Walking the Terrorist Tightrope Pakistan's President Zardari Attempts the Impossible

Pakistan's President Zardari is trying to avoid a conflict with India without completely alienating his own powerful army. The attempt may be doomed. His crackdown on Islamists suspected of planning the Mumbai attacks has already made him many enemies within the military.

By in Muridke, Pakistan

Muridke is an industrial city 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of the Pakistani city of Lahore. In its maze of small streets lined with countless shops and workshops, there is not even a small sign to identify the local offices of the charity organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa.

The entrance to the quarters of the charity's god-fearing, devoutly Islamic employees is secured with floodlights and barbed wire. The guards wear long beards and speak hurriedly into their radios. After a long wait, they open the iron gate.

Supporters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa demonstrate near UN offices in Pakistan-administered Kashmir last Friday.

Supporters of Jamaat-ud-Dawa demonstrate near UN offices in Pakistan-administered Kashmir last Friday.

The extensive grounds behind the gate look as though a sect had created its own world there, complete with greenhouses, a large mosque, a madrassa, other school buildings and housing for college students, and a hospital. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which means "Society for Mission," has constructed its own city within a city.

"You are welcome to look at whatever you like; we have nothing to hide," says a man, who introduces himself as Abdullah Muntazir and whose beard is even longer than those of his security guards. His forbidding face stands in contrast to the polite invitation. A visit from strangers is clearly anything but a welcome sight for Muntazir.

Until now, the Islamists of Jamaat-ud-Dawa have strictly forbidden outsiders access to their center in Muridke. But now the organization and its leader, Islamic scholar Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, are under considerable international pressure, as is the rest of Pakistan. Islamabad reacted last Friday by placing Saeed under house arrest.

The armed forces of India and Pakistan are still being kept on a heightened state of alert. F-16 fighter aircraft take off into the skies over the capital Islamabad every day, fueling a now-constant state of paranoia over a possible attack. "There will certainly be an attack, perhaps even war," a high-ranking officer with the ISI, Pakistan's intelligence service, told SPIEGEL. "We are expecting it."

The agents and their counterparts in the armed forces expect the Indians to launch a missile attack on the training camps of militant groups in Kashmir, and perhaps even a strike against the alleged charity in Muridke.

A Front for Lashkar-e-Taiba

Both New Delhi and the United Nations Security Council accuse Jamaat-ud-Dawa of being a front organization for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Kashmir-based terrorist group that planned and executed the recent massacre in Mumbai. The only surviving attacker, Mohammed Ajmal Amir Qasab, a young Pakistani from the village of Faridkot near Lahore, confessed after his arrest that commanders of Lashkar-e-Taiba had planned the attacks and trained the attackers.

In the meantime, the UN has declared Saeed a suspected terrorist. An Islamist from Lahore who dyes his beard with henna to resemble the Prophet Mohammed, Saeed co-founded Lashkar-e-Taiba about 20 years ago, in close cooperation with ISI agents and terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. He officially resigned as the group's leader shortly before it was banned almost seven years ago.

The indications suggesting that the Mumbai murderers acted on the instructions of the still active Lashkar-e-Taiba are damning, but Muntazir, almost imploringly, attempts to convince his visitors that his religious charity is motivated solely by the holy commandment to exercise compassion. At Jamaat-ud-Dawa, says Muntazir, he has found the true Islam, which encompasses everything, "the political, the private, the religious."

Despite being a hard-liner, the man knows how to flatter foreigners. Muntazir invites his guests into an assembly room with blue mats and cushions on the floor. The bookshelves along the walls are empty, as if they had just been emptied hastily. His mobile phone rings almost constantly. "We are having a few difficulties," says the slight 33-year-old man. He claims that his organization is the "victim of a political campaign" and that it is "all Indian propaganda." But he also candidly admits to sympathizing with the militant fighters in Kashmir.

Conspiracy Theories

The West, says Muntazir, is ignoring Hindu extremism and, as so often in the past, is pointing its finger at the Muslim freedom fighters. "Didn't the attack happen at just the right time, shortly before elections in India? Who benefits the most from the attack?" The theory that extremist Hindus were behind the massacre, as a way to secure political majorities in New Delhi and weaken the Pakistani security organizations and their militant auxiliary forces, is widely believed in the country -- and not just among extremists.

But, according to a different theory making the rounds among diplomats in Islamabad, the Pakistani army and the ISI are trying to destroy the easing of tensions with India, the result of laborious efforts, so that they can finally withdraw their troops from the embattle tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan and shift them to the eastern border. This would provide the Taliban and its Afghan and Pakistani allies with breathing room. Many Pakistanis already see the fighters as friends rather than foes.

Muntazir avoids answering the truly uncomfortable questions. Has Qasab, the captured terrorist, ever been here? He, at any rate, has never met him, Muntazir replies vaguely. What does the group plan to do if its bases are in fact attacked? "Should we reach for our weapons? But we don't have any," he replies with feigned innocence.

