The month of July holds a special significance in Pakistan’s complex war against militancy and terrorism. A decade and a year back, the sitting regime of general Pervez Musharraf was faced with probably one of the most difficult decisions to make – should a military led operation codenamed Operation Silence/ Sunrise be fully implemented or not. When confronted strongly over government’s inaction by a group of media representatives at a local media and security workshop, General Musharraf voiced the complexities involved in executing such cleanup operations, and corresponding media as well as public reaction. The media bigwigs in attendance promised General Musharraf their complete vote of confidence and encouraged the military to purge the city off evil…henceforth media’s countdown began.
However, the real countdown to the events that would eventually unfold in July 2007, started decades back, when the newly evolving Islamabad Capital Territory had one of its first Jamia Mosques constructed in its heartland by the year 1965. Due to the initial interior and exterior paint, the mosque came to be known as the Red Mosque or the Lal Masjid. Maulvi Abdullah was the first head cleric and custodian of the mosque and retained that position for more than three decades. By the late 1990s, the mosque had become a sectarian stronghold. Abdullah was gunned down at the mosque in October 1998 and was replaced by his son Maulvi Abdul Aziz as the chief cleric, and both the sons Abdul Aziz Ghazi and Abdul Rasheed Ghazi took over his duties. The title of Ghazi i.e. participant and survivor of a Jihad, was used by Maulvi Abdullah and his sons, though their physical participation in a religious battle waged, remains unclear, perhaps the title was used because of the family’s role in Afghan war of the 1980s.
Despite being a government (Auqaf) run mosque, Maulvi Abdullah and then later his family ran the mosque as their personal institution, which continues to date. Abdul Aziz as his father’s successor retained the position of head cleric formally until 2005, when he was dismissed but not removed because of a controversial edict passed by him against the burial and funeral prayers of security personnel slain in War on Terror and counter terrorism operations. The mosque gradually became a transit and meeting point for militants en route the tribal areas to fight against the Pakistani security forces. Earlier, i n 2004 the second son Abdul Rasheed was accused of masterminding terrorist strikes on key security installations, and a large cache of arms and explosives were discovered from his car. However he remained defiant, and in an interview to a correspondent of the British daily The Telegraph declared that, [S]ince meeting Osama bin Laden years ago, he had taken up the cause of jihad. “If they send in the forces then we are ready for them,” he said, looking at a highly-accessorized Kalashnikov rifle propped up in the corner of his study.
However, by late 2006 until mid-2007, the masjid assumed a new vigilante role, launching an anti-vice campaign, seeking forced closure of music and entertainment outlets, foreign massage parlors, an alleged prostitution den, and even disrupting marriage celebrations through groups of 100-150 madrassa students, who as vigilante groups would raid these places, cause disruption and threaten the people of severe consequences. In case of the parlor and den, they forcefully detained the female administration at the mosque. These student vigilante brigades armed with AK 47s, pistols and batons, gradually started to patrol their respective neighborhood areas, with government apparently helpless in the face of a religious backlash. When the local police intervened, they even held several policemen hostage for some days. The Lal masjid clerics openly started to issue fatwa (religious decree) against prominent political figures, targeting mainly women legislators such as then federal Minister Nilofer Bakhtiar, influenced by their sermons, Punjab’s provincial minister Zil e Huma Usman was assassinated by her bodyguard, who was one of their ardent followers.
The Ghazi brothers gradually sought to establish Sharia courts as a parallel justice system to “stamp out vice in society,” and threatened a country wide wave of suicide bombing through their youth if prevented from their “mission” by the government. “Our youths will shake their palaces with their suicide attacks,” Abdul Aziz warned the government at a heavily attended and charged Friday sermon, “The government has been saying that an operation against us is the last option, I want to tell the government that suicide attacks are our last option.”
In the meanwhile, intelligence agencies and the security forces came across credible evidence that the Ghazi brothers were protecting and harboring terror suspects including one of the July 2005 London bombing perpetrators. However, their attempts to raid the premises were prevented by burqa clad baton yielding female students of the mosque and affiliated madrassa. With a bulk of students (both male and female) belonging to the KP and FATA especially Malakand and adjacent areas, each time the security forces contemplated an intervention, they had to consider the repercussions, being already engaged in clearing these terror-hit areas from militants.
After a much publicly criticized period of inaction by the law enforcement agencies and the government, and a corresponding defiance by the clerics,the military at Musharraf’s directive finally raided and cleared the mosque in a fifteen hour long intense operation, after laying siege of the mosque and surrounding areas, for several days. In the initial phase, despite firing and provocation from the mosque and madrassa students, the government kept on extending amnesty timeline, offering free passage as well as monetary incentives to the madrassa and mosque occupants. However, this hold up provided heavily armed madrassa students from all over the city to converge at the Lal Masjid and taking up vantage positions, resulting in an indiscriminate exchange of fire with security forces. Dubbed as the most lethal peacetime sieges, the eventual military strike, Operation Sunrise/ Silence (July 3-11), resulted in the death of Abdul Rasheed along with few other family members. According to the official count 9 persons were killed and 150 were injured. Whereas, the hitherto classified Lal Masjid Commission Report cites the count at not less than 103 people, including 10 security personnel. The weapons recovered on site and shown to the media team after a 48 hours’ clean up, included rockets, landmines, suicide belts, LMGs, Kalashnikovs, RPGs, automatic guns, pistols, revolvers, night vision goggles and over 50,000 live bullets of different calibers.
The Lal Masjid and its custodians’ transformation from a mainstream religious institution to a weapon yielding militant stronghold, is a true example of the gradual decline in governance and lack of comprehension of such a critical problem by the decision makers. By no means, was the decision making elite unaware of the situation, as allegations and reports regarding the Masjid being a large depository of assault weapons and sanctuary for militants and wanted terrorists would surface from time to time; however until the summer of 2007, no concrete action was undertaken. The role played by Lal Masjid as being a center point for promoting militancy and religious hatred was not ideological alone, enjoying special privilege and patronage under General Zia’s regime that well suited even the international actors patronizing the noble cause of jihad against infidel Soviets. During the crucial decade of 1980s, the mosque became a stronghold of sectarian militancy used as a sanctuary as well as recruitment and training base for Afghanistan bound mujahedeen. Enjoying immense patronage and protection from security agencies as well as certain power centers, by the time Afghan jihad terminated, it had transformed into a Sunni ideological center of religiously motivated militants and (later) Taliban.
However, the strategic consequence of this operation was extremely severe, giving birth to neo-Taliban, especially from the areas to which most of the madrassa students belonged, besides establishing a constituency of hatred against an institution, which had hitherto enjoyed immense respect and popular admiration. The Taliban upped their violence and militancy and became more tactically suave and specific in their attacks, with an unprecedented increase in suicide bombings and activation of militant sleeper cells, to the extent of creating personnel reliability issues within the security sector. This tragic episode despite being a decade and plus old, is a proof that countering terrorism and militancy is much deep rooted and multidimensional in nature.
There is a need of addressing the socio-economic imperatives, that are at the root of the malaise. Counter terrorism is a collective responsibility and selective implementation of 2014 National Action Plan are knee jerk responses at best pushing one institution to shoulder the entire responsibility.
Although the security forces have made immense progress in purging the country of terrorism and militancy, yet in the absence of a comprehensive counter terrorism strategy, sustainable with complete support and backing of the civil military infrastructure, such tragedies will continue to haunt us in silence.
Dr. Salma Malik is Assistant Professor in the Department of Defence & Strategic Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.