Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (Corp of the Prophet’s Companions), a militant Islamist organization and the largest sectarian outfit in the country, was outlawed by President Pervez Musharraf on January 12, 2002 for its alleged involvement in terrorist related activities. More than 1,500 of its members were arrested at that time. Immediately after the ban, then-chief Maulana Azam Tariq renamed the organization Milat-e-Islamia Pakistan (MIP), the group’s third incarnation. Previously known as Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba, the (Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan) SSP belongs to the Deobandi School of thought and its prime targets are the Shi’a community and Iranian interests in Pakistan.
The gruesome killings of 40 people in twin bomb blasts in Multan on October 7, 2004, highlight the depth of the sectarian conflict that plagues Pakistan. The incident occurred when hundreds of people had gathered to mark the first anniversary of the killing of Sipah-e-Sahaba chief Maulana Azam Tariq outside Islamabad. The attack came almost a week after a lethal suicide attack inside a crowded Shi’a mosque in the city of Sialkot that killed at least 30 people with as many injured. While the SSP chief Maulana Muhammad Ahmed Ludhiyanvi, speaking to the media at Nishtar Hospital in Multan, blamed Shi’a radicals for the blast, police sources specifically pointed towards the militant Shi’a organization Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan (SMP) as the prime suspect.  SMP is an off-shoot of Tehrik-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria (TNFJ – Movement for the Implementation of Jafaria Religious Law), the main Shi’a politico-religious party. Even as security forces claimed to have arrested one suspected mastermind of the blast, Amjad Shah of SMP in Toba Tek Singh, another source claimed that a different Shia outfit, Pasban-i-Islam (also affiliated to the TNFJ) was responsible for the Multan bomb blast. 
SSP was formed on September 6, 1985 in the Punjabi city of Jhang with the core mission of targeting Shi’as, whom the group believes are non-Muslims. Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Ziaur Rahman Farooqi, Maulana Eesar-ul-Haq Qasmi and Maulana Azam Tariq were the original founders of the SSP. The outfit had also operated as a political party, regularly contesting elections in the Punjab province. Its slain chief, Azam Tariq, was elected to parliament on no less than four occasions.
A decade after its inception, the SSP had become one of the largest religious parties in Pakistan. Although many analysts contend that the SSP emerged as a reaction to the Iranian revolution and increasing Shi’a influence in Pakistan, there are other schools of thought, according to whom the SSP phenomenon emerged in Jhang as a reaction to the socio-economic repression of the Sunni populace by Shi’a feudal lords. Clearly the impact of the Iranian revolution on Pakistan’s social fabric has been considerable, not least because of Iran’s drive to establish regional hegemony and growing Sunni Islamist resistance to it. In Pakistan, Iranian sponsorship of Shi’a organizations was principally countered by Saudi Arabia, which is believed to have consistently bankrolled the SSP. Nonetheless it would be reductive to attribute the emergence of the SSP and its brand of extreme Sunni supremacy to the Iranian revolution alone.
Since its inception the SSP has relied on a core constituency of Sunni peasantry who felt exploited by Shi’a landlords and aristocrats, often with large land and property holdings. The SSP is also a byproduct of the Zia ul-Haq regime, which tried to create an Islamist counter to pro-democracy forces in the country.  While advocating a Sunni state in which all other sects would be declared non-Muslim minorities, the SSP has been singularly focused on an extreme anti-Shi’a campaign; for instance lobbying to have the Shi’as declared non-Muslims and calling for a ban on “Muharram” (commemorative mourning ceremony for Shi’as) processions.
Although the Shi’a and Sunni conflict in Pakistan predates the emergence of SSP, there has been a major escalation in sectarian violence since the anti-Shi’a riots in Lahore of 1986. At least two subsequent events changed the dynamics of sectarian violence: the murder of TNFJ leader Arif Hussain in 1988 and the February 1990 assassination of Maulana Haq Nawaj Jangvi, the most influential founder of SSP. Sectarian violence reached its peak in 1997; out of 195 killed in that year, 118 were Shi’a and 77 Sunni. The SSP along with several other Sunni and Shi’a organizations were suspected of being at the forefront of this violence. According to some sources, the first incident of sectarian violence took place on March 23, 1987 when Ahl-e-Hadith leaders Allama Ehsan Elahi Zaheer and Maulana Habib-ur-Rehman Yazdani were killed with six others at a meeting near the Minar-i-Pakistan.  The SSP’s terrorist campaign has two main features: targeted killings of prominent Shi’a figures and indiscriminate attacks on crowded mosques. Some of the major cases of sectarian violence spearheaded by the SSP in 2004 are worth documentation:
October 7: At least 38 people were killed and more than 100 injured in bomb blasts in Multan.
