Security June 2004

Al-Qaeda’s Understudy

Suicide terrorism has come to Pakistan, waged by one of the most vicious Islamist groups ever known

The call in late March by al-Qaeda's deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for Pakistanis to overthrow their government came as music to the ears of militant jihadis. Their double suicide bombing failed to get President Pervez Musharraf last December, though it did kill fifteen others. Since 1996 I have researched suicide bombings by Islamist organizations in an attempt to understand, as a Muslim, the rationale of those who carry out or sponsor them. This has led me to explore the arrival of this alien method in my own country, Pakistan, where officials, field operatives, and jihadis all spoke to me recently on condition of strict anonymity.

It was easy to introduce suicide bombing in Pakistan, an Islamic country that has had a martyr culture since its birth. In 2002 Sunni jihadis who had been using Afghanistan as a safe haven were suddenly made jobless by the fall of the Taliban regime; they returned to Pakistan, where they sought retaliation through martyrdom. The jihadi agenda converged with that of sectarian extremists seeking action of any kind. Maddened and humiliated by defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan's jihadi leaders changed their philosophy. They had condemned as sinners those bombers who died by their own hand; now they switched to support for homegrown operations based on an imported idea. Foreign jihadis brought the technique; Arab clerics escaping from Afghanistan preached its virtues; Pakistani merchants and smugglers provided funding; and local zealots supplied the bombers.

Despite a superficial similarity, Pakistani suicide bombers truly resemble neither al-Qaeda nor a reconstituted Taliban. The suicide cells are hybrids, drawn from other groups and different from old-fashioned jihadis who set off to fight for Islam armed with faith and maybe a gun. They are very well trained. Their leaders are educated middle-class Pakistanis, many from large cities. They are considered model young men by their families and comrades, and held up as examples in mosques. They have access to centers of power and information. And they operate in their own country, without foreign troops chasing them. They are independent and implacable, and command enough financing and expertise to plunge the country into chaos.

"Jihad becomes an addiction," a police interrogator told me of the young men who are blowing themselves up. "It's more powerful than a drug. That's why jihadis move around in search of a cause. If they don't find a ready-made jihad, they create one."

The major terrorist operations in Pakistan since 9/11 have a common "grandmother," one intelligence analyst told me. He was referring to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ)—the group of choice today for hard-core militants in the country, whose original jihad was directed exclusively at fellow Muslims, the Shias. The chief suspect in the killing of the American journalist Daniel Pearl, Omar Saeed Sheikh, implicated LJ when he denied his own involvement: "Pearl was worth more to us alive than dead," he told the police. Pakistani officials told me that LJ members kidnapped Pearl, though non-Pakistanis cut his throat. The video of the killing was delivered by an LJ worker.

Born in 1996 as a militant ultrasectarian Sunni group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi mutated into a terrorist outfit that is now a suicide-attack squad carrying out operations for all extremist groups. The Pakistani government banned LJ in August of 2001, but the group survived by dissolving and hiding inside other organizations. I asked a former leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba, LJ's parent body, about LJ's hallmark proclivity for excessive violence, such as killing children or pumping bullets into a body long after the victim is dead. He answered, "Violence spreads fear and panic and gives us a place in the scheme of things. The violence is never random. LJ has no problem with shedding the blood of those whom it is a duty to kill. The Prophet of Islam fought in twenty-seven battles. The Koran says, 'Kill those who kill you.' LJ's philosophy is an Islamic one: either victory or martyrdom. Combat is an essential part of jihad, and jihad is our duty."

Jihadis move between groups, which makes it difficult to hunt them. Operational cooperation among jihadi groups can take the form of a "loan" of militants, expertise, and supplies; a friendly exchange; an alliance; or a crossover from a defunct group into an active one.

At first LJ's hit men fired from moving motorbikes. Later they began to use timed devices, and graduated to throwing hand grenades and mowing down targets with machine guns. LJ's latest innovation is a combination of hand grenades to kill and create panic, automatic fire to strike those stampeding to safety, and suicide detonations to finish off themselves and the rest. This method killed fifty-three Shias in an attack in Quetta last July.

LJ first turned to explosives in January of 1999, in a plot to blow up the Prime Minister as he drove over a bridge to Raiwind. LJ militants approached the imam of a small mosque by the roadside; gave him greetings from Riaz Basra, one of LJ's four founders; and spent the night in the imam's one-room home. They put up a curtain in the middle of the room, and while the imam's wife and children slept on one side, they heated urea (easily available as fertilizer) in a wok to create an explosive. A cordless phone with a nine-volt battery was the "initiator" to turn on a light that was connected to a detonator.

Some minutes before the Prime Minister's convoy was to pass, two policemen on a routine patrol stopped their van under the bridge. The policemen got out to pee. Their driver pressed the button to talk on his radio. Because the van was parked only a few yards from the imam's hut, the rudimentary device switched on prematurely and detonated the explosives. The blast was so powerful that the two-span bridge went awry. (The imam and his family escaped.)

Presented by

Nasra Hassan was born and educated in Pakistan and currently lives and works in Vienna. She has just completed a book on Palestinian suicide bombers.

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