(Reuters) - Militants from outlawed groups in Pakistan’s Punjab province are developing closer ties with the Taliban in the northwest, representing a growing threat for a country already hit hard by militancy.
Here are facts about some of the major militant groups in Punjab.
Sunni Muslim Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) is one of the most notorious al Qaeda-linked groups with roots in Punjab. It also has forged strong ties with the Pakistani Taliban groups operating in the tribal areas on the Afghan border.
LeJ emerged as a sectarian group in the 1990s targeting minority Shi’ite Muslims but later graduated to more audacious attacks, such as the truck bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in 2008 which killed 55 people. It is also blamed for an assault on the Sri Lankan cricket team in which seven Pakistanis were killed. Six members of the team and a British coach were wounded.
LeJ was outlawed in Pakistan in August 2001. Members are also involved in violence in Afghanistan. Military analysts estimate it has just under 1,000 members, who are almost entirely militants, and say the group was behind last year’s brazen attack on the army headquarters in Rawalpindi, in which more than 20 people were killed.
SIPAH-E-SAHABA PAKISTAN (SSP)
SSP is a pro-Taliban, anti-Shi’ite militant group based in central Punjab. The group was banned in 2002 but officials say its members were suspected of involvement in attacks in the province, including the burning to death of eight Christians on suspicions of blasphemy last year.
Military analysts estimate its political arm has about 100,000 active members, with about 2,000-3,000 active fighters.
Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), or Army of the Prophet Mohammad, is a major militant group with links to the Taliban and al Qaeda and based in Punjab. It was banned in Pakistan in 2002 after it was blamed for an attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001.
The group initially focused its fighting on the Indian part of divided Kashmir but later forged links with al Qaeda and the Taliban and is suspected of involvement in several high-profile attacks, including the murder of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Faisal Shahzad, the main suspect behind the failed New York bombing this month, reportedly had links with the JeM.
Shahzad also visited South Waziristan, highlighting the JeM’s links with the Taliban in the northwest as well as its capacity to carry out attacks on foreign soil.
JeM fighters are also involved in violence in northwest Pakistan and across the border in Afghanistan. Analysts put its membership at about 5,000 active members, of whom 1,500-2,000 are active fighters.
Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), or the Army of Taiba. Taiba is the old name for the Muslim holy city of Medina in Saudi Arabia, the second holiest city for Muslims. The group was founded in 1990 to fight Indian rule in Kashmir and is based in Punjab.
It was blamed for the coordinated attacks on the Indian financial capital, Mumbai, in November 2008 that killed 166 people. LeT was also blamed for the late 2001 Indian parliament attack and was banned in Pakistan in 2002.
In May, Pakistan’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to release LeT leader Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, