International Terrorism Monitor---Paper No. 435
(An update of my earlier articles on the subject written since November 20,2007)
"Al Qaeda is trying to replicate Iraq in Pakistan by exacerbating the already existing divide between the Shias and the Sunnis in the civil society as well as in the Army." --- Extract from my earlier paper of November 15, 2007, titled "The State of Jihadi Terrorism in Pakistan" at http://www.southasiaanalysis.org/papers25/paper2459.html
Till 1977, the Shias were in a preponderant majority in the Kurram Agency in Pakistan's Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on its border with Afghanistan and in the Northern Areas (Gilgit and Baltistan) of Jammu and Kashmir, which is presently under Pakistani occupation.
2. After the triumph of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in February, 1979, there was a radicalisation of the Shias of these areas. They started demanding the creation of a separate Shia majority province to be called the Karakoram Province, consisting of the Kurram Agency, the Northern Areas and other contiguous Shia majority areas. The leadership of this movement came mainly from the Turi tribe of the Kurram Agency. The movement was allegedly funded by the Iranian intelligence.
3. Gen. Zia-ul-Haq put down this movement ruthlessly. He also started a policy of re-settling the Sunnis in these areas in order to control the Shias and dilute their preponderant majority. While Sunni ex-servicemen from other parts of Pakistan were re-settled in the Northern Areas, Afghan Sunni refugees from the refugee camps were re-settled in the Kurram Agency. This led to widespread resentment among the Shias against the Government as well as the Sunni settlers. The Iraqi intelligence of Saddam Hussein too allegedly funded these Sunni settlers in the Kurram Agency to enable them to fight the radical Shias.
4. There were serious riots in Gilgit in 1988 which were ruthlessly put down by Zia with the help of a combined force of Sunni tribals and Arabs led by Osama bin Laden. Hundreds of Shias were killed. It is generally believed that the anger caused by this massacre contributed to the death of Zia-ul-Haq in a plane crash in August 1988. Enquiries into the crash reportedly brought out that the crash took place when a Shia airman belonging to Gilgit released tear-smoke or some other gas in the cockpit, thereby disorienting the crew.
5. The Kurram Agency has also been the scene of frequent Shia-Sunni clashes, with most of the attacks by the Shias directed against the Afghan and Pakistani Sunni settlers brought in by Zia. There were three major Shia-Sunni clashes in the Agency in 1983, 1988 and 1996, which resulted in the deaths of a total of 1,200 persons belonging to both the sects.
6. There was a recrudescence of the violence in April, 2007, after a gap of 11 years. For nearly three weeks from April 6, 2007, the Kurram Agency became the scene of a no-holds barred jihad waged by the local Shias and Sunnis against each other following an incident of firing allegedly by the Shias on a procession taken out by the Sunnis to mark the Holy Prophet's birthday. The local adherents of the two sects of Islam used not only small arms and ammunition, but also mortars and rocket-launchers against each other, resulting in heavy casualties. The clashes initially started in Parachinar, the capital of the Agency. It then spread to the interior areas. The imposition of a curfew by the Pakistani authorities and severe action against the local leaders and volunteers of the two sects ultimately restored an uneasy normalcy. The Pakistan Army extensively used helicopter gunships to put down the violence.
7. There were conflicting figures of the fatalities inflicted by the two sects against each other and by the security forces on the warring sects. While the Pakistani authorities estimated the total number of fatalities as around 50, non-Governmental sources estimated that at least 80 persons died in the violence.
8. During the clashes of April, 2007, the local leaders of the two sects accused the Pakistani Army of siding with the other sect. Some Sunni leaders also accused Iran of fomenting the Shia attacks against the Sunnis.
9. Addressing the media at the Peshawar Press Club on April 9, 2007, Mast Gul, a Sunni jihadi leader, alleged that since April 6, 2007, Shias had killed hundreds of innocent Sunnis. According to him, just on one day about 28 Sunni women and children were slaughtered in the Kurram Agency. He accused Iran of providing financial resources and weapons to the Shias in the Agency. He warned the Pakistan Army that if it did not take effective action against the Shias, he would appeal to the Sunnis in the other parts of Pakistan and in Jammu and Kashmir to come to Kurram and help the local Sunnis.
