Militant Suspects Have Roots In Kashmir Conflict

28 November 2008
The Guardian


Bahawalpur: Down dusty lanes in the southern Punjabi town of Bahawalpur are two religious schools that are well known to security services on both sides of the Pakistani-Indian border and further afield. They do not look like centres of global terrorism. Earlier this week when the Guardian visited, students poured out of the Dar ul-Uloom Medina at the end of morning lessons and teachers sat on rope beds drinking tea and eating bananas. The high-walled, heavy-gated Usman au Ali school in the heart of the city was quiet. Yet appearances may be deceptive. Both schools are accused of being recruitment and logistics bases for Jaish-e-Muhammad, a militant group now among India's suspects for this week's Mumbai attacks. Elsewhere in Bahawalpur and in the surrounding villages are other schools and safehouses linked to Lashkar-e-Taiba, the other group in the frame. Both groups have their roots in the conflict over the disputed Himalayan state of Kashmir. Developing out of irregular militias to fight Indian security forces in the Indian-administered parts of Kashmir in the early 1990s with the encouragement and support of Pakistani intelligence services, the groups' fighters have been blamed by the Indian government for a catalogue of atrocities. They include a gun and grenade assault on the parliament buildings in Delhi in 2001, hundreds of violent killings in Kashmir over the last decade and a half, the 2002 killing of Jewish-American journalist Daniel Pearl, an airplane hijacking, and bombings in Indian cities. The result is that although Pakistan's tribal areas along the frontier with Afghanistan are internationally known as 'al-Qaida central', it is towards the towns and villages of Pakistan's Punjab province that New Delhi's finger is now pointing. Islamabad's policy of using such groups as proxies is long-standing. 'Given the power asymmetry between the two neighbours, Pakistan knows that it is the weaker militarily and that bleeding India is one way of attaining strategic aims and using paramilitary groups with plausible deniability is one way of doing that,' said Farzana Shaikh of the Chatham House thinktank. In recent years the dynamic has changed although judging how far is hard. In 2002 Pervez Musharraf, then Pakistan's president, banned Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which had been openly fundraising and recruiting. Assassination attempts on him and the occupation and armed siege of the Red Mosque in central Islamabad had brought home the perils of trying to manage the militants, however useful they appeared to be. Analysts say the militants are more fragmented than before and that although the Pakistani security establishment maintains some control over some of them, others have turned against their former patrons. Other outlets for their energies may also have been sought. Some young volunteers may be diverted to Afghanistan rather than to Kashmir, where fighting has calmed in recent years. With British officials trying to verify Indian statements that at least two of the militants involved in the Mumbai attacks were British-born, the role of the Pakistani groups and the role of the Pakistani security establishment will now come under greater scrutiny than ever.