By Zia Ur Rehman

October 31, 2014

The recent suicide bombing in Quetta – the third failed attempt of its kind to assassinate prominent political figure Maulana Fazlur Rehman – indicates a growing ideological divide between religious parties and Taliban militant groups, analysts believe.

Fazlur Rehman, head of his own faction of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam’s (JUI-F), was unhurt in the attack that took place shortly after a rally in Quetta on October 3. One person was killed and 20 others injured in the blast near his bulletproof vehicle.

Security and rescue officials gather at the site of the suicide bombing near the JUI-F rally in Quetta –

A faction of Taliban consisting mainly of Mehsud militants and led by Khan Said alias Sajna condemned the attack, but another militant group Jundullah claimed responsibility, vowing to attack Fazlur Rehman again.

“We very proudly claim responsibility for the suicide attack on Fazlur Rehman and we will do it again,” said Ahmed Marwat, the group’s spokesman. “He has been speaking and acting against us, for which he was targeted.”

JUI-F leaders say Rehman has criticized and opposed the US policies in the Middle East, but also militancy, sectarian proxy wars, and acts that undermine democracy and constitutionalism in Pakistan. “We believe it is an international agenda to silence the voice of Fazlur Rehman,” said Jan Achakzai, a leader of the party. “JUI-F is the only force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan particularly working against sectarianism and extremism and a stumbling block against the creation of something like the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Syria in Pakistan.” He said the rise of ISIS was a byproduct of the rivalry in the Middle East between the US and regional forces. “All those exploiting such fault lines in Pakistan see the JUI-F opposed to extremist forces. They mastermind such attacks.”

The first attack on Fazlur Rehman took place near Swabi on March 30, and the second in Charsadda the very next day. About 20 people were killed in the two attacks. The JUI-F is among Pakistan’s leading religious political parties and follows the Deobandi school of thought, relying on a large network of religious seminaries. It is working for what is described as a “pure Islamic state”, but mainly functions as an ‘electoral party’. Success in elections, no matter how limited, has given them opportunities to form governments at provincial level as well as a presence in various federal cabinets, and hence access to resources and power. The party had a strong influence on Pakistan’s militant groups. Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Waliur Rehman Meshud and his successor Sajna, and several other militant leaders in the FATA region were affiliated with the JUI-F and its student wing Jamiat Talaba-e-Islam.

But in the last few years, key leaders and activists of JUI-F have been targeted and killed in KP and FATA by Taliban militants, including Maulana Mairajuddin, a former MNA from Mehsud area of South Waziristan, Maulana Noor Muhammad Wazir, a former MNA from Wana area of South Waziristan, Haji Khan Afzal, former district mayor of Hangu, and Maulana Mohsin Shah from Lakki Marwat.

Some analysts and party leaders believe the attacks were carried out by irreconcilable Pakistani militant groups which disapprove of JUI-F’s policies, especially supporting the government, which is carrying out a military operation against the Taliban in FATA. “The attacks are a result of a growing ideological divide among Pakistani Taliban concerning the legitimacy of the Pakistani state,” said a security analyst based in Peshawar. Insiders say the JUI-F’s relationship with various Taliban groups, especially the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, have deteriorated over the last seven years. Analysts say the party blames the US for the attacks in order to downplay its differences with the Taliban.

Some observers link the recent attack on Fazlur Rehman with sectarianism in Balochistan. “We are against sectarianism and violent means of Jihad, and believe in democratic means,” said a party leader in Quetta. “Our former Balochistan party head Maulana Khan Muhammad Sherani had formed the Ittehad-e-Millat-e-Islamia Mahaz (IMIM), an alliance of six groups belonging to different sects, in Quetta, and openly condemned the banned sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) for killing hundreds of Shia Hazaras in Quetta.” Sherani, who is considered a strong critic of Taliban and sectarian groups and has resisted them in the Pashtun areas of Balochistan, escaped an assassination attempt in November 2004. He had blamed a group of Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Dadullah (who was later killed by US forces in Afghanistan) for the attack.

Since the formation of IMIM, the LeJ had been threatening JUI-F leaders in Balochistan, calling them ‘Iranian agents’ and ‘secular leaders’. The JUI-F had decided not to join the Difa-e-Pakistan Council – an alliance of religious parties, Jihadi groups and retired military leaders, led by Jamaatud Dawa – which was formed after a NATO airstrike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers in November 2011.A JUI-F leader said that party did not want to be seen by foreign observers as being tied to banned militant organizations.

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