Pakistan Taliban taps Punjab heartland for recruits

Pakistanis are increasingly concerned over the deadly collaboration between Punjabi militants from Sargodha and the Taliban.

By Alex Rodriguez    LA Times November 16, 2009

(Sargodha, Pakistan): One by one, recruits from Pakistan’s Punjab heartland would make the seven-hour drive to Waziristan, where they would pull up to an office that made no secret of its mission.

The signboard above the office door read “Tehrik-e-Taliban.” In a largely ungoverned city like Miram Shah, there was no reason to hide its identity.

The trainees from Sargodha would arrive, grab some sleep at the Taliban office and afterward head into Waziristan’s rugged mountains for instruction in skills including karate and handling explosives and automatic rifles.

“Someone recruits them, then someone else takes them to Miram Shah, and then someone in Miram Shah greets them and takes them in,” said Sargodha Police Chief Usman Anwar, whose officers this summer arrested a cell of returning Punjabi militants before they could allegedly carry out a plan to blow up a cellphone tower in this city of 700,000. “It’s an assembly line, like Ford Motors has.”

The arrests of six Punjabi militants in Sargodha in two raids Aug. 24 illustrated a burgeoning collaboration between Punjabi militants and northwestern Pakistan’s Taliban that has Pakistanis increasingly concerned as the government focuses its military resources on Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in South Waziristan.

Military commanders say their troops assumed control of most of South Waziristan just three weeks after launching a large-scale offensive aimed at uprooting the Pakistani Taliban near the Afghan border. Troops are now clashing with Taliban fighters in Makeen, the hometown of slain Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud.

However, evidence is growing that militants in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, could prove just as dangerous as the Taliban militants from the country’s northwestern region that includes South Waziristan and other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.

Pakistan has been broadsided by a nationwide wave of terrorist strikes in recent weeks, and several of those attacks have involved militants from Punjab either masterminding or carrying out the violence.

A daring Oct. 10 commando raid on the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, a heavily guarded complex that is Pakistan’s equivalent of the Pentagon, was engineered by a Punjabi militant who also organized the deadly ambush of the Sri Lankan cricket team in March.

Punjabi extremists were also believed to be behind near-simultaneous attacks on three police buildings in Lahore that killed 14 people on Oct. 15.

Years ago, the agendas of the Pakistani Taliban and Punjabi militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad moved in different directions. Whereas the Taliban has long focused its attacks on Pakistan’s Western-allied government, Punjabi groups, which, like the Taliban, are Sunni Muslims, have traditionally targeted Indian forces in the disputed Kashmir region and members of Pakistan’s Shiite Muslim minority.

Now, however, the missions of the Taliban and Punjabi militants seem to have merged. Law enforcement officials and analysts say the catalyst was the government’s 2007 siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad where Islamic extremists held scores of people hostage. The eight-day siege in the Pakistani capital ended in the deaths of more than 100 people.

Then-President Pervez Musharraf ordered security forces to seize the mosque after militants at the sprawling compound set fire to the capital’s Environment Ministry building. The siege had been preceded by months of challenges to Musharraf’s leadership from the mosque’s radical leaders, including an insistence that Pakistan adopt Islamic law.

After the siege, Punjabi militant groups that had been tolerated — and in some cases fostered — by Pakistani authorities viewed the government as an enemy.

Experts say Pakistan has neglected to adequately brace for the threat posed by Taliban-trained Punjabi militants. Their cells have spread throughout Punjab province, and law enforcement officials say Punjabi militants have established their own training camps in southern Punjab, a desolate wasteland where the police presence is minimal and a feudal society dominates.

“At the moment, the government is bewildered. It doesn’t know how to manage this challenge coming from Punjabi militants,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst.

“In the past, Punjab militants were merely facilitating the Taliban. But now they have joined with the Taliban to engage in terrorist attacks.”

Southern Punjab provides militant groups a haven to train and reconnoiter. Like the Taliban’s primary stronghold in Waziristan, vast tracts of southern Punjab are regarded as tribal areas where rule is laid down by local sardars, or feudal leaders. In some places, the only glint of law enforcement comes in the form of the poorly trained border military police, who take orders largely from feudal leaders, said Maj. Gen. Yaqub Khan of the Pakistan Rangers Punjab.

In an interview on Pakistan’s Express News television channel in mid-October, Khan said militants freely move between South Waziristan and the tribal area surrounding the southern Punjab city of Dera Ghazi Khan.

Khan said the jurisdiction of his paramilitary force, which is under the control of the Interior Ministry, is limited to securing a gas pipeline.

“There are no police in the region,” he said. “We have confirmed reports that terrorists gather and get training in this region, and they have definite linkage with militants fighting in FATA.”

Pakistanis in Dera Ghazi Khan and surrounding villages fear that, as the government continues its crackdown on Taliban militants along the Afghan border, fleeing Taliban fighters may attempt to establish themselves in southern Punjab.

“No one is serious about preventing the Talibanization of our area,” said Khawaja Mudasar Mehmood, a Dera Ghazi Khan politician with the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. “We face spillover from South Waziristan. Taliban militants are already passing into this area, and the border military police can’t prevent it.”

In Sargodha, the link to the Taliban is Mohammed Tayyab, who heads the Punjabi Taliban cell in Miram Shah and had close ties with Mahsud, said Anwar, the Sargodha police chief. Tayyab has been accused of engineering the November 2007 suicide bombing attack on a Pakistani air force bus in Sargodha that killed eight people.

