Young Gun control

Hobnobbing with radicals puts disillusioned party cadres at risk of joining jihad, JI insiders warn

Young Gun control
The trouble with kids these days is that they can’t tell their good jihadis apart from their bad jihadis. This is why a serious debate has started in inner Jamaat-e-Islami circles over whether it was such a great idea to get a Kashmiri jihad leader to do a PR visit to Karachi.

You’ll recognise this leader, Syed Salahuddin, the head of the Hizbul Mujahideen, by his untamed beard and signature newsboy cap, which gives him a deceptively Holmes-esque look. His group, the Hizb, is a Pakistani militant group mainly active in India-administrated Kashmir. Syed Salahuddin was flown down from Muzaffarabad to Karachi by the Jamaat-e-Islami’s chief Hafiz Naeemur Rehman so he could hold a a press conference at their headquarters on August 7.

The timing could not have been better: barely a month earlier, the killing of a popular figure, Burhan Wani, had led to scores of deaths, a curfew and an international scandal over the use of pellet guns that blinded protestors and passersby.

“If India does not end violence against Kashmiris, the followers of Hizbul Mujahideen will storm the ceasefire line,” declared Salahuddin at the press conference. “Pakistan should cut off diplomatic ties with India over the killing of Burhan Muzaffar Wani in Kashmir.”

Given that Kashmir was in the news, perhaps holding a Hizbul Mujahideen press conference was harmless. After all, the Hizb is not banned by the government since it mainly operates in Indian-Administered Kashmir and doesn’t work in Pakistan. The only problem, argue security analysts and certain Jamaat-e-Islami circles, is that this kind of interaction opens the door for the Jamaat’s young but disillusioned cadre such as their student activists from the Islami Jamiat Tulaba (IJT) to join radical militancy.

JI's Qazi Hussain Ahmed with Hizb's Mast Gul in 1995
JI's Qazi Hussain Ahmed with Hizb's Mast Gul in 1995

Muhammad, a Jamaat-i-Islami Karachi member, who preferred to use only his last name, knows firsthand the dangers of jihadi allure. He lost his son to it.

In 1996, Qazi Hussain Ahmad, the Jamaat’s central chief at the time, arranged rallies for a Hizb commander from Fata called Mast Gul after he had dramatically escaped the Indian troop siege of the historic Charar-e-Sharif shrine in May 1995. Mast Gul became popular in religious circles, especially among the JI’s youth and the party started sending hundreds of its student activists to get training at Hizb camps in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir and parts of Hazara division in their summer vacations.

“At that time, my son was also inspired by Gul,” says Muhammad. “In 1997, he and his IJT friends had gone to a Hizb camp to train, where he met Mast Gul.” He declined to share the name and details of his son. After five weeks, his son came back to the city, got busy with IJT politics and completed his degree from the University of Karachi. “But in May 2007, he suddenly disappeared and after six months, we received a letter that he was ‘martyred’ in Afghanistan,” says Muhammad, adding that his close friends had said that his son had been in touch with Mast Gul’s group and had, in fact, died somewhere in the tribal areas fighting Pakistani security forces.

Nearly seven years later, Muhammad was astonished to come across a photo of Mast Gul under a Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) banner in newspapers in February 2014. After a long disappearance, the commander had resurfaced somewhere in North Waziristan to claim responsibility for a suicide attack in Peshawar that killed several Ahle Tasheeh or Shia people. Mast Gul was introduced as the TTP Peshawar commander.

Muhammad was not the only person to be shocked by Mast Gul’s reemergence as a TTP leader. It also shocked the Hizb and the Jamaat, prompting them both to announce a clear “disassociation” with him. To make matters worse, Mast Gul, started targeting JI leaders and interests in addition to his day job as a TTP man. Background interviews with JI leaders in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa conducted a few months ago suggest that Mast Gul is involved in a number of attacks on party leaders in the province and has also demanded extortion money.

“Inviting jihadi leaders to Karachi shows the party leadership has not learned lessons from the past,” says Muhammad, admitting that he knows the Hizb has been associated with the Jamaat. “But [inviting them] will again openly attract the party’s young cadres to militancy in Kashmir,” he says. “A number of them, after feeling dissatisfaction there, [have already] switched to anti-state militant outfits.”

Muhammad fears that Mast Gul roped his son into anti-state Taliban groups. His fear was substantiated by arrests and investigations in Karachi. In January 2011, three former members of IJT Karachi University chapter were arrested for suspicion of their involvement in bombing Shia students on campus in December 2010. According to police reports citing interrogations, they had formed a group called the ‘Punjabi Mujahideen’ in 2007 after a disagreement with the JI leadership over jihad in Pakistan. They had been inspired by Dr Akmal Waheed and Dr Arshad Waheed, the two Pakistani brothers linked to al-Qaeda.

For whatever it is worth, Jamaat leaders have clarified several times that defections of their party cadre should be seen as individual acts of dissent and the party disassociates from colleagues who join militant groups. However, security analysts believe that a number of young men from “good” jihadi outfits active in Indian-Administered Kashmir and Afghanistan have joined the ranks of Taliban groups and al-Qaeda. Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, is one of them. “And then we saw these militants have taken up jihad inwards, targeting Pakistani security forces as well as civilians,” says Rana. “All the key Taliban leaders were associated with these ‘good’ jihadi groups, in one way or the other, in the past.”

Mast Gul, Asmatullah Muawiya and Adnan Rasheed are prominent among on the long list of disgruntled jihadists, Rana adds. Muawiya, the head of the TTP Punjab chapter, was associated with the Jaish-e-Muhammad in the past and split from the organization after the 2007 military operation against Lal Masjid radicals for their activities in the capital. The JI has long supported jihadi groups in Indian-Administered Kashmir and their allied militant groups—the Hizbul Mujahideen and the Al-Badar Mujahideen—were active in insurgencies there during the late 1980s and early 1990s, until the appearance of the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Muhammad on the Kashmir insurgency landscape during the mid-1990s. Similarly, former Pakistan Air Force officer Rasheed, another important TTP commander involved in a number of jailbreaks, claimed in an interview that before joining the ranks of the TTP, he was associated with the JeM during his military job and had received training from its camp in Mansehra.

To men like Muhammad, given the constantly shifting landscape of jihadi allegiances, it might be wise for the Jamaat to reconsider just who it was rubbing shoulders with.

Zia Ur Rehman is a senior reporter for The News in Karachi. @zalmayzia