Jihadists Respond to Earthquake Victims in Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 2 Issue: 20

The magnitude of the South Asian earthquake tragedy has prompted al-Qaeda to issue a statement calling for aid for the victims. On October 23, Ayman al-Zawahiri released a video statement, broadcast by the satellite channel al-Jazeera, in which he called for Muslims to give aid to the Pakistan victims, “regardless of [Pakistani President Pervez] Musharraf’s relations with the Americans” (www.aljazeera.net). This is an unusual departure for the jihadist group, which hitherto has confined its public statements to issues of ideology and militant action. But the “closeness to home” of this disaster has likely presented the group with potential threats and opportunities.

A number of possibilities underlie al-Zawahiri’s statement. Pakistan represents a massive support base for al-Qaeda leadership. As such, silence over the cataclysmic events could have been a serious public relations problem. Media reports had also been circulating that the al-Qaeda leadership had suffered in the October 8 earthquake, which also heavily struck portions of the North West Frontier Province where it is believed the al-Qaeda leadership is in hiding. Tied in with the year-long lack of appearance of bin Laden, the reports might have gained credibility if left unchecked.

The marginalization of jihad amid the disaster appears to have resonance among mujahideen in Azad Kashmir. According to a report put out by All India Radio, over 3000 militants had been killed in the catastrophe (from “collapsed training facilities and exploding ammunition dumps”) and the response of the militants has been to continue attacks in the areas not affected by the earthquake, adding that this had been poorly received by local Kashmiris and even by some hardline supporters of the mujahideen (www.newsonair.com).

However, hopes that the humanitarian response to the tragedy would take the wind out of the militants’ sails may still be premature. The October 9 declaration by the United Jihad Council of a “temporary suspension” of militant operations in Indian-administered Kashmir is unlikely to carry much weight with its more militant-minded members such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba, and unlike the situation in post-tsunami Aceh in Indonesia, the Islamic ideological ingredient in the cause renders the mujahideen more impervious to “insurgency fatigue” among the Kashmiri populace.

Indeed, far from diminishing the stock of the mujahideen, the relief issue itself may provide an opportunity to increase the profile of radicalism. Al-Zawahiri signaled his appreciation of this by pairing his own wish to participate in the relief with a criticism of “America’s agents [who] are preventing us from supporting our Muslim brothers at a time of need”. The message continued with a denunciation of “the vicious American war on Islamic charity work,”—referring to the attempts to suppress Islamic charities suspected of funding terrorism. Given the logistics of distributing aid, the possibility that the international community will fail to keep pace is very real, lending propaganda ammunition to the mujahideen.

Moreover, a number of Islamic charities banned for their connections with terrorism are operating freely in the disaster area—incidentally calling into question the effectiveness of their proscription. Their contribution, however, is being compared favorably with government and international relief activity. One of the most prominent of the banned extremist groups, the Jamaat ul-Dawa, has actually assumed a major role in relief operations. The group is the parent organization of Lashkar-e-Taiba, a militant organization banned by the Pakistan government in 2002 as a terrorist organization. It claims to have severed its links with the Lashkar, but retains ostensibly at least its moral support for its actions in the Indian zone.

At the very least, the charities will be doing their best to prevent what they see as political and ideological contamination of the relief effort. Much as in the Indonesian province of Aceh, where the international relief response provoked an antagonistic and competitive reaction among Islamist groups (see Terrorism Focus Volume 2, Issue 2), Pakistani Islamist organizations such as the Jamaat-e-Islami are, according to their website, seeking controls against “Jewish and Indian relief operations” (www.jamaat.org). The Jamaat ul-Dawa meanwhile is putting into place an Islamic-oriented infrastructure to deal with the education of the swelling population of orphans (www.gulfnews.com). These, and the earthquake’s annihilation of the state educational sector, will leave the way open to increased jihadi influence in the form of madrassa education. Whatever the temporary damage to militant jihadi operations in the Kashmir zone, the conspicuous and successful relief presence of Islamist organizations banned by Islamabad will serve to root radicalism deeper. It is also an opportunity that Ayman al-Zawahiri is evidently fully aware of.