Ban on Islamist Group Puts Pakistan at Risk

When a devastating earthquake shook mountainous Kashmir in October 2005, killing 80,000 people, burying entire villages under landslides, one of the first and best-equipped relief organizations on the scene was the Jamaat-ul-Dawa charity. It brought in physicians, surgeons and nurses. It set up emergency surgical and first-aid clinics. It pitched tents to house the homeless and distributed food and medicine to tens of thousands. It stayed behind and helped to build some 5,000 permanent homes for the displaced.

It's no wonder that Jamaat was able to react so quickly. Kashmir has long been a recruiting and training ground for Jamaat's other face—the Islamist, anti-Indian Lashkar-e-Taiba guerrilla organization, which both Indian and U.S. intelligence have singled out as the planner and organizer of last month's murderous Mumbai attacks. Lashkar's main aim is to wrest the Indian sector of Kashmir from New Delhi's control through violence.

Today Islamabad took the extraordinary and surprising step of banning Jamaat from Pakistan. Police quickly closed dozens of Jamaat's offices across the country, including nine in the sprawling port city of Karachi, the country's largest. The government also issued an arrest warrant for the Jamaat's amir, or supreme leader, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who is based at a mosque and madrassa complex in Lahore. "We are required to take action against Jamaat and its leaders under the Security Council resolution," said Sherry Rehman, the information minister told NEWSWEEK.

In a startling admission for a Pakistani leader, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said today that his government was investigating links between Jamaat and Lashkar, and admitted that "the two groups have the same leadership." This is the first time any Pakistan leader has acknowledged the link between the two groups.

The crackdown is the Pakistani government's most serious action taken against an extremist organization since soon after 9/11, when it banned Lashkar. It could be a dangerous gamble for Islamabad. Many Pakistanis, who may be sympathetic to Jamaat and its charitable works and therefore willing to overlook its association with Lashkar's gunmen, could oppose the government's iron-fisted policy. Islamist groups and the religious parties will no doubt try to organize public anti-government and pro-Jamaat organizations. The group's suppression may also drive many of its adherents underground where they could hook up with still-active Lashkar operatives and begin a violent action against the government.

Pakistan's move against Jamaat comes after weeks of pressure on Islamabad by India and the United States. Jamaat's top operatives, such as Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, one of Lashkar's founders, recruited, trained and controlled the 10 gunmen who carried out the killing of more than 170 people in Mumbai, according to Indian and U.S. intelligence. Pakistan at first firmly denied that any Pakistanis were involved in the massacre, but this week, as evidence of Lashkar's involvement mounted, the government belatedly took action against the Lashkar-Jamaat combine. It started by raiding a riverside Jamaat madrassa complex near Muzaffarabad last Sunday. After a brief firefight it arrested Lakhvi and several other key Lashkar leaders.

That move was not enough to satisfy New Delhi and Washington. To increase the pressure, a United Nations Security Council committee on Wednesday declared Jamaat a terrorist organization and slapped it with U.N. sanctions, including the freezing of its assets, a travel ban on its members and an arms embargo on the organization. On Thursday, to ramp up the pressure, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte arrived in Islamabad on Thursday on the heels of Condoleezza Rice and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. Sensing that further resistance could seriously damage relations with Washington, Pakistan launched what appeared to be a nationwide crackdown on Jamaat and its leadership.

There's little doubt that the distinction between Lashkar and Jamaat, which roughly translates as "enter into the fold of Islam," is more apparent than real. Both organizations fed into the other. Saeed, a onetime university professor and adherent to the harsh Wahhabi school of Islam, had founded Jamaat back in 1985 as a relief organization to help flood victims. Soon afterwards he and Lakhvi founded Lashkar with the assistance of the Pakistani military's powerful Inter-Service Intelligence spy agency. The ISI and the Pakistani military used Lashkar as they did other similar extremist guerrilla groups they created as an inexpensive foreign-policy arm of the Pakistani state. Lashkar's men fought in both Afghanistan and inside Indian Kashmir, furthering Pakistani goals.

Saeed, from his lair in Lahore, regularly gives anti-Indian and anti-American speeches and denounces Pakistan's cooperation with Washington in the war against armed extremists. Just before the warrant for his arrest was issued, Saeed told a news conference in Lahore: "If India or the U.S. has any proof against Jamaat-ul-Dawa, we are ready to stand in any court. We do not beg, we demand justice." He denied that his group was involved in the Mumbai attacks. "We will challenge the [U.N.] decision in the international court of justice," he said. Not long after he spoke, a large contingent of police surrounded his house in Lahore and ordered him not to venture out.

This isn't the first time Saeed has been placed under house arrest. Shortly after the attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001, New Delhi accused Lashkar of involvement, which led to then Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to ban Lashkar from Pakistan. Saeed was detained and spent most of 2002 under house arrest. He then let it be known that he had severed his links with Lashkar. Upon his quiet release he ostensibly concentrated on leading Jamaat, but he continued to spew his hard-line hateful messages.

It's unlikely that Saeed ever cut any ties with Lashkar because the two groups were one in the same. Jamaat was always the organization's public, philanthropic face, while Lashkar was its militant arm. Funds generated for Jamaat and its charitable relief efforts may have been channeled to Lashkar's militants, according to Indian and US intelligence reports. Led by Saeed, Jamaat's followers openly preached jihad against India, a wresting of Kashmir from India by any means, and virulent anti-Americanism. They are bitterly opposed to any rapprochement between India and Pakistan, seeing it as being a sellout of the Kashmiri cause of independence or Pakistani control.

Over the years Jamaat has morphed into a respected and popular charity. It has a nationwide footprint. Recently when an earthquake leveled hundreds of villages in Baluchistan, Jamaat was quickly there with a Kashmir-like relief effort. Its followers even traveled to Iran to help the victims of the earthquake in Bam in 2003. It sent aid to Indonesia following the 2006 tsunami. It operates mobile medical camps in poor, remote areas, carrying out surgery and eye treatment for free. It operates 150 or so free pharmaceutical dispensaries around the country. It publishes a weekly newspaper, three monthly magazines and even a bimonthly for children. Not surprisingly, the publications' message is strongly Islamist and anti-Indian. According to its Web site, Jamaat has local offices in "almost every town and city" in Pakistan. It claims to have spent at least $8.74 million since 2003 on various charitable initiatives.

Its flagship operation is located in a poor rural area near Muridke, just west of Lahore. The 150-acre, gated complex, called Markaz-e-Taiba, or "Center of the Pious," features a mosque, a madrassa for 3,000 students— including some girls, a hospital and a farm. At the school, the students who are largely drawn from the dirt-poor villages surrounding the complex not only learn the Koran by heart but also study with the use of computers and science labs. "There is no fear here," says Yahya Mujahid, a Jamaat spokesman. "It is upsetting," Mujahid told NEWSWEEK just before the crackdown, "to be doubted and misrepresented when all we have done and all we want to do is to help our fellow man."

So far Lashkar has not attacked the Pakistani security services in retaliation. But it could follow the example of other Kashmiri guerrilla groups such as Jaish-e-Muhammad, which was also banned in 2002 and subsequently struck back violently against the government almost immediately. Now Lashkar, and disgruntled Jamaat supporters, may strike back. Islamabad may have taken a giant step toward satisfying Indian and American demands for tough action. It may also find itself facing not only the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda along the Afghan border, but another armed and dangerous enemy as well.

With Zahid Hussain