10. Mast Gul used to belong to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM), which is a founding member of Osama bin Laden's International Islamic Front (IIF) formed in 1998. He used to operate in J&K till 1995. He and his followers were responsible for the burning down of the Islamic holy shrine at Charar-e-Sharief in J&K in 1995.
11. After violence instigated by Al Qaeda and pro-Al Qaeda Sunni tribal elements escalated in South and North Waziristan in October, 2007, there were reports of fresh tension in the Kurram Agency in the wake of reports that the jihadi terrorists loyal to Osama bin Laden were targeting the Shia members of the Frontier Constabulary and the Frontier Corps deployed in these two Agencies. It was alleged that while the terrorists brutally killed the captured Shia soldiers, they let free the Sunnis. Some of the Shias beheaded by the terrorists belonged to the predominantly Shia tribe of Turis in the Kurram Agency. Some Shia leaders of the civil society in these two agencies were also targeted by pro-Al Qaeda elements and killed.
12. These incidents led to a fresh outbreak of violence between the Shias and the Sunnis in the Kurram Agency since the night of November 15, 2007. Despite the imposition of a curfew by the Pakistani authorities and the use of helicopter gunships to quell the riots, violence continued for days. It was reported that the fighting in November was more fierce than in April, 2007, and that about 100 persons, including 11 members of the para-military forces, died in the violence. Police sources suspected that the fresh violence had been engineered by Al Qaeda in order to divert the attention of the Pakistan army from its on-going operations against the jihadis in the Swat Valley.
13. In December,2007, there was a fresh flare-up of clashes between the Shia Turi tribals and Sunni tribals belonging to Al Qaeda and the newly-formed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Many of the Sunni tribals involved in the fresh clashes had reportedly infiltrated into the agency from South Waziristan and the Swat Valley.
14. During the clashes of December,2007, the Shias and the Sunnis used mortars, rocket launchers etc against each other's places of worship and schools, causing large casualties and severe damages to places of worship. Each side accused the other of starting the fresh violence. There were over 150 fatalities in the intermittent clashes, which continued for over a month. The Taliban and Al Qaeda also targeted the Shia members of the local para-military forces.
15.The Pakistan Army, which was preoccupied with the operations against the Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) during December,2007, was not in a position to send reinforcements to the Kurram Agency. It left the anti-Al Qaeda and anti-Taliban operations there in the hands of the para-military forces. Their requests for helicopter gunships were not accepted. The Shias hit back at Al Qaeda and Taliban elements with considerable effectiveness. The Sunni leaders once again accused Iran of sending arms and ammunition to the local Shias. This was denied by the local Shia leaders.
16. While official spokesmen and the Pakistani mainstream media refrained from identifying the dramatis personae and giving details of the fighting, the "Frontier Post" of Peshawar (December 27,2007) reported, inter alia, as follows: " It is worth mentioning that the recent clashes started when a group of local Taliban militants attacked and opened fire on security forces (FC) at Sada.Plus they also attacked the nearby Balishkhel village where Turi tribe is living. As the Sada is the strongest base of Taliban militants therefore the government writ is nil; that is why due to lack of monitoring and writ of government, clashes spread throughout the Kurram Agency and now its control is quiet difficult due to invasion of Taliban militants."
