Pakistan Cracks Down On Foreign Islamists After Embassy Attack

In the last few weeks, signs of beefed-up security across Pakistan's capital have become all too obvious.

Motorists driving up to the Marriott Hotel - the trendiest meeting place in Islamabad - have been hard-pressed to find a parking spot since the hotel put chains around the parking lot. Only overnight guests are allowed to park near the entrance.

Such security measures in public places follow last month's suicide-bomb attack on the Egyptian Embassy. The bombing was a serious blow to the government of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, a pro-Western voice for moderation in the Muslim world. It has also prompted intense government scrutiny of foreign Islamic activists based in the country.

Investigators believe that attackers were from one of three Islamic groups opposed to the Egyptian government and who claimed responsibility. The attack killed 15 people and left scores more injured.

Hundreds, maybe thousands, of radical Islamic activists converged on Pakistan in the 1980s to help their Muslim brothers in neighboring Afghanistan fight the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. But since the end of that war many stayed in Pakistan, some officials here say, and are still trying to find a new cause.

For years, Pakistan has been urged by Mideast governments, especially Egypt, to clamp down hard on such groups whose members are believed to be supporting antigovernment activists in their countries. That message has now taken on new urgency with the embassy blast.

Ms. Bhutto, whose two-year-old government has tried to portray Pakistan as a "moderate Islamic state," has since sought Western attention to the issue. "When the cold war was on, these groups were financed ... by the West. Now the cold war is over, and nobody is looking after these people."

In the aftermath of the attack, Pakistani officials have detained dozens of suspects for questioning in connection with their militant activities. But many officials say that their arrest or detention would only further motivate Islamic groups into organizing antigovernment activities.

A newly emerging national coalition known as the Milli Yakjehti (Social Unity) council - made up of several Islamic groups - has decided to launch a new antigovernment campaign by the end of this month.

Western diplomats and Pakistani officials say that in resisting the Islamic groups, Bhutto runs the risk of opening up a dangerous new front. "The Islamic groups pose a serious challenge. The government cannot ignore their activities, but taking them on is going to be tough," says a senior diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

And, some of the government's critics charge that Bhutto's tough stand is only meant to seek Western support. "When they [the government] claim to be the front-line state against fundamentalism, then they are throwing [down] a challenge," says Abida Hussain, a prominent opposition politician and former ambassador to the United States. "And, challenges are usually met."

Others worry that Pakistan's recent economic troubles have already caused public frustration that may in turn give new support to fundamentalist Islamic groups.

As the government tries to press ahead with its crackdown on the activists, uncertainty has grown over the future of Islamabad's International Islamic University, set up in the 1980s with money from Saudi Arabia.

A recent confidential report prepared by Pakistan's domestic intelligence service described the university as a "hub of terrorist activities." It is not clear how the government will move against the university, but its future, however, may be a test case in deciding how Bhutto plans to tackle the issue.

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