| Senior Lashkar-e-Jhangvi leader Asif Ramzi. (AP/PTI)
Islamabad, Feb. 7 (Reuters): Pakistan’s most feared Islamic militant group, branded by Washington last week a foreign terrorist group, has been severely weakened by a crackdown on extremism, intelligence officials said today.
But others warned it was too early to write off the Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) group, which switched its focus from domestic sectarian killings to Western and Christian targets after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US.
“Lashkar-e-Jhangvi itself is very badly weakened now and I don’t think they have the steam to re-group at this moment,” said a senior intelligence official on condition of anonymity.
“But there are other splinter groups — those people who have been in Afghanistan have maybe groups of seven, eight or 10 people together operating in the country.”
Fayyaz Leghari, a senior Pakistani official in the province of Sindh, said last week the crackdown by Pakistani intelligence and police, helped by FBI agents, had given the authorities the edge over militancy, saying groups were “in disarray”.
Since President Pervez Musharraf banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in August, 2001, its notorious leader Riaz Basra died in a shoot-out with police, Basra’s successor Akram Lahori is in custody and Asif Ramzi, another senior member, blew himself up in December.
LeJ, blamed for dozens of deadly attacks on minority Shias since the mid-1990s, raised its profile after the September 11 attacks, hitting Western and Christian targets and raising suspicion it was working with the al Qaida network.
Despite the setbacks, there are those including K.P.S. Gill, Indian-based president of the Institute for Conflict Management, who say LeJ remains a threat to Pakistan’s security.
“The strike capacity of the group does not appear to have been drastically contained, though these developments, along with changed strategic perceptions — may have resulted in a shift in tactics...with a greater emphasis on Western targets.”
He said LeJ had close ties to the Taliban regime, having fought alongside the hardline Islamic militia against the Northern Alliance opposition force, and also forged links there with al Qaida.
“LeJ has emerged as one of the primary organisations extending logistical support for al Qaida’s relocation and consolidation in Pakistan,” Gill said.
LeJ is linked to two attacks on Western targets in Karachi in 2002 — the kidnap and murder of US reporter Daniel Pearl and a car bomb attack killing 14 people including 11 Frenchmen. It is also blamed for the massacre of 17 Christians in October, 2001.
Two LeJ members, Naeem Bokhari and Fazal Karim, both in undeclared custody, are suspected of helping in Pearl’s kidnap and murder, intelligence sources say.
“January 2002 is when it started,” said an intelligence source in Karachi.
“Two Jhangvi people were involved in Pearl’s kidnap, and from then until May there was a rise in killings.
“I see them (LeJ) as being promoted from a local terrorist group to an international group. al Qaida were friends of theirs, so this was the best time to use them.”