The South Asia Channel

Salmaan Taseer and the Punjabi Taliban

The brutal assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by a man in his security detail is being tied to a courageous stand he took opposing the nation’s antiquated blasphemy laws and supporting a Catholic woman, Aasia Bibi, accused of blasphemy. But there is another important position Taseer has taken that should be emphasized: he was ...

AFP/AFP/Getty Images
AFP/AFP/Getty Images

The brutal assassination of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer by a man in his security detail is being tied to a courageous stand he took opposing the nation’s antiquated blasphemy laws and supporting a Catholic woman, Aasia Bibi, accused of blasphemy.

But there is another important position Taseer has taken that should be emphasized: he was one of very few Pakistani politicians who honestly and openly recognized the existence of the "Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab," sometimes called the "Punjabi Taliban," comprised, through the years, of an alphabet soup of sectarian militant organizations: Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HUM), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and Sipah-e-Sahaba (SSP), among others, inspired by an intolerant brand of Sunni Islam called Deobandism.

This past June, Dawn, a leading English language daily in Pakistan, carried this headline: "Punjabi Taliban are a reality: Taseer." The governor of the province of Punjab was taking a brave stand because the militants of these groups were born in his state in towns with names such as Bahawalpur and Raheem Yar Khan. But, with attacks on mosques, bazaars and police stations in Punjab, they were also killing his innocent citizens. Aasia Bibi, the Catholic woman sitting in jail for blasphemy, was one of the citizens of Punjab, and the call to kill her comes out of supporters of the Punjabi Taliban.

The best way for Pakistan to honor Taseer is to admit its homegrown militancy and destroy it. America and the West must also recognize that the problem of militancy in South Asia isn’t restricted to Afghanistan or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan. It’s also in the very heartland of Pakistan.

Later this month, on the ninth anniversary of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping in Karachi on January 23, 2002, my co-professor at Georgetown University, Barbara Feinman Todd, and I will publish a report at the Center for Public Integrity, describing the findings of the Pearl Project, a faculty-student investigative reporting project into Danny’s murder, and we will chronicle how Danny’s case was an early harbinger of the problems Pakistan — and the world — face today from militants in the Punjab.

For America, the threat from the Punjabi militants is not just something far away. The militant groups that make up the Punjabi Taliban have been tied to the 2008 Mumbai attacks. David Headley, the Pakistani-American who changed his name from Daood Sayed Gilani, was a point man for the Mumbai attacks and trained by Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of the Punjab-based militant groups. Also, Pakistan security experts say the Punjabi Taliban work closely with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, a group linked to the attempted 2010 Time Square bomb attack by U.S. citizen Faisal Shahzad, as well as with al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The sad tale of the Punjabi Taliban and its destructive force is yet another story of Frankenstein’s monster returning to kill its creator. In the 19th century novel, Henry Frankenstein, the scientist who created the monster, is only saved when villagers destroy the monster. Similarly, the Punjabi militant groups are the creation of Pakistan, and the nation’s salvation rests only in the people of Pakistan destroying them.

Sadly, instead of a nation denouncing the alleged killer, Malik Hussein Mumtaz Qadri, lawyers in Pakistan showered rose petals upon him when he appeared in court, supporters kissed him on the cheek, and he wore a garland of roses and jasmine usually worn by bridegrooms to celebrate weddings.

After the Mumbai attacks Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a South Asia expert formerly on the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, said that "Pakistan’s government may be unable to control the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ it created when it helped train terrorists to infiltrate and fight against Indian rule in the disputed Kashmir region." Taseer’s assassination indicates that is true now more than ever before.

It’s a long history that brings Pakistan to this moment. In 1947, Pakistan was born out of the independence of India from the British. For 30 years it experienced a mostly moderate expression of Islam. In 1977, however, General Zia ul-Haq took over Pakistan and brought an Islamist revolution to the country, including support for the nation’s blasphemy laws. To counter the 1979 Shia revolution in Iran, the hard-line Sunni government of Saudi Arabia pumped millions of dollars into Pakistan, turning it into a proxy state for its rigid, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The Islamic fervor fueled the mujahideen who battled against the Soviet Union with U.S. covert aid when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. With the 1989 withdrawal of the Soviets from Afghanistan, the Pakistani military and its intelligence unit, the Inter-Services Intelligence directorate or ISI, redirected the Islamist fervor for jihad in the 1990s into the creation of militant organizations with their eyes set on liberating Kashmir from Pakistan’s enemy, India.