After several raids, Tayyab and his militant group are keeping a lower profile in Miram Shah, but they still tap Sargodha for fresh recruits and train them in Waziristan, Anwar said. A primary conduit for recruitment was a madrasa, or Islamic seminary school,run by the father of four brothers who were arrested by Sargodha police in August, accused of planning an attack on the cellphone tower.

“Likely recruits at the madrasas are teens, 14 or 15, without strong links to family,” Anwar said. “Poverty is a factor, but having no social links, no future, is the main cause.”

Law enforcement officials say the military offensive in South Waziristan has accelerated collaboration among Punjabi militants, the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda. Punjabi militants have been waging the attacks on behalf of their Taliban and Al Qaeda allies, government officials say, hoping to erode popular backing for military operations in Waziristan.

The problem with battling militancy in Punjab is that the government cannot undertake a crackdown on the scale of the offensives against the Taliban in northwestern Pakistan’s Swat Valley or in Waziristan, experts say. Punjab is too densely populated and many in the province still cling to the belief that Pakistan’s next-door enemy, India, is behind much of the terrorism in Punjab.

“People don’t really recognize Punjabi militants as a threat, or they think these terrorist groups are agents of foreign countries,” said Rizvi, the analyst. “So when you start arguing that the roots of the problem lie outside Pakistan, then you don’t recognize the threat actually emerging here.”

9 Comments

Filed under FATA, Islamism, Media, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, Punjab, Taliban, Terrorism

9 responses to “Pakistan Taliban taps Punjab heartland for recruits

  1. Milind Kher

    The attacks in and around Lahore have effectively demonstrated that the Punjabi extremists are very dangerous.

    Moreover, their sectarian agenda makes them eminently capable of triggering large scale violence. Just like the Maoist threat in India was realized only after it got out of hand the threat of LeJ and SeS in Pakistan may be realized only too late.

    The tacit support to terrorist groups historically provided by the elements in the GOP has spawned
    monsters which are now difficult to control.

    Musharraf can well say, “After me, the deluge”

  2. mohammad

    The decease of punjabi taliban, appearantly seems incurable. Well thanks to so called experts in this field. SeS and LeJ are out of control amazing! Now here is a question, why SeS leadership deliberately carved out a splinter group in punjab? We do not biggest security brain in the world to answer that, but firstly we need to understand the demography of punjab. In punjab shia and sunnis live side by side in cities,towns and hamlets. There is hardly secetarian problem over there. There is a group of people calling themselves as deobandis ahle hadis or wahabis, and they have trained militants and they target unarmed and innocent shias. Mind you no one can take responsibility of a murder and then live in punjab. These militant are on constant run, and this is not the efficiency of law enforcing agencies or sleuths but sheer determination of victims family to aveng the killing. SeS lost most of its leadership due to this factor. If army can seek local help in swat then why not in punjab? If our intelligence agencies provide information about SeS /LeJ activists to their rivals then these brave talibans will not see day light again. However with that our law enforcing agencies should try to sort these miscreants themselves so that our legal system is given a chance.

  3. Milind Kher

    Of course, if the government armed the Shias and provided them active support, this problem would be solved rapidly.

    I am also aware that it is not the Sunnis which are responsible for the massacre or targeting of Shias, and it is indeed the sects that you mentioned. In fact, Muslim terrorists the world over are from that sect, and the country they draw their ideology from has more money than it can count.

    However, the time is coming when all these equations will change..

  4. neel123

    Pakistani establishments ( read the Army and the ISI ) have no urgency to curbe these terrorist outfits.

    Zardari, Gilani and party have no real say on this issue, as this is considered a strategic issue, controlled exclusively by the men in uniform.

    The elected Govt. is a hogwash, because all these elected officials can do, is to negotiate on behalf of the Army.

    This is what is called, civil-military co-operation in Pakistan… !

  5. yasserlatifhamdani

    I have never understood how neel123 comments with such certainty… he is always out of date… and his comments smack of prejudice.

    How ironic that he is calling another sovereign country’s elected government hogwash…. and claiming that Gilani doesn’t matter…. when the Forbes recently ranked the elected Prime Minister of Pakistan as the 38th most powerful person in the world (ranked 20 places above Nicholas Sarkozy for example) … and two places behind the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is at 36 ….

    General Kiyani did not make the top 67…
    http://www.forbes.com/lists/2009/20/power-09_The-Worlds-Most-Powerful-People_Rank_2.html

    And yet … Neel the self styled expert on Pakistan who probably has never visited Pakistan …. is claiming that Pakistan’s elected government is hogwash. Well tell you what so is India’s elected government then.

  6. bushra naqi

    The sectarian divide in pakistan has been intentionally kindled for a long time now in pakistan and thousands have been killed. The issue before and now has been more of militancy and killing people rather than controversial issues of ideology.
    The current militancy too is less ideological and more about money, power and control. This becomes all the more maifest from the fact that all the sectarian militant organizations have linkages and now have connected to the taliban and alqaeda. That is why it is so important that not only their physical links be severed but the source of the pipeline supplying all the money. With this drying up all the incentives will wither away.

  7. Milind Kher

    The sectarian violence is totally orchestrated and executed by nasibi elements. The discerning will understand what I mean.

    However, till their nasibi masters in the gulf continue to bankroll them, their destructive activities will continue.

  8. aliarqam

    Well Said Yasser……
    These indian blue(Neel or some signs of old wounds are alo called Neel) has some problem like our side of crazy stuff

  9. Milind Kher

    @Aliarqam,

    The saffron brigade on our side can be as bigoted as any jihadi. And it is getting worse..