The siege of the Red Mosque reveals the perils that Pakistan and its leader face

ADNAN R. KHAN July 23 2007


The siege of the Red Mosque reveals the perils that Pakistan and its leader face

ADNAN R. KHAN July 23 2007


The siege of the Red Mosque reveals the perils that Pakistan and its leader face



It will likely be seen as one of the darkest moments in the Pakistani capital’s history. The heart of Islamabad turned into a war zone last week as supporters of a radical mosque and religious seminary clashed with security forces in a week-long battle that left dozens dead and possibly hundreds wounded. The exact toll of the confrontation is still unclear, as are its ripple effects beyond the leafy boundaries of the capital territory. What is certain, however, is that the events at the Lai Masjid, or Red Mosque, and Hafsa seminary have shaken Pakistan’s establishment to the core and left the world wondering what the future holds for this beleaguered nation.

In a week of fighting, more has been revealed about Pakistan’s precarious political balancing act and the dangers its leader, President-

General Pervez Musharraf, faces than at any other time since he took power in a bloodless coup in 1999. It’s not a pretty sight. The fact that recent attacks at airports in London and Glasgow are showing possible links to extremists in Pakistan—another in a long list of acts of international terrorism linked to Pakistan, including a plot uncovered last June in Canada—has turned what many in the West would consider a distant problem into something immediate and personal. Pakistan has become the world’s problem. For Canadians in particular, whose soldiers are fighting a war in Afghanistan largely planned and executed from Pakistani territory, the events at the Red Mosque represent a worrying escalation in Pakistan’s struggle against religious extremism.

The fact that a standoff like the one at the Red Mosque could play out in the capital, better known for its lethargy than any militancy, speaks volumes in itself. But behind the images of razor wire and armoured vehicles is a chilling back story.

The Red Mosque was a bomb waiting for its fuse. It’s no secret that its leadership, since its inception in 1965, has always been

fundamentalist, with possible links to terrorism. Following the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, for example, Pakistani authorities tried to enter the mosque to investigate its links to one of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer. They were stopped by baton-wielding women at the Hafsa seminary, the same baton-wielding women who would later become the Lai Masjid brigade, a vigilante band put together by the mosque’s leadership to begin their own anti-vice campaign in the capital city.

That began in early 2007, when the leadership mysteriously became much more active in the promotion and, more worryingly, zealous application of, its Taliban-style ideology. DVD and music shops were threatened, a woman accused of running a brothel was kidnapped and later released. The last action by the brigade, the kidnapping of seven Chinese nationals at a massage and acupuncture

centre in Islamabad, raised the bar on the mosque’s activities. The Chinese government, a close ally of the Musharraf government and the only country with any significant number of foreign nationals working in Pakistan, demanded action against the seminary students. After months of indifference, action finally came.

The question many Pakistanis are asking, however, is what happened in early 2007? Prior to that, the Red Mosque had been generally reactive in its opposition to authorities, protecting its interests whenever the govern-

ment came knocking. But the past six months saw a radical shift in its adherents’ approach to society and the authorities. The leadership’s speeches became much more menacing, with veiled threats of violence and open support for al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Many, including the government and military leadership, believe that radical jihadis from the Tribal Areas bordering Afghanistan or Indian-held Kashmir were given safe haven in the mosque. Their influence then transformed what had been a fundamentalist religious institution into an armed military camp.

No doubt, once the smoke clears from the storming of the mosque, many Pakistanis will want to know how wanted militants were able to entrench themselves in the mosque and smuggle in so much weaponry, including hand grenades and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Islamabad is the most heavily fortified city in Pakistan, considered a bastion of serenity in an otherwise turbulent nation. Its neighbour, Rawalpindi, is the home base for the military and intelligence

services, the real power brokers in Pakistan. For an incident like this to take place in the heart of the capital, the heart, in fact, of the entire nation, is cause for serious concern, not only for Pakistan, but for the broader international community.

There is no question now that Musharraf’s leadership is failing. After a pair of assassination attempts in late 2003, after which he appeared to gain a handle on the militants in his midst, the military ruler of this relatively young and perennially unstable nation is again finding himself the target of a grow-

ing cadre of enemies. An attempt to shoot down his plane during the height of the standoff at the Red Mosque—albeit an amateurish attempt from a residential rooftop involving a burst of fire from an AK-47—highlights the dangers Musharraf now faces. Police investigating the incident also found two anti-aircraft batteries at the residence, old and broken down but nonetheless emblematic of the lengths to which militants now seem willing to go to bring an end to the military dictator’s eight-year term.

Anti-aircraft guns in Rawalpindi, RPGs in Islamabad: how can civilians in Pakistan’s cities arm themselves so easily? “This is Pakistan,” says one captain with the Pakistani army. “You can get any kind of weapon here.” It’s no secret that the Tribal Areas are a


manufacturing hub for illegal weapons. Fully functional replicas of everything from AK47 assault rifles to heavy artillery can be found or custom-made in the ungoverned west of the country. But to smuggle those weapons into a heavily populated urban centre requires not only audacity but some level of assistance.

That help, experts say, is coming from within elements of Pakistan’s security services. Since a radical shift in Pakistani policy following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, fissures have formed and widened

inside the military ranks and intelligence apparatus. Prior to 9/11, successive Pakistani leaders, including Musharraf himself, followed an unofficial policy of supporting jihadist groups to further Pakistan’s national interests. The military and intelligence services were actively involved in training and arming jihadists in Kashmir during the 1990s and, prior to that, in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation of the 1980s. Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan’s last military dictator, funnelled millions of dollars into the religious education system, setting up seminaries throughout Pakistan specifically designed to indoctrinate young Muslims with jihadist ideology.

