The making and breaking of LeJ

7 May 2017 No Comment

by Mohammad Nafees in The News on Sunday (TNS). May 7, 2017
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is a militant outfit that was born and raised in South Punjab with one basic agenda — counter Shia faith through militancy. Its ancestor, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), was established in Jhang during the military rule of General Ziaul Haq whose prime objectives were to get rid of the deposed secular leader, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and introduce laws that can target minority religious communities of the country. Like the ruler of the time, SSP also had one basic task — implement anti-minority laws through the barrel of a gun.
Riaz Basra of Sargodha disassociated himself from the SSP and formed LeJ in 1994 along with his close associates, Akram Lahori, a graduate from Punjab University, and Mohammad Ishaq from Rahim Yar Khan who was known as a right hand man of Riaz Basra. Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ) was a new name for SSP when it was banned. Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, chief of ASWJ, is also from Rahim Yar Khan.
All these organisations are considered to be mostly driven by anti-Shia agenda, with LeJ being the most ferocious of them for its extremely violent and aggressive approach. How many people of Shia faith could they eliminate during the last two decades of their existence is unknown but the casualties of the seven suicide attacks they claimed during the 2013-15 period were 636 (220 dead and 416 injured). A majority of the victims belonged to the Shia community hailing from two provinces — Balochistan and Sindh. Why did a Punjab-based sectarian outfit choose to indulge in violence away from Punjab? It is a mystery that needs further investigation.
On January 11, 2013, twin blasts in Quetta left over 100 people dead, mostly from the Shia Hazara community. It was a well-planned attack wherein one suicide bomber was used to detonate himself inside a snooker club on Alamdar Road and 10 minutes later an explosive-laden car was detonated using remote control to kill a large number of people who had gathered there. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi claimed responsibility for this attack.
One month later, on February 16, 2013, an explosive-laden water tanker driven by a suicide bomber blew up in a busy market near Hazara Town, Quetta, killing 84 people including women and children and wounding 200 others. LeJ claimed responsibility of this attack and, according to a report, the water-tanker used in this attack was assembled by the LeJ operatives in the Akbari Mandi area of Lahore.
On March 3, 2013, twin blasts rocked the Shia-dominated Abbas Town, Karachi, which left at least 40 people dead and over 135 injured. This attack was claimed by the LeJ’s Naeem Bukhari group.
Two horrific attacks took place in Quetta on June 16, 2013. The first blast hit a bus of Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University that left 14 female students dead and 20 others injured. As the dead and injured students were taken to the Bolan Medical Complex, the second attack took place in the form of gunfire and explosion that rocked the hospital and killed four nurses. Panic gripped the hospital staff forcing them to run for their lives instead of taking care of the injured.
Claiming these attacks, the LeJ revealed that one of its female suicide bombers blew up the bus because it was carrying Shias. The Shia identity of the students was not verifiable from the names that were reported in the press and the statement of LeJ appeared to be a way to justify its heinous crime in the garb of religious hatred. It was no different from how the Taliban had tried to justify their attack on Malala Yusufzai by saying that it was because of her quest for Western knowledge.
As all these sectarian attacks couldn’t quench the LeJ’s thirst for blood, it decided to go for another suicide blast on June 30, 2013 at Abu Talib Imambargah in Hazara Town, Quetta, that left 28 persons dead and over 60 injured. In 2013, more than 200 persons, all from Shia community, lost their lives to terror attacks claimed by LeJ or its splinter group. With the exception of one, all those attacks were carried out in one province — Balochistan.
The year 2014 brought some relief to the Shia community as they faced only one suicide explosion that was carried out by an explosive-laden car against the bus convoy of Shia pilgrims in the Daringar area of Mastung district, leaving 22 people dead and 31 injured. The LeJ claimed responsibility of the blast saying, “This attack is conducted in revenge for the killing of Muslims in the whole country.” A spokesman for the LeJ also suggested that the government should not be silent on the genocide of Muslims. “We know our enemy well and we will go to the last extent to wipe out our enemies.” As the majority of the bus commuters were from Hazara Shia community, it was easy to understand who the LeJ considered as non-Muslims and the enemies of the Muslims as well. They also tried to bring the government on board in fighting against these enemies.
