ThreatsWatch.Org: PrincipalAnalysis

The Madrassa Match and the Pakistani Tinderbox

The Taliban-al-Qaeda Eastern Front in the Spring Offensive Grows

By Steve Schippert

"The students from universities and colleges and youths from all walks of life ask why we do not call for jihad against a repressive regime, but I always say that the time is not ripe. But when pious lady teachers are punished and arrested for the sake of prostitutes, a call for jihad is imminent."
Ghazi Abdul Rasheed, Head of Lal Masjid madrassas, Islamabad, March 29, 2007

Events in Pakistan continue to unfold at a fast and accelerating pace, with very few positive developments for Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, if any. The widely reported news this week has been the official signing of the Bajour Accord between the tribal leaders of Bajour and the Pakistani government. This was expected to occur and, while another important concession by the Musharraf government to the Islamists patiently targeting his rule, it is not the most significant development this week. Several other events signify the more troubling creep of radicalism into the Pakistani capital and the rest of the nation, and still others point to an emboldened Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance. A true Eastern Front of 2007's Spring Offensive may be tangibly revealing itself in a rapid succession of unfolding events.

The Madrassa Match in Islamabad

Time will reveal the most significant event of this week, but chief among them must be considered the Lal Masjid madrassa standoff in Islamabad. In what can be described as a vice patrol, a group of predominantly female burqa-clad Islamist students had been canvassing the area trying to force local video and music shops to close due to the "vulgar" movies sold. Ultimately, they took three women captive from what they called a brothel nearby. Pakistani police then arrested two female instructors from the girls' madrassa, and the Islamist students responded by abducting two Pakistani police officers.

The Pakistani authorities responded by sacking the local chief of police, and simultaneously released the female madrassa teachers in exchange for the freed police officers. The standoff was tense, with both male and female students blocking off access streets to the Jamia Hafsa female madrassa area. The three women and a six-month old girl were released after the 'brothel' owner, Shamim Akhtar, made a public confession before reporters. She later recanted saying that the confession was forced. Of her ordeal, Akhtar said, "I was forcefully picked up, beaten and dragged along with my daughter, son's wife and a six-month-old baby to the madrassa. They beat us with batons and said the government can't do anything, and we had to read out a written confession." She said she was ultimately offered the option of a public repenting or trial in a Sharia court.

This is the same group of Islamist students that have occupied a nearby students' library for weeks in defiance of the Pakistani government. The government wanted to close the library because it claimed that it distributed militant jihadist books and pamphlets. Lal Masjid has both a male and female madrassa in operation and is known to be aligned with the Taliban.

While the Shamin Akhtar ordeal has been defused, it can be expected that more such incidents in Islamabad will occur. Umme Hassan, the principal of Jamia Hafsa female madrassa ('Jamia' means a college level religious school), said that tabs are kept on 22 total 'brothels' in the local area. A public confession from one does not resolve the issue for them. More tellingly, when she was asked about whether there are suicide bombers at Lal Masjid's Jamia Hafsa, "she said that all her students taking part in this movement were risking their lives for a great cause." And when adding that her school is to President Musharraf what Usama bin Laden was to President George W. Bush, she said of her students that "They are mentally prepared to sacrifice their lives any time."

Lal Masjid's Ghazi Abdul Rasheed is referred to as one of the most respected religious leaders in Islamabad. And while he may have in the past said "that the time is not ripe" for a call to Jihad against Musharraf and the Pakistani government, his warning this week that "when pious lady teachers are punished and arrested for the sake of prostitutes, a call for jihad is imminent" should not be dismissed.

While neither Rasheed nor Umme Hassan may hold significant power within the larger Islamist movement within Pakistan, they are clearly holders of a match that could spark the vast Pakistani tinderbox that lies at their feet. That the madrassa incident and Islamist student uprising took place in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad is of significance that cannot be overstated. It continued without an effective resolution through Pakistani police or security intervention. This is not the tribal areas and, in fact, takes place in the vicinity of Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) headquarters.

The Wider Pakistani Madrassa Problem

The problem of radicalization in madrassas run by Islamists is not isolated, but in fact pervasive throughout Pakistan. During the Jaima Hafsa kidnapping incident in Islamabad, the International Crisis Group released a study that focused on radical madrassas in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. The report, Pakistan: Karachi's Madrassas And Violent Extremism, details the situation in Karachi where the government has turned a convenient blind eye to the Islamist groups incubating there and exporting madrassa-trained fighters to the jihad against Coalition forces in Afghanistan and in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir.

The report's stated reason for the increasing Islamist violence fueled by madrassa-provided manpower is that Musharraf has not fostered a fully open democratic system in Pakistan. This is an off-base conclusion, as the rise in Islamist violence – particularly that increasingly turned toward the Musharraf government – is due to the fact that it is not a government dominated by radical Islamists and Sharia law. It should be recognized that the cause is decidedly not because the current government lacks a full and open democratic system. The ICG's calling for such full, fair and open democratic elections has its merits, but minimizing or neutralizing the violence of Islamists in Pakistan is not one of them.

