Twice in July 2009, instances of extremist organizations amassing deadly weaponry for potential terrorist attacks against innocent civilians have occurred not in the usual tribal terrain of Pakistan’s frontier with Afghanistan but in the country’s heartland of southern Punjab. In one instance, on July 11, the security agencies luckily recovered a huge cache of arms from a madrassa in Dera Ghazi Khan; in another, on July 13, they were not so lucky—as a house-cum-madrassa in a Mian Channu village laden with deadly weapons exploded, taking 11 innocent lives, seven of them children, wounding 70 others and destroying 20 homes of the poor living in the madrassa’s vicinity.
An audio cassette, pamphlets of a previously unknown militant group, four suicide jackets, and six rocket launchers were reportedly recovered from the debris of the madrassa, where seven children ironically lost their lives while learning the Quran by heart. The madrassa was being run by one Master Riaz Ali, who is believed to be a former activist of extremist anti-Shia organization, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).
22 grenades, 32 rocket launchers, 10 light machine guns, 20 anti aircraft guns, 10 kilogram of explosives, five suicide jackets, automatic rifles and other ammunition were recovered from a truck parked inside a madrassa in D G Khan’s Basti Shekhan. A five-hour gun battle preceded the recovery of this huge cache of arms between the police raiding the madrassa and one Pashtun commander Abdullah, believed to be the deputy commander of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) led by Baitullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s Public Enemy No. 1. Upon investigation, the five arrested persons administering the madrassa reportedly disclosed that the captured ammunition was meant for a series of terrorist attacks in Multan, including the plan to assassinate Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani who hails from Multan.
This latest turn of events in Pakistan’s counter-terrorism campaign and the terrorist backlash to it is quite disturbing for at least three reasons. First, it clearly shows that the TTP and its terrorist affiliates facing the wrath of the army operation in Swat and South Waziristan are shifting their targets from the country’s mountainous regions to the settled plains of Punjab. The army currently undertaking the counter-insurgency campaign claims it now controls 90 percent of Swat, and this week Pakistani troops escorted to their homes the first of the 2.5 million refugees who had fled their homes from Swat. The terrorist intentions are thus very clear: Foreseeing defeat up on the mountains in the country’s periphery, they want to open another militant front in its heartland, the largest province of Punjab, which still has a sizeable jihadi population untouched by the ongoing counter-insurgency fight of the army and the paramilitary.
Second, the way the extremist organizations with their hideouts primarily in southern Punjab are amassing weapons of terror such as suicide belts, grenades and rocket launchers only goes to reconfirm their deadlier intentions of undertaking more spectacular terrorist acts in major city spots of the country. Two serial terrorist attacks in Lahore in March, one against the Sri Lankan cricket team and another on a police academy, reportedly had the hallmarks of TTP and its Punjabi affiliates, including SSP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, and Jaish-e-Muhammad, known for sectarian killings and jihadi activities in Kashmir and Afghanistan. The biggest terrorist attack orchestrated by the so-called Punjabi Taliban—more specifically, by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi—was the September 2008 bombing of Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.
Third and perhaps more important aspect of the disturbing pattern in the visible shift in local terrorists’ strategy pertains to their ambition for acquiring mass destructive weaponry in future. Since it is all but clear that Taliban and their terrorist affiliates in Punjab are interested in mass killing—which is what the suicide belts, grenades and rocket launchers are meant for—there is no reason why they should not be interested in having access to arms that do not kill dozens or hundreds but thousands. Even if we accept the usual explanation that a host of purely technical factors as well as the safe and sound nature of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal makes local terrorists’ access to an atomic warhead next to impossible, the possibility of terrorists acquisition of other categories of weapons of mass destruction, including radiological devices and biological and chemical arms cannot be ruled out altogether.
Bruce Hoffman and others have for years built a case for the relative lethality of terrorism in the name of religion. Anyone motivated by exterminating the “evil” for the preservation of the “good” would obviously have a different moral worldview and least care for political considerations that force terrorists without religious motivations to draw a limit in their terrorist campaigns. Each category of weapons of mass destruction—be they radiological, biological or chemical—has this dual nature dilemma. With fertilizer, we can enrich crops or blow a building. All that terrorists need is to place a triggering device in truck laden with fertilizer as al-Qaeda terrorists did in Baghdad back in 2003 to blow up the entire UN building in the Iraqi capital.