During the ’90s, Pakistan’s civilian and military leaders continued to use these seminaries, and the holy warriors they churned out, to fill the ranks of jihadist outfits that were then set loose on the Indian authorities in Kashmir and in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan. “What we’re talking about here,” says Zafar Nawaz Jaspai, a security specialist at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, “are the leftovers of the global jihad phenomenon in Pakistan.” But following 9/11, Musharraf made a key strategic decision to join the U.S.-led war on terror. The jihadists, who’d enjoyed Pakistan’s favour for years, were cut loose, marginalized and then outlawed.

The backlash has been significant. Many of these groups, dependent on aid from Pakistan, suddenly found themselves without a benefactor. Some naturally turned to alQaeda, with its store of resources and parallel ideology. Others continue to receive support from those elements within the military and intelligence services who oppose Musharraf’s strategic shift. The government of Pakistan, under Musharraf’s leadership, has become the enemy, another vassal state of the infidel West.

The standoff at the Red Mosque has its roots in this historical reality. The institution’s original leader, Maulana Abdullah, was a close confidant of Zia-ul-Haq. His successor sons Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who led the uprising at the mosque, are strong supporters of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. “The Taliban are good people,” Abdul Rashid told Maclean’s in an exclusive interview three days before the start of the standoff, and 10 days before he was killed after the storming of the compound by Pakistani security forces. “They just didn’t have the time to build a proper Islamic system. They were dealing with a wartorn country.” After his capture while trying to escape from the mosque disguised as a woman in a burka, Rashid’s older brother

Aziz stated in a live television interview on Pakistan’s state-owned PTV network that the seminary students holed up in the compound were there by choice because he had “put jihad in their hearts.”

Prior to the standoff, it was obvious the Ghazi brothers and the militants residing with them were preparing for something. “For months they were building bunkers on the roof of the mosque,” says Jaspal, “digging trenches outside, showing their strength and threatening suicide attacks. Why didn’t the government do anything?” That, ultimately, is a question Musharraf will have to answer, but indications are that he is intensely concerned about the consequences of an all-out confrontation with Pakistan’s extremists. Their strength is on the rise while the government is fractured and weak, beset with problems ranging from the contentious sacking

of the chief justice of the Supreme Court to accusations of an inadequate response to an environmental disaster along the southern coast following a recent massive typhoon. With presidential elections looming, Musharraf’s controversial decision to run for a third term without abdicating his role of army chief has united opposition parties. In a conference held last weekend in London, a wide spectrum of political groupings representing most of Pakistan’s political landscape agreed to oppose the elections at all costs if Musharraf runs and to demand his resignation, dissolution of government and the establishment of a caretaker government to oversee a general election. They foresee a future Pakistan without Musharraf.

Militants, on the other hand, are on the rise. “Talibanization” is the word of the month in Pakistan’s media. What was once a phenomenon largely limited to the Tribal Areas where Pashtuns—the same ethnic group as the Taliban, and who have always shown a cultural affinity for Taliban ideology—are the vast majority, has now moved into the settled areas. Cities and towns outside the tribal belt bordering Afghanistan are spawning their own radical movements, indentured to jihad and violently opposed to the Musharraf government. Last week alone, in the northern valley of Swat, attacks killed


18 Pakistani security personnel. Musharraf himself stated early on in the conflict with the Red Mosque that he was concerned about a possible backlash in other parts of the country if the government hit the institution too hard.

But what has baffled some observers is that the expected larger backlash has not materialized, at least not yet. Pakistan is home to as many as 5,000 known religious seminaries, with a staggering 10 million students from around the world enrolled in them. Despite a push by the Musharraf government to modernize their curriculum, many of these schools continue to teach the same jihadist ideology that was sanctioned by Pakistani leaders throughout the ’80s and ’90s, indoc-

trinating their students with a hatred for all things non-Islamic, convincing them that it is their religious duty to perform jihad, and then sending them out onto the battlefield. The Taliban leadership is a product of these schools. Yet violent street demonstrations for which Pakistan is infamous, condemning government action against the mosque, have been conspicuously absent.

One theory, according to Jaspal, is that while some Pakistanis agree with the Red Mosque’s mission—to enforce sharia law in Pakistan— they do not agree with its methods. “Muslims in the subcontinent have historically been followers of Sufism,” says Jaspal, referring to the mystical interpretation of Islam that has a closer affinity to Buddhism than jihadism. “The hardening of doctrine in the region is only a recent phenomenon.”

That phenomenon, Jaspal adds, is in part a product of global realities. “There is a lot of anger toward the West among Pakistanis,” he says. “The Ghazi brothers at the Red Mosque gained their popularity through their anti-West stance. They took advantage of it for their own personal ambitions. What do you think it is that a mullah wants? Money, followers, and writ.” The Ghazi brothers obviously managed to gain all three.

But they certainly didn’t win over all Pakistanis. Fundamentalism is still in many respects a marginal force in society. “These people play with innocence,” says M.G. Yassin, a resident in the housing blocks surrounding the Red Mosque. “Every suicide bomber they send out is barely 20 years old. They don’t know a thing about Islam, let alone life.” The spread of violent fundamentalism to the heart of Pakistan’s major cities, however, is on every Pakistani’s mind.

What people fear most is that this is only the beginning: in a country originally created in the name of religion, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that religion can rule among some Pakistanis. The concern now is that as Islam falls prey to more and more radical ideas, more of Pakistani society will follow suit. “The world sees us as violent militants and suicide bombers,” says Yassin. “We’re not. But I’m afraid that is exactly what we may become.” M