New Lashkar-e-Taiba base blossoming in dust-blown Pakistani town: FATF probe looms large over Imran Khan govt

New Delhi: The Lashkar-e-Taiba has been purchasing land in dust-blown Samasatta, south-west of Bahawalpur in Pakistan's Punjab province, hoping it will flower into a campus housing medical, educational and ideological training facilities, Indian intelligence sources have told Firstpost. The camp, the sources said, is intended to replace Lashkar's existing headquarters at Muridke, near Lahore, was seized by the Punjab government.

Financial crimes experts representing the multinational Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which has threatened to blacklist Pakistan unless it acts against terror financing, are currently in the country to assess its claims to be acting against jihadist groups.

Even though Prime Minister Imran Khan's government, mired in a foreign debt crisis, hopes to ward off FATF action, it has a close association with the Lashkar and its jihadist allies. Last month, Religious Affairs Minister Noorul Haq Qadri shared a platform with jihad patriarch Sami-ul-Haq, as he delivered a speech asserting "the Kashmir issue cannot be resolved without jihad".

Interestingly, staff from international NGOs have been pushed out from around Bahawalpur-an effort, Indian officials believe, to keep prying eyes off jihadist infrastructure coming up in the area.

Funds for the benami purchases of land around Samasatta, the sources said, were likely routed in cash by contributions made to the Lashkar's charitable front-organisation, the Falah-i-Insaniat Foundation (FIF). The small town-best known for its colonial-era railway junction, capped by multiple domes-may have been picked because land prices are low compared to nearby Bahwalpur, where the Lashkar already has a building.

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Reuters

File image of Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan. Reuters

Even though the FIF is listed as a front for the Lashkar by the United Nations Security Council — obligating all member-states to freeze its assets — the organisation continues to operate openly in Pakistan. Its Facebook page, bearing a Lahore phone number, solicits donations for a number of projects in Pakistan and abroad, ranging from medical care to drinking water.

In its 2017 annual report, the FIF claimed to have provided free medical treatment to 1.6 million patients, and to have provided blood for 107,551 in need, through its medical services.

Back in January, in an unsuccessful bid to avert grey-listing by the FATF, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government amended the country's Anti-Terrorism Act to mandate the proscription of all organisations banned by the United Nations.

Following this, some 148 properties and assets belonging to the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organisation of both the FIF and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, were seized across the province of Punjab.

For Khan's government, which has announced that it intends to seek a bail-out from the International Monetary Fund, being blacklisted by FATF could be painful. In addition to damaging Pakistan's reputation among potential investors, it would impose every international banking transaction involving the country to additional scrutiny by foreign banks. The country's bid to escape blacklisting is expected to be discussed at the FATF on 14 October, though a final decision is unlikely to be made then.

Pakistan's grey-listing by the FATF, which came into force from June, was driven by worries that its lax financial system allowed terrorist groups to launder cash raised by activities ranging from narcotics trafficking to charitable operations. Experts from the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey, Maldives, Indonesia and China arrived in Pakistan this week to assess the effectiveness of its anti-money laundering and countering terror finance legal regime, and are expected to conclude their visit by 19 October.

However, Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party is closely allied with the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, a coalition of hardline Islamist groups which includes the Lashkar-making it impossible for him to crack down their assets, as his predecessor sought to do.

Leaders at last month's Difa-e-Pakistan Council rally, attended by Khan's Religious Affairs Minister, warned that "Pakistan has not made a nuclear bomb to keep as a decoration in an almirah [cupboard]". "The Pakistani nation is always ready alongside the Pakistani armed forces to deliver a mouth-breaking response to India's aggression", the rally's joint declaration read.

Earlier this year, Pakistan's Defence Minister, Pervez Khattak-then Chief Minister of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa-had also attended a Difa-e-Pakistan meeting, were slogans were chanted calling for jihad against the United States and India.

Pamphlets of Falah-i-Insaniat Fund

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

Image procured by Praveen Swami/Firstpost

The conference was addressed by Lashkar chief Hafiz Muhammad Saeed-for whose arrest the United States has offered an $10 million reward-through a telephone link. Khattak shared the platform with Saeed's deputy, Hafiz Abdul Rehman Makki, who is accused, along with his leader, of planning the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.

Southern Punjab-a region where industrial backwardness collides with agrarian distress and a large pool of landless peasants-has emerged as a hub for the expansion of jihadist groups in Pakistan. The town's main employer, the Peoples Textile Mill set up by President-then Prime Minister-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in an effort to bring about state-led economic development, now lies abandoned. Little investment has trickled in to make up for the loss.

Firstpost revealed, earlier this year, that the Jaish-e-Muhammad had purchased 15 acres of land outside the town to build a complex rivalling its existing Usman-o-Ali complex. Samasatta, local sources said, had witnessed steady efforts by both the Jaish and Lashkar to recruit young people.

In a 2009 essay, the Pakistani scholar Ayesha Siddiqa wrote of the rural despair that underpinned jihadist recruitment. "A few years ago," Siddiqa wrote, "I met some young boys from my village near Bahawalpur who were preparing to go on jihad. They smirked politely when I asked them to close their eyes and imagine their future: 'we can tell you without closing our eyes that we don't see anything'."

Jaish leader Muhammad Masood Azhar Alvi's disquisition on the Quran, notably, is designed for a peasant audience. "The light of the sun and water," Azhar writes, "are essential for crops; otherwise they go waste. In the same way, the life of nations depends on martyrs. The national fields can be irrigated only with the blood of the best hearts and minds."

The jihadist movement promises something better than the earthly paradise Pakistan's corrupt elite deny the poor entry into: "as we fly in aeroplanes in this world, the souls of martyrs, entering into the bodies of green birds, fly in Paradise for recreation."

"Having no alternative ideology like Marxism or Liberalism or even language symbols which may challenge the feudal stranglehold," social scientist Tahir Kamran has explained, "militancy remains one of the few ways to counter it."


Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 11:30 AM

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