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Unusual quiet from radical Pakistani groups

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ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — As details and rumors about the killing of Osama bin Laden coursed this week through Pakistan’s streets, there was near-total quiet from an unexpected quarter.

In a nation that is home to an alphabet soup of militant organizations subscribing to the late al-Qaeda leader’s violent ideology, retaliatory bombs did not explode. The cities did not fill with banned organizations’ foot soldiers vowing revenge. A top religious party drummed up a few hundred demonstrators Friday afternoon, but their stated agenda — to protest the bin Laden killing — barely seemed to register, and instead they fell back on familiar anti-government, anti-American slogans.

The subdued reaction from Pakistan’s most radical groups — at least for now — may reflect the eroded resonance of bin Laden’s message and the disarray of Pakistani militant groups, whose attacks have slowed in recent months, analysts said.

In interviews, members of Pakistani extremist organizations also seemed to express confusion: Some said they did not believe bin Laden had died. More said they did, but that they were still in mourning — and calculating their response.

“Everybody in the organization is in a state of shock,” said one 27-year-old member of a banned militant group. “Nothing will be done in haste.”

Despite the muted response, security officials said it was hardly time to relax. An online posting attributed to al-Qaeda on Friday confirmed bin Laden’s death and vowed retaliation. It also called specifically upon Pakistanis to “rise up and revolt to cleanse this shame that has been attached to them by a clique of traitors and thieves.”

Several of Pakistan’s prominent militant groups, including the Pakistani Taliban and various sectarian organizations, have long-standing ties to al-Qaeda. Intelligence officials said the Pakistani army had pointedly distanced itself from the U.S. raid this week in part to discourage an insurgent backlash.

A senior police official in Lahore, the capital of a province that is the base of several banned jihadist outfits, said authorities expected strikes within two weeks.

“They are wise enough to just hold on,” the police official said. “Then they will respond, once all the security apparatus becomes complacent.”

That is what the groups have warned. The day of the killing, the Pakistani Taliban, which focuses its attacks on the Pakistani state, threatened that it would soon lash out.

A pro-Taliban weekly newspaper, published in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Friday, asserted that bin Laden’s followers had restricted their attacks to “protect” their leader, but that “now they are free with full revenge.”

“This is the beginning. We will take the revenge from both Pakistan and the United States,” one Taliban fighter said by telephone from North Waziristan, a mountainous border area where a stewpot of militant groups, including al-Qaeda, have bases. On Friday, a suspected CIA drone strike hit North Waziristan, killing 13, Pakistani media reported.

‘We are all Osama’

Pakistani Taliban members in Karachi, as well as some from an outlawed sectarian organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, received text messages this week that said bin Laden was alive. Western media, one message told them, were spreading disinformation to discourage Afghan insurgents as they launched their spring offensive.

Another claimed, with no explanation, that the man killed early Monday was an Abbottabad resident named Zain Mohammed.

But more striking in a nation where conspiracy theories are rife was most militant organizations’ quick acceptance of bin Laden’s death as fact.

“You can kill the person, but you cannot kill his mind-set,” said Ahmed Malik, 35, a mechanic in Karachi who belongs to a group believed to be a front for the militant organization Lashkar-i-Taiba. “We are all Osama bin Laden.”

On Tuesday, hundreds of members of the front group held a funeral prayer for bin Laden in Karachi. On Friday, a newspaper affiliated with the group Jaish-e-Mohammed ran a front-page biography of the “Lion of Islam,” chronicling his journey “from Medina to martyrdom.”

“I started weeping and later shivering with anger,” said the 27-year-old, a Jaish member, describing his reaction to bin Laden’s death. His organization’s leaders immediately instructed followers to recite the entire Koran — a common Muslim practice to honor the dead — while they formulated their response. He said he has read it four times so far.

A fading message?

Condemnation of the killing has been widespread, but more for its method — by U.S. forces operating deep inside Pakistan without the government’s knowledge — than for the loss of bin Laden. According to a Pew Research Center survey, only 18 percent of Pakistanis had confidence in bin Laden last year, down from 52 percent in 2005.

“How many million people have been seen coming on the roads in grief for Osama bin Laden?” said Aseff Ahmed Ali, a former foreign minister and member of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party. “There’s been absolutely no sympathy with this man.”

Indeed, nationwide protests called Friday by the religious party Jamaat-e-Islami seemed halfhearted, despite calls by leaders to set the United States aflame. In Abbottabad, where bin Laden was killed, about 300 people showed up and shouted slogans such as “Go, America, go!” In Rawalpindi, reporters nearly outnumbered demonstrators, and organizers said they would keep the program short because it was raining.

Yet some observers say the effect of bin Laden’s killing could still be dangerous, inspiring more recruits to wage violent jihad.

“Because of what the Americans did with Osama’s dead body, it gives courage and support to the terrorist groups,” said Hafiz Muhammad Tahir, the chair of a nationwide clerics’ council, referring to the terrorist leader’s burial at sea.

At the protest in the eastern city of Lahore on Friday, Arshad Ahmed, 21, observed quietly from the sidelines. Ahmed, a seminary student, said he had recently moved to the city from his native Chitral — a mountain hamlet where, he had heard, bin Laden had visited.

He wished he had met bin Laden in Chitral, he said wistfully, but there was another way: fighting.

“If he is martyred, the best thing is to get martyred and see him in heaven,” Ahmed said, smiling. “I will try to go to Kashmir or Afghanistan, and I will try to go to heaven. I’ll definitely see Osama over there.”

Special correspondents Aoun Sahi in Lahore, Haq Nawaz Khan in Abbottabad and Nisar Mehdi in Karachi contributed to this report.

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