A Profile of Lashkar-i-Jhangvi Leader Malik Ishaq

Jan 14, 2013

In 2012, Pakistan suffered a significant increase in attacks against its minority Shi`a Muslim population. The incidents occurred in Quetta in Baluchistan Province, as well as in Kurram Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, Gilgit-Baltistan, Karachi, Rawalpindi and other areas around the country. In most of the incidents, militants lined up civilians, checked their identities, and then executed those suspected of being Shi`a. Other attacks involved improvised explosive device (IED) or suicide bomb attacks on Shi`a worship places, congregations and mourning processions. The attacks continued into 2013. On January 10, for example, militants targeted Shi`a Muslims at a snooker club in Quetta, killing 86 people.[1]

The group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks. LJ is an anti-Shi`a sectarian militant group that was formed in 1996 by a group of men from the sectarian organization Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the latter of which emerged in 1985 following the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.[2]

Although LJ conceals its leadership structure, one of the top leaders in the group is Malik Ishaq.[3] This article profiles Malik Ishaq as well as his role in LJ. It also discusses the present status of LJ and how the Pakistani state has failed to eliminate the group.

Early History of Malik Ishaq
Malik Ishaq was born in 1959 to a middle class family in Rahim Yar Khan town in Pakistan’s Punjab Province.[4] Although southern Punjab suffers from widespread poverty, Ishaq’s family owned a cloth shop as well as a small piece of land.[5]

Similar to other children of his age, Ishaq quit school after the sixth grade, and joined his father’s cloth business. Ishaq did not attend a madrasa (religious seminary) for a formal religious education, but his close associates said he was influenced by the radical cleric Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, the founder of the anti-Shi`a SSP.[6] The SSP, which was created in 1985, served the purpose of combating the growing influence of the Iranian Revolution on both Sunni and Shi`a in Pakistan—often through the use of violence.[7]

After meeting Maulana Jhangvi in 1989, Ishaq formally joined the SSP that same year and began anti-Shi`a activities. Ishaq’s close aide said that he was regularly reading religious literature and books authored by religious scholars. He used to cite references from this literature during his talks and discussions on matters relating to Shi`a-Sunni differences.[8]

From the SSP to LJ
As the SSP evolved, it began to play a more overt role in national politics and eventually became a political party. With the SSP’s growing interest in national politics, it was not able to engage in the same level of violence. This angered some members of the group who wanted to escalate violent activities against Shi`a in Pakistan. These differences escalated after the assassination of SSP chief Maulana Jhangvi by suspected Shi`a insurgents in 1990.[9]

These differences eventually led to the creation of LJ in 1996. In that year, a number of SSP members founded LJ, including Muhammad Ajmal (also known as Akram Lahori), Riaz Basra and Malik Ishaq.[10] The organization was named after slain SSP leader Maulana Jhangvi.

Despite their differences, the two organizations remained linked. The formation of LJ was also meant to create a military wing for the SSP along the lines of their Shi`a rivals, who were using Sipah-i-Muhammad (SM) as the armed wing of the Shi`a political party, Tehrik Nifaz-e-Fiqa Jafria (TNFJ). After SSP chief Maulana Azam Tariq was elected to Pakistan’s National Assembly in 1990 and 1993 and to the Punjab Assembly in 1997, the SSP had to rely on LJ for attacks against Shi`a.[11] This allowed the SSP to deny it had a role in violence.[12] Nevertheless, Pakistan’s government eventually banned the SSP in 2002 for its role in militancy.

Initially, Riaz Basra, who also fought in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban and is alleged to have run a training camp for LJ militants in Sarobi district of Kabul,[13] was the leader of the newly-formed group. Police killed Basra, however, in May 2002, and Akram Lahori became the new leader.[14] Yet authorities soon apprehended Lahori as well, and he has been imprisoned since June 2002.

Since this time, the leadership structure of LJ has not been clear. Yet it is widely known that Ishaq, who was released from prison in July 2011 after being jailed in 1997, now plays an important role in the group.[15] Shortly after Ishaq’s release from prison, for example, there was an unprecedented rise in LJ attacks on Shi`a throughout Pakistan.

