Pakistan: Government Losing Out to the Islamists
Pakistan freed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) chief Hafiz Saeed from house arrest on November 24, one of a number of recent incidents that have shown the government’s increasing weakness when it comes to tackling the country’s Islamists.
Saeed, the alleged mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks, had been under house arrest since January 31, with his detention periodically extended by application to the courts. Last month, the Lahore High Court rejected the government’s application for a further extension and ordered the JuD leader’s release (Pakistan Today, November 24; Dawn, November 24).
This could prove to be a boost to the JuD leader’s political ambitions. Following his release, Saeed announced that his group’s affiliated political party, the Milli Muslim League, plans to run in next year’s general election, although the party is yet to be recognized by Pakistan’s electoral commission (Zee News, December 2).
Pakistan’s government faced further embarrassment on November 26, when Justice Minister Zahid Hamid stepped down under pressure from Islamist protesters who had blocked roads and staged weeks of demonstrations across the country (The News, November 26; Geo News, November 28). The protesters — many of them supporters of the Islamist Tehreek-i-Labaik Ya Rasool Allah political party — were angered by a change to the wording of the oath of office that they claimed was blasphemous.
An attempt by police units to disperse protesters in Islamabad resulted in at least six deaths and saw about 200 people injured (Aaj News, November 25; Times of India, November 25). Islamists claimed that “dozens” of had been killed, though that claim has not been confirmed in media reports.
Hamid eventually fell on his sword over the abandoned amendment, which the government insisted was a clerical error, but not before protestors attacked his home in Sialkot (Dawn, November 25).
Significantly, it was the military that brought an end to the situation, brokering an agreement that saw Hamid step down and detained Tehreek-i-Labaik supports released. The military is the clear winner here, gaining kudos for ending protests that paralyzed large parts of the country and demonstrating a disconcertingly cozy relationship with the Islamists. The government, meanwhile, has seen its authority undermined.
Taken together, events over the last few months have highlighted the difficulties Pakistan’s administration faces when it comes to containing the country’s Islamist reactionaries, while setting the stage for potential disruption in the build up to next year’s elections.
Malaysia and the Philippines: Some Successes Against Terrorist Groups
Security forces in Southeast Asia have seen a number of recent successes against Islamist militants, killing several key jihadist leaders and dealing a blow to Abu Sayyaf’s criminal gangs.
Most recently, Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) announced it had shot and killed a key Abu Sayyaf fighter in a gun battle off the coast of Sabah on December 4. An official said that police opened fire on a small boat in waters off Pulau Kantong Kalungan in response to shots fired by the craft’s sole occupant, and caught up with it to find the man, a Filipino, had been killed (The Star [Malaysia], December 4). Officials later identified the man as Abu Paliyak, apparently determining his identity from the scars of multiple previous gunshot wounds and old injuries from an explosion (The Star [Malaysia], December 5).
Paliyak was a member of the so-called Remy Group, or “Kumpulan Remy,” a small band of Abu Sayyaf fighters responsible for a series of kidnappings in the southern Philippines and off the east coast of Sabah since 2014. At the time of his interception by the security forces, Paliyak was supposedly scouting for further opportunities (Malaysian Insight, December 4). Even before Paliyak’s death, however, the group — thought to have comprised only 11 people — had already been largely decimated by the Philippine military (Bernama, December 5).
Indeed, the southern Philippines has been the site of a number of recent victories against regional jihadists after the Philippine military announced in October it had killed Isnilon Hapilon, the Abu Sayyaf commander who had become Islamic State’s (IS) so-called emir in Southeast Asia. Also killed was Omar Maute, the last of the Maute brothers who were behind the takeover of the southern city of Marawi (SunStar, October 16; al-Jazeera, October 16). With their deaths, the Philippine military declared it had finally re-taken the city following months of fighting. A few days later, it announced that Mahmud Ahmad, a Malaysian militant and Islamic law professor thought to have taken over as IS regional chief following Haplion’s death, had also been killed (Inquirer, October 19).
These deaths — more than that of Paliak, who was small fry by comparison — are a blow to jihadist enterprises in the region. Nevertheless, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, all of which are in the jihadists’ crosshairs, cannot afford to be complacent. Esscom commanders have warned that, despite bringing an end to the Remy Group, at least four new kidnap and ransom groups are operating out of the southern Philippines (New Straits Times, December 5).
The security forces patrolling the waters around Sabah must remain vigilant, but the real work needs to happen in the Philippines, where it will be necessary to embark on the rebuilding of Marawi and to engage non-IS militant groups if the jihadists are to be denied the opportunity to regroup.