Tens of thousands of activists from banned jihadi organizations arrived in Islamabad this week to protest the government’s decision last week to re-open the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) supply route from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
A coalition of more than 40 religious parties know as Difah-e-Pakistan Council – the Defense of Pakistan Council (DOC) – have gathered in front of Parliament House. The organizers claim there are more than 500,000 participants, but the real number is likely closer to 50,000.
The protest is being led by Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, chief of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), formally known as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). The LeT has been accused of launching many terror attacks in India, most notably the 2001 assault on the Indian parliament and the November, 2008 attacks in Mumbai. In April, the United States put a $10 million bounty on Hafiz Saeed for his alleged role in planning Mumbai’s night of terror.
Another banned outfit, the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM), has also participated in what the DPC is calling a “long march” to Islamabad. The HuM is headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil, a co-founder of the Islamic militant group Harakat-ul-Ansar, which was formed in the early 1990s in India.
According to the Global Jihad website, “Maulana Fazlur Rehman Khalil was one of five signatories, alongside Rifaai Taha, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Sheikh Mir Hamza, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan, of Osama Bin Laden’s fatwa” on February 23, 2008″. Entitled “The World Islamic Front for Jihad against the Jews and Crusaders”, this fatwa is seen as a declaration of war by al-Qaeda against the Western democracies led by the United States.
Several other banned outfits have participated in the protest, including the Jamaat-i-Islami and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, which was formally known as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The SSP is one the most notorious sectarian groups in Pakistan, and was involved in the massacre of the thousands of Shi’ites Muslims in the 1990s.
Malik Ishaq, a leader of the banned outfit Lashkar-i-Jhangvi who was released a few months ago from Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, is also a senior leader in the DOC and has actively participated in the “long march”.
Pakistan closed NATO’s Afghan route in November in retaliation for American airstrikes that killed 24 Pakistani troops. Following months of negotiations, Islamabad finally agreed to reopen the route last week after US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton apologized for the deaths.
Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik had warned banned outfits not to enter Islamabad, saying they would be immediately arrested. However, nobody has been detained by security forces. Critics say Malik’s threat merely aimed at proving to the United States and the international community that Pakistan is serious about keeping tabs on banned organizations.
Former director general of Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, General Hamid Gul, confirmed a phone interview to Asia Times Online that security forces “wouldn’t dare” arrest anyone taking part in the protest, which he said was led by legitimate organizations. Gul was speaking from Gujranwala in Punjab province, where he was leading a section of the long march.
A large convoy of vehicles is still streaming towards Islamabad, said Gul. More jihadis will join the sit-in front of Parliament House, and they will not leave unless the government restores its suspension of the NATO supply links, he added.
Addressing the rally, religious leaders have said that unless the NATO supply is closed, the protests will turn violent. The DoC has also called for more “long marches” against the NATO supply lines, on July 16-17 from Peshawar to the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan.
Credible sources have confirmed that militants in Balochistan, the Federally Administrative Tribal Areas and in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province have vowed to block and burn any trucks carrying NATO supplies. Religious parties are also making plans to block Peshawar and the road to the Khyber Pass.
Officials say that Pakistani intelligence agencies’ backing of the banned organizations’ protest signals a policy shift away from the US.
“The United States can open all their channels and back-door diplomacies with the Taliban and al-Qaeda, so why can Pakistan and its intelligence agencies not take on board the Jihadists and banned outfits organizations for the survival of Pakistan and its nation,” a senior official in an intelligence agency told Asia Times Online.
“This is not our war but we have suffered huge losses and now even our sovereignty is on stake, so we cannot do more especially in making foes for the others, enough is enough,” he said.