Religion and Counter-Terrorism in Pakistan


Religion and Counter-Terrorism in Pakistan

03 Aug 2015

The fight against terrorism and religious extremism in Pakistan is in doubt despite a new counter-terrorism plan introduced by the Pakistani government, according to a report from the International Crisis Group.

In the wake of the 16 December 2014 attack on a school in Peshawar, carried out by the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), the Pakistani government announced a twenty-point plan aimed at combatting terrorism and extremism throughout the country.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) recently released a report assessing this plan, ' Revisiting Counter-terrorism Strategies in Pakistan: Opportunities and Pitfalls,' published on 22 July 2015, The ICG say that, despite the new National Action Plan (NAP) to counter-terror strategies, the Pakistani government has been unable, and in many cases unwilling, to curb the operation of violent jihadi groups.

Pakistan faces an important battle against terror and extremism within its borders.

The report also concludes that the government have been unsuccessful in regulating a growing network of radicalising madrassas and has an over reliance on heavy-handed military tactics to dispense law and order throughout the country. Challenged by the growing threat of religiously driven jihadi groups, Pakistan faces an important battle against terror and extremism within its borders. The report argues that the new, military-led NAP is not the answer.

A Militarised Approach

One year since the Pakistani military assumed a greater role in combatting terror and extremism during operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, and roughly six months after the unveiling of the NAP, the report suggests that little has changed in Pakistan. The country faces a growing threat of jihadi violence, radicalisation of youth, and minority vulnerability.

In the last two years, the Sharif government has implemented three strategies aimed at combatting terrorism and religiously based jihadi violence. Each initiative has been plagued by a desire for "quick fixes," which give military forces impunity, the ability to detain individuals as they see fit, broad 'shoot-to-kill' authority, and, as a result of the recent 21st amendment, control over special trial courts to try any person "who claims, or is known, to belong to any terrorist group or organisation using the name of a religion or sect." Perhaps most importantly, in the wake of the Peshawar school attack, the government ended the post-2008 moratorium on the death penalty for terrorism-related cases.

Special Status for Banned Groups

Pakistan has a long and chequered history with jihadi groups, many of which, despite apparent government and military efforts, operate freely in the country and often commit attacks aimed at sectarian and religious minorities. The ICG report emphasises that, notwithstanding government and military assurances, prominent banned jihadi groups, who operate under changed names and disguised as charity organisations, continue to roam the country.

Jihadi groups continue with attacks against sectarian and religious minorities.

Recent counter-terrorism strategies, including the NAP, have been accused of distinguishing between "good" jihadi groups, which target India and Afghanistan and "bad" groups, which seek to destroy the Pakistani state. Though they are exempt from state counter-terrorism strategies, these "good" groups, including the Laskhar-e-Tayyaba (LeT), renamed as Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JD), and Jaish-e-Mohammed, pursue agendas that are invariably linked with global jihadi groups, play a key role in driving religious conflict in the region, and are just as dangerous and destabilising as "bad" groups.

Within Pakistan, groups like the LeT/JD have increased their activity. According to the report, the LeT/JD's apparent charity organisation, Falah-e-Insaniyat, gained access to the drought-stricken Tharpakar district in the Sindh Province and has rapidly expanded the number of LeT/JD madrassas in Balochistan. Additional jihadi organisations, including the Sunni extremist Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (now named Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat), which is mobilised by a hatred of the Shia population, have also been given special consideration by the government and military as "good" jihadi groups.

The persistence of these "good" groups, and the Pakistani government's unwillingness to treat them as terror organisations, allows religiously based violence and radicalisation to continue. Furthermore, the report highlights that three of the twenty NAP points, actions against banned jihadi organisations, madrassa regulation, and actions against Afghan refugees, have since been removed.

Radicalisation in the Madrassa

The report emphasises the importance of counter-extremism and counter-terror efforts starting with the regulation of madrassas. While public education in Pakistan continues to founder, madrassas, which often promote sectarian and religious hatred, fill the void. Though there are no exact statistics, the numbers that are known are a real cause for concern.

