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Pakistan's offensive opens new forum for militants: refugee camps

Religious charities with extremist ties or sympathies are winning favor among displaced people for their speedy aid work.

By Daud KhattakContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 19, 2009

A displaced Pakistani man holds his son next to a banner forbidding weapons in Shah Mansour refugee camp, in northwest Pakistan, June 9. Up to 3 million people have fled the fighting and the exodus has raised fears of a humanitarian crisis.

Emilio Morenatti/AP

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Mardan, Pakistan

Clearing out Islamic hard-liners is tough enough on the battlefield. Yet even as Pakistan's Army wraps up operations to clear the Taliban from Swat Valley, religious groups with militant ties or sympathies have set up shop among the war's refugees – and are winning popular support with their truckloads of aid.

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Among the organizations providing relief is the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned militant group blamed for last November's Mumbai (Bombay) attacks.

The militants' focus on aid efforts has raised concerns among some analysts that such groups may find recruits or sympathizers among the 2 million people displaced by the military's offensive – the majority of whom live outside government-run camps.

"No doubt, they are doing a good job, but their agenda is something else," says retired Brig. Gen. Mahmood Shah, a retired security analyst based in Peshawar. "They might create more support for the Taliban in the IDP [internally displaced person] camps," he argues.

Another concern is that "the organizations have a large number of Taliban sympathizers, and the militants might use the camps as their hiding places with their support," Mr. Shah continues, suggesting that such groups be banned from working there. Some hand out pamphlets along with their relief supplies.

But other experts dismiss the threat of militant recruitment. "Many people in villages have sympathy with Taliban, but they don't take up arms," says Yousaf Ali, a Peshawar-based security analyst. "The religious charities must be appreciated for doing this great service."

FIF was renamed from Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the government banned JuD following the Mumbai attacks. FIF denies having any link to the banned group or to having a jihadist agenda.

Thousands of pounds of rice a day

FIF's workers prepare thousands of pounds of rice daily and distribute it to IDPs living in schools and hujras (community centers) and with host families. According to deputy chairman Mian Adil, in one month, the organization has handed out 1 million meals.

In addition to giving out food, some 2,000 FIF men and women – most of them volunteers – have provided health services and conducted surveys on where refugees live and what they need.

The group is getting donations from Pakistani businesspeople and expatriates, says Mr. Adil.

Another religious organization conducting relief operations in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) is Al-Khidmat, an organization that runs hospitals in several Pakistani cities and serves as the social-services wing of Jamaat-e-Islami, a political party sympathetic to the Taliban.

In a village called Hathyan, Al-Khidmat volunteers recently went door to door, handing out food and utensils. Local youths and families hosting refugees helped distribute the aid packages.

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