But with this audacity Muntazir has stumbled into a trap of his own making. He claims that his "Amir," Jamaat-ud-Dawa leader Saeed, has never headed a militant group. In truth, the now 63-year-old was once the proud leader of the "military wing" of the former parent organization, Markaz-ud-Dawa-Wal-Irshad. This wing, now Lashkar-e-Taiba, was the precursor to the Islamists in Kashmir, the core group that supports violent separation of the region from India.

"Jihad is the only true policy for us," Saeed, a former government employee, told the respected daily newspaper The News in March 2000. He said that he had given his holy warriors "a platform that finally brings together religious and military training."

Saeed has had photos depicting the Koran against the backdrop of a Kalashnikov and a rising sun placed on collection boxes for donations to the terrorist group. One of Lashkar-e-Taiba's Web sites provides a detailed list identifying precisely which mujaheddin committed which attack in the Indian section of Kashmir.

Pakistan"s President Asif Ali Zardari.

Pakistan"s President Asif Ali Zardari.

After the Mumbai attacks, politicians from around the word traveled to the crisis region to help keep Indian and Pakistani politicians from losing their cool. Senator John McCain, the failed US Republican presidential candidate, also paid a visit to Pakistan, where he warned against a possible reprisal attack, while at the same time questioning the United States' ability to prevent the Indians from doing so.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had already arrived in New Delhi by then. She asked the Indians for one thing, above all else: not to mobilize their troops. This would set off a race between the two nuclear powers, which, as Rice noted, could be unstoppable. Then she traveled to Islamabad, where she asked Pakistan for a "robust" and "effective" response.

Her wish was apparently the Pakistanis' command. A short time later, Pakistani soldiers in Kashmir raided a Jamaat-ud-Dawa camp. The fenced-in complex near the Kashmiri administrative capital of Muzaffarabad, with its one- and two-story houses, is hardly recognizable as a training camp. There was an exchange of fire. At least eight members of Lashkar-e-Taiba were arrested, including a senior commander, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi.

Lakhvi has spent more of his life in war than in peace. His eyes are as black as the beard covering his coarse cheekbones, and he wears the military vest of the mujaheddin like a second skin over his shalwar kamee, the robe worn by Pakistani Muslims. Lahkvi's name tops the list of presumed backers of terrorism the Indian government has asked Pakistan to extradite to India.

Avoiding War with India

The Neelum Hotel in Muzaffarabad is a favorite with amorous couples and families. The deep green Neelum River flows past the verandah, and on the other side the Karakorum Mountains rise spectacularly in the distance. Lakhvi gave a speech there more than half a year ago. He urged the Kashmiris to revive the war over the Kashmir valley, and he condemned the government's negotiations with New Delhi. "The road to victory," he said, "will take much longer than expected."

Neither the police nor the ISI intervened at the time, which, despite the fact that Lashkar-e-Taiba has been banned for years, can be interpreted as evidence of the still-close relations between Pakistani intelligence and the so-called freedom fighters.

Islamabad, a three-hour drive from Kashmir, was like a fortress last week. Armed security forces have sealed off the government district surrounding the white presidential palace and the constitutional court building. Even the road to Jinnah Market, a shopping center, resembles an obstacle course through roadblocks.

Divided Kashmir

Divided Kashmir

President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, looks pale when he appears for prayers on the day of Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice. For security reasons, the ceremony is not held in the mosque, as is customary, but in the prime minister's house.

Zardari has done everything he can to avoid war with India. But in doing so he has made enemies at home. He is the first Pakistani head of state to have dared to call the militant Kashmiri fighters "terrorists." Even bolder was his claim that India, with which Pakistan has already waged three wars, was never a real threat. Such willingness to reconcile with India can be deadly in a country of which it has always been said that the army maintains a state, and not the other way around.

At the end of last week, Zardari even mentioned the possibility of banning Jamaat-ud-Dawa. He had its roughly 100 sites, which cater to hundreds of thousands of supporters, sealed, its offices closed and its leaders arrested. There were riots in Lahore, Karachi and Muzaffarabad in response.

Zardari hopes to turn the country's crisis into a historic opportunity to wipe out militant Islamism within Pakistan and to make peace with archenemy Indian as well as Afghanistan. But even Zardari calls these plans "a bit much at a time."

Nevertheless, he smiles bravely during a speech in the presidential palace, ceremoniously flanked by guards wearing pink silk uniforms, saying that the best revenge against the traitors of democracy is reconciliation with India.

He is probably right. But first the country will have to become reconciled with itself. Islamist extremism, no longer a marginal phenomenon in Pakistan, has actually become chic. With its wealthy financiers in the Gulf states and its local, extremely well-organized religious charities, the movement offers every devout Muslim attractive prospects: a place in society, respect and a career.

In Muridke, at any rate, the Islamists are still convinced that they are in the right. Jamaat-ud-Dawa official Muntazir can no longer conceal his anger. He says that although he does not know how his organization will survive after being shut down, the community will continue to exist. Once again, he says, Muslims are the victims and, once again, they are the ones who must pay for dirty slander. As his visitors leave he calls out after them, not nearly as flattering as before: "All lies, lies, lies."

Then the heavy gate is slammed shut.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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