The home base for these groups: the province of Punjab, the military, religious and cultural heartland of the country.

Taseer’s alleged assassin, Qadri, was born in 1984 or 1985 outside Islamabad in the Punjab province, according to Pakistani media. Qadri grew up during the rising tide of militancy, becoming a member of Punjab’s elite force commandos. He had some telltale physical signs of a rigid practitioner of Islam. At such a young age, he had a darkened spot on his forehead, usually a sign of piety from a lifetime of praying and touching your forehead to the ground. (It took my father, 75, a lifetime of praying to get that spot.) Hardcore youth sometimes rub rocks on their foreheads to get that mark at a young age. Qadri also had a beard of the length worn by practitioners of hardline interpretations of Islam — not that all are violent, of course, but it can be an indicator. In handcuffs, he smiled happily at his achievement.

A Facebook page went up hours after the assassination with messages of support for Qadri. One message: "nation hero u win a hearts of All muslim umaah……..Saluteeeee You……..!!!!" ("Umaah" is a reference to "ummah," or "community.") It’s not clear if the assassin was directly linked to any militant groups, but his sympathies most certainly would have been with them.

It’s an even more alarming testimony about the spread of militancy in Pakistan that Qadri is believed to be Barelvi and it is Barelvi religious leaders who are telling Pakistanis not to pray for Taseer. The Barelvis have traditionally had a more Sufi, moderate interpretation of Islam than the Deobandis. When Danny was kidnapped in 2002, a Pakistani police officer didn’t believe that the man Danny was supposed to meet, Sheik Mubarak Ali Shah Gilani, could have entrapped him, because he said, "He’s Barelvi." The descent of Barelvi practitioners into militancy is frightening.

In the decades since militancy took root in the nation, Pakistan has mostly refused to admit the extent of the dangers of the Punjabi militants, as Taseer bravely did. This summer, Taseer accused leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-N political party, run by former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, of having ties with the "Tehrik-i-Taliban Punjab." Sharif, a native of Punjab, considers the province his base.

Around that time, Interior Minister Rehman Malik denied he had accused the Punjabi Taliban of involvement in the attacks that month on two mosques in Lahore where members of the minority Ahmadi sect prayed. He denied he alleged that the provincial Punjab government was linked to the Punjabi Taliban. "I have never used a terminology which reflects provincialism, but people know with which names terrorists are being recognized. One can see these names on the internet and in national dailies," Pakistani media quoted Malik as saying.

In fact, Pakistani media quoted him talking about the "Punjabi Taliban," and earlier, Rehman had said the Punjabi Taliban support the TTP. Malik specifically identified Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, one of the militant organizations that falls under the umbrella of the Pakistani Taliban. It took responsibility for the attacks, as well as earlier attacks on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009 and the Punjab police headquarters in the city of Manawa, as well as other attacks. As our Pearl Project report will show, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was intricately involved in Danny’s kidnapping.

To be sure, Pakistan faces domestic political backlash if it attacks the militant organizations too aggressively because they have some support among the population. In a Pew survey, released just as Taseer and his fellow politicians debated whether the Punjabi Taliban even exist, Pakistani citizens said they increasingly view terrorism as a significant problem. But they said they have become "less concerned" that extremists might take control of the country. Just 51 percent said they are concerned about an extremist takeover. Who were they most threatened by? India. Shockingly considering that the survey was taken in urban centers, 76 percent of those surveyed said that there should be a death penalty for people who leave Islam, and 82 percent believed in "stoning adulterers."

The fact that Taseer’s killer came from his security detail is troubling, but not surprising, because of a wider phenomenon: much of Pakistan’s military and intelligence rank-and-file and officers come from the province of Punjab, and there has been growing concern among analysts about the influence of militancy on recruits and about the growing reach of the Punjabi militants.

As a politician, Taseer was courageous in speaking the truth about the enemy that is the Punjabi Taliban. It’s long overdue for more of Pakistan’s politicians to wake up to the country’s homegrown terrorist problem. If they don’t, Frankenstein’s monster will destroy its creator — the nation of Pakistan.

Asra Q. Nomani, a former reporter at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam. She teaches journalism at Georgetown University.

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