September 21: Suspected SSP members gunned down at least three members of a Shi’a family in a sectarian attack in Dera Ismail Khan.
March 2: More than 45 people killed and over 100 wounded in an attack on Shi’a Muslims in Quetta.
SSP has also inflicted serious violence on Iranian interests in Pakistan. In December 1990, it assassinated Sadegh Ganji, a well-known Iranian diplomat and head of Iran’s cultural center in Lahore. The killing of Ganji was apparently in retaliation for the assassination of Maulana Jhangvi in February 1990, likely carried out by Iranian intelligence. In January 1997 the SSP armed wing burnt down Iran’s cultural center in Lahore and in the same month assassinated Mohammad Ali Rahimi, Iran’s cultural attaché in Multan. In September 1997, SSP operatives shot dead five Iranian air force cadets in Rwalpindi. 
According to reliable sources, SSP maintains both its headquarters in the two largest Deobandi Madrasas of Punjab – Jamiat-ul-Uloom Eidgah in Bahawalnagar city, and Dar-ul-Uloom Deoband Faqirwali in the Fort Abbas subdivision. However, some sources have claimed that all organizational controls are exercised from regional headquarters located in Jamia Faruqiya, Jia Moosa, Shadara and Lahore and the international units are controlled by Madrasa Mahmoodiya in Jhang. 
The tentacles of the organization are widespread, as SSP has paid considerable attention to district level units. According to one estimate, the organization boasted 74 district-level and 225 tehsil (micro-level unit of administration) units before the 2002 proscription.  Although rooted in the countryside the SSP relies on urban Sunni businessmen for funding. Moreover the organization has tried to reach a more sophisticated audience through its official monthly organ, Khilifat-i-Rashida (The Rightly Guided Caliphate), published in Faisalabad.
It is widely believed that the SSP has received considerable financial and logistical assistance from Saudi intelligence. The Pakistani authorities are well aware of these connections but turn a blind eye to them, not least because the Pakistani state maintains historical ties with the House of Saud.  A report in the mid 1990’s disclosed that the Saudi government had consistently backed the Deobandi school of thought in Pakistan (which has many similarities to the Wahhabi version of Islam), especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The report also claimed that the United States and some other western countries supported the SSP to counter the growing Shi’a and Iranian influence in the region. 
The SSP exercises considerable influence on various political parties, in particular the Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI) and the Jamaat-Ulema-e-Islam (JuI), which tried to negotiate Osama bin Laden’s extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the 9/11 attacks. Moreover the SSP is believed to have strong operational ties with other Deobandi/Wahhabi organizations in Pakistan and also with some international outfits.
In 1996 there was an apparent split in the ranks of the SSP, leading to the emergence of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ – “Jhangvi’s Army”).  The LeJ is led by Riaz Basra (former senior cadre of the SSP), and is widely believed to be the armed wing of the SSP. The LeJ was also outlawed by President Musharraf on August 14, 2001. Despite the manufactured split, the SSP retained its half-disguised moderate political profile and denied engaging in terrorist activities.
Besides the LeJ, the SSP has forged other manufactured – or at least controlled – splinter groups. After Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi’s assassination, at least five splinter groups (excluding the LeJ) emerged from the ranks of the SSP. They were Jhangvi Tigers, Al Haq Tigers, Tanzeem ul-Haq, Al Farooq and Al Badr Foundation. Currently the SSP has 31 vital operational networks spread across Pakistan. After the proscription, it has shifted its offices to mosques and madrasas in different cities. The networks in Multan, Jhang, Quetta, Hyderabad and Peshawar have been under Mualana Abdul Ghafoor, Rana Ayub, Hafiz Qasim Siddique, Maulana Farooq Azad and Maulana Darwesh respectively. Although rooted in the Punjab, the SSP is now a truly national and increasingly international phenomenon. The organization has tens of thousands of active supporters and according to reliable sources boasts up to 6,000 trained and professional cadres; many of whom are actively involved in sectarian violence. With some 17 branches in foreign countries including Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Canada and the United Kingdom, the SSP is the largest and most pervasive Sunni supremacist organization in the world.
