The Taliban's New, More Terrifying Cousin

How a virulent Pakistani terrorist group is trying to annihilate an ethnic rival--and why we should be worried

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A boy stands at the site of a bomb attack in a Shi'ite Muslim area of the Pakistani city of Quetta on February 17, 2013. (Naseer Ahmed/Reuters)

Abdul Amir (as we'll call him), a chemistry teacher in Quetta, Pakistan, was taking an afternoon nap on Feb. 16 when his house began to shake and the earth let out an almighty roar. His mother and sisters started screaming and ran out of the house, but by the time they gathered in the street, the noise had already stopped. He climbed to the roof to get a better view of what happened and saw a thick cloud of bright white smoke, a mile south, suspended above the market place where his students would be buying snacks after their weekend English classes. He rushed back down to the ground, started his motorcycle and took off toward ground zero, knowing all the while that this was foolish - during a bombing five weeks before, the people who came to help were killed by a second explosion.

Still he raced through the streets, swerving around people running away from the bomb, finally arriving at a scene even worse even than he'd feared. The blast had been so powerful that the market hadn't been destroyed so much as it had been deleted, as had the people shopping there and those in buildings nearby. Everything within 100 meters was simply flattened, and all that remained were the metal skeletons of a few flaming vehicles and the chemical smell of synthetic materials burning. Abdul would find more than fifty of his students were injured. One of his favorite students would die from her wounds six days later.

They believe their government is at best uninterested in protecting them, and many are so traumatized they believe it's complicit.

In all, 17 students and two teachers in just one school would be killed, their bodies mostly unrecoverable. No secondary bomb went off that day, but it didn't need to, because the message to first responders had been heard: So few ambulances showed up that people were relegated to ferrying their dead and dismembered in their own cars.

For the Hazaras, a group of Shia Muslims from Afghanistan with a large population in Pakistan, leaving the house has become a fraught enterprise. Schools have emptied, students stay home and parents try to explain to their children why people want them dead. They believe their government is at best uninterested in protecting them, and many are so traumatized they believe it's complicit. The Feb. 16 bombing killed 85 people, almost all of them Hazaras, and the number is still rising as people succumb to their wounds. About a month prior, another attack had killed 96 people who were also almost all Hazaras. The victims are not bystanders; they are a people who are being exterminated.

The group doing the killing is called Lashkar e Jhangvi, "The Army of Jhangvi" or LEJ. They are Sunnis whose agenda is not much more nuanced than killing Shias. Though South Asia is a region rife with internecine conflict, with factions who have fought each other for all of recent history over land and religion, these attacks are unique. Even in a region violence visits far too often, what's happening now is singular, and it's getting worse.

First it was snipers picking off civilians, then LEJ members began stopping busses, shooting Shia passengers and leaving their bodies on the roadsides. Now, LEJ is using massive bombs in places frequented by Shia civilians: social clubs, computer cafes, markets and schools. About 1,300 people have been killed in these attacks since 1999, according to a website dedicated to raising awareness about them. More than 200 have been killed so far this year.

Hazaras are one kind of Shia for which LEJ has a particular fascination. Quetta sits just below the border with Afghanistan, and it's the city where members of a Shia group from Afghanistan--the Hazaras--have sought refuge whenever they've felt their own country doesn't want them. They've been coming to Quetta for over a hundred years, but while they're coming in search of safety, they're now being met with slaughter.

Over Afghanistan's long and tumultuous history, just about every group has suffered, but the Hazaras have the unique misfortune of being both Shia when most of the country is Sunni, and of looking different from other Afghans. Hazaras are Asiatic, having descended from Buddhist pilgrims or from Genghis Khan (or both). So if one is hell-bent on destroying Shias, Hazaras make really good targets: They can't blend in. The LEJ can simply seek out Asian faces and kill them.

Hazaras are hysterical now, holding protests wherever there's a sizable enough diaspora. In Quetta, where the killings are taking place, Hazaras decided not to bury their dead until the government took action because they are desperate for their suffering to be seen. They're beginning to use the term "genocide," and while it may be an exaggeration for what LEJ has accomplished thus far, it's certainly not for what they aspire to do.

"We are solely fighting this war in Allah's name," a spokesman for LEJ told local media, "which will end in making Balochistan a graveyard for the Shias." In an open letter that began to circulate a year and a half ago, LEJ made plain their belief that "all Shi'ites are worthy of killing. We will rid Pakistan of unclean people. Pakistan means land of the pure and the Shi'ites have no right to live in this country."

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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