Karachi, March 27 (Reuters): They were outlawed and their training camps dismantled, but Pakistan-based Islamic groups engaged in Kashmir have resurfaced and are openly calling for jihad in the state.
Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf banned five militant groups last year in a crackdown on Islamic extremism after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US and an assault on India’s Parliament that brought South Asia close to war.
But the leaders of two major militant groups have been released from custody in recent months, their organisations are back on their feet under new names and they are preaching an uncompromising message.
“The shackles of slavery in Kashmir will be broken,” Hafiz Saeed had told a packed mosque in Karachi last month. “Jihad won’t stop even if we are martyred. There will be more hands to carry on our mission. Muslims and Hindus can never live like brothers.”
Saeed officially quit the leadership of the Lashkar-e-Toiba weeks before the group was outlawed last year.
But he and his followers say they have regrouped under a new banner, the Jamaat-ud-Dawa. They are holding rallies, preaching Islam and running schools and hospitals.
Across the frontline in Kashmir, the Indian army blames the Lashkar for much of the violence, as well as the Parliament attack, and say recruits are still creeping across from Pakistan.
“The Lashkar wages jihad in Kashmir but, in Pakistan, it has no presence now,” said Dawa member Abu Mujahid Nadeem. “There is no need for it. We only preach religion. We read to the people Quranic verses which call for jihad.”
Other Dawa leaders defiantly tell their followers that the government cannot prevent them from crossing into Kashmir to support a “legitimate freedom struggle”.
Another group, the Jaish-e-Mohammad, has restyled itself as the Khudam-ul Islam, saying it is devoted to preaching Islam and to social work. Its leader, Masood Azhar, is one of India’s 20 most-wanted men but was released from house arrest in Pakistan this year.
A third group, the Harkat-ul Mujahideen, has regrouped and is working in a low-key manner under the name of Jamiat-ul Ansar, saying it has a non-militant agenda.
Sources within the militant groups say Pakistani authorities closed training camps in Pakistani Kashmir last year under intense US and Indian pressure.
“We faced a massive crackdown last year when Musharraf banned jihadi groups,” said a former member of Harkat-ul Mujahedeen in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir. “Our members were arrested, offices were sealed and camps were shut, forcing us to change our strategy.”
But the groups say the crackdown made little real difference.
“We have scores and scores of trained and motivated volunteers ready for jihad. Raising manpower is not a problem,” said one member of a banned group, who requested anonymity. “Despite the ban, there is no dearth of money also, as the people who know us give us donations anyway.”
India accuses Pakistan of engaging in a proxy war in Kashmir, by sponsoring “cross-border terrorism”. New Delhi vowed on Monday to use strength and determination in dealing with Islamabad after the massacre of 24 Kashmiri Pundits.
Pakistan says it only provides moral, political and diplomatic support for an indigenous freedom struggle in Kashmir.
Pakistani officials say it is not possible to detain people indefinitely without proof of involvement in violence and say it is easier to keep track of these groups with the leaders free.
“Central leaders of the banned groups have been freed to keep them (the organisations) intact and prevent them splitting into small shadowy groups,” said one intelligence official.
“Members of these groups are highly motivated. We have seen their disillusioned lot resorting to terror attacks here. Only senior and responsible leaders can control them.”
But critics like Afrasayyab Khattak, chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said the contradictions inherent in Pakistani policy were unsustainable.
“The state should not allow non-state players to use its territory against any country, nor should it allow private militias. This is a big contradiction which threatens the country from inside,” he said.“Pakistan cannot co-exist with militancy.”