Pakistan's Punjab turning into hotbed of extremism, U.S. had warned

While Pakistan's security establishment is yet to be convinced that militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed need to be done away with, U.S. diplomats have long been sending worried messages back to Washington that these groups, along with a network of radical madrassas and charity fronts, are exploiting the poverty in the country's Punjab province and turning it into a hotbed of extremism.

In a series of cables sent over a period of two years, the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and the Consulate in Lahore documented the ways in which the madrassas recruited boys as young as eight, indoctrinated them into jihadi philosophy, and sent them to terrorist training camps, on the back of an estimated $100 million flowing in from organisations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The cables document that the southern and western Punjab, which once constituted “the spiritual heartland of South Asia's Sufi communities” and is a traditionally moderate area, had become a hotbed of extremism in Pakistan.

Through a network of Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith madrassas, radical Islamic groups exploited “choking poverty and underdevelopment” prevalent in this region to recruit disaffected youth for terrorist organisations. Ajmal Kasab, the arrested 26/11 Mumbai attacker, was an infamous example, the cables noted.

Quoting officials, the cables said the local police felt threatened by the radical groups in this region: some the madrassas were “no-go areas” for them, and they hesitated to enter them.

If the Pakistan government wanted to reverse this trend, it “must dismantle both public and state support for militant groups” and offer attractive alternatives to the disillusioned youth, the cables recommended.

A cable ( >178082: secret/noforn ) sent on November 13, 2008 said the recruiters usually exploited families with multiple children, “particularly those facing severe financial difficulties.” “Charitable” organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a Lashkar-e-Tayyaba front organisation; the Al-Khidmat Foundation which was connected to the Jamaat-e-Islami; or Jaish-e-Mohammad that worked as “a charitable front for the terrorist organization of the same name” would introduce the local Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith maulana to these families who would then try to convince them “to devote the lives of one or two of their sons to Islam.”

The cable noted that the maulanas adopted a two-pronged strategy. First he would convince the families that their poverty is a result of “idolatrous” worship at local Sufi shrines, and would point out that sacrifice and martyrdom were the quickest way to return to the “true path of Islam.”

Then the maulanas would offer a cash payment to compensate the family for its “sacrifice” to Islam. The cable mentioned, citing the sources, that the average compensation amount was “approximately Rps. 500,000 (approximately USD 6500) per son.” It noted that “a small number of Ahl-e-Hadith clerics are reportedly recruiting daughters as well.”

Young recruits aged between eight and 12 were sent to extremist madrassas, mostly located in isolated areas. These were usually small in size so as not to draw attention. The cable did not give the exact number of such madrassas, but estimated that about 200 of them were functioning in the southern and western parts of Punjab. Prominent amongst these, as the locals identified them for U.S. officials, were at “Khitarjee” in Bahawalpur district, in Bahawalpur city and on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan city.

On completion, based on the teacher's assessment of the “child's willingness to engage in violence,” the “graduates” were employed either as clerics in madrassas or sent to training camps for jihad.

Citing local contacts, the cable noted that the recruitment and training project in the Punjab region was funded by religious donations, and the amount annually collected was estimated to be about $100 million. These mostly originated from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to the cable.

A leading Sufi scholar and member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly informed the Principal Officer from the U.S. Embassy that he had personally provided a lot of information on the location of extremist centres, madrassas, and personalities to provincial and national leaders, as well as to the local police. But the officials and police thought that direct confrontation with the madrassas was “too dangerous,” he said.

The police felt threatened by the radicals in the region, and some madrassas were “no-go areas” for them, observed a cable, dated May 22, 2009 >(208236: confidential). Punjab Home Secretary Nazim Hassan Asif told U.S. officials that government representatives had met local police personnel in the south Punjab districts and told them it would not tolerate any “no-go areas” and that the police “should not hesitate” to go to these places.

According to a cable ( >178082), Allama Qasmi, brother of the federal Minister of Religious Affairs, told U.S. officials that even if the political will could be found, “the bureaucracy in the Religious Affairs, Education, and Defense Ministries remained dominated by Zia-ul-Haq appointees who favoured the Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith religious philosophies.”

Apart from religious and political reasons, poverty and lack of development contributed to the growing extremism in Punjab, observed a cable sent under the name of U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson in October 2009 ( >230969: confidential ).

The southern parts of Punjab were mainly agricultural with a high concentration of bonded labour in agriculture, brick kiln operations, and carpet-weaving. When the old agricultural system broke down the large labour pool lost support, the cable noted. The people also lost their “real access” to social welfare and justice, which the earlier system, though “feudal,” had provided.

The government education system failed to prepare the youth for alternative careers and did not provide employable skills, leaving them frustrated. This “common occurrence is reflected in the story of Ajmal Kasab,” the cable remarked.

“The newly rich local merchants who benefit from corruption, along with lavish foreign-financed madrassas, stand in stark contrast to the meager existence of this disaffected generation,” the cable remarked.

One of the recommendations of the U.S. officials to counter the trends in Punjab was to offer immediate relief in the form of food aid, microcredit and cash for work, and develop immediate impact programmes to improve infrastructure. The Pakistan government should “offer alternate and positive dreams to the disillusioned and frustrated youth,” they suggested.

The Pakistan Cables are being shared by The Hindu with NDTV in India and Dawn in Pakistan.

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