His remarks about Hakeemullah Mehsud being a martyr has merely removed the deliberate ambiguity the JI hitherto maintained on its deep involvement with the cause of the militants.
Munawar Hasan’s resolute defence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has only brought into the open the JI’s not so secret connections with the militant forces challenging the Pakistani state. The truth is that many of those fighting in the tribal areas or those who have been involved in the attacks on the security installations have had some kind of an association with the JI.
Surely this is not by accident. In fact, the country’s most powerful mainstream Islamic party has been in bed with Al Qaeda, possibly even before the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. The liaison was first exposed when Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, the self-proclaimed mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, was captured from the house of the leader of the JI’s women’s wing in Rawalpindi’s cantonment area as far back as 2003.
This was certainly not an isolated phenomenon. There were other instances where JI members were found to have sheltered foreign fugitives. In a recent incident last month, security forces apprehended an Al Qaeda operative from the room of a member of the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, the student wing of the JI, in the Punjab University’s student hostel. The investigations revealed that the man was in contact with some key officials of the student group.
These incidents underscore the support network that Al Qaeda enjoys in Pakistan. The linkages have also helped Al Qaeda recruit a new generation of young educated militants from urban areas. Most of them are splinters of mainstream Islamic political parties, including the JI, who have joined the jihadi network, presenting a formidable challenge to the Pakistani state. They have become the planners of many terrorist attacks heralding the new phase of militancy sweeping the country.
In 2004, Pakistani security agencies arrested a young computer engineer Naeem Noor Khan from Lahore who is said to have worked as Al Qaeda’s communications chief. The 28-year-old graduate of Karachi’s NED University and an IJT activist was allegedly a key link between Al Qaeda’s inner circle operating from Pakistan’s lawless tribal regions and the network’s operatives around the world.
There are many others in the ranks of the IJT and JI who were involved in Al Qaeda operations thus giving the group significant depth in the country. Already ideologically and politically motivated, Al Qaeda easily attracted them.
One such example was Attaur Rehman, a Karachi University graduate and former IJT member, arrested in 2004 on the charge of masterminding an attack in June 2004 on the motorcade of Gen Ahsan Hayat, the then corps commander Karachi, that killed several army personnel. Attaur Rehman was the founder of the Karachi-based Jundullah, the most ruthless of Al Qaeda-linked groups.
Among others who were arrested in connection with the attack were Dr Arshad Waheed, an orthopaedic surgeon, and his brother Akmal Waheed, a neurosurgeon.
Both men were not only active members of the JI but also had close links with Al Qaeda. An intense campaign by the JI forced the authorities to release the two doctors who then fled to South Waziristan to join Al Qaeda. Dr Arshad Waheed was killed in a US drone strike in March 2008. An Al Qaeda videotape released after his death hailed him as a martyr who was “unparalleled in faith, love for his religion and belief in Allah”.
Engineer Ahsan Aziz was another high-profile, former JI leader who joined Al Qaeda in Waziristan. He and his wife were killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan in 2012 and his funeral prayer was led by former JI chief Qazi Hussain Ahmed.
The arrests of Al Qaeda leaders from residences belonging to JI activists had brought the party under national and international scrutiny, but there was no evidence of the JI’s direct involvement in terrorist activities. Although JI leaders do not acknowledge any organisational links to Al Qaeda or its affiliated militant groups like the TTP, they publicly defend Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders killed or captured in Pakistan as ‘Islamic heroes’.
Thousands of JI cadres had received training and fought alongside the Arab militants during the anti-Soviet war in the 1980s, developing a close affinity with them.
Since then, the JI has become part of the global jihad with its highly motivated and well-trained fighters joining the war in different ‘jihadi’ theatres — from Kashmir to Chechnya and Bosnia. The JI enjoyed the patronage of the Pakistani military establishment in those ‘holy’ ventures which were perceived at the time to have served the country’s’ national security objectives.
However, the events following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and Pakistan’s alignment with the US in its war against Al Qaeda changed the country’s security paradigm. Pakistan’s change of tack also placed the JI on the horns of a serious policy dilemma. The party leadership tried to walk a tightrope, balancing its relations with the military as well as its opposition to the US war in Afghanistan.
That balancing act, however, became more difficult with the war spilling over into Pakistan. A large number of young JI cadres have deserted the ranks to join the militants fighting on both sides of the Durand Line. While the leaders struggled to keep the party relevant in a democratic polity, the more radicalised activists turned to militancy. It is, therefore, not surprising that the JI electoral political base has shrunk over the years.
Now as the JI has put aside its untenable balancing act coming out in the open, publicly supporting the militant war, it has also ruptured its relations with its erstwhile patrons, the military. The unprecedented statement by the military on Munawar Hasan’s remarks has brought the conflict to a head. It may not be easy for the JI now to keep its credentials as a mainstream party believing in democracy.