The War On Terror And The Politics Of Violence In Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 13

Violence in Pakistan has gone through all conceivable phases before becoming pinned to the broader concept of global terrorism inspired by Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda after September 11, 2001. Pakistan was born in violence, as communal riots broke out between Muslims and Hindus in 1947 when British India was partitioned between Hindu-majority and Muslim-majority areas. A legacy of that partition was the undetermined status of Kashmir – with a Muslim majority population and a Hindu maharajah – that led to endless insurgency and two wars between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.

Prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the problem of violence in Pakistan had been largely confined to insurgency in Kashmir and occasional sectarian clashes between the majority Sunni Muslims and minority Shi’a Muslims – who comprise between 15 percent and 20 percent of the population. There were also episodes of ethnic fighting in Karachi between muhajirs or refugees who had originally migrated from India, native Sindhis, and other settlers such as Pathans and Punjabis from other parts of Pakistan, as well as Bihari refugees from Bangladesh after it was mid-wifed out of East Pakistan in 1971.

It was after 1979 that the whole perspective on violence in Pakistan began to change, during the military government of Islamist General Zia-ul Haq (1977-1988). As he became increasingly embroiled in the U.S.-supported war against Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, the insurgent, sectarian and ethnic violence in Pakistan began to take a new dimension. This new dimension developed into a new kind of militancy that sought legitimacy under the banner of Islam, and, henceforth, came to be labeled in the West as Islamic militancy or terrorism.

President Zia-ul Haq crossed the Rubicon after accepting – with the encouragement of the United States – millions of dollars in Saudi money tainted with the proselytizing message of Wahhabism, a fundamentalist sect of Sunni Islam. The most prominent player in that transfer of oil wealth to sustain a jihad against the infidel Russians was Osama bin Laden. He had arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan – with the blessings of Saudi royalty – to fight the jihad. In collaboration with his revered leader, Abdullah Azam, he set up in February 1980 the Maktab al-Khidmat (MAK) or Services Center, a support organization for Arab volunteers for the jihad in Afghanistan that would later evolve into al-Qaeda in 1989.

Within less than a year, MAK had several thousand volunteers training in its boot camps in Pakistani tribal territory and Afghanistan. By its second anniversary in 1982, it was estimated that MAK had trained some 10,000 jihadis, nearly half of them Saudi. Others came from Algeria (around 3,000) and Egypt (2,000). A few hundred came from Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, Lebanon, Turkey, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Tunisia. Only a fraction of these were Afghans. [1]

Between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslim radicals from 43 Islamic countries in the Middle East, North and East Africa, Central Asia and the Far East would “pass their baptism under fire” with the Afghan mujahidin. Tens of thousands more foreign Muslim radicals came to study in the hundreds of new madrassahs that General Zia ul-Haq’s military government set up along the Afghan border, thanks to Saudi money. Eventually, more than 100,000 Muslim radicals were to have “direct contact with Pakistan and Afghanistan” and be influenced by the jihad. [2]

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, Islamic militants or so-called mujahidin fought among themselves to oust the Soviet proxy government in Kabul under Najibullah, which they did in 1992. Then many of them drifted to Pakistan, beefing up the insurgency against the Indian occupation of Kashmir and boosting Sunni militancy against the Shi’a.

When the Taliban came into power in Afghanistan in 1996, the die was cast for more Islamic extremism. Pakistan supported the Taliban to be their proxy power in Afghanistan. In the meantime, Osama bin Laden was also back in Afghanistan after returning home to Saudi Arabia in 1990 and living in exile in Sudan from 1992 until 1996 for confronting Saudi royalty over its collusion with the United States in the First Gulf War against Iraq. Bin Laden’s money propped up the Taliban regime under Mullah Omar. The jihadis were once again in training camps in Afghanistan. But this time they were looking to defeat the United States, Israel and India in their subjugation of Muslim brethren in the Middle East, Palestine and Kashmir.

Insurgency groups in Kashmir now had fanatical Afghans and Afghan-Arabs in their ranks to fight Indian troops in Kashmir and slaughter Hindu civilians and Muslim collaborators. Of some two-dozen Kashmiri and Pakistani insurgent groups active in Kashmir during the 1990s, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda penetrated several, including Harkat-ul Mujahidin and Lashkar-e Taiba. Al-Qaeda – staunchly Sunni Wahhabi and anti-Shi’a – also financed and trained several anti-Shi’a groups such as Sipah-e Sahaba and its underground splinter arm, Lashkar-e Jhangvi. [3] This infiltration of al-Qaeda elements into Pakistan’s Kashmir insurgency and sectarian terrorist groups took place during the prime ministerships of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif.

