DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - The Pakistan Taliban is not the sole militant group threatening Pakistan and the region.
Punjabi groups are deepening their ties with the Taliban, representing a growing threat for a country already hit hard by militant violence.
This was highlighted by the twin attacks in Lahore on Friday - the capital of Punjab - which killed between 80 and 95 members of the Ahmadi sect. Initial investigations suggested a possible link to the Taliban operating from Waziristan.
Security officials in the region say while there are no “militant strongholds” in the province for them to enable them to operate independently - as is the case in lawless northwest Pakistan - their presence in the area, especially in southern Punjab, cannot be denied.
These militants are overwhelmingly members of banned organizations like the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Jaish-e-Mohammad and Sipah-e-Sahaba, long tolerated or even sponsored by Pakistan’s powerful military and intelligence establishment. But now they are starting to turn on Pakistan, thanks to the growing influence of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its ally al Qaeda.
“Those militants who were hiding in southern Punjab are now surfacing,” Interior Minister Rehman Malik said on Sunday in Lahore as he visited one of the attacked mosques. “We have information they could attack the Shi’ite community.”
There are more than 20,000 madrassas, or schools, in Pakistan, he said, and 44 percent are in Punjab. The government has also banned 29 organizations and put 1,764 people on its wanted lists. Of them, 729 are from southern Punjab.
All these outfits traditionally have roots in Punjab and underscore the risk militants pose to Pakistan’s economically most important province and its traditional seat of power.
“These are the people who took part in the Afghan war and got training there,” said Mohsin Leghari, an opposition member of the provincial Punjab assembly.
“This is the only thing they know, so it is no surprise if they develop links with the Taliban in the northwest,” said Leghari, whose constituency includes the tribal belt of Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab.
However, Leghari as well as security officials in the region denied that southern Punjab is a hub of militant activities.
“This is all rumor-based information. It’s exaggerated,” said Ahmad Mubarik, the police chief of Dera Ghazi Khan. “This is not the hub of militants. I don’t think that is true.”
But the recent surrender by Hanif Gabol, an alleged commander of the Taliban hailing from Dera Ghazi Khan, has once again highlighted the militants’ operational network in the region.
Gabol has reportedly told police that he trained in Waziristan and led a group of about 25 men associated with the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and was involved in dozens of terrorist activities.
More ominous for Pakistan, these attacks in Lahore on Friday show that ties between Punjabi organizations and the TTP are not just increasing the southern groups’ capabilities, but also providing cover for the Pakistan Taliban to operate outside their traditional tribal strongholds on the border with Afghanistan.
A security official in Bahawalpur, another town in southern Punjab and considered the headquarters of JeM, said there was no doubt that some of the dozens of madrassas there were involved in recruiting volunteers for the Taliban in the northwest.
Analysts and officials said Punjab’s extreme poverty, as well as lack of education, makes people in the region more vulnerable to the lure of militancy.
But they also say that the presence of Islamist militants is not new, and not directly linked to the rise of the Taliban.
“There is a presence of militants in that area for sure. But it is a long-standing presence, and they were there even before the Taliban became Taliban,” said security analyst Ikram Sehgal.
Sehgal said the militants in Punjab had a good infrastructure on the ground, with many organizations involved in various feuds, including sectarian violence.
“The problem is that with the collapse of the Taliban in South Waziristan and Swat, and with them being pushed on the back foot in North Waziristan and Orakzai, there are chances they will try to reactivate these cells and make them effective,” he said.
Additional reporting by Asim Tanveer; Editing by Chris Allbritton and Ron Popeski