Pakistan tries again to shutter terror groups

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Pakistani police last week raided the office here of a banned extremist group linked to American journalist Daniel Pearl's murder, the militants gave them the slip and quietly moved to a local mosque.

Now Mohammad Ejaz and other activists with the outlawed Jaish-e- Mohammad spend days and nights at the mosque, carrying on jihad, or holy war.

"For us, every mosque and madrassah is an office. It is the home of Allah and his soldiers, and a shield against the conspiracies hatched by [US President] Bush and [Pakistani President] Pervez Musharraf," says Mr. Ejaz.

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Thousands of Islamic militants like Ejaz have changed their cellphones and shifted to mosques and remote locations to evade another government crackdown on groups responsible for violence in Pakistan, Kashmir, and Aghanistan. This latest round targeted six organizations, including several banned last year only to reemerge under new names - demonstrating the ability of the militants to stay several steps ahead of Islamabad.

Trying a new tactic, the government is demanding surety bonds of good conduct from some 600 Islamic militants as an alternative to mass arrests. The payments, some as high as $1,700, will be forfeited and the militants arrested if they regroup.

"We are concentrating on sealing the establishments of the banned groups instead of arresting their leaders," says Brigadier Javed Iqbal Cheema, a senior Interior Ministry official.

Militant leaders and their ideological mentors from Pakistan's religious parties vowed to press on.

"Mujahideen do not get hurt by such bans," says Saif-ul Islam, spokesman for Jaish-e-Mohammad. "It can create temporary hurdles, but cannot stop us from jihad."

Sources within the banned groups say they plan to go to court against Islamabad's decision and will change their identities again to continue operating.

Pakistan's courts have been sympathetic to their appeals in the past, releasing many of those rounded up in large-scale arrests after the initial ban on militant groups in 2002.

Since Nov. 15, police have sealed more than 100 offices of the banned groups, have rounded up dozens of militants, and are attempting to choke the sources of terrorist funding. Provincial governments have also been directed to check the printing of jihadi publications.

But the clampdown is far from complete. Tens of thousands of trained militants are members of these groups, which have made deep cultural inroads through literature available at roadside bookshops.

Some groups have clandestine overseas branches in European and Gulf countries, and receive large donations through hawala, an informal banking system.

"There is no doubt about President Musharraf's intentions to eliminate religious militancy and extremism, but he cannot change the system alone," says a Pakistan-based Western diplomat. "He needs the wholehearted support of sympathizers in law enforcement agencies, and the military establishment as well, who still think that extremists can bleed India in Kashmir and counter India's increasing influence in Afghanistan."

The latest crackdown came just days after a stern warning from the US ambassador to Pakistan on a visit to the port city of Karachi, a haven for extremists.

"These groups pose a serious threat to Pakistan, to the region, and to the United States," said Ambassador Nancy Powell on Nov. 13. "We are particularly concerned that these banned organizations are reestablishing themselves with new names."

The banned organizations include Jamiat-ul Furqan and Khudam-ul Islam, both offshoots of Jaish-e-Mohammad. Also banned are two groups responsible for sectarian violencein Pakistan: the Shiite group Islamik Tehreek and the Sunni group Millat-e-Islami. Rounding out the list are the British-based outfit Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Jamiat-ul Ansar, the new identity of Harkat-ul Mujahideen.

Activists of these banned groups have been blamed for a string of attacks against American and other foreign interests in Pakistan after the US toppled Afghanistan's Taliban regime and began pursuing Al Qaeda militants in the border regions. The attacks include separate bombings in Karachi last year that killed 11 French engineers and 12 Pakistanis outside the US consulate.

"If America wants to eliminate the terror network of the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and Pakistan then it has to rein in the militant jihadi groups of Pakistan because they are a part of the nexus," says a Western diplomat.

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