17. The "Post", another Pakistani daily, reported as follows on December 31,2007: " A delegation of notables from Kurram Agency has appealed to President Pervez Musharraf and Chief of Army Staff Gen Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani to stop the ongoing violence that has resulted in the loss of more than 100 lives and billions of rupees' worth of property. Haji Latif Hussain, President, Kurram Welfare Society, said the residents had been fighting the Taliban infiltrating from Afghanistan, North and South Waziristan and Al Qaeda operatives in the area who were thousands in number. He added over 70 people had been killed in furious clashes during the last 45 days. "The armed forces of Pakistan are playing the role of silent spectators instead of countering the attackers and protecting the residents under attack," he said. Latif Hussain said Al Qaeda fighters had occupied various areas of Kurram Agency and blocked the main road from Peshawar to Parachinar, resulting in a shortage of basic commodities. "There is an acute shortage of medicines, food, electricity and water," he added. The Kurram Welfare Society President said that as a result of the war, hundreds of women, children and the elderly had taken refuge in Peshawar while over a hundred students who were unable to move to their native areas because of the war had been forced to stay in Islamabad. Mehdi Ghulam from Kurram Agency said Alizai, Balyamin, Tangi Amro Khail, Arravali, Santikot, Singk, Burqi and Pevar were under Taliban and Al Qaeda attacks while dozens of injured were waiting for their death in the Parachinar hospital owing to a shortage of medicines. He said that although the current confrontation was not sectarian, shrines and mosques of both Sunni and Shiite sects were being damaged by Taliban and Al Qaeda forces. Mehdi said that in Pevar firing from the other side of the border was causing multiple deaths daily. Muhammad Hussain Turi, secretary, Ittehad-e-Ummat Committee, said: "We are not only fighting for our lives and the area but also for the sovereignty of our country.We are fighting the international war against terrorism on our borders by shedding our blood but, instead of helping us, everyone is creating trouble for us by trying to stop us from defending our area." Turi appealed to the President and the Chief of the Army Staff to issue a directive to the army to intervene to save the lives of thousands of people. Gull Ishrat, member, Kurram Welfare Society, said: "We are fighting the battle of the Pakistan Army against those who managed to escape from Swat, Bajaur, North and South Waziristan and Afghanistan and are involved in furious attacks on the Pakistan Army."
18. The clashes, which never really stopped, have picked up fresh intensity since the beginning of July,2008, reportedly resulting in over a thousand fatalities on both sides. The Shias have been fighting with great ferocity. According to some accounts, there have been more fatalities among the Sunnis than among the Shias. Since the beginning of this year, the blood-letting has been worse in the Kurram Agency than it has been in the Bajaur, South Waziristan and the North Waziristan Agencies of the FATA. The permanent sanctuaries of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are located in Bajaur and the two Waziristans. There has been blood-letting in the Swat Valley of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) too. The US has been repeatedly expressing its concern over the activities of Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Bajaur and the two Waziristans. The situation there has repeatedly found mention in US Congressional testimonies and in the statements of US military officers. The spokesmen of the Afghan National Army too have been expressing their worries over the situation there. The US and the Hamid Karzai Government have been repeatedly urging the Pakistan Army to do more against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in those areas.
19. But, surprisingly---- and intriguingly--- they have been silent on the terrible blood-letting in the Kurram Agency. The situation in Kurram hardly finds mention in US testimonies and statements. There has hardly been any pressure on Pakistan to do more to bring the situation in Kurram under control. Everybody---- Pakistan, the US, Afghanistan, Iran and Al Qaeda---- have been behaving as if it suits them fine if the Shias and the Sunnis---Pakistani and Afghan--- keep killing each other in the Kurram Agency. The more the Sunnis killed by the Shias in Kurram, the less the problems for Pakistan, the US and Afghanistan in Bajaur and the two Waziristans and the less the problems for Iran in its Sunni-majority Baloch areas. Iran suspects that the so-called Jundullahs (Soldiers of Allah) attacking, kidnapping and killing Iranian National Guards in its Baloch areas are operating from sanctuaries in Kurram. The more the Shias killed by the Sunnis, the better it is for Al Qaeda, which suspects that many of the newly-recruited human sources of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the Pashtun tribal belt come from the anti-Sunni Shia community. So money and arms and ammunition keep flowing to the two warring communities.
20. The Shia community in the rest of Pakistan is getting increasingly restive over what it sees as the strange silence of the Pakistan Army over the continuing violence in Kurram.While Sunni Pashtuns from other parts of the FATA and the NWFP have been going to the assistance of the Sunnis of Kurram, Shias from other parts of Pakistan have not been doing so till now, but they are now threatening to go in large numbers to Kurram to join the Shia jihad against the Sunnis.
21.On September 1,2008, a big Shia demonstration was held in Karachi at which Shia leaders warned the Government that if the eight-month long siege and economic blockade in Kurram Agency by the Taliban is not ended, they would issue a call for a long march to the Kurram Agency to free the besieged Shias by force. The demonstrators shouted slogans against the Government over its failure to stop the aggression of the Taliban against the Shia community in the Kurram Agency and Dera Ismail Khan in the NWFP. (3-9-08)
(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-mail: email@example.com )