A massive blow to LEJ?

February 28, 2016

From Malik Ishaq to Naeem Bukhari to Saifullah Kurd to now Asif Chotu, the top four leaders have either been eliminated or caught. Does this forebode an end to LeJ’s reign of terror?

A massive blow to LEJ?

Formed in 1996 by former affiliates of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) including Riaz Basra, Malik Ishaq, Akram Lahori, and Ghulam Rasool Shah, the defunct Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) littered the country’s terror history with brutal acts of sectarian violence. In less than ten years, on Jan 30, 2003, the US Department of State designated the LeJ as a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’.

Pakistan’s most ruthless sectarian outfit, the LeJ has received massive blows in the last one year. From Malik Ishaq to Naeem Bukhari, the top four leaders have either been eliminated or caught.

Jawed Ali Shah Bukhari, former IG Balochistan who had also served as DIG Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) Sindh, says that it’s a huge success of the law enforcement agencies. "The strongest cadre [of LeJ] has been neutralised in a short span of time. The law enforcers should remain on their toes and continue to be in the offensive mode."

Last week, on Feb 23, the LeJ Pakistan chief Rizwan alias Asif Chotu who carried a headmoney of Rs 2.5million was arrested from district Dera Ghazi Khan of the Punjab province. The very day, the Sindh police killed 12 LeJ and Al-Qaeda Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) militants in two encounters in Karachi.

Asif’s name first came to limelight when former army chief and former governor Balochistan, General Musa Khan’s son Hassan Musa was murdered in 1998 in Karachi.

In the recent past, Asif Chotu is said to have masterminded two suicide attacks in Interior Sindh. Last year, on Oct 23, 2015 a suicide bomber blew himself up during the ninth Muharram procession in Jacobabad, killing at least 23 mourners and leaving 50 injured. Earlier, on Jan 30, 2015 at least 60 people were killed when a suicide bomber stormed Lakkhi Dar Imambargah of Shikarpur during Friday prayers. Both the attacks are said to have been orchestrated by Asif Chotu who was using other aliases like Karim Bakhsh and Noor Mohammad.

According to an interrogation report, at the time of the latter attack, Chotu was present in Jhal Magsi area of Balochistan. He had visited Madrassa Hussainia ibn-e-Muawia Quetta last year where the Jacobabad attack was said to have been planned.

For Amir Rana "the foremost challenge for the LEAs is to disconnect the fresh supplies of human fuel to these organisations. We have witnessed in the past that, after some time, new faces assume the command of sectarian outfits."

On Feb 12 this year, Director General, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa during a press conference talked about the arrest of 97 LeJ & AQIS militants including three "high-value-targets" involved in carrying out deadly attacks around the country. That also includes the name of Ata-ur-Rehman aka Naeem Bukhari. The Sindh Government had announced a head-money of Rs20 million on Bukhari. According to DG ISPR, Naeem Bukhari was the mastermind of major terrorist incidents in the country including Karachi Old Terminal, Mehran Airbase. Kamra Airbase, ISI headquarters in Lahore, Sukkur and Multan.

Hailing from the neighbourhood of Nazimabad Karachi, Bukhari is considered as the tactical brain of the militant outfit, doing his job calmly but dreadfully. Born in October 1971, Ata-ur-Rahman was schooled at the Shoaib Mohammadi Boys Secondary School, Nazimabad between 1976 and 1989. After completing his matriculation, he started working at his uncle’s general store which he continued till 1997. He joined the SSP in 1996 while still working for his uncle. Impressed by the Friday sermons of the deceased SSP leader Maulana Azam Tariq that he had regularly listened to at the Siddiq-e-Akbar mosque, Bukhari played his part by collecting donations and pasting posters of the banned organisation.

In 1998, Naeem Bukhari joined the LeJ which had only been formed two years earlier. Naeem Bukhari, Abu Haris, Abdullah, Ahsan Bilal, Lala, Bhai Saheb and Ghullam Mohammad are the known aliases used by him. Bukhari is said to possess seven different National and Database Registration Authority (NADRA) identity cards with the most recent under the alias Ghullam Mohammad (42101-7616001-1) son of Faqeer Mohammad. The most recent CNIC was issued on Nov 6, 2014 and would remain valid till 2021. He is also said to be instrumental in the abduction and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.