Apart from its armed wing, the SSP has strong connections with the Kashmir-focused Jihadi outfit, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) led by Maulana Masood Azhar. In October 2000, the JeM chief reportedly said “now we go hand-in-hand, and Sipah-e-Sahaba stands shoulder to shoulder with Jaish-e-Muhammad in Jihad.” Despite these alliances the SSP does not play a significant role in the Kashmiri insurgency.
However, SSP militants were known to have undergone military training in Afghanistan while fighting alongside the Taliban. Most recently on December 20, 2004 Lahore Police arrested suspected SSP cadre Malik Tahseen (alias Abdul Jabbar Alvi) for his involvement in securing Afghan bases and connections for the organization. Tahseen was detained alongside five associates of Libyan al-Qaeda operative Abu Al-Faraj, wanted for masterminding two assassination attempts on President Musharraf. However, there does not seem to be any serious connections between the SSP and al-Qaeda, despite allegations that both the SSP and the LeJ lent moral support to Osama Bin Laden’s International Islamic Front. While al-Qaeda has been successful at co-opting other Pakistani sectarian outfits, it has had less luck with the SSP, which has consistently identified Shi’as and Iran as its primary – and seemingly exclusive – enemies.
Despite its ban, the SSP carries on as normal and – for the foreseeable future at least – is likely to grow in influence and prestige. A primary and obvious difficulty is that proscribed groups such as SSP and JeM can circumvent the proscription by changing their names and operating through manufactured splinter groups. Addressing the serious challenges posed by the SSP is a Herculean task, not least because sectarian divisions are very strong in Pakistan. It is doubtful whether Musharraf’s administration has either the will or the capability to take on this powerful organization and its vocal and influential domestic and international audience.
Animesh Roul is a Research Coordinator at the “Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict” (SSPC) in New Delhi, where he specializes in terrorism and security issues. He is also a correspondent for ISN.
1. Sipah Muhammad Pakistan was formed in 1993 on the basis of instructions issued by TNFJ President Ghulam Reza Naqvi. It was banned on August 14, 2001 along with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
2. “Pasban-i-Islam behind Multan blast”, The News, October 22, 2004.
3. After assuming power, Zia ul-Haq encouraged the formation of the Mohajir Quami Movement (MQM) in Karachi and Hyderabad and Anjuman Sipah Sahabah in Punjab in order to scuttle the influence of the People’s Party and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was a Shi’a.
4. Dawn, September 11, 1997.
5. For more information on these killings, refer to Hassan Abbas, Pakistan’s Drift Into Extremism: Allah, The Army, And America’s War On Terror, M.E. Sharpe, 2004.
6. Mohammad Amir Rana, Gateway to Terrorism, New Millennium Publication,
London, 2003, p.182.
8. The ideological and financial links between the two has been noted in various sources. See, for example, Fayaz Ahmad, “Sipah e Sahaba or Sipah e Yazeed?”, Shia News, 21 October 2003. Also see, the URL: https://www.hazara.net/taliban/protectors/protectors.html
9. The information was published in the daily Nation, 20 January 1995 quoting a confidential report of the Home Department of Punjab. Rehman Faiz quoted in Qalandar: Islam and Interfaith Relations in South Asia, April 2004. www.islaminterfaith.org
10. LeJ is named after the SSP leader Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi who was allegedly assassinated by the Iranian intelligence service in February 1990. After the assassination some members allegedly deserted the SSP, accusing it of deviating from the ideals of Jhangvi. But the split was not serious and the LeJ merely constitutes the armed wing of the SSP. The SSP and LeJ have allegedly received financial and other assistance from the intelligence agencies of Saudi Arabia and the former Iraqi regime as reward for targeting Iranian officials and interests. Conversely the SMP was bankrolled by Iranian intelligence for countering the LeJ.