By Zia Ur Rehman

MULTAN – The militancy is rapidly growing in South Punjab, where banned militant outfits – with the collaboration of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qaeda – are carrying out subversion and recruiting, local civil society activists and analysts say.

”]After tracing calls from a terrorist cell phone recovered during the May 22-23 battle for Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran, security forces May 27 arrested suspect Qari Qaiser, Dawn reported. He reportedly belongs to a banned jihadist organisation and runs a madrassa in Dera Ghazi Khan.

Four days later, authorities arrested five alleged militants in Dera Ghazi Khan, including Muhammad Akram (alias Usman), whom they suspect of involvement in the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore March 3, 2009, media reported.

The April 3 Sakhi Sarwar shrine twin suicide attacks in Dera Ghazi Khan, which killed 49 worshippers and wounded hundreds, were the latest and most shocking example of the militant groups’ joint campaign.

Five major militant organisations, the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), Harkatul Jihadul Islami (HJI) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), are all comfortably established in South Punjab and working with the TTP and al-Qaeda, said Amir Hussaini, an analyst with extensive experience studying militancy issues in South Punjab.

Militants most powerful in Dera Ghazi Khan

South Punjab’s four divisions – Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan, Bahawalpur and Gojranwala – are under the influence of the banned militant organisations, which have gained considerable strength in Dera Ghazi Khan, which is a gateway to Pakistan’s tribal areas and to the heart of Punjab, Hussaini told Central Asia Online.

Militancy has spread through the region, he said, because of the efforts of activists from banned organisations who never gave up fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan and now have forged links with the TTP and al-Qaeda, while recruiting youth for them.

“There is a great tendency for young men from South Punjab to join jihadi organisations, and thousands of members of these jihadi organisations who have gone through training camps are either active in tribal areas or South Punjab,” he added.

Veteran jihadists in South Punjab help the militants and implement terror plans mainly conceived and funded by al-Qaeda operatives, Hussaini argued, citing two men – Dr. Usman Ghani, the alleged mastermind of the March 8 Faisalabad suicide attack, and Asmatullah Muawia, deputy to TTP central leader Qari Hussain Mehsud in South Waziristan. Both come from Kabirwala, a town in Multan Division. Ghani runs a splinter group of LeJ in South Punjab, while Muawia is a master trainer of suicide bombers, Hussaini said.

Qaiser, an alleged colleague of Ghani’s, was arrested after the March 8 Faisalabad attack but then went free under mysterious circumstances, Hussaini said.

At the time, the police had released him after questioning, while promising to keep him under surveillance, media reported.

The jihadist groups are notorious not only for attacking members of other sects and religions – Sufis, Shias, Ahmadis and Christians – but also for targeting government officials and security installations.

Ominous graffiti

Mysterious graffiti in support of al-Qaeda, the TTP and jihadi militant organisations and attacks on the Sakhi Sarwar shrines, have appeared on various walls in Dera Ghazi Khan, Muhammad Hussain, a local senior journalist, told Central Asia Online.

A government ban on jihadist organisations merely led them to operate under different names. SSP began operating under the names of Millat-e-Islamia and Ahle-e-Sunnat Wal Jammat, JeM as Al-Furqan and Khuddamul Islam, and LeT as Jammatud Dawa and Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation.

These jihadi groups forcibly occupied 62 Sufi mosques in 2010 in South Punjab, said Mujahdi Hussain, author of a book entitled “Punjabi Taliban.”

South Punjab-based militant groups are a crucial source of logistical support for Taliban fighters based in the tribal areas who stage terrorist activities within Punjab, Hussain wrote recently for Karachi’s Daily Aaj Kal newspaper.

The government has banned 29 jihadist organisations so far, including 7 to 11 founded in South Punjab, Interior Minister Rehman Malik said.

The government has defeated the terrorists in Swat and the tribal areas, but now the defeated elements have started launching attacks with the help of banned militants, he added.

South Punjab terrorists team up with radical mosques and madrassas that indoctrinate youth to wage so-called jihad in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Hussaini said.

According to a Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies report, of the 12,000 registered seminaries in Punjab, more than 7,000 are in three of South Punjab’s divisions: Dera Ghazi Khan, Multan and Bahawalpur. Most of them are linked to banned militant organisations.

The main reason for the emergence of a militant mind-set is the explosive growth of religious seminaries in the region, said Arshad Jatoi, a college teacher in Bahawalpur.

“Lack of awareness and resources coupled with the absence of proper educational infrastructure in the region has compelled parents to send their children to these madrassas, where the children after being brainwashed are used as cannon fodder … in order to establish a new state based on an irrational and distorted view of Islam,” he told Central Asia Online.

Inattention to South Punjab

“Everyone has been so focused on tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) that they failed to notice the increase in madrassas in South Punjab,” he said.

Such banned groups also circulate hate literature in order to shut off students’ thought processes, he said, adding that media have reported more than 10,000 South Punjab youth are fighting as militants in tribal areas and in Afghanistan.

The district administration has taken notice of the graffiti, which is illegal, and has ordered its immediate removal, said Tahir Khurshid, commissioner of Dera Ghazi Khan Division.

Authorities arrested Adnan Khosa, the key suspect in the Sakhi Sarwar attacks, in a Dera Ghazi Khan suburb May 28, Khurshid said, adding the arrest came after the government announced an Rs. 1m (US $11,700) reward for Khosa’s capture.

Authorities will not tolerate militant graffiti and have ordered an investigation, Khurshid said, adding that police have instructions to wash away graffiti and open cases against the culprits.