party or the other: Baitullah Mehsud, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Mullah Nazir, for instance, had all grown from the ranks of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), which was the only political party allowed to operate openly in the tribal areas. The eight-point charter called for the enforcement of Shariah rule and vowed to continue fighting against Nato forces in Afghanistan. The TTP also declared what it described as a ‘defensive’ jihad against the Pakistani military.

The new generation of Pakistani Taliban was more brutal than even their Afghan comrades. Beheadings and public executions of opponents and government officials became common practice. The videos of those brutal actions were then distributed to create fear. These kinds of sadistic actions were unheard of in Pakhtun culture. The brutality perpetrated by the Pakistani Taliban was influenced by Arab and Uzbek militants.

The creed of the Pakistani Taliban largely stemmed from Salafi jihadism espoused by Al Qaeda. It was also the result of Wahhabism which was spread in the region by thousands of Saudi-funded seminaries.

The TTP ended up being an extension of Al Qaeda. Its formation followed Osama bin Laden’s declaration of war against the Pakistani state in the aftermath of the siege of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. Its charter clearly reflected Al Qaeda’s new strategy to extend its war to Pakistan. Almost all the top leaders of the new organisation had a long association with Al Qaeda. Afghan Taliban leaders were also closely involved in the formation of the organisation which owed its allegiance to Osama and Afghan Taliban supremo Mullah Mohammad Omar.

Terror’s children

The rise of the distinctive Pakistani Taliban movement presented a new and more violent phase of Islamic militancy in the country. The TTP has also developed a close nexus with other Pakistani militant factions which had mutated into small cells after they were proscribed in 2002.

Suicide terrorism, which targeted both the military and the civilians, saw a massive rise after the Lal Masjid incident in 2007 when Al Qaeda and its allies among the Pakistani militants declared holy war against the Pakistani state. That marked a shift in jihadist strategy, making the government and the military primary targets. Security forces accounted for more than 60pc of the targets as human bombers became the most potent weapons in the militants’ war.

Poverty, unemployment, romantic notions of jihad and the growing influence of militant Islamic groups are also reasons for young men to turn into suicide bombers. Mostly uneducated, they are recruited for different purposes ranging from killing Shia Muslims to liberating Muslims from ‘infidels’. The new trend of suicide bombings is packaged as a ‘ticket to paradise’. By its very nature, it is a one-way ticket.

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