By Karin Brulliard
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A09
LAHORE, PAKISTAN -- Even as its army battles insurgents on the mountainous western border, Pakistan's government remains deeply ambivalent about tackling extremist Sunnis it says are a rising menace within its populous heartland.
In the vast lowlands of Punjab province, fundamentalist and sectarian organizations banned for terrorist links operate openly and with occasional support from officials. The groups' encouragement of violence against minorities and others considered infidels is tolerated, one top provincial official said, because it is part of Pakistan's political "mind-set," and confronting it might spawn more radicals.
Extremists have violently flexed their muscles in this eastern metropolis over the past year, with attacks against Shiites and most recently with sieges on two mosques that killed nearly 100 Ahmadis, a long-persecuted minority sect. While authorities acknowledge that the attackers had roots and found shelter in Punjab, they insist that the crux of the problem lies in training camps in the Taliban-riddled borderlands, an area viewed here as a distant backwater.
But critics say that the lines between the Taliban in the tribal areas and extremist organizations in Punjab have long since blurred and that their collusion represents a time bomb. The provincial government has muzzled itself out of fear, political analysts say, because it relies on the backing of religious conservatives who hold great sway, even if their radical views represent a minority.
"The Taliban have people across Punjab, but the government doesn't want to admit that," said I. A. Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "And these terrorists are not fighting for small stakes. They are fighting to capture Pakistan, including Punjab."
The growing reach of Punjabi militants is a rising concern to U.S. officials. In April, Robert O. Blake, the assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs, told reporters in Washington: "We think there also needs to be progress against these Punjab-based groups, many of which, by the way, are targeting Pakistan. . . . There's a compelling reason for the government to take action against those groups."
The Taliban and other insurgent groups do not control territory or run vast training camps in Pakistan's mainland, unlike in the mountains. But the south of Punjab, the most populated province in this quickly growing nation, is the home base for an array of extremist Sunni organizations, some of which once operated as state proxies. It is also poor and rife with sectarian tensions.
Officially banned militant groups such as Jaish-i-Muhammad and Lashkar-i-Taiba run mosques and seminaries that serve as incubators for aspiring jihadists, analysts say. In the aftermath of the Ahmadi attacks, the federal government -- a political rival of the conservative Punjab ruling party -- seemed to agree. Interior Minister Rehman Malik hinted at a military operation in southern Punjab, where he said 44 percent of Pakistan's Islamic schools are. With the military occupied in the tribal areas, that is viewed as an empty threat.
Punjab officials and law enforcement authorities say there are no organized terror cells in the province, although Lahore Police Chief Mohammed Aslam Tareem said the Taliban has "infiltrated" it. He said the city police are planning an anti-terror task force and that they, like provincial authorities, actively monitor hate speech and raid madrassas. Pakistani media reported last week that the province was planning a dragnet of the banned groups and that intelligence agents were persuading the groups' leaders to rein in their followers and break ties with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Skeptics say those efforts will not amount to much, if the government's history is any guide. Numerous suspects arrested for sectarian slayings have been quietly released, Rehman said. Banners threatening death to Jews, Christians and Ahmadis hung over Lahori boulevards before the Ahmadi killings. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a banned group that the United Nations says is a front for Lashkar-i-Taiba, staged a major rally in Lahore this month.
Earlier this year, Punjab's law minister -- considered the right-hand man of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif -- campaigned in the southern city of Jhang by riding in a convertible alongside the purported leader of Sipah-i-Sahaba, a banned militant group.
Rana Sanaullah, the law minister, defended that move in an interview. He said that up to 20 percent of banned organizations' members might be terrorists but that they are in the tribal areas. The remaining members should be encouraged to participate in Pakistan's democracy, he said, and going after them for waving a prohibited group's flag would only encourage radicalism.
"Spreading hatred among different sects, this is the practice of our cities in Pakistan," Sanaullah said. "Sectarian hatred is not allowed by law, but the people who are advising sectarian beliefs are not terrorists of the suicide-attacker type."
That is a dangerously naive idea to critics, who note that the suspects in many gruesome attacks in Punjab have been tied to Punjabi militant organizations and that the Taliban and sectarian groups share loathing for people whom they consider infidels. Pakistani intelligence officials say wings of Punjabi organizations have found haven in the tribal areas.
"We have to have a zero-tolerance policy," said Punjab's governor, Saleem Taseer, who was appointed by the federal government, which does not oversee law enforcement in the province. "Whether they come from the frontier or Afghanistan, they come and get based here in these sympathetic organizations. They are all hate organizations."
The federal government has its own political alliances with conservative religious parties. Taseer said the ruling party would not push to overturn discriminatory laws against Ahmadis -- a move some activists think would help protect them -- because it might "inspire rioting and killing."
If militants sought to test government will through attacks, the Ahmadis were a shrewd choice of target. They identify themselves as Muslims, but Pakistan's constitution does not, and it bars them from "posing" as such. Years of propaganda have convinced even some educated Pakistanis that Ahmadis speak ill of Islam's prophet Muhammad or that they worship Satan. They are the victims of regular target killings.
Columnists and activists responded to the May 28 attacks with outrage, and a trio of female politicians barely managed to push through legislation condemning them. But street protests were tepid. Punjab politicians steered clear of expressing condolences at the Ahmadi mosques, where gunmen blew themselves up and tossed grenades.
When Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister who heads the ruling party in Punjab, called the Ahmadis "brothers and sisters," a coalition of conservative clerics denounced him as a traitor. He and his party stood by the statement.
But on a recent day at the Lahore Zoo, several people interviewed said they agreed with the mullahs.
"They have no right to live here. They are followers of the devil," shopkeeper Mohammed Nadeem, 26, said of the Ahmadis, as he watched swans with his wife and toddler. The attacks, he said, "were good."
The Ahmadis say they have little doubt they remain in militants' crosshairs. Their leaders say that they reported specific threats before the attacks and that police ignored them; authorities deny that. The few policemen posted outside the mosques fled when gunmen began firing, said Shahid Ata-Ullah, an Ahmadi leader.
Even so, the Ahmadis quickly wiped away the blood and resumed their worship. On a recent Friday outside the peach-colored Darul Zikr mosque, where nearly 70 people were killed, fresh sandbags were piled up. A new brigade of male members of the mosque stood guard -- and they carried concealed weapons, something provincial authorities allowed after the siege.
"We thought the police would protect us," said Naseer ul-Haq Khan, a retired army colonel who was at the mosque on the day of the attack. "Now we are wise."