We must also remember that the only instance of chemical weapons being used in a terror attack also involved a Japanese Buddhist cult spraying Sarin gas in a subway commuter train injuring some 200 passengers in 1995. Access to biological arms, the deadly virus and bacteria, is far easier. Terrorists would not have to construct an all-too visible reactor or a plant, as in the case of nuclear or chemical arms, bio terror research activity can take place in a small lab hidden in a basement of an apartment building.
It is, however, true that international concern about the possibility of terrorists’ acquisition and use of weapons of mass destruction is much more visible than the actual instance of such occurrence, which is indeed only one, involving a Japanese religious non-state actor. There is also only one not-so-recent instance of the use of chemical weapons by a state: that of the killing of Kurds in a northern Iraqi village by Chemical Ali of the Saddam regime in late 80s.
In our case, we simply cannot run away from the gory reality of the continuing security quagmire. The start of a resolute security operation by the army in Swat in late April and its extension to South Waziristan in recent weeks has for the first time raised the possibility of effectively tackling this quagmire. The country’s public opinion and political leadership is also supportive of the army’s operation against Taliban and their local and foreign terrorist affiliates. Given that, there is no reason why a distinction should be made anymore between terrorist groups active in the tribal or frontier regions and those preparing for terrorism in southern Punjab. The West will always be raising eyebrows about Pakistan’s ability to save its nuclear assets from terrorists’ acquisition or use as long as we face terrorism-driven security quagmire.
Therefore, we need to go after terrorists of all kinds, sectarian or Kashmir and Afghan-specific, if not for anything else but to claim our right to have nuclear arms for the purpose of deterring rival India. There is no doubt that even in the presence of the current quagmire, the safety and security of Pakistan’s nuclear assets is fully guaranteed, and our leadership should continue to assure and re-assure the international community about this reality on a regular basis. However, this does not mean that we should not take additional steps to secure our nuclear assets, scientists and engineers. Our chemists and biologists also need to act responsibly. We cannot afford to provide another pretext to the West—as our nuclear scientist Bashiruddin Mehmud did prior to the events of 9/11 by traveling to Kabul and meeting Taliban leader Mulla Umar and al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden—to question our ability to act responsibly as a nuclear weapon state.
In fact, our leadership needs to proactively build a case for the purpose by undertaking all possible measures to prevent the unthinkable: the extremists’ acquisition and possible use of weapons of mass destruction, especially chemical and biological. We must do it, not for others’ sake, but for our own sake. For, we, Muslims are in the firing line of extremists’ ambitions for mass murder. More Muslims have died in al-Qaeda-inspired terrorism than non-Muslims or Westerners. More Pakistanis have lost lives in terrorism in the last three years than any other people in the region, including the Afghans who have seen only war and more war in their country since the Soviet intervention in 1979.
As extremists have carried out numerous attacks in Muslim lands with conventional weapons, can we believe they would never succumb to the temptation to use WMD in a Muslim country? The extremists may never acquire weapons other than hand grenades, suicide jackets or rocket launchers. But such possibility will always be there, and this is what that creates scare in Western media and official circles, a factor that, in turn, leads to unnecessary pressure on Pakistan as the Muslim world’s only nuclear state.
Hypothetically speaking, the acquisition or use of WMDs by terrorists guided by violent jihad will jeopardize the Muslim world’s inherent quest for peace in the world. By and large, 1.3 billion Muslims of the world want to live in peace and harmony with their non-Muslim global citizens. It is only a handful of miscreants, the deviants of the world of Islam led by al-Qaeda, who wish to demolish all the gains the Muslims have made in all the arenas of human discovery.
The extremist ambitions for mass murder are a principal hedge against the growing appeal of Islam in Europe and North America. They are a major obstacle to Muslims’ interaction with the non-Muslim world in trade, educational and business spheres— primarily with the West, which is overtly conscious of the nexus between extremism and the WMDs.
It is good that Pakistani security forces are now reining in on terrorists wherever they find them. The twin instances of arms explosion and capture this past week should be an eye-opener for them. No madrassa should be spared in future. We have entered a dangerous era, where the forces of jihad, even if they were serving some regional strategic objectives for us in past, have become a Frankenstein monster for the sate and the people of Pakistan.
The good news is that the people, the leadership and the security forces have all started to display signs of pragmatism. Terrorism is a violence that cannot be justified under any reason, be it moral or legal. That is why we cannot afford to overlook any terrorist organizations, whatever its past legacy, present status, or future role might be.
Access column at weeklypulse.org