Time Asia contains an interesting report on the radical Islamic group Jaish-e-Muhammad, which is now waging jihad on their former patron Pervez Musharraf.
In the half-hour before Mohammed Jamil ended his life, he was a busy man. As he sat in a pickup truck loaded with C4 plastic explosives, he made and received no fewer than 109 calls on his cell phone, talking, at least in some cases, to accomplices in his effort to incinerate the President of Pakistan. Jamil, 23, might have assumed that the evidence he was creating would disintegrate in the blast he planned for Pervez Musharraf. If he did, he was wrong. Not only did he and a second car bomber fail to kill Musharraf in their Dec. 25 attempt, but the memory card of Jamil’s cell phone, which investigators found intact amid the detritus of the blasts, has led authorities to dozens of suspected collaborators. Many belong to a violent Pakistani extremist group, Jaish-e-Muhammad. Once allied with Musharraf’s government, the group is now linked to al-Qaeda, whose leader, Osama bin Laden, called for Musharraf’s overthrow in a recent audiotape. . . .
That Jaish-e-Muhammad has the capacity to launch sophisticated attacks on the President, possibly with insider help, is a situation partly of Musharraf’s making. The government in Islamabad has long coddled militant Islamic groups, encouraging them first to help drive the Soviets out of neighboring Afghanistan and later to torment Indian troops in the part of the disputed state of Kashmir that is under Indian control. It was to this latter cause that Jaish-e-Muhammad was devoted. Official tolerance of these groups, and in some cases assistance to them, continued after Musharraf took power in a 1999 coup. The President was especially supportive of Jaish-e-Muhammad’s leader, warrior-cleric Maulana Masood Azhar. When Azhar was released from an Indian jail in a prisoner exchange in December 2000, he was permitted to stage a huge rally in Karachi attended by gun-toting followers. In 2001 Musharraf even tried unsuccessfully to persuade the various Kashmiri guerrilla groups to unite under Azhar.
The government’s partnership with extremists was tested after 9/11, however, when Musharraf sided with the Bush Administration in its battle against Islamic militancy. Even so, Musharraf treated homegrown radicals gingerly at first. Under pressure from Washington, he banned various militant organizations in January 2002, but he left their leaders largely unfettered and allowed the organizations to reconstitute under new names. When it came to Jaish-e-Muhammad, Musharraf acted like a parent in denial after his favorite son has turned delinquent. Pakistan’s intelligence services, which had helped build up the group and infiltrate its fighters into Indian-controlled Kashmir, were hesitant to crack down, even after Jaish-e-Muhammad began unleashing religious terrorism within Pakistan. Officials hold the outfit and its offshoots responsible for a May 2002 bombing in Karachi that killed 11 French naval technicians and another explosion outside the U.S. consulate in the same city in June 2002 that killed 12 Pakistanis. Diplomats in Islamabad say that one reason Musharraf was reluctant to get tough on Muslim extremists was that most were allied with religious parties he needed to prop up his regime.
After the two attempts on his life, Musharraf seems to have a new attitude. Acting on information gleaned from Jamil’s cell phone, police in the central region of Punjab last week arrested more than 35 suspects from mosques and seminaries, most thought to be connected to Jaish-e-Muhammad. An unspecified number were released. Still, U.S. officials are encouraged that Musharraf finally seems committed to going after Jaish-e-Muhammad, a request Washington has made to Islamabad for years, to little effect. “He’s serious,” says a U.S. State Department official. “He was born again on Dec. 25.”
One of those arrested last week was wanted as an accessory in the January 2002 abduction and murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl. The Pakistanis have already convicted Ahmad Omar Saeed Sheikh, a militant close to Jaish-e-Muhammad, of abducting Pearl and sentenced him to death. A witness says it was al-Qaeda commander Khalid Shaikh Mohammed who actually killed the journalist. Arrested by the U.S. on March 1, 2003, Mohammed remains in U.S. custody. According to a senior Pakistani antiterrorism official, he is being held at a military base on Diego Garcia. Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat, told TIME “there’s a strong possibility” that the Dec. 25 plotters were also “involved with al-Qaeda.”
The two groups certainly know each other. Throughout the 1990s, before marching off to fight the Indians in Kashmir, Jaish-e-Muhammad militants crossed into Afghanistan to attend al-Qaeda training camps. Pakistan’s intelligence services looked the other way. Officials in Pakistan say that these days Jaish-e-Muhammad activists give shelter to al-Qaeda militants and that al-Qaeda provides funding and guidance to Jaish-e-Muhammad, perhaps contracting the group out for killings. Says retired General Talat Masood, a consultant on security affairs in Islamabad: “The military had an alliance with these jihadi groups, but they got totally out of control.”
Suicide bomber Jamil was known to Pakistani intelligence. A reedy young man from the village of Rawalakot in the Himalayan foothills near the Indian border, he fought alongside the Taliban against the Americans in Afghanistan. Wounded in the fall of Kabul, he was allowed to return home to Pakistan. On arrival in Peshawar, he was interrogated by Pakistani intelligence services and dismissed as harmless in April 2002. Like many Muslim extremists, Jamil, according to his relatives in Rawalakot, viewed Musharraf as too pro-Western. Militants complain that Musharraf betrayed the Taliban and, given his peace overtures to India in early January, they now accuse him of selling out Kashmiri Muslims too. Jamil’s rants against the U.S. and Musharraf were so incessant that his family kicked him out, neighbors say. But was Jamil the ringleader of the Dec. 25 plot? “Of course not,” scoffs Interior Minister Hayat. “The ringleaders never blow themselves up. They get minions to do that.”
However dedicated Musharraf may now be to weeding out Pakistan’s extremists, the task will be long and dangerous. On Thursday, terrorists in Karachi bombed a Christian study center, injuring 14 people. Says Hayat: “Their tentacles are spread far and wide.” On the run now, these groups may be more dangerous than ever. Says an ex-commander of one of them in Lahore: “The boys aren’t listening to anyone. They’re desperate. They don’t accept that the days of jihad are over.”