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Punjab: Down, not out

Posted on Jan 01, 02:46PM | IBNS

The amir (chief) of the Punjab chapter of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Amir Asmatullah Muawiya, announced an offer of conditional ceasefire to the Pakistan Government which envisages an end to Pakistan's participation in the Afghan war and the reshaping of the country's Constitution and foreign policy according to the Quran and Sunnah. Amir Asmatullah Muawiya's offer was confirmed by TTP's 'central spokesman' Ehsanullah Ehsan. However, Federal Minister of Interior Rehman Malik noted that TTP leader Ismatullah Muawiya, through his offer of a conditional truce, was trying to dictate terms to the Government, which was totally unacceptable. The TTP's truce offer in Punjab, in any event, appears to be no more than a tactical ploy to buy time to revive group's organisational strength in Punjab.

According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) data, a total of 104 persons, including 59 civilians, 29 Security Force (SF) personnel and 16 militants were killed, in 19 separate incidents of killing in 2012, as compared to 137 persons killed in 2011 in 20 incidents of terrorism-linked killing. While civilian fatalities decreased by 46 percent as compared to 2011, SF and terrorist fatalities increased by 54 and 50 per cent, respectively. The Province registered a 24 per cent decline in overall fatalities in 2012. Partial data compiled by SATP recorded just a single suicide attacks in Punjab, which claimed 11 lives, in 2012. There were three suicide attacks in 2011, resulting in 63 fatalities. There were at least 10 bomb blasts in the Province in 2012, which claimed 51 lives and left 129 injured. In 2011, the number of bomb blasts stood at 94, with 281 fatalities. Though the number of sectarian attacks remained roughly the same through 2011 and 2012, fatalities in these incidents decreased considerably. While 2011 claimed 64 lives and left 183 injured in three incidents, 2012 saw 43 killed and 64 injured in four sectarian attacks. The two most important cities of the Province, Islamabad and Lahore, saw fewer incidents of violence as compared to previous years.

The Province registered five major incidents (each involving three or more fatalities) in 2012, as compared to eight such incidents in 2011. The major incidents of 2012 were:

November 21: At least 20 mourners, including two minors, were killed and more than 30, including three Police personnel and five children, were injured, in a suicide blast at a mourning procession taken out from the Imambargah Qasar-e-Shabbir in Dhok Syedan area on Misrial Road in Rawalpindi District.

August 16: Nine terrorists and two security officials were killed when SFs foiled an attack on the Minhas Pakistan Air Force (PAF) base of Kamra in the Attock District of Punjab.

July 12: Militants shot dead nine trainee jail staff and wounded another three after storming a building in the Ichra Complex in Lahore in Punjab, where they were sleeping.

July 9: Unidentified militants killed eight security personnel at an Army camp near Wazirabad town in Gujranwala District of Punjab, hours after a protest march of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC) passed through the area.

April 24: At least three people, including a Railway Police official, died, and around 45 others were injured, when a bomb exploded at a counter on Platform No. 2 of the Lahore Railway Station in Lahore District.

The dwindling of terrorist incidents has apparently sparked concern among the terrorist leadership. TTP chief Hakimullah Mehsud, on August 1, 2012, directed his fighters to step up attacks in Punjab province, especially on intelligence organisations and military facilities. Mehsud asked his cadres to to "inflict maximum damage", especially in the provincial capital, Lahore. During a secret meeting held at Asad Khel village in the North Waziristan Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Mehsud allocated PKR 25 million for attacks targeting the PAF Base in Lahore and offices of the ISI, Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau and Counter-Terrorism Department. An intelligence report noted that the meeting in North Waziristan Agency was attended by top TTP 'commanders', including leaders of the Qari Yasin group, which is listed in the Police's "Red Book" as a high-profile terrorist organisation. The Group, initially a part of the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), was created in the Punjab, but later shifted its base to Miranshah in the North Waziristan Agency of FATA.

In a demonstration of extraordinary audacity, just 15 days after Mehsud directive, TTP terrorists attacked the Minhas PAF Base at Kamra in Attock District. On August 16, nine terrorists and two security officials were killed, while one plane was damaged in the pre-dawn assault claimed by the TTP.

Ominously, on September 6, 2012, three terrorists on a mission to target a nuclear power plant in the Ali Khel area of Bhakkar District, which borders the Dera Ghazi Khan (DGK) District in Punjab, were killed in a premature blast. Significantly, on September 5, 2012, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Agency had reportedly intercepted a telephone call from the TTP, tapping into a conversation regarding finalisation of the strategy for attacks on nuclear installations in DGK District. DGK District Police Chief Chaudhary Saleem noted, "There have been threats to all installations, including the Dera Ghazi Khan nuclear site, in the current law and order situation of the country." The Army and the Punjab Police had informed the media that the nature of threat at the nuclear installation was "serious", with an "80 per cent chance of occurrence".

Despite Islamabad's repeated assertions of its 'secured' nuclear facilities, terrorist formations have issued repeated threats, and have subsequently attacked nuclear installations across Pakistan. The threat of nuclear materials falling into the hands of the TTP or its allies is now internationally recognized as high.

The Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has also, for the first time, admitted that the southern belt of the province was a breeding ground for terrorists. The Provincial Government had, to this point, been denying the presence of any militant elements in southern Punjab. The Chief Minister blamed extreme poverty and ignorance in the area as the main causes of militancy and extremism. He said war against militancy could only secure limited gains and, for an effective, long-term solution, socio-economic conditions would have to be improved. The growing radicalisation of education in Pakistan, and in the Punjab in particular, is a matter of rising concern. Madrassas have become a breeding ground of jihad (holy war), and the over-emphasis on jihadi literature in curricula have transformed these institutions into indoctrination centres for the Taliban.

Terrorist activities in the Province are sustained and fuelled by numerous thefts, robberies and abductions for ransom. Thirty incidents of bank robbery were recorded across Punjab in the first 11 months of 2012, with a total loss of PKR 394 million, according to the Punjab Police. In some of these incidents, the bank's security guards were found to have been linked with TTP and other banned outfits, according to intelligence sources. Intelligence reports have highlighted the lack of security clearance of guards deployed by private security firms at banks. During the course of investigation, it was discovered that most of the security guards involved were residents of the troubled tribal areas, and did not have security clearance from the Police and Home Department. Operatives of banned outfits were found to have been involved in some incidents of robbery, in the guise of security guards. Police field units were subsequently deputed to randomly check bank guards and see if they have received clearance. In the process, 2,060 security guards from 381 security firms posted at 809 banks were checked. The results were shocking: only 842 guards had security clearance; the remaining 1,218 guards, or 60pc of all guards surveyed, were deployed without any security clearance.

There has also been a swift rise in the number of abductions for ransom in Lahore District, and a parallel failure of enforcement agencies to track down the abducted persons. According to media reports, at least 400 cases of abduction had already been registered in the year, by March 20, 2012. With an average of five persons per day, abductors continued to lift young girls, minor children, youth, government employees and traders. Around 2,954 abductions had been reported in 2011, while 2010 saw 2,831 people abducted.

On October 3, 2012, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) informed the Punjab Government that some families, who had left militancy-hit FATA and taken up residence in the Rawalpindi District of Punjab, had received extortion threats, allegedly from the TTP. Officials divulged that the threats were delivered to affluent individuals over the telephone or through 'chits', demanding large sums of money or 'valuable articles', or other 'assistance' - under threat of kidnapping or other harm. On November 16, 2012, a source in the Home Department revealed that traders, industrialists, businessmen and other wealthy people in major cities of Rawalpindi and Lahore Districts were worried about the alarming increase in extortion by terror groups. The report painted the situation in Rawalpindi as grim, with at least 100 people in the garrison city forced to pay extortion amounts varying from PKR two million to PKR seven million to the terror groups in the recent past.

On May 18, 2012, the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) of the Punjab Police had issued a fresh edition of its 'Red Book' containing the profiles of 70 most wanted suspects involved in terrorist attacks and sectarian killings, and the details of rewards for informants. According to the 'Red Book', of the 70 high profile terror suspects, 28 belonged to different Sunni outfits and 20 to Shia organisations, while the rest were associated with various banned outfits, including TTP.

Meanwhile, terrorists of other nationalities were seen to be playing a major role in militancy related activities in Punjab. During the December 18 session of the National Assembly, Federal Minister Sheikh Waqas Akram disclosed that banned militant outfits in Punjab had contacts with Uzbek militants, who charged USD 40,000 for carrying out terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Akram told the Assembly that the Uzbek militants were in contact with banned outfits in Punjab: "These (Uzbek) militants demand a payment of USD 40,000 to perform terrorist attacks on Pakistani soil." Akram, who belongs to the ruling coalition partner, PML-Q, asserted that Federal Interior Minister Rehman Malik should stop "spinning tales" and take definitive action against these banned formations.

Terrorist groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), as before, continued to demonstrate their presence and influence through front organisations like the Jama'at-ud-Da'wah (JuD) and DPC. JuD chief Hafiz Saeed roamed free across Pakistan, despite a ban on the group and a purported 'house arrest'. A massive protest convoy, under the aegis of DPC, led by Saeed, on July 7, 2012, moved through the Lahore District of Punjab, voicing the strongest opposition to the resumption of US supply lines to Afghanistan. Despite being banned by the UN, and on the Interior Ministry's watch list, JuD launched a vigorous 'hide collection' campaign during Eid, especially in Lahore District. The JuD not only appealed for animal hides, but solicited cash donations in lieu of sacrificial animals. On December 19, 2012, the US asked Pakistan to 'dismantle LeT'. However, the Government has taken little visible action to contain the group.

The decline in terrorist fatalities and incidents of violence in Pakistan's Punjab Province gives limited cause for satisfaction. The infrastructure of terrorism not only survives, but continues to thrive, and has periodically demonstrated its capacities to attack some of the most sensitive and well defended of security installations in the Province. State action against extremism and terrorism remains ambivalent and ineffectual, even as undercurrents of collusion remain. With little evidence of dramatic improvements in state capacities, or of transformation in the state's intent, the limited 'improvements' in the situation, consequently, remain uncertain, and the gains, fragile.

(The writer Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management)

(The view expressed in the article is of the author and not India Blooms News Service)