Malik Ishaq’s Suspected Role in LJ
Ishaq has long been accused of playing a role in militancy. In 1997, Pakistani authorities arrested him on charges of murder, death threats and intimidation.  Authorities allege that he masterminded the notorious attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009 from his prison cell.[16] In that attack, a group of gunmen fired on the bus carrying Sri Lankan cricketers, injuring six of them.[17] Six Pakistani policemen and two civilians were killed. According to multiple press reports, Ishaq himself admitted in October 1997 that he was involved in the killings of 102 people.[18]

Despite the many charges and accusations, authorities released Ishaq from prison in July 2011 due to lack of evidence. As stated in the Express Tribune, “Malik Ishaq’s counsel declared that his client had been imprisoned for over 12 years and that the prosecution had failed to produce any cogent evidence which could implicate him in any of the 44 cases of culpable homicide for which he was accused, out of which he had been acquitted in 34.”[19]

Upon his release, Ishaq’s first statement to his Kalashnikov-wielding supporters was that “we are ready to lay down lives for the honor of the companions of the Holy Prophet.”[20] His statement was immediately interpreted as a threat to the Shi`a and a morale boost for his LJ activists.[21] Later in the year, Ishaq was present at anti-U.S. rallies and public meetings of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (DPC).[22]

Soon after his release, there was a notable rise in attacks on Shi`a in several Pakistani cities attributed to LJ. In these attacks, a new tactic was employed: stopping passenger buses carrying members of the Shi`a sect, and killing all those identified as Shi`a.[23] In September 2011, for example, militants stopped a bus carrying Shi`a pilgrims in Baluchistan Province, and proceeded to kill 26 passengers who were identified as Shi`a pilgrims.[24] LJ claimed responsibility. Then, in August 2012, suspected LJ militants forced 25 Shi`a out of a bus in Gilgit-Baltistan and executed them.[25] According to police, the militants first checked each passenger’s identification papers, killing those identified as Shi`a. These are just two recent examples of a string of sectarian killings against Shi`a.

For many analysts, it is not a coincidence that this rise in attacks came after Ishaq, the founding member of LJ, achieved freedom.[26]

Weak Government Response
Pakistan’s government has been criticized for its failure to punish militant leaders such as Malik Ishaq. The government already has a history of supporting anti-Shi`a outfits, or at least turning a blind eye to their activities. According to Arif Jamal, “For Pakistan, Malik Ishaq is a good Taliban as his group does not carry out attacks on the Pakistani military and is ready to carry forward the military’s national and regional agenda.”[27] This is in contrast to militants from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who target Pakistani state interests. Many argue that Pakistan chooses to concentrate its resources on the various anti-state groups, such as the TTP, rather than create new enemies in LJ or, for example, Lashkar-i-Tayyiba.[28]

The courts have been criticized for inaction as well, although the judges, lawyers and their families involved in the cases against prominent militant leaders often face death threats.[29] Indeed, many of the witnesses and their relatives in cases against Ishaq were found murdered.[30] Ishaq’s reach extends far. The Punjab government, for example, is accused of providing financial support to Ishaq’s family during the years he was in jail, with the apparent purpose to ensure peace in the province.[31]

Nevertheless, there are increasing signs that the TTP, LJ and al-Qa`ida have collaborated to target both the Pakistani government as well as Shi`a in Pakistan.[32] Eventually Pakistan will be forced to address LJ’s escalating violence.

Conclusion
Pakistan’s government has a history of collaborating with militant groups that share its interests. Besides the obvious case of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba and the Kashmir conflict, Pakistan also reportedly supported the SSP and LJ in the 1980s to weaken Shi`a Muslims who might sympathize with the Iranian Revolution of 1979.[33] Yet in most of these instances of state complicity with militant groups, Pakistan eventually lost control over the relationship.

