BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan – A Pakistani terrorist group that’s allied with al-Qaida and sends jihadists to Afghanistan to fight U.S. and government troops is building a huge new base in full view of the authorities in Pakistan’s most heavily populated province, locals and officials told McClatchy.
Jaish-e-Mohammad (“Army of Mohammad”), which is linked to a series of atrocities, including an attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi and the murder of American journalist Daniel Pearl, has walled off a 4.5-acre compound three miles outside the town of Bahawalpur in the far south of the Pakistan’s heartland Punjab province.
Jaish, which the State Department designated a “foreign terrorist organization” in December 2001 and Pakistan banned in 2002, already has a headquarters and a seminary in the town’s center. However, the new facility, surrounded by a high brick and mud wall, has a tiled swimming pool, stabling for more than a dozen horses, an ornamental fountain and even swings and a slide for children.
There are jihadist inscriptions painted on the inside walls, including a proclamation that “Jaish-e-Mohammad will return”, alongside a picture of Delhi’s historic Red Fort, implying further terrorist attacks against the Indian capital.
Jaish – and Pakistani officials – said the facility, which is still under construction, is simply a small farm to keep cattle.
A man at the site, who wore an ammunition vest under his shirt and said his name was Abdul Jabbar, refused to let McClatchy through the entrance gates and suggested it was time to leave.
“We’re not hiding anything. Nothing happens here. We have just kept some cattle for our milk,” said Jabbar, who wore the long hair that’s typical of Pakistani and Afghan Taliban.
It’s unclear whether the new facility will be a radical madrassa – Islamic school – or even a terrorist training camp. Nevertheless, its construction, unimpeded by Pakistan’s military or intelligence service, raises new questions about how committed Pakistan is to the war on terror.
Pakistan’s civilian-led central government is cracking down harder on domestic Taliban insurgents, in the northwest of the country, who seek to conquer territory at home and impose their extreme brand of Islam on Pakistanis. But the authorities seem tolerant – or even supportive – of militant groups such as Jaish whose targets are abroad: in the West, in Afghanistan or in Pakistan’s archenemy, India.
Jaish members were behind a spectacular attempt to assassinate then-President Pervez Musharraf in 2004 and were involved in training and commanding Taliban guerrillas in Pakistan’s Swat valley, which the military retook from Taliban control this year.
Jaish, originally aimed against India, reputedly was formed with help from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) military spy agency, and many experts think the two organizations remain close.
Although there’s a major Pakistani army base in Bahawalpur, the bases of Jaish and other jihadist groups in and around the town attract little attention. The regional administration is aware of the new compound but untroubled by it. According to the senior police official for the area, Mushtaq Sukhera, it’s been “thoroughly searched” and nothing suspicious has been found.
Sukhera denied there’s any extremist threat in the town and said that while Jaish owns the new facility, “there’s nothing over there except a few cows and horses.”
“There is no problem of militancy (in south Punjab), there’s no problem of Talibanization,” said Sukhera. “It’s just media hype.”
Between 3,000 and 8,000 jihadists from southern Punjab are fighting in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s western tribal area, according to independent estimates, said Ayesha Siddiqa, an analyst who has studied the area. They’re often known as the “Punjabi Taliban,” while the main Taliban forces are ethnic Pashtuns, the group that straddles northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan.
“These guys (in Bahawalpur) aren’t connected with a war, they don’t have any ethnic affiliation with Afghanistan,” said Siddiqa. “These guys are purely ideologically motivated. That makes it much more difficult to crack them during investigation or to break their will to fight.”
However, the facility deeply worries some Pakistani security personnel. One officer described it as a “second center of terrorism,” to complement the existing Jaish madrassa in the middle of town.
The officer, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Jaish never should have been allowed to buy the land. He said the group initially acquired 4.5 acres, then forced an adjacent landowner to sell it another two acres. “It’s big enough for training purposes,” he said.