On July 2,2007, following complaints from the Chinese authorities about threats to Chinese women living and working in Islamabad from the students of the two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid of Islamabad,President Pervez Musharraf ordered the deployment of the Rangers, a para-military unit, outside the Masjid to prevent any more raids into the city by the students of the two madrasas.
2. On July 3,2007, there was a clash between some students of the madrasas and the Rangers when the students snatched a rifle from a member of the Rangers and opened fire. Musharraf thereupon ordered the Special Services Group (SSP), a commando unit of the Army, to take over the masjid and the two madrasas and restore order.
4. From July 3,2007, the SSG surrounded the premises and tried to persuade/pressurise the inmates to come out and surrender. Many did, including the students of the male madrasa called Jamia Faridia, which was located outside the Masjid campus. They were allowed to go home. Abdul Aziz Ghazi, the chief cleric of the Masjid, tried to escape with some girl students by covering himself up in a burqa. He was spotted by the SSG and arrested.
5.Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the brother of Abdul Aziz, and a large number of students of the girls’ madrasa located inside the campus, and some male students, who had taken shelter inside the complex, refused to surrender. There were also some members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan(IMU), the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ), the extremist anti-Shia organisation, and some Uighurs inside the complex. They too refused to surrender.The SSG entered the campus on July 10,2007. Its attempt to take possession of the masjid and the girls’ madrasa was violently resisted by the inmates. It took the SSG three days to overcome their resistance and take possession of the complex after arresting the survivors. Abdul Rashid Ghazi and about 300 madrasa students, all of them Pashtun tribals and most of them girls, were killed. The SSG itself gave the number of fatalities, including from its ranks, as around 100.
6. The anger over the SSG raid and the deaths of a large number of tribal girls led to a wave of suicide terrorism in the tribal belt as well as in the non-tribal areas, including in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore, Sargodha, Peshawar and many Cantonments.Many of the suicide attacks were directed at the Army, including the SSG, the Air Force, the Navy and the Police. It is believed that those arrested in connection with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto had stated during their interrogation that they participated in her assassination because of their anger over her support to the commando raid into the Lal Masjid. Among those killed during the wave of suicide terrorism was a Lt.Gen. of the Army, who headed the Army Medical Corps.
7.Osama bin Laden and , his No.2 in Al Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri came out in strong support of the clerics and the students and called for reprisals against Musharraf.
8. The surviving students and the clerics supporting them demanded that the control of the Masjid and the two madrasas should be handed back to Abdul Aziz, who should be released from detention along with other detainees,that the two madrasas should be allowed to be re-opened and that an enquiry held into the commando raid and action taken against those responsible for the massacre of the students. Musharraf rejected their demands and handed over the control of the Masjid and the madrasas to a Government-appointed cleric.
9. After the present Government headed by Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani assumed office in the last week of March,2008, it entered into a dialogue with the students of the two madrasas as well as with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) headed by Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan, and the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) headed by Maulana Fazlullah of the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). Al Qaeda, the IMU, the Islamic Jihad Union or Group, another Uzbeck organisation, the TTP and the TNSM have been supporting the students in their demands.
10. A compromise candidate was appointed as the officiating chief cleric of the Masjid. The Govt. did not release Abdul Aziz and others arrested, but promised that it would not oppose their bail applications. It was disinclined to accept the demand for an enquiry as the Army was against it.
11. Since July 2,2008, the first anniversary of the commando raid is being observed not only in the Lal Masjid, but also in many madrasas in the tribal belt. A large number of tribal students from the madrasas in the tribal belt have congregated in Islamabad to express their solidarity with the students of the two madrasas of the Lal Masjid and to pay homage to those killed during the commando action last year.Meetings are being held inside the Lal Masjid every day at which virulent attacks are being made on Musharraf, the Army and the US and there are calls for an enquiry and the arrest and trial of Musharraf.
12. On July 4,2008, the “Daily Times” of Lahore reported that Al Qaeda had issued a videotape paying tribute to those killed during last year’s military operation against the Lal Masjid. The tape, which included messages of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Abu Yahya Al Abbi, was sent to Ary One World TV , a private Pakistani channel, on the completion of one year of the commando raid. Al Qaeda leaders in the tape called Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, the slain deputy prayer leader of the mosque, the Imam of the Ummah. The tape criticised leaders of religious and political parties for not supporting the demands of the students. It appealed to the Pakistani tribesmen and mujahideen to remain united.
13. On July 6,2008, a major religious conference was held in the Lal Masjid, which was attended by students from many madrasas of the NWFP and the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). While the Masjid authorities undertook the responsibility for maintaining order inside, the Punjab Police had made elaborate security arrangements outside. The atmosphere inside the Masjid was highly emotional with virulent attacks on Musharraf and the US. Despite this, everything went off smoothly till a truckload of the choicest mangoes of the season arrived outside the Masjid. Some policemen, who came with the truck, told the students that the mangoes had been sent by Rehman Malik, the Advisor on Internal Security, as a gift from Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
14. The students were wildly provoked. They were outraged that Zardari and Malik should think that the sorrow over the massacre of nearly 300 girl students last year could be wiped out with a mango. They demanded that the truck should go back immediately. It did. Some clerics inside the Masjid intervened and pacified the students. The rest of the proceedings went off smoothly.
15. After the conference was over, the policemen deployed outside the Masjid withdrew to a place about one and a half Kms from the Masjid and assembled for a roll-call ( counting of number) before they dispersed for the day. As an Inspector of Police was taking the roll-call, a suicide bomber went near them and blew himself up, killing 19 persons—- 15 of them policemen.
16. Since the new Government took office, there were indications that the anger over last year’s commando action had subsided. There was no act of suicide terrorism in the non-tribal areas and the number in the tribal areas sharply came down. Rehman Malik claimed in the National Assembly recently while intervening during the discussions on the budgetary demand of his Ministry that since the new Government took office, the number of terrorist incidents involving the use of improvised explosive devices had come down by 50 per cent in the tribal areas and by 95 per cent in the non-tribal areas.
17. Does the suicide attack of July 6 ,2008, in Islamabad presage the beginning of a new wave of suicide terrorism or will it be only an isolated incident? Was it due to persisting old anger over last year’s commando action in the Lal Masjid or new anger over the clean-up operation presently underway in the Khyber Agency or both? The Government has no answers to these questions. This is the second suicide attack in Islamabad since the new Government took over. The first one, for which the responsibility was claimed by Al Qaeda, took place outside the Danish Embassy on June 2,2008, in protest against the publication of cartoons of Prophet Mohammad in Denmark.For the present, the Government is treating the July 6 attack as a stand-alone incident without connecting it either to the Lal Masjid raid of last year or the current situation in the Khyber Agency.In the meanwhile, the students had announced even before the suicide attack that they would be holding meetings in memory of those killed last year in different cities on the 10th of every month, starting with a meeting in Quetta on July 10,2008.
(The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )