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Jihadists in quake-hit areas

Interview: Shamil Shams
November 2, 2015

Islamism expert Arif Jamal tells DW why jihadist organizations are given a free hand by Pakistani authorities to work in areas hit by the recent earthquake, and why it poses a serious security threat to the region.

Residents gather near a house damaged by an earthquake in Mingora, Swat, Pakistan October 27, 2015 (Photo: Reuters/H. Ali Bacha )
Image: Reuters/H. Ali Bacha

Despite Pakistani Information Minister Pervez Rashid's insistence that banned militant groups are not allowed to do relief work in areas hit by the recent earthquake, reports suggest that a number of jihadist organizations are providing aid to the victims.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), which the United Nations say is a front for banned militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), is one such organization whose presence is visible in the disaster zone. LeT is blamed for regularly carrying out terrorist attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir, and was also accused of orchestrating the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.

The 7.5 magnitude quake which struck northern Afghanistan and a large part of Pakistan on October 26 claimed the lives of over 300 people - over 270 in Pakistan and more than 100 in Afghanistan.

According to media reports, the JuD activists were the first to reach the quake-hit remote mountainous areas in Pakistan long before the government officials or army troops landed there.

Rights groups say that more than 2,000 JuD volunteers are working freely in this region, and alarmingly in close coordination with the South Asian country's civilian administration and soldiers.

The UN and the US say they have imposed sanctions on JuD and its sister organization, the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (FIF), because they exploit disasters to recruit jihadists and funds for militant activities, a charge both the JuD and the FIF deny.

Arif Jamal
Jamal: 'The JuD is Pakistani military's favorite jihadist organization'Image: privat

In a meeting with US President Barack Obama at the White House on October 22, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pledged to take strong action against the LeT and its leaders. But the freedom with which the JuD is reportedly operating in quake-hit areas suggests a different story and spotlights Islamabad's reluctance to reign in anti-India militants.

Arif Jamal, a US-based journalist and author of several books on Islamic terrorism and Pakistan, says in a DW interview that JuD is Pakistani military's favorite jihadist group, which it continues to use against India. He also talks about why organizations like JuD are so well-organized, and what do they aim to achieve by working in disaster-affected regions.

DW: How active are jihadist organizations in quake-hit areas?

Arif Jamal: All jihadist organizations in Pakistan have charity wings that become actively involved in relief and rescue work when a natural disaster like an earthquake or flood hits any part of the country. Natural disasters provide a good opportunity for them to raise funds and recruit members.

In normal times too, they are equally active in fundraising and recruiting people through their charity work. In the garb of charity, they also make a call to their brand of Islam and jihad.

The JuD claims to be a charity organization, then why shouldn't it be allowed to provide relief to people who desperately need it right now?

The JuD actually claims to be a politico-religious organization, and the FIF, which is one of its many departments, is involved in charity. However, Pakistan's pro-military media are bent on portraying the JuD as a charity group, which it is not.

The JuD never denies such portrayal because it serves the group's purpose. In fact, it places more emphasis on charity and welfare work than its other activities, including proselytizing and jihad. In fact, the charity work supports its jihadist work.

Is JuD more active in areas hit by natural calamities than other religious organizations?

Over the years, it has become a huge organization with almost half a million members. It is bigger than all other jihadist groups in Pakistan combined. This is why it is more visible than others.

Many quake affectees told media that JuD activists started helping them much before government agencies and troops even reached their areas. What makes their network so effective?

This is true. We saw that JuD workers also got involved in relief work after the 2005 earthquake very quickly. One of the reasons is that the group is well-organized at the village level. When a natural disaster hits a region, its volunteers and members are already there.

Another reason is that non-religious relief organizations need permission from the military to work in the quake-affected areas, and not all of them get it. In many areas such as the western province of Balochistan, liberal organizations are not allowed to work at all, lest they could expose the rights abuses during a protracted military operation against separatists.

The UN says that JuD is a front for LeT. What is your take on this?

Supporters of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa Islamic organization chant slogans in support of Saudi Arabia over its intervention in Yemen, during a demonstration in Peshawar April 3, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz)
JuD members say they are not involved in terrorist activitiesImage: Reuters/Fayaz Aziz

The more accurate explanation is that the LeT is one of the JuD departments whose mandate is to wage jihad in the Indian Kashmir. Another department, known as "International Affairs Department," which works under Abdur Rehman Makki, is responsible for global jihadist activities. The 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks were a joint operation by the LeT and the JuD's International Affairs Department.

Why are the military and the government unperturbed about the fact that they are collaborating with an organization that the UN has imposed sanctions against?

The JuD, an internationally designated terrorist outfit, is Pakistani military's favorite jihadist organization. In the wake of September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the country's Deobandi terrorist groups turned against the army because it decided to side with the US and abandoned the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The JuD, however, remained loyal to them. This decision has definitely paid dividends as the group grew exponentially after 2001. The military is unlikely to abandon the JuD as long as it pursues the policy of using jihad as an instrument of its defense policy.

What does it say about the ability of the state when organizations like the JuD are more efficient in providing relief to people than the civilian government?

Although we cannot exonerate the civilian governments from their responsibility, the truth is that the major chunk of the national budget is spent on defense and defense-related projects. Even the salaries of retired military officers are paid from the civilian budget.

The Pakistan Rangers is a military department headed by a general, but the civilians bear its expenses. This doesn't leave much money for the civilian disaster management bodies. The Pakistani people are paying a huge price for the military's obsession with the idea of a national security state.

Why has Pakistan not taken action against JuD and its leader Hafiz Saeed, who has a US bounty on his head?

The use of the JuD is not limited to only waging jihad against India and in Indian Kashmir; the military also uses the group to harass separatist parties, particularly in the southern Sindh province and Balochistan. Recently, the military banned a secular charity group linked with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement in Karachi only to make more room for JuD.

Army soldiers load sacks of food aid on a helicopter, to distribute in earthquake stricken areas in Peshawar, Pakistan October 27, 2015 (Photo: REUTERS/Khuram Parvez)
'The JuD shares the ideology of Islamo-nationalism with the Pakistani military,' says JamalImage: Reuters/K. Parvez

The JuD shares the ideology of Islamo-nationalism with the Pakistani military. The Pakistani state believes it can counter separatist ideologies in the country by replacing them with the Islamo-nationalist narrative. There are serious allegations that the JuD has been involved in the assassination of the Baloch and Sindhi nationalists and separatists whom the establishment views as anti-Pakistan.

The military also uses the JuD to counter the influence of secular political parties such as the Pakistan People's Party and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League of PM Sharif so that it can have a firm grip on the country's affairs even when there is a civilian government in Islamabad.

The absence of any real pressure from the West, particularly from the US, against the Pakistani military allows the Pakistani Army to continue supporting terrorist organizations like the JuD.

Arif Jamal is an independent US-based journalist and author of several books, including "Call For Transnational Jihad: Lashkar-e-Taiba 1985-2014."