Widening (Or Deepening) of the Taliban-al-Qaeda Eastern Front

The signing this week of the formal Bajour Accord, which cedes yet another swath of Pakistani territory to the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance, is troubling in itself. But it merely represents on paper and in policy that which is proportionately more troubling: The increasing sprawl of Taliban and al-Qaeda power, control and influence, persistently creeping eastward toward Islamabad and deeper into Pakistan.

Several events serve to signify the widening and deepening of the Islamists' Eastern Front, foretelling a Spring Offensive that by all indications has greater designs on Pakistan and Musharraf than on Afghanistan and Coalition forces. While the Western Front into Afghanistan is largely a force-on-force confrontation with acts of terrorism and subversion interspersed, the Eastern Front employs a largely opposite emphasis. The events surrounding the Jamia Hafsa madrassa incidents can be seen as a natural extension or progression of events in this regard.

But consider also the ongoing situation in Tank, another agency within the North West Frontier Province that the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance has set its sights on. Just days after the Pakistani government ceded Bajour officially through signing the Bajour Accord, emboldened Islamists decided to attempt simply taking Tank by brute force. Hundreds of Taliban fighters entered into Tank agency and then the city of Tank from neighboring South Waziristan. After initially overwhelming local police and security forces, federal Pakistani forces were sent in to take control.

The city of Tank has been completely sealed and is under curfew while the government seeks a promise from a South Waziristan jirga (council) that no more attacks on Tank will occur. So long as the Islamists have aims on Tank, attacks will occur. If not taken by force, another accord for transition of control would not be deviating from past practices in other agencies like South Waziristan, North Waziristan and now Bajour.

Within Bajour itself, the day after Monday's signing of the deal between Taliban-aligned tribal elders and the Pakistani government, an assistant director of the Pakistani ISI was assassinated in an attack on his vehicle while traveling from Peshawar to Bajour's Khar. Major Hamza (aka Mohammed Sadiqi) and his subordinate were killed along with two local tribal leaders when masked attackers on motorcycles threw hand grenades into the moving car and then opened fire with AK-47s.

The assassination is very significant, likely indicating an internal ISI hit. While speculation reported suggests a Taliban rift with the ISI, there are indicators that the assassination was sophisticated enough to leave the potential of an inside hit open. The itinerary of an assistant director of the ISI is likely closely guarded, yet the attackers clearly knew the car, its route and the occupant(s). This indicates that the attackers likely had at least some working assistance from within the ISI, perhaps at a higher level than Hamza.

Alexis Debat reports that the ISI officers were seeking to speak to tribal leaders in Khar to find information on the whereabouts of al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri. If so, it would prove the hit to be almost undoubtedly an inside job. It would also mean the liquidation of an important American ally within the ISI who was assisting the United States in its pursuit of al-Qaeda leadership and a significant loss for the US intelligence and counterterrorism communities.

Could the Major Hamza assassination have simply been a Taliban rift with perceived Musharraf-loyal elements of the ISI? Perhaps. It would surely be the preferable scenario. But it seems more plausible that the assassination may have been an internal ISI hit, directed by Islamist elements of the ISI and carried out by either local tribal elements of the Taliban or ISI operatives themselves. However, attempting to distinguish between the Taliban Islamists and Islamist elements of the ISI from the outside is often a fool's errand.

It is as difficult to imagine the assassination as a sign of conflict between the ISI and the Taliban as it is to view the ongoing fighting between the Taliban and Uzbek al-Qaeda affiliates in South Waziristan as a sign of conflict between the Taliban and al-Qaeda-proper. It is, however, yet another sign of the increasing assertiveness and aggression of emboldened Islamists in Pakistani territory.

Matches In The Tinderbox: Approaching 'Jihadi Anarchy'

In the eighth suicide bombing this year in Pakistan, a Pakistani soldier was killed and six others wounded when a suicide bomber self-detonated near an army vehicle during driver training. More demonstrations are planned throughout Pakistan to stir unrest and protest Musharraf's suspension of supreme court chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Barbers throughout the North West Frontier Province have been warned not to shave men's beards. Women in Bannu have been forbidden from voting.

All the while, right in the heart of Islamabad and within eyesight of the Pakistani ISI headquarters, the female students of Lal Masjid's Jamia Hafsa madrassa "project themselves as future wives and mothers of suicide bombers" while Musharraf's government gives the appearance of being able to do little more than look on. Musharraf is clearly fearful of sparking the Pakistani tinderbox through his own actions.

But as the words of Ghazi Abdul Rasheed make clear in Islamabad, Musharraf does not hold the only match. While Rasheed forewarns that "a call for jihad is imminent," former head of Indian intelligence, B. Raman, observes the cumulative effect and likewise concludes that Pakistan is "slowly moving towards a situation of jihadi anarchy."

Still in the early stages of a protracted global conflict, many changes and manifestations lie ahead in the years to come and it will remain replete with ebbs and flows throughout. Just as General Petraeus is making significant gains against al-Qaeda and aligned movements (AQAM) in Iraq, al-Qaeda and similarly motivated Islamists look to make alarming gains in Pakistan and Somalia in the 2007 calendar year. The long foreseen tide of fire is rising rapidly in Pakistan and trouble looms on the horizon.

A diligent eye must be kept on the Taliban-al-Qaeda alliance's clearly active Eastern Front. Control of as many as fifty-five Pakistani nuclear weapons hangs in the balance.