December 20, 2014 1:00 pm JST
Kamal Alam

The Gulf Arab foundations of terror in Pakistan

As Pakistan reels from yet another terrorist attack, this time on schoolchildren in Peshawar, the world is stunned and united in its pain at the loss of innocent women and children. The brutal tactics of the Taliban in Pakistan have been replicated by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. The most significant element that is absent in the Pakistani response is that of the civilian government.

     We have noted in earlier Nikkei Asian Review articles that the groups in Iraq and Syria have been trying to link up with groups in Pakistan. However one can argue that the Arab militant groups now operating in Egypt, Algeria, Iraq and Syria all owe their existence to the geopolitical and religious landscape in the Pakistan of the 1980s.

     The two most prominent Pakistan-based terrorists, Ramzi bin Al-Shibh and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, were both products of Gulf Arab funding and training of militants and mosques in Pakistan. It must be noted that the first-ever suicide bombing in Pakistan was carried out by an Egyptian group in November 1995.

     Two of Egypt's most decorated generals, General el Gamasy and General el Shazly, had cautioned Egypt against playing with fire by linking its policies with those of the Gulf Arabs. With regard to ISIL, elements have existed in Pakistan for 30 years due to massive Arab funding and close links to the wars in Bosnia, Chechnya and of course Afghanistan.

     Abu Musa Zarqawi, who founded al-Qaeda in Iraq, lived in Pakistan for 10 years. Furthermore, at least half of the top leadership of al-Qaeda and most of the top members of Egyptian terror groups have been captured or killed in Pakistan. There has been a disturbing systematic link to Arab terrorists and Pakistan. Moving eastward, these same Arab militant groups have sown seeds in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

     The perpetrators in of the heinous attack in Peshawar were heard speaking Arabic. While it has not been confirmed whether all the attackers were of Arab origin, it is certain that a few were. If confirmed, this, along with the Khost bombing in December 2009 that killed a dozen CIA officers, would constitute a major Arab "breach" of Pakistan's Taliban movement.

     The current prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, spent almost a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia. Since his return to power just over a year ago, Sharif has brought a lot of Gulf Arab investment into Pakistan. Relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council and Pakistan were strong long before Sharif's tenure, but one can argue that never before have we seen such an array of swift visits by ruling monarchs of Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf princes own thousands of hectares of land in southern Punjab, which they use for hunting, falconry and farming. It is no coincidence that this is also where the Punjabi Taliban emerged.

     If you talk to most young Pakistani Army officers, who have seen plenty of combat on the Afghan frontier for the last 10 years, you will see a significant shift in attitudes regarding the threat Pakistan face. The internal war that is now being waged in Pakistan has a contradictory face. The war the Pakistan Army is fighting is very different from that of the civilian government and the major political parties.

Greatest threat

Therein lies the greatest threat to regional stability, and indeed to the social fabric of the country. After the attack on the school on Dec. 16, Sharif lifted the moratorium on the death penalty. However, just two days later, on Dec. 18, one of the most infamous terror suspects from southern Punjab, who has significant Gulf Arab backing, was released. 

     Furthermore, the man who killed the former governor of Punjab remains in a luxury prison without fear of trial. He has also reportedly incited two more killings from his prison cell. The three main political parties of Pakistan, the PML, PPP and PTI, have all failed in their quest to fight terrorism. The PML under Sharif has historical links with the Gulf states that have nurtured extremism in Pakistan. The PPP, under first Benazir Bhutto and then Asif Ali Zardari, simply looked the other way as they took corruption to unprecedented levels. In fact, Zardari did nothing to punish the killer of his close friend Salman Taseer, the former governor of the country's largest province. Nor did he do much to bring to justice the murderers of his wife, Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007.

     There has been a complete failure on the part of Pakistan's political parties and judiciary in tackling terror. In fact, it can be argued that the civilian leaders of Pakistan have indirectly aided and abetted terrorism in Pakistan. Since the arrival of the first Sharif government after that of former President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, one can chart the emergence of the links between Wahabi terrorism and Sharif's efforts toward a new form of Islam in Pakistan.

     As today Pakistan repeatedly comes in the headlines for its terror relations to Afghanistan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, one cannot sit back and ignore the current rumblings in Pakistan's National Assembly. Sharif has linked himself to Wahabi schools in the Gulf, as well as interfering in military affairs and the judiciary. The recent Pakistan Protection Bill is the most undemocratic piece of legislation in the history of Pakistan. For the first time in over two decades all the opposition parties are united in their opposition to Sharif's plans to set up terror courts and carry out extra-judicial killings. Now the government can try anyone in the anti terror court including its legitimate political opponents. 

     What is worse is that the West looks at Pakistan as a flourishing democracy, when the hard facts show a prime minister who has leaned on terrorist groups for more than 20 years. Whereas Pervez Musharraaf was tried for treason despite being a war hero of three land wars, Sharif has released two dozen hardened terrorists of the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Astonishingly, the TTP website was launched from Punjab province earlier this year.

     Ask the elite of Pakhtun society in Peshawar and Mardan what they think of the TTP and they will tell you the problem lies in the Punjab and the Sharif clan. It is high time the media and commentators in the West took a closer look at the real activities of Nawaz Sharif. What has been known to several senior British and American military commanders over the years has not been made public -- that is, why they supported Musharraf and the Pakistani Army.

     The Western and NATO forces supported Pakistan's Army and Musharraf because of the speed with which they captured al-Qaeda leaders and also provided logistical support for more than 100,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan. There was a good rapport between American Generals and Pakistani Generals. Americans increased their aid to Pakistan over $5 billion and military fighter jets and weapons. 

     On Musharraf's watch the Pakistan Army killed or captured 17 of the top 20 men on the al-Qaeda hit list. Last month's two-week visit by current Pakistan Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif to the U.S. was unprecedented. No foreign military chief in the history of the U.S. has been given such a comprehensive state visit. This again points to a lack of trust in Prime Minister Sharif. While the Pakistan Army kills terrorists in North Waziristan, its prime minister releases them in the Punjab.

Kamal Alam is a fellow for Middle East regional defense and security issues at the Institute for Statecraft and is an adviser to the British army on Syrian affairs.

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