A clear example is the case of Malik Ishaq and LJ. When the number of LJ armed activists was in the hundreds, the threat was limited and the relationship could be controlled. Yet now that thousands of radicalized youth have joined or support LJ, the relationship is no longer manageable.[34] The January 10 attack on Hazara Shi`a in Quetta that killed 86 people underscores this problem.[35]

Apart from the support of state intelligence agencies for the militant outfits, the courts equally failed to award punishments to the militant leaders. Malik Ishaq was charged in nearly 200 criminal cases, but the frightened judges used to welcome him honorably in court, and even offered him “tea and cookies.”[36]

As the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan draws nearer, and the Taliban’s attacks on sensitive Pakistani military installations continue to increase, the people’s trust in the state and its security agencies is eroding, and the country’s dozens of militant outfits are bringing instability to dangerous new levels.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor with RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Besides working in Afghanistan as Editor at Pajhwok Afghan News from 2005-2008, he worked with Pakistani English newspapers covering the situation in KP and FATA. In 2010, his paper on the situation in Swat, “The Battle for Pakistan: Swat Valley,” was published by the New America Foundation.

[1] Abdul Sattar, “Pakistani Shiites Protest After Bombings Kill 120,” Associated Press, January 10, 2013.

[2] Khalid Ahmad, “Who Killed General Zia?” Express Tribune, December 7, 2012.

[3] See, for example, “Pakistan Arrests Banned LeJ Leader Malik Ishaq,” Dawn, August 30, 2012.

[4] “Blood Flows Freely in Pakistan,” Ahlul Bayt News Agency, October 10, 2011.

[5] Personal interview, Rabia Mahmood, journalist, Express Tribune, December 26, 2012.

[6] Ibid. The journalist quoted Ishaq’s close aide, Attaullah.

[7] Arif Jamal, “A Profile of Pakistan’s Lashkar-i-Jhangvi,” CTC Sentinel 2:9 (2009). The SSP would combat armed Shi`a groups as well. For example, Sipah-i-Muhammad (SM) was an armed wing of the Shi`a group Tehrik Nifaze Fiqa Jafria (TNFJ). See personal interview, Ayesha Seddiq, author of The Military Inc., December 23, 2012.

[8] Personal interview, Rabia Mahmood, journalist, Express Tribune, December 26, 2012. The journalist quoted Ishaq’s close aide, Attaullah.

[9] “Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, Terrorist Group of Pakistan,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, undated.

[10] Syed Shoaib Hasan, “Divided We Fall,” Dawn, November 2, 2012.

[11] Amir Rana, “Maulana Azam Tariq Profile,” Daily Times, October 7, 2003.

[12] Jamal, “A Profile of Pakistan’s Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.”

[13] “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” South Asia Terrorism Portal, undated.

[14] Ibid.

[15] “The Release of Malik Ishaq,” Express Tribune, July 15, 2011.

[16] “Pakistan Arrests Banned LeJ Leader Malik Ishaq.”

[17] Jane Perlez, “For Pakistan, Attack Exposes Security Flaws,” New York Times, March 3, 2009.

[18] Harris bin Munawar, “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the ‘Lack of Evidence,’” Dawn, July 19, 2011.

[19] “The Release of Malik Ishaq.”

[20] Munawar.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] “Pakistan Shias Killed in Gilgit Sectarian Attack,” BBC, August 16, 2012.

[24] Ibid.; Omer Farooq Khan, “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Claims Balochistan Attack,” Times of India, September 21, 2011.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Arif Jamal, “A Dangerously Free Man,” Daily Jang, September 9, 2012. As stated by Jamal, “Soon after his release on bail, Malik Ishaq started his campaign against the Shias which resulted in more violence against them.”

[27] Ibid.

[28] Arif Jamal, “Meet ‘Good Taliban’ the Pakistani State Nurtured in the Last Three Decades,” The News International, September 18, 2012.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Amir Rana, “Enemy of the State – Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Militancy in Pakistan,” Jane’s Defence Security Report, August 5, 2009; “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, August 3, 2012.

[33] Ibid.; Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, “The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics,” Modern Asian Studies 34:1 (2000): p. 157.

[34] Personal interview, Ayesha Seddiq, author of The Military Inc., December 23, 2012.

[35] Sattar.

[36] “In Pakistan, a Militant Deal Sours,” Dawn, October 28, 2011.