Pakistan Taliban taps Punjab heartland for recruits

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, Los Angeles Times, November 16, 2009

Reporting from 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."

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