Interior Minister Nisar claims that 90 per cent of the 18,000 – 30,000 madrassas in Pakistan have no terrorist links. However, there are still 11,000 Deobandi madrassas, which have been classified as 'sensitive,' roughly twenty madrassas in Islamabad and Rawalpindi with Pakistani Taliban ties, and at least two which have given "jihadi weapons trainings classes to students." Furthermore, a 2013 Sindh home ministry survey estimates that roughly 2,100 madrassas were classified as "dangerous," which is particularly troubling considering Karachi's status as a haven of sectarian violence.

Regulation of the madrassas has been slow, inhibited by Islamist parties.

Although steps have been taken to regulate the madrassa sector, progress is slow and inhibited by a number of Islamist parties and movements. In particular, many within the Deobandi movement have denounced government regulations of mosques as an attack on the sovereignty of the Islamic education system. Efforts to combat extremist madrassas often follow a similar pattern: officials (in both Islamabad and provincial governments) work to eradicate madrassa radicalisation, a task made difficult enough by the lack of intelligence concerning madrassas in big cities and heavy fortification of those in smaller towns. Islamist groups, particularly within the Deobandi movement, critcise the regulation efforts and the government subsequently capitulates.

The ICG say that if radicalisation in madrassas, which can occur through both formally, through "weapons training classes" or informally, through teachers and administrators helping students to enrol in extremist organisations during summer vacation, persists, counter-terrorism strategies and initiatives will be largely futile.

Implications of Persistent Radicalisation

Religiously charged radicalisation and violence does not only stem from the madrassa sector, but is also initiated by hate speech and literature, according to the ICG. In an effort to curb radicalisation and violence, provincial and Islamabad police have restricted the use of mosque loudspeakers, closed numerous printing presses and shops, which had been distributing hate literature, and arrested hundreds of preachers for hate speech. Despite these efforts, hate speech is still pervasive throughout Pakistan. Madrassas produce and distribute their own hate literature, jihadi groups, like LeT/JD, disseminate regular publications and extremist social media messages, and external actors such as Saudi Arabia, eagerly support jihadi efforts.

The open flow of rhetoric, finances, and people among organisations within Pakistan, but most importantly between Pakistani jihadi groups and government officials and private individuals in Saudi Arabia, allows for a new Salafi, Takfiri, and Ikhwani infused extremism to permeate the already volatile religious climate of Pakistan.

The counter-terrorism response has been largely ineffective, including tackling radicalisation.

With reports emerging on 29 July 2015 that Pakistani police had killed the leader of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the effective military wing of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, state ambivalence towards jihadi groups persists. Though unveiled as a robust counter-terrorism response to the December 2014 school attack, the NAP, which cedes considerable power to the military, has been largely ineffective in combatting extremism, religiously driven attacks, and radicalisation.

The ICG concludes that violence will persist in the region, until the Sharif government in Pakistan strengthens and modernises the local and provincial police forces, takes action against all extreme jihadi groups (not only those who operate against the state), regulates the rapidly radicalising madrassa sector, and alleviates the marginalisation of minority religious and sectarian groups.

Key Recommendations

The ICG make a number of recommendations for the federal and provincial governments, parliament, and police leadership, including:

  • For the federal and provincial government to make it a top priority to develop a civilian-led and intelligence-based counter-terrorism strategy.
  • For the provincial police leadership to create learning modules for intelligence-led counter-terrorism operations that include an emphasis on the police role in curbing hate speech and literature and enforcing the law against clerics, mosques and madrasas advocating or supporting violence.
  • For the federal and provincial governments to robustly monitor banned groups and individuals, and make the list of banned groups freely available to all parties, including the public.
  • For the federal and provincial governments to also ensure that the police investigate and monitor all madrasas, mosques and charities with known or suspected links to banned groups.
  • For the federal and provincial governments to curb terrorist financing and money laundering, and make anti-money laundering and anti-terrorist financing methods an integral part of the police training curriculum, based on international standards.
  • For the federal government and parliament to achieve a sustainable counter-insurgency strategy in the North Waziristan agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

You can read the full ICG report here.

This article summarises an external report, and is not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. 


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International Crisis Group