Pakistani madrasa denies US terror label, shrugs at sanctions

For the first time ever, the Treasury Department puts sanctions on a madrasa. Its administrator denies the charges, but says it won't hurt the school financially.

Faisal Mahmood/Reuters/File
A girl reads a book containing short verses from the Quran in a madrasa, or religious school, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, July 15, 2013.

The elderly administrator of an Islamic seminary in Peshawar denies US allegations that the facility is really a terrorist training center. He adds that the first-ever US Treasury sanctions against a madrasa will have no adverse effects. 

“We never received any foreign funding to run this madrasa. Rather, the funds for the students of the madrasa are generated through a soap factory,” says Haji Alam Sher, administrator of the Jamia Taleem-ul Quran Wal-Sunnah. However, he hastens to add that the madrasa does accept donations from individuals inside Pakistan.

In a press release announcing the decision, the Treasury Department said its action prohibits any US citizens from doing business with the school, and freezes any of its US-based assets. The action was taken under Executive Order 13224 that further directs Treasury to reach out to foreign countries to assist in the sanctions.

But even if Treasury succeeds in freezing global bank transfers to the school, analysts in Pakistan argue the effort won't have much practical effect given the informal ways individuals move money in the region. 

“Sanctions on the madrasa would put an end to the money transfers through banks. This would not have any adverse effect on the funding of madrasa as in most of the cases such foreign donations are not sent through government institutions using banks but through individuals,” says Khadim Hussain, a Peshawar-based political analyst. 

There are a number of other means, such as the system of informal money transfer known as Hundi, through which private funds from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states can easily reach religious institutions in Pakistan, says Dr. Hussain. “The madrasa will continue operating in Pakistan like a number of proscribed religious outfits."

A Pakistani security official who cannot be named because he was not authorized to speak confirms that the madrasa has huge funding from Saudi Arabia and Gulf states. He adds that the ideological leader of the madrasa, Sheikh Aminullah ( his full name is Fazeel-aTul Shaykh Abu Mohammed Ameen Al-Peshawari), had close links with a militant group named Shah Sahib that is fighting US troops in Afghanistan. Both the group and Aminullah hail from the same Islamic school of thought called the Ahl al-Hadith.

Both the US and the UN have designated Aminullah as a terrorist for providing material support to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Until recently, he was known to deliver sermons on Fridays at the madrasa. He is now in hiding. 

The Treasury Department claims that he diverted donations to the school to the Taliban and that the madrasa "radicalized [students] to conduct terrorist and insurgent activities. In some cases, students were trained to become bomb manufacturers and suicide bombers." The Treasury press release goes on to state that Aminullah recruited students for the Pakistani militant group Lashkar-e Taiba and hosted Al Qaeda operatives there.

The madrasa currently accommodates more than 150 students. The students of the religious school are not only provided with free shelter but also three meals a day. The organization started off in the mid-1980s on a small 800 square-foot plot of land and has grown to now cover an area of more than 5,500 square feet.

The structure of the madrasa does not give the appearance of a building where any training camp could be run – its classrooms are too cramped. 

But the unnamed security official says that the links between the madrasa and Lashkar-e-Taiba as well as its political arm Jamaat-ud-Dawa are beyond any doubt. “Sheikh Aminullah is a staunch supporter of waging Jihad against the US troops in Afghanistan which is evident from the fatwas [decrees] he has issued in favor of fighting occupant forces in Afghanistan,” he says.

Aminullah, Hussain says, is stated to be the “human resource manager” for recruiting militants to fight in Afghanistan. How the Pakistani government, particularly the Ministry of Interior, handles the madrasa will be a test of its cooperation with the US on antiterrorism goals, says Hussain.

Another Peshawar-based analyst dealing with the security issues, retired Brig. Saad Muhammad, says that the sanctions are just symbolic. In Pakistan, he says, the laws for money laundering from other countries are practically ineffective.

“Most of the madrasas do not get donations through banks. The funds for religious outfits are transferred to Pakistan through Hundi system. They get the funds in cash not through banks, and the government knows nothing about such deals,” he says.

If Pakistani authorities are serious about curbing such funding it would have to make effective laws with a proper mechanism for implementation, he says.

“The accounts of madrasas should keenly be examined. It should also be looked into thoroughly from where did the madrasa administration get money to purchase land for madrasa. It costs huge money to provide shelter, food, and pay utility bills of the hundreds of students. The resources exploited to meet these requirements should also be investigated,” he says. The retired Army officer says that it seems that the Pakistani authorities are either unwilling or they are incapable of doing this.

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