YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

THE WORLD : Taliban taps the Punjab heartland : The militant group in Pakistan trains area recruits, who have planned or carried out recent deadly attacks.

November 16, 2009|Alex Rodriguez

SARGODHA, PAKISTAN — One by one, recruits from Pakistan's Punjab heartland would make the seven-hour drive to Waziristan, where they would pull up to an office that made no secret of its mission.

The signboard above the office door read "Tehrik-e-Taliban." In a largely ungoverned city like Miram Shah, there was no reason to hide its identity.

The trainees from Sargodha would arrive, grab some sleep at the Taliban office and afterward head into Waziristan's rugged mountains for instruction in skills including karate and handling explosives and automatic rifles.

"Someone recruits them, then someone else takes them to Miram Shah, and then someone in Miram Shah greets them and takes them in," said Sargodha Police Chief Usman Anwar, whose officers this summer arrested a cell of returning Punjabi militants before they could allegedly carry out a plan to blow up a cellphone tower in this city of 700,000. "It's an assembly line, like Ford Motors has."

The arrests of six Punjabi militants in Sargodha in two raids Aug. 24 illustrated a burgeoning collaboration between Punjabi militants and northwestern Pakistan's Taliban that has Pakistanis increasingly concerned as the government focuses its military resources on Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in South Waziristan.

Military commanders say their troops assumed control of most of South Waziristan just three weeks after launching a large-scale offensive aimed at uprooting the Pakistani Taliban near the Afghan border. Troops are now clashing with Taliban fighters in Makeen, the hometown of slain Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mahsud.

However, evidence is growing that militants in Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province, could prove just as dangerous as the Taliban militants from the country's northwestern region that includes South Waziristan and other parts of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA.

Pakistan has been broadsided by a nationwide wave of terrorist strikes in recent weeks, and several of those attacks have involved militants from Punjab either masterminding or carrying out the violence.

A daring Oct. 10 commando raid on the army's headquarters in Rawalpindi, a heavily guarded complex that is Pakistan's equivalent of the Pentagon, was engineered by a Punjabi militant who also organized the deadly ambush of the Sri Lankan cricket team in March.

Punjabi extremists were also believed to be behind near-simultaneous attacks on three police buildings in Lahore that killed 14 people on Oct. 15.

Years ago, the agendas of the Pakistani Taliban and Punjabi militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jaish-e-Muhammad moved in different directions. Whereas the Taliban has long focused its attacks on Pakistan's Western-allied government, Punjabi groups, which, like the Taliban, are Sunni Muslims, have traditionally targeted Indian forces in the disputed Kashmir region and members of Pakistan's Shiite Muslim minority.

Now, however, the missions of the Taliban and Punjabi militants seem to have merged. Law enforcement officials and analysts say the catalyst was the government's 2007 siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad where Islamic extremists held scores of people hostage. The eight-day siege in the Pakistani capital ended in the deaths of more than 100 people.

Then-President Pervez Musharraf ordered security forces to seize the mosque after militants at the sprawling compound set fire to the capital's Environment Ministry building. The siege had been preceded by months of challenges to Musharraf's leadership from the mosque's radical leaders, including an insistence that Pakistan adopt Islamic law.

After the siege, Punjabi militant groups that had been tolerated -- and in some cases fostered -- by Pakistani authorities viewed the government as an enemy.

Experts say Pakistan has neglected to adequately brace for the threat posed by Taliban-trained Punjabi militants. Their cells have spread throughout Punjab province, and law enforcement officials say Punjabi militants have established their own training camps in southern Punjab, a desolate wasteland where the police presence is minimal and a feudal society dominates.

"At the moment, the government is bewildered. It doesn't know how to manage this challenge coming from Punjabi militants," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a Lahore-based security analyst.

"In the past, Punjab militants were merely facilitating the Taliban. But now they have joined with the Taliban to engage in terrorist attacks."

Southern Punjab provides militant groups a haven to train and reconnoiter. Like the Taliban's primary stronghold in Waziristan, vast tracts of southern Punjab are regarded as tribal areas where rule is laid down by local sardars, or feudal leaders. In some places, the only glint of law enforcement comes in the form of the poorly trained border military police, who take orders largely from feudal leaders, said Maj. Gen. Yaqub Khan of the Pakistan Rangers Punjab.

Los Angeles Times Articles