Terror group builds big base under Pakistani officials' noses

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 13, 2009 

BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan — A Pakistani terrorist group that's allied with al Qaida and sends jihadists to Afghanistan to fight U.S. and government troops is building a huge new base in full view of the authorities in Pakistan's most heavily populated province, locals and officials told McClatchy.

Jaish-e-Mohammad ("Army of Mohammad"), which is linked to a series of atrocities, including an attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi and the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, has walled off a 4.5-acre compound three miles outside the town of Bahawalpur in the far south of the Pakistan's heartland Punjab province.

Jaish, which the State Department designated a "foreign terrorist organization" in December 2001 and Pakistan banned in 2002, already has a headquarters and a seminary in the town's center. However, the new facility, surrounded by a high brick and mud wall, has a tiled swimming pool, stabling for more than a dozen horses, an ornamental fountain and even swings and a slide for children.

There are jihadist inscriptions painted on the inside walls, including a proclamation that "Jaish-e-Mohammad will return", alongside a picture of Delhi's historic Red Fort, implying further terrorist attacks against the Indian capital.

Riding is symbolically appealing for jihadists, who romanticize about riding into battle on horseback. Another inscription inside the compound says, in Urdu, "When God was about to create horses, he told the wind: 'I'm going to create a creature which will help my friends and bring disaster to my enemies.'"

These warriors also consider water training important, especially as most Pakistanis cannot swim. After the attack on Mumbai last year, it emerged that the terrorists had undertaken extensive water training.

Jaish — and Pakistani officials — said the facility, which is still under construction, is simply a small farm to keep cattle.

A man at the site, who wore an ammunition vest under his shirt and said his name was Abdul Jabbar, refused to let McClatchy through the entrance gates and suggested that it was time to leave.

"We're not hiding anything. Nothing happens here. We have just kept some cattle for our milk," said Jabbar, who wore the long hair that's typical of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.

It's unclear whether the new facility will be a radical madrassa — Islamic school — or even a terrorist training camp. Nevertheless, its construction, unimpeded by Pakistan's military or intelligence service, raises new questions about how committed Pakistan is to the war on terror.

Pakistan's civilian-led central government is cracking down harder on domestic Taliban insurgents, in the northwest of the country, who seek to conquer territory at home and impose their extreme brand of Islam on Pakistanis. But the authorities seem tolerant — or even supportive — of militant groups such as Jaish whose targets are abroad: in the West, in Afghanistan or in Pakistan's archenemy, India.

Jaish members were behind a spectacular attempt to assassinate then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2004 and were involved in training and commanding Taliban guerrillas in Pakistan's Swat valley, which the military retook from Taliban control this year. Jaish, originally aimed against India, reputedly was formed with help from Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) military spy agency, and many experts think the two organizations remain close.

India has demanded repeatedly that Pakistan extradite Jaish founder Masood Azhar. Islamabad claims it can't locate him, but Indian and Western intelligence agencies think he's likely to be living under official protection in a safe house in Bahawalpur.

Jaish and other Punjabi extremist groups recruit and train thousands of young men to fight Western forces in Afghanistan. Jaish ran training camps in Afghanistan until the U.S.-led invasion of that country in 2001, according to the State Department, which suspects that the group has received funds from al Qaida.

Western militants of Pakistani origin have joined Jaish, including Rashid Rauf, who was supposed to be the key contact between al Qaida and the men behind a 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners; Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 2005 bombers of the London transport system; and Omar Sheikh, who was convicted of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

Bahawalpur also serves as a safe "R&R" stopover for jihadists battling in Afghanistan, Western intelligence officers said. In Bahawalpur, militants can rest and recuperate away from the U.S. unmanned aerial drones that patrol Pakistan's tribal area in the northwest.

Extremist groups in Pakistan are interlinked, and members often move among different groups. Bahawalpur and the surrounding area are important centers for other militant organizations in addition to Jaish-e-Mohammad, including Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group blamed for the devastating 2008 attack on Mumbai; Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian group linked to the killing of seven Christians last month in the Punjabi town of Gojra; and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is perhaps al Qaida's closest ally in Pakistan.

Although there's a major Pakistani army base in Bahawalpur, the bases of Jaish and other jihadist groups in and around the town attract little attention. The regional administration is aware of the new compound but untroubled by it. According to the senior police official for the area, Mushtaq Sukhera, it's been "thoroughly searched" and nothing suspicious has been found.

Sukhera denied that there's any extremist threat in the town and said that while Jaish owns the new facility, "there's nothing over there except a few cows and horses."

"There is no problem of militancy (in south Punjab), there's no problem of Talibanization," said Sukhera. "It's just media hype."

Between 3,000 and 8,000 jihadists from southern Punjab are fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan's western tribal area, according to independent estimates, said Ayesha Siddiqa, an analyst who's studied the area. They're often known as the "Punjabi Taliban," while the main Taliban forces are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that straddles northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan.

"These guys (in Bahawalpur) aren't connected with a war, they don't have any ethnic affiliation with Afghanistan," said Siddiqa. "These guys are purely ideologically motivated. That makes it much more difficult to crack them during investigation or to break their will to fight."

However, the facility deeply worries some Pakistani security personnel. One officer described it as a "second center of terrorism," to complement the existing Jaish madrassa in the middle of town.

The officer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Jaish never should have been allowed to buy the land. He said the group initially acquired 4.5 acres, then forced an adjacent landowner to sell it another two acres. "It's big enough for training purposes," he said.

Bahawalpur, which is about 420 miles south of the capital Islamabad, is a dusty, dirt-poor backwater that's sweltering in summer. The town's isolation allows it to function quietly as a center for ideological indoctrination and terrorist planning, a sort of jihadist oasis surrounded by parched fields.

There are at least 500 madrassas In Bahawalpur — more than 1,000 by some estimates — many of which teach a violent version of Islam to children who mostly are too poor to go to regular school. Promising students are dispatched to military training camps, which generally are located in far off northwestern Pakistan.

Unlike Pakistan's Taliban in the northwest, however, extremists in Bahawalpur keep a low profile. They leave alone the music shops and barbers that are the Taliban's favorite targets and don't force women to wear the all-enveloping burqa, so there's no obvious "Talibanization," as in parts of northwest Pakistan.

Militant activity in southern Punjab takes place behind high compound walls, only occasionally spilling out. Last year in April, Jaish held a massive three-day rally in Bahawalpur, sealed the entrances of the city center, locals said, and posted its own armed security guards on the streets, with no sign of the police.

Jaish openly runs an imposing madrassa in the center of Bahawalpur, called Usman-o-Ali, which is attended by hundreds of children every year. Two men stationed outside prevented McClatchy from entering the madrassa, which also has a mosque that should be open to all Muslims.

"No militancy, no military training is being imparted to students (at Usman-o-Ali)," said police officer Sukhera.

Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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