In the last few years, as international pressure grew on Pakistan to crack down on militancy and extremism, the country’s security establishment drew a distinction between the Taliban militancy in the north-west frontiers that had to be tackled as they had become a threat to the Pakistani state, and the Punjab-based jihadi groups that grew with state patronage to take on India in Kashmir and were not considered any threat to Pakistan itself.
Many Pakistanis, and until recently, western media and policy makers, bought this finely-made distinction, but of late, it has become increasingly apparent that Pakistan’s militant groups are all part of the same extremist grid.
Aqeel alias “Dr. Usman,” the militant captured by security forces on Sunday from the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, is the fascinating personification of the mind-boggling linkages between the array of militant groups that exist in Pakistan, from Khyber to Karachi to Jhang, Bahawalpur and Multan, and seem to function with ease despite an official ban on several of them going back to 2001/2002.
Aqeel, a former male nurse in the Armed Medical Corps, was the leader of the group of nine militants that stormed the General Headquarters on Saturday and was captured at the end of an 18-hour stand-off with security forces.
Described as a commander of the Punjabi Taliban, he is said to have masterminded the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore on March 3, as well as the strike on the ISI headquarters in the same city later in the month. He is also said to have been involved in the 2004 attempts to assassinate former president Pervez Musharraf, and in the February 2008 suicide assassination of the army surgeon-general Lt. Gen. Mushtaq Beg.
On Saturday, the attack on the GHQ was claimed by the “Amjad Farooqui faction” of the Tehreek-e-Taliban. The faction was unheard of previously, and may be an operational name for the group that carried out the attack.
Farooqui, a member of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, was killed in a shoot-out with police shortly after the 2004 suicide attack on then President Musharraf, which he is alleged to have planned on instruction from Qari Saifullah, an Al-Qaeda operative, and also the leader of the Harkat-ul-Jihad-i-Islami (HuJI), a Kashmiri jihadi group.
Pakistani journalists have been told in briefings that Aqeel was once part of HuJI’s splinter group, the now disbanded Harkat-ul-Ansar. Lately, he was associated with one of HuJI’s top leaders, Ilyas Kashmiri, who was killed last month in a missile attack in South Waziristan.
Qari Saifullah was named by Benazir Bhutto as the person who had been hired to assassinate her after her return to Pakistan from Dubai in October 2007.
He was first arrested in 2004 and released on the orders of the Supreme Court months before Benazir’s triumphant comeback to Karachi from Dubai. When her homecoming procession was hit by two suicide bombers, he was briefly questioned and let off because there was no evidence.
He was rearrested in 2009 and again let off, after which he disappeared, and is said to have found safe haven with South Waziristan.
Pakistani officials who investigated the September 2008 Marriott bombing suspect it could have been the joint handiwork of Qari Saifullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) chief Maitur Rehman.
In the aftermath of the attack on the Sri Lankan team, for which Aqeel was named as the mastermind, there were reports, neither confirmed nor denied by the government, that the attackers’ plan was to take the cricketers hostage and bargain for the release of a top LeJ leader who is presently behind bars.
Briefing Pakistani journalists after Sunday’s operation, military officials said the militants holed up in the GHQ building had also demanded the release of some leading militants presently in jail in return for the hostages.
Bewildering as these linkages are, they are also now becoming more and more obvious, and have made the distinctions between the Pakhtun Taliban and the Punjabi jihadis untenable.
In the aftermath of the attack on GHQ, at least one commentator, senior journalist Zaffar Abbas and resident editor of Dawn newspaper in Islamabad wrote urging the military and civilian establishment to drop these distinctions.
“The attack on the GHQ may prove to be a watershed that compels the security and civilian establishment to realise that the time to distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ religious militants [is] over, and a consensus [is] needed to confront all such groups as enemies of the state,” he wrote in a front-page comment in the newspaper.