Then came September 11, 2001. The Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda were dismantled between October and December of that year. However, a low-level opposition continued in the mountains on the border with Pakistan’s pro-Taliban tribal region. General Pervez Musharraf, who ousted Prime minister Nawaz Sharif in a military coup in October 1999, turned about-face on existing support of the Taliban in Afghanistan under U.S. pressure. Nevertheless, al-Qaeda and Taliban remnants from the war in Afghanistan poured in to take shelter in Pakistan.

Even before September 11, General Musharraf took a dim view of Islamic extremism in Pakistan. He considered those involved in sectarian violence to be terrorists, and in August 2001 he banned Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Sipah-e Mohammed. In October 2001, he sacked two of his generals he deemed to be sympathetic to the Taliban. On January 12, 2002, he delivered a landmark speech in which he announced a ban on two of the most prominent Pakistan-based insurgent groups fighting in Kashmir – Jaish-e Mohammed and Lashkar-e Taiba. This, in response to accusations by India that five members of Pakistani-backed Kashmiri militant groups were responsible for a spectacular attack on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi on December 13, 2001. [4]

Over 500 al-Qaeda militants have been handed over by Pakistan to the United States and countries of their origin since September 11. The most spectacular catch was third-ranking al-Qaeda operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed who was captured with FBI help in Rawalpindi on March 1, 2003. More recently, the Pakistani military in the Pashtun tribal belt has been collaborating in a “hammer and anvil” exercise with U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan to flush out al-Qaeda and pro-Taliban elements. But the hunt for Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri as well as the Taliban leader Mullah Omar has so far proved futile.

In two intensive forays into the South Waziristan tribal agency in March and June, the Pakistani military claimed to have killed many militants, remnants of the Afghan-Arabs and other foreign Muslim radicals who fought first the Russians in the 1980s, and then the Northern Alliance and U.S. forces in support of the Taliban in the 1990s and 2001-02.

There have been sporadic arrests of al-Qaeda militants who presumably have fled from South Waziristan because of these military operations. On May 19, Pakistani intelligence agencies arrested five foreign militants in Peshawar – a Saudi, a Kuwaiti, an Afghan and two Uzbeks. It was not known whether the Uzbeks were from Uzbekistan or northern Afghanistan. [5] In another report, a Russian was arrested on June 6 at a military checkpoint outside Miranshah, the headquarters of the North Wazirstan tribal agency. The man was carrying a fake Pakistani identification card and during interrogation confessed that he had been living in the tribal region for the past four years.

Most notably, the tribal insurgency in South Waziristan has been connected with violence in Karachi. A new terrorist group calling itself Jund Allah or God’s Brigade allegedly trained in South Waziristan and fought the Pakistani military there before deploying in Karachi. On June 10, Jund Allah tried to assassinate Karachi’s Corps Commander Lieutenant General Ahsan Saleem in a well-organized ambush that killed 11 soldiers and police in the convoy, including the driver of the general’s car. Jund Allah is believed to be linked to Brigade 313, which also includes the established Lashkar-e Taiba, Jaish-e Mohammed, Harkat-ul Jihad al-Islami, Lashkar-e Jhangvi and the newer Al Alami. Al Alami, an offshoot of the banned Harkat-ul Mujahidin, has claimed responsibility for the abortive attempt on President Musharraf’s life in April 2002 and the suicide bombing of the U.S. consulate in Karachi in the same year. [6]

Historical acts of violence in Pakistan have become embellished by the al-Qaeda concept of global Islamic dominance and militancy. The target of this terrorism now includes President Musharraf and all those progressive forces and institutions in Pakistan that eschew Islamic extremism and want to maintain a link with the United States and the West.


1. Bin Laden – behind the mask of the terrorist, pgs. 91-93, Adam Robinson, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2002.

2. Taliban,Ahmed Rashid, pgs. 130-131, Yale University Press, 2000.

3. Inside Al Qaeda, Rohan Gunaratna, pg. 206, Columbia University Press, 2002.

4. Pakistan: eye of the storm, pgs. 24-29, Owen Bennett Jones, Yale University Press (Second Edition), 2003.

5. Dawn, Peshawar, 20 May 2004.

6. Friday Times, Karachi, 21 June 2004.