The recent arrests of 19 Southeast Asian seminary students in Karachi has sent a tremor through Pakistan's security agencies, and is triggering concerns that these students could be the first trace of a sleeper cell run by the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network.
Since Islamabad sided with the American-led war on terror after Sept. 11, Pakistani security agencies have rounded up around 500 suspected Al Qaeda fugitives mostly from Arab and North African countries. But this is the first time Pakistani authorities have found imprints of the JI, a Southeast Asian extremist group linked to Al Qaeda, on Pakistani soil.
The discovery means that uprooting Islamic terror networks within Pakistan will require investigators to expand their scope beyond Arab militants. It also brings renewed attention to the nation's more than 10,000 madrassahs, or Islamic seminaries - many of which are believed to serve as breeding grounds for extremists.
"It is an eye-opener for the investigators as to how deep rooted the organization of Al Qaeda is," says defense analyst Ikram Sehgal. "Now their goal should be towards finding every possible link to Al Qaeda, whether these [links] are in the shape of Pakistani extremist sympathizers or a militant group from a foreign country."
He adds, "Pakistan has been a hub for the activities of mujahideen from Islamic world in the past."
Pakistani security officials arrested the 19 Indonesian and Malaysian students in raids over the weekend and into Monday night on suspicion that they may have been part of a sleeper cell of the Jemaah Islamiyah, the group accused of masterminding last year's Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people.
Among the arrested students is the Indonesian student Rusman Gunawan, who has been identified as the brother of Hambali, a key Al Qaeda operative accused of being involved in the Bali bombings. Hambali was arrested in Thailand last month and is now reportedly being held by US authorities at an undisclosed location. Sources say the recent arrests followed the interrogation of Hambali, who reportedly had contacts with Al Qaeda's top arrested leaders, Ramzi bin al Shibh and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, both of whom were arrested in Pakistan.
Pakistan's security officials are now grilling Mr. Gunawan and the other arrested foreign students to uncover alleged links between JI and Al Qaeda and the role of the groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"They are facing interrogation about their intentions and what was their mission here," says Pakistan's interior minister, Faisal Saleh Hayat.
Indonesian and Malaysian diplomats in Pakistan are demanding access to their arrested nationals and are seeking deportation to their home countries. Pakistani officials, however, maintain the arrested men would be thoroughly questioned before considering deportation.
"We want to know whether this group had any terrorist plans up its sleeves and whether they had direct or indirect contacts with Al Qaeda operatives here or abroad," says a security official. "We expect more arrests."
Security officials cautiously say it is too early to conclude Jemaah Islamiyah has a firm foothold in Pakistan, adding the arrested members may have indirect ties with Al Qaeda through members of local jihadi groups.
Eleven of the arrested students, including Gunawan, studied at Abu Bakr Islamic University, a madrassah in Karachi. Gunawan's arrest in Karachi triggered another series of raids less than a kilometer away from his madrassah. Another eight Southeast Asian students were arrested from the Jama Darasitul Islamiya Madarsa, a seminary run by the Jamaat-ud Da'awa, the political wing of a banned Pakistani Kashmiri militant group of Lashkar-i-Tayyaba. This connection has compelled investigators to explore JI's links with Pakistan's militant groups.
It is suspected that Hambali's brother and other foreign students studying at madrassahs for years may have been the bridge between Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan and Afghanistan and JI's network in Southeast Asia.
"The organization of Al Qaeda has wheels within wheels," says Pakistani analyst Khaleda Ghaus. "The arrest of [possible] Jemmah's members by Pakistan's security agencies seems to be a new angle in Pakistan's war on terror."
During the last decade, 15,000 students from Muslim countries all over the world came to Pakistan to study Islamic teachings in madrassahs.
Gunawan was granted admission to the Abu Bakr Islamic University four years ago. Founded in 1978, the school teaches only the Koran, Sunnah (the sayings of Mohammad), and Arabic. Secular subjects such as science, mathematics, and English are not included in the curriculum. Out of 500 students, around 200 are foreign nationals mainly from Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, and African countries. Many of them also obtained training at Al Qaeda-run terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and fought alongside Taliban forces during the five-year rule of the Islamic militia, which harbored Osama bin Laden.
Clerics at the Abu Bakr seminary deny that the arrested militants were involved in militant activities.
"We do not give them military training. We provide them purely Islamic teachings and not the education of extremism," says Yaqoob Tahir, one of school's clerics. "They were the students of Islamic teachings and not the students of militancy."
Seated on the marble floor of the seminary's main hall, students at the seminary are worried about a government crackdown. While they say their arrested classmates were not members of any Islamic extremist group, many ideologically support Osama bin Laden, Al Qaeda, and Jemaah Islamiyah.
"Islam is against terrorism but Islam is for jihad against the oppressors of Muslims," says a young foreign student from Thailand. "If Americans and Jews want to conspire against Muslims, then we should wage war against them."
After Pakistan joined the US-led war on terror, President Gen. Pervez Musharraf last year announced several steps to regulate madrassahs, including curriculum reform and the cessation of foreign funding. Foreign students must now register with Pakistani authorities who monitor their movements.
The focus on madrassahs has waned since. But analysts say the latest arrests will bring the spotlight on them once again. While there are around 10,000 registered madrassahs operating in the country, one estimate suggests that thousands more are functioning in the far-flung villages and towns.