The Taliban's New, More Terrifying Cousin

And as if to acknowledge that theirs is not merely a sectarian conflict but an ethnic one, they laid bare their desire to eliminate one group in particular: "We will make Pakistan the graveyard of the Shi'ite Hazaras and their houses will be destroyed by bombs and suicide bombers. Jihad against the Shi'ite Hazaras has now become our duty."

***

If the Taliban is the schoolyard bully who keeps some semblance of order among the other children but then begins to abuse his power, LEJ is the hyperactive kid running around kicking shins, and who has free reign because the teachers are terrified of him, too. After a bombing last month, LEJ waited until rescue crews arrived at the scene, and then set off a bomb to kill them, as well. The message was clear: If you try to help Hazaras, you will end up like them.

Fear may explain why the government isn't doing anything about the attacks. LEJ is not hard to find and their leadership lives openly, mostly in Punjab. They do not pursue their means discreetly. The bomb LEJ used in February weighed 2,200 pounds, twice the size of the one Ramzi Yousef used to try to topple the World Trade Center towers in 1993. They had to tow it to the bombsite behind a tractor.

A twitter update just after a recent attack read: "Quetta Alert: 50 Shias in hell and over 65 injured due to blast on Alamdar Road."

Nor do the killers try to avoid blame. On the contrary, they eagerly accept responsibility, post YouTube videos of themselves and tally up death tolls with transparent glee. A twitter update just after a recent attack read:

"Quetta Alert: 50 Shias in hell and over 65 injured due to blast on Alamdar Road."

LEJ's impunity may have to do with their provenance: They evolved in a kind of symbiosis with the state, which then officially but perhaps not practically disavowed them. The group's roots go back to a religious party with a political wing called Sipah-e Sahaba, which was formed in the early 80s to address a broadly shared concern in Pakistan that the country would be submerged under a tidal wave of Shia influence emanating from the revolution in Iran. In 1996, a group believing the party was too tame broke off and formed a new home for the most exuberant believers and called itself LEJ.

In 2002, bowing to international pressure after Pakistan-based terrorists attacked the Parliament in India, President Musharraf began banning militant groups , including this one. But they simply went underground and later remerged with a more violent outlook and new alliances with other fugitive groups. Perhaps most ominously, they began working with the Taliban. While the LEJ is animated by their hatred of Shias, the Taliban is animated by their hatred of anyone who helped America in Afghanistan. In the Hazaras, their two agendas neatly overlapped.

Pakistan has taken few affirmative measures to address the killings, and those that it has taken have been wholly insufficient to satisfy the people under siege. Hazaras have demanded military intervention, but the military has politely abstained, saying this is an internal law-and-order problem and not an appropriate application of federal force. And, so says the military, it'd be undemocratic to act without orders from the civilian government. However, Pakistan's military controls the civilian government at least as much as the reverse is true. ("In most countries," so goes the trope, "the state has a military. In Pakistan, the military has a state.")

Indeed, the military's excuses have proven so unsatisfactory that people have accused it of complicity in the attacks, allegations which have gained so much traction that the military actually conveneda briefing just to try and deny them. Meanwhile, the Frontier Corps reportedly went on a few raids, and the district police force had its own flurry of arrests, detaining twenty five LEJ members, including its leader. Hazaras just wondered why the leader was free in the first place--he'd loudly accepted responsibility for the bombing a month before.

Whether what's keeping the Pakistani military from doing anything about LEJ is fear, politics, or complicity -- or some unholy alloy of the three -- is unresolved.

Perhaps the only thing about LEJ that has everyone in agreement is that they're expanding their operations. They've ventured into Afghanistan with devastating success, carrying out a sophisticated, highly-coordinated attack just over a year ago in which Shias in three separate cities were bombed simultaneously. If the Pakistani military does not crack down on LEJ in Pakistan, it is LEJ more than any other group that would be able to turn back all the gains that coalition forces have made protecting and promoting vulnerable groups in Afghanistan. And for those in America who want American troops to come home but fear what will happen to minorities in Afghanistan when they do, LEJ provides a grim preview.

LEJ draws its religious inspiration, after all, from the very same Deobandi tradition that birthed the Taliban. They just have even more sophisticated methods and are even less discriminate when killing civilians. We shouldn't be surprised if, as the U.S. withdrawal accelerates, the LEJ incursion does too. And once they've established a base of operations in Afghanistan, they may look to expand again.

Presented by

Jeffrey Stern is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by Esquire, Time, The New Republic, Newsweek, and Foreign Policy.

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