Analysts are still skeptical about these arrests. "Despite these achievements there is a genuine concern. These high profile targets have been arrested before but they either escaped or were released on bail because of the frail judicial process. They are known to have established their cells inside the prison and run it as terror dens as was witnessed in the case of Malik Ishaq. Let’s see how the authorities deal with the situation," says Muhammad Amir Rana, a researcher and security analyst.

Last year on July 29, the co-founder of LeJ Malik Ishaq, his two sons, close aide Ghulam Rasool Shah were killed in a police encounter along with seven others in the Punjab district of Muzaffargarh. On Feb 6, 2014, the US State Department had declared Ishaq as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’. Reportedly, he had joined the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) in 1989. After a seven year journey, he had parted ways with the SSP and established the LeJ. According to media reports he was arrested in the same year but escaped from custody.

Later in 1997, he was again apprehended on the charge of killing five Iranian military men in Rawalpindi. After 14 years in 2011, he was acquitted in more than 30 murder cases due to lack of evidence. While still behind bars, he was blamed for planning the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March 2009 killing eight people, mostly policemen. The Lankan team miraculously survived in the attack without any major injury but that incident closed the doors of international cricket in Pakistan.

According to some reports, Malik Ishaq was secretly taken to Rawalpindi when terrorists attacked military’s GHQ on Oct10, 2009. His services were used to persuade Dr Usman, the ringleader of the attack, to surrender himself before the law enforcement agencies but the doctor refused.

On Feb 15, 2015, on an intelligence tip-off, a special unit of the Frontier Corps Balochistan raided a hotel in Saryab area of Quetta. In the exchange of fire that followed between terrorists and law enforcers, Saifullah Kurd, the mastermind of all major sectarian attacks in Balochistan, especially in Quetta, was gunned down along with his accomplice.

"Whether it was an assault on buses carrying pilgrims or the genocide of hundreds of Shia Hazara on Alamdar Road and Hazara Town blasts, Kurd had become a symbol of the reign of terror in the province," says a senior intelligence official. Kurd was responsible for carrying out most lethal bombings in the history of Pakistan back in 2013 that took more than 200 innocent lives.

On Jan 10, 2013, in a twin blast against minority Shia Hazara at Alamdar Road Quetta, 125 people were massacred. The loved ones staged a sit-in on the Alamdar road which was expanded to other cities as well. The entire country was choked and locked down due to the sit-in organised by Shia community and civil society across Pakistan. The PPP-led federal government kneeled down before the demands of victims and dismissed its own provincial government in Balochistan. The then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, visited Quetta and announced governor’s rule in the province.

But Kurd is said to have masterminded another deadly attack in one month’s time. On Feb 16, a suicide bomber rammed a water bowser filled with explosives in the Hazara Town of Quetta killing 81 Hazaras and left more than a hundred injured.

The mastermind Kurd was arrested once before but managed to escape from a high security prison. He was apprehended by an intelligence agency along with CTD Sindh in December 2005 from the Cattle colony in Karachi. After his arrest from the metropolis, he was shifted to Quetta where he was kept at the Anti Terrorist Force’s high security prison inside Quetta Cantonment. Astonishingly, in 2008, he escaped from the fortified prison and remained at large till he was killed in the encounter.

For Amir Rana "the foremost challenge for the LEAs is to disconnect the fresh supplies of human fuel to these organisations. We have witnessed in the past that, after some time, new faces assume the command of sectarian outfits."

The main founder of banned LeJ, Riaz Basra was killed on May 14, 2002 during a shootout with the police at Dakota, Multan. Next month, on June 17, another key figure of the proscribed organisation, Akram Lahori was nabbed from Karachi’s Mehmoodabad. Currently behind bars, he was charged in more than 50 sectarian killing cases in Sindh and Punjab.

Rana fears that sectarian actors will have a completely new generation as leaders if the imminent threat is not addressed. "Jundullah and Daesh have a sectarian agenda. Though unlike LeJ, they don’t have that level of networking and commitment but the anti shia rhetoric of LeJ is transformed into Daesh which has a deeply entrenched sectarian-leaning recruiting base from the middle class."

"The game is dangerous and risky and is not over yet. The new officers are not willing to take up the task; we need young, energetic and passionate fresh blood to counter this reign of terror," says counter-terrorism expert Jawed Ali Shah Bukhari.

A massive blow to LEJ?