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Terror sanctuary emerging in Punjab
Wilson John
03 August 2010

Pakistan's Punjab is on the verge of becoming part of the expanding network of terrorist sanctuaries across Asia.

Punjab, the economic and political powerhouse of Pakistan, is today home to several terrorist and extremist groups with links to global jihadi groups and radical parties working within and outside the country. Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) is perhaps the most prominent among these groups. At least 3000 to 8000 terrorists from south Punjab are fighting alongside the Taliban against the US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.  Trained cadres from LeT have been quite actively supporting the Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan.

Although the political and military leadership of Pakistan had been adamantly denying the extremist expansion in Punjab, in May this year the Jhang police registered a detailed  First Information Report (FIR)  which described how the Taliban and other terrorist groups were increasing their presence in the region.

Jhang has for long been the base of extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and a sanctuary for terrorists fleeing military action in Afghanistan and Pakistan's frontier and tribal areas. Recently, the
Taliban leaders have been frequenting the madrasas run by extremist groups to recruit and indoctrinate the youth of the area. The FIR said the Taliban were sending the new recruits to the training grounds in Waziristan and other tribal areas which have also become a campus for foreign recruits. The Times Square failed bomber, Faisal Shahzad, confessed to have trained in one such camp.

One of the Taliban leaders active in the area have been identified as Qari Matiullah alias Commander Abdul Samad, a former gunman of Osama bin Laden. This clearly points to the link between al Qaida and the Taliban and how local terrorist groups are being incorporated into the bigger global jihad movement.

Recent intelligence reports have warned Pakistan authorities that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) have created suicide missions to target security forces and politicians in the area. These terrorists were using Afghan-dominated areas to take shelter and store ammunition and explosives. The increasing number of terrorist attacks in Punjab can be traced back to these `base camps` of new terror.

The resurgence of these terrorist and extremist groups in Punjab was facilitated in considerable measure by the political leaders of the area who have had a working relationship with many of them for decades. For instance, SSP was created in the mid-70s by President Zia-ul Haq and his aides to counter the growing clamour of Shias against imposition of Islamic laws. SSP's splinter group, a rabidly anti-Shia LeJ flourished in Punjab mainly due to the support of ISI and patronage of some political leaders who found in them effective `campaign managers` during the elections. The area dominated by these extremist groups, not surprisingly, is the stronghold of Sharif family. It must not be ignored that Nawaz Sharif, during his premiership, had tried to impose a rigid Islamic law on the country, co-opted the radical political party, Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), in a coalition government in Islamabad and had met Osama bin Laden several times.

A recent incident indicated the continuing patronage of these groups by the Sharif party. Punjab's Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, during a rally, was accompanied by Ahmed Ludhianvi, the LeJ leader in Jhang, in a car. The security of the rally was provided by LeJ militants working with Punjab Police.

Terrorist groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad with links to al Qaida have been flourishing in Punjab for quite some time, all with political and military patronage. JeM has its headquarters in Bahawalpur, a town closer to the Indian border and with at least 1000 radical madrasas from where the terrorist groups gathers its cannon fodder for jihad.  The terrorist group has been allowed to buy smaller plots in the area and today owns 2.5 acres which is adequate to set up a training ground. JeM has been operating training camps in Upper Dir areas in North West Frontier Provinces since 2005 for the Taliban. Besides involved in the assassination attempts on former President Pervez Musharraf, the terrorist group's hand has been found in some global terrorist incidents, including the latest the Times Square failed bombing. Many of the JeM recruits were drawn from LeJ an other extremist groups active in the area.