Editor in Chief: Moh. Reza Huwaida Thursday, October 17th, 2019

Kabul Attack: Beginning of Sectarian Strife?


Kabul Attack: Beginning  of Sectarian Strife?

promising them justice.

Though Taliban committed sectarian oriented war crimes such as the Mazar and Yakawlang massacres during their rule, they have avoided targeting sectarian places in the last six or seven years of insurgency.

In his notorious speech in Mazar in October 1998, Taliban leader Mullah Manan Niazi had warned the Hazaras of Mazar to either convert to Hanafi Sunni or face the consequence. After that notorious speech, thousands were killed. However, there have not been any single insurgent sectarian attacks during the last years. In a press statement, Taliban's Al-Emarah website condemned the attacks saying it was done by their enemies.

Many in international media fear that such a bloody sectarian attack will provoke sectarian violence, which has no precedence in Afghanistan. But I don't think it will cause larger Sunni-Shia conflict and violence.

Even if sectarian attacks increase, it will not be tit-for-tat violence since we in Afghanistan don't have trained militant groups from both Sunni and Shia sides unlike Pakistan where sectarian violence has decades of history.

Further details are yet to come after any breakthrough in investigation to find out who exactly were behind the attacks. An Al-Qaeda affiliated Pakistan-based militant outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Almi spokesman Qari Abubakar Mansoor has claimed responsibility. It has been confirmed by several media sources in Pakistan and Afghanistan. BBC's Urdu service in Islamabad also confirmed that LeJ-Al-almi claimed the Kabul attacks.

While militants with sectarian background from Pakistan are in the ranks and file of Taliban insurgents both in Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is not a single militant Shia group in Afghanistan known or involved in any previous sectarian attack.

The trace of this latest yet differently targeted bloodshed again leads to elements in Pakistan. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)is a militant wing of Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) which has 17 international branches including in countries like UK and Canada.

It is possible that these groups are now focusing on Afghanistan under the patronage of some elements in Pakistan who want to open a new front here. SSP and LeJ were banned in 2002 by former Government of General Musharraf, but the outfits soon resumed operations under new names first as Millat Islamia Pakistan and later Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamat (ASWJ). Recently Pakistani Interior Ministry issued a latest list of banned outfits, surprisingly ASWJ was not included.

Notorious suicide bombing trainer of Tehreek Taliban Pakistan's Qari Hussain has strong links with LeJ and SSP leadership. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is also known to have links with Haqqani Network and Al-Qaeda operatives in North Waziristan. Meanwhile, during the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, LeJ militants were trained in camps such as Badr, Muawiyeh and Waleed. But after the fall of Taliban, these Pakistani sectarian terrorists fled back to Pakistan.

SSP is an offshoot of Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI), a Deobandi political party in Pakistan, which provided the bulk of Jihadi recruits for Taliban in 90s. Five notorious members of JUI in Punjab Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, Maulana Ziaur Rehman Farooqi, Maulana Esar-ul-Haq Qasmi and Maulana Azam Tariq established the SSP in September 1985 initially known as the Anjuman Sipah-e-Sahaba which made an acronym for ass and they changed it to Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) later. It may be mentioned that SSP founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi was Vice Chairman of JUI-Punjab.

Prominent Pakistani journalist Amir Mir in his book "Trued Faces of Jihadis" says LeJ is a splinter group of SSP. He says, "Launched in 1996, as a militant sectarian Sunni group, the Lashkar today is the most violent terrorist group operating within Pakistan with the help of a suicide-attack squad.

Almost entire LeJ leadership is made up of people who have fought in Afghanistan. LeJ is a breakaway faction of SSP accusing its parent organization of deviating from the ideals of co-founder Haq Nawaz Jhangvi.

It was launched in 1996 by Central Sectary of Broadcast and Publication of SSP, Riaz Basra and its current leader Malik Ishaq". However, some other experts believe SSP and LeJ are two faces of the same coin. SSP is more with a political mask focusing on constitutional changes, while its militant wing LeJ continuing the terror.

According to Mir, after Riaz Basra became Salar Aalaa (Commander-in-Chief) of LeJ, using his Afghanistan contacts, he set up a chain of networks and started arms supply from Afghanistan to Punjab in Pakistan.

In the book, Mir also mentions the LeJ training camps in Eastern Afghanistan during the Taliban rule. Riaz Basra was chief of Khalid bin Waleed camp. He also tells us that LeJ has female suicide bombers, trained by Aziza, wife of a former Uzbekistan Islamic Movement leader in North Waziristan.

Following 9/11 attacks, SSP joined the Pakistan-based pro-Taliban Council for Defense of Afghanistan and condemned ouster of Taliban by the US. In an interview later with BBC, Azam Tariq, the then SSP leader said to support Taliban in resistance.

After the ban in January 2002, Musharraf imprisoned Azam Tariq regarding his statements about Taliban resistance. He later contested elections from within prison, and won a National Assembly seat from Punjab's Jhang region.

Azam Tariq was killed in 2003 in Islamabad on his way to National Assembly. According to Mir, when Azam Tariq joined the religious seminary Jamia Islamia in Karachi, he got introduced to Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the then leader of SSP. Massoud Azhar of Jaish-e-Muhammad had close links with Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, who had once pledged to send 500,000 Jihadis to go to Kashmir. Azam Tariq was also a frequent visitor of Afghanistan under Taliban rule, where he had set up the training camps for SSP/LeJ militants.

As I said in the previous part of this article, whether Tuesday's sectarian attacks can provoke sustained sectarian violence, which has been unprecedented in Afghanistan, depends on who exactly is behind the attack.

Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is also involved in many attacks on foreigners in Pakistan. According to intelligence reports, LeJ was behind an attack on a church in Islamabad in March 2002 killing five westerners, including two Americans. In May 2002, 11 Frenchmen were blown up in Karachi. In January 2003, the US State Department added the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi to its List of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. State Dept. spokesman Richard Boucher said LeJ was behind the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl and 1997 killing of 4 American oil workers in Karachi.

Despite being on the list of FTO of the US State Department, Washington knows that LeJ has been operating freely in Pakistan. Their leaders hold rallies and are known to public. The listing of LeJ by the US has been symbolic without any practical action against the terrorist organization involved in murder of American citizens and spreading terror.

Recently the Pakistani Supreme Court released Malik Ishaq, one of the founders and current leader of LeJ on July 14 because of "insufficient evidence produced by the prosecution". He is charged for 44 cases of murders.

Despite being in jail, he continued terror plots against Shias in Pakistan. LeJ was also behind the attack on Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009. According to media reports, he was flown from jail in Lahore to Rawalpindi in 2009 on a military helicopter to negotiate with the al Qaeda-linked terrorists who had attacked the General Headquarters of Pakistan Army. Malik Ishaq was flown because the terrorists who had besieged GHQ were his former Jihadi recruits.

The South Asia Terrorism Portal website says, "The LeJ is organized into small cells of approximately five to eight cadres each, who operate independently of the others. Individual LeJ cadres are reportedly unaware of the number of cells in existence similar to their own or the structure of operations. After carrying out an attack LeJ cadres often disperse and then reassemble at the various training camps to plan future operations."

The portal further says: "Many hardcore LeJ terrorists were given sanctuary in Afghanistan by the erstwhile Taliban regime. The Taliban leadership had consistently refused to hand over 21 wanted Pakistani terrorists to Islamabad, saying the fugitives, belonging to the SSP and the LeJ, were not on their soil. Pakistani authorities, however, repeatedly emphasised that these terrorists continued to live in the Afghan capital, Kabul before the US attacks in Afghanistan commenced. "

The birth of these militant groups in Pakistan has political aspects too. But the violence has been largely one-sided with Shia massacre and suicide bombing of their religious gatherings. Pakistani academic Hassan Abbas in his book "Pakistan's Drift into Extremism: Allah, the Army and America's War on Terror" in 2004 says that the 1979 Iranian revolution changed the character and magnitude of sectarian politics in Pakistan.

The zealous emissaries of the Iranian revolutionary regime started financing their outfit Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqa-e-Jafria, a Shia group in Pakistan and providing scholarships for Pakistani students to study in Iranian religious seminaries.

To counter this, the then military dictator General Zia, says Hassan Abbas, "Through intelligence agencies selected Haq Nawaz Jhangvi and Saudi funds started pouring in." Then the Saudi-Iran sectarian rivalry was on peak in 90s when the Tehran regime propped up its Shia outfits in Pakistan and tit-for-tat series of attacks started. Iranian Council General in Lahore Sadeq Ganji was killed in Dec 1990 in retribution for Haq Nawaz Jhangvi's assassination in Feb 1990. Later Iranian diplomat Ghulam Raza was killed in 1997. There were several such attacks.

Following the ouster of Taliban, these sectarian terrorists fled back to Pakistan, where the Musharraf government banned and took a tough line against them. Then LeJ found new patrons and supporters in North Waziristan among Al-Qaeda operatives, who used the group to launch attacks against Pakistani military in Karachi and other cities. LeJ became one of the deadliest terror groups in Pakistan, implementing Al-Qaeda operations.

Tuesday's attacks in Kabul, claimed by LeJ-Al-alami, could not be carried out without some help from elements within the Taliban in Afghanistan, or the Haqqani network. But the question is whether this will lead to sustained sectarian violence.

Unlike Pakistan where sectarian attacks have a history for decades, such incidents were unprecedented in Afghanistan. If targeted sectarian attacks increase, it might provoke retaliatory actions and the birth of Shia militant groups in Afghanistan. With the history of Iranian involvement behind creating such groups in Pakistan in the past, it will not be hard for them to grow such outfits in Afghanistan. But it will take time. . For immediate reaction, I don't think sectarian violence, even if it increases from groups such as LeJ or Taliban, will be tit-for-tat from both Shia and Sunni sides, because we have no such Shia sectarian militant outfit in Afghanistan.

However, there are other aspects to be concerned about. We have seen increasing Iranianisation of Shia religious festivities in Afghanistan during the last couple of years. According to my former journalist colleague and a university professor Ali Amiri, Ashura has been a cultural commemoration observed both by Shia and Sunnis of Afghanistan equally. But it is increasingly gaining a political colour with monopolization of pro-Iran clerics.

Amiri notes that the leading Iranian newspaper Kayhan supervised by their supreme leader reported the attack in Kabul as an "American revenge from Islamic awakening". Ali Akbar Walayeti, former foreign minister of Iran, heads a commission that supports regional religious outfits, and influential Afghan Shia cleric Sheikh Asif Mohsini, who runs a TV channel and grand Madrassah in Kabul, is reportedly member of that commission.

Afghan leaders have to make all efforts to stop the rise of sectarianism, which started in Pakistan with similar attacks causing an extreme religious polarisation and plaguing sectarian harmony for more than three decades now.

Abbas Daiyar is a staff writer of the Daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at Abbas.daiyar@gmail.com He tweets at http://twitter.com/#!/AbasDaiyar

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