LAHORE // The southern districts of Pakistan's central Punjab province are off the beaten path, the terrain mostly dominated by the sands of the Roohi Desert.
That makes them ideal recruiting turf for the most notorious of the country's groups that waged war against India in the disputed territory of Kashmir up to 2002, according to political analysts based in Lahore, the provincial capital. Indeed, the list of groups based or active in the region reads like a "who's who" of terrorists. Arguably the most prominent is the Jaish-i-Mohammed, which has its headquarters named Dar al Jihad (which translates as "home of holy war") in Bahawalpur.
The group was, in its heyday, the most feared of the militant groups warring with India in the disputed territory of Kashmir. Among its high-profile acts of terror were the December 1999 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar to secure the release from jail in Delhi of Maulana Masood Azhar, its leader. It was also responsible for an abortive attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 that almost sparked a war with Pakistan, and the murder of Daniel Pearl, a Wall Street Journal reporter, a month later.
Rehman Malik, the interior minister, recently described the Jaish as a clear and present danger to Pakistan. As revealed in an investigation published in July 2008 by Newsline, a reputable Pakistani English-language monthly magazine, the group has recently expanded its Bahawalpur facility, and attempts by district administrators to investigate such activities have been stymied by the military's Inter Services Intelligence directorate. Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of the report and the 2007 book Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy, was subsequently threatened by the Jaish, and forced to apologise and pledge not to write about the group again, activists of the South Asia Free Media Association, a non-government organisation, said. "No correspondent can report on the Jaish and live," said Khaled Ahmed, the consulting editor of The Friday Times, a weekly English political newspaper in Lahore. The Newsline report triggered widespread discussion about the threat posed by the Jaish and other groups in the four districts of southern Punjab: Bahawalnagar, Bahawalpur, Dera Ghazi Khan and Rahim Yar Khan. At the heart of an often heated debate lay the question: have the militant groups so influenced the local populations as to pose a threat to Pakistan's security at a time when the country is being bombarded by groups based in the north-west tribal region bordering Afghanistan? Politicians from the region argue that is not the case, although they freely admit that the religious seminaries that abound across the region provide a recruiting ground for terrorist networks. "You just have to look at the results of the last elections [in February 2008]. Religious parties did not even figure in the contest," said Mohsin Leghari, an opposition member of the Punjab provincial assembly from Dera Ghazi Khan. "The seminaries might be used to provide cannon fodder [for the militant groups], but they certainly aren't providing the brains." Many residents of Chishtian Sharif and Hasilpur, adjoining tehsil, or subdistricts, of Bahawalnagar and Bahawalpur supported the contention that the Jaish and other militant groups, while present in the area, have been largely dormant since being reined in by the Pakistani military in 2002. "In the late 1990s, the Jaish were everywhere, riding around in brand new Toyota pickups with Kalashnikovs, organising gatherings in the villages to play recorded speeches by their leader, and visiting local schools to rouse the students with romantic tales of jihad," said Ansar Rasheed Sindhu, an influential landowning farmer from the market town of Dahranwala. "It stopped shortly after the September 11 [attacks] and we've barely seen them since." Visits to villages around Dahranwala and nearby Chonawala also showed that the Jaish, which adheres to the puritan Ahl-i-Hadith school of Sunni Islam, has had little ideological impact on the local population, nearly all of whom follow Sufi saints, whose shrines practically rival seminaries in number. Social life is dominated by practices frowned upon by the militant groups, including the regular paying of homage at shrines, the celebration of faith through native music forms such as qawwali, and the regular commemoration of the 11th day of each Islamic calendar month and other auspicious days by hosting feasts known as khatam. As well as providing entertainment, those events reinforce social structures defined by land ownership and professional standing that, in turn, decide clan leadership, Mr Sindhu explained. The concern, therefore, that so-called "Punjabi Taliban" groups like the Jaish had garnered enough popular support to hit the Pakistani state from within its agricultural heartland was greeted with ridicule by residents. "I've watched all the debates on cable TV. The so-called big analysts in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have no clue what they are talking about," said Ghulam Murtaza Wains, a teacher from Chonawala who admits to being friendly with a Lashkar-i-Taiba recruiter in nearby Hasilpur. "Sure, the Jaish and some other groups have people here and its headquarters in Bahawalpur, but if you've come looking for terrorists, you're wasting your time. In fact, give me a call if you find any." firstname.lastname@example.org