Then came 2015. The Zarb-e-Azb operation went into full swing after the brutal massacre of school children at the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16, 2014. While air raids began pounding militant hideouts in North Waziristan, security agencies in other parts of the country went after the outlaws.
One of the most dangerous militants, Malik Ishaq of LeJ, was killed in an encounter with police on July 28, 2015 in Muzaffargarh, Punjab. His two sons and several other close associates were also killed. Elimination of such a high profile terrorist who had links with other militant organisations as well was too daring an act of the then home minister of Punjab, Col (retd) Shuja Khanzada. That did not go well with the militants. It didn’t take them too long to target him while he was in his political office in Shadi Khan near Attock.
Like some previous attacks, the strategy of using two suicide bombers was used in this attack as well; one stood outside the boundary wall of the office while the other went inside and stood in front of the minister. The bomber standing outside blasted the wall causing the roof to cave in on the minister and the people gathered there.
Initially, it was believed to be the work of LeJ because of the pattern it resembled. All assumptions turned out to be false when two unrelated militant outfits took credit for this attack — one of them was Lashkar-e-Islami (LI) and the other was Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a newly-formed splinter group of TTP.
LI’s claim carried no convincing ground while JuA appeared to be the real culprit having links with Daish, TTP, LeJ, and Jaish-e-Mohammad.
The statement issued by its spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan, said, “We accept responsibility for the Attock attack on Shuja Khanzada. Thanks for cooperation of brother jihadi organisation. We want to tell the government of Pakistan and its army that you will lose this battle of ideologies. We will fight against you until the Islamic system is enforced in the country.”
What was once a war against Muslim enemies had now become an ideological war and the government and the army was the new enemies. It was a kind of shift from a narrower sectarian perspective to a broader one where ideological and not the sectarian considerations held sway. But for the LeJ, the war was still fought on sectarian ground. The two suicide attacks claimed by the LeJ alone in October 2015 were against the Shia community in Bolan and Jacobabad where 40 persons were killed. Once again, even after loss of its chief and other high profile militants in an encounter with the Punjab police, the attacks LeJ carried out were away from Punjab.
Why did the LeJ opt to work outside its place of origin is a mystery. Despite being a defunct organisation, the LeJ had a broad base in South Punjab and, according to some reports, nearly 70 to 80 per cent of mosques and madrassas mainly in Bahawalnagar and Rahimyar Khan regions were under the control of the Malik Ishaq of LeJ. It gave him leverage in asserting his influence in local politics.
The PML-N is often blamed for having a soft corner for the LeJ and ASWJ. In a statement on March 14, 2010, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif implored a militant organisation, Taliban in this case, to stop carrying out terror attacks in Punjab since both of them have a common goal: get rid of the military dictator Pervez Musharraf. How convincing was this request is unknown but what we know for sure is that out of 122 suicide attacks during the last four years (2013-16), only 13 were reported from Punjab. None of those attacks was claimed by the LeJ.
Was it a coincidence or some sort of mutual understanding between the PML-N and LeJ that no sectarian violence was carried out in Punjab? If it is true then why was the top leadership of LeJ wiped out in an encounter by the Punjab police? Can it be attributed to the intricacies of governance that keep changing from time to time based on circumstances that compel rulers to take actions contrary to their earlier commitments?
Since October 2015, the LeJ has made no claim for any violence in the country though two major sectarian attacks did take place in Sindh and Balochistan where the victims were Sufi devotees instead of Shias and the claimant was Daish and not LeJ. Yet, the message was clear; sectarian terror initiated by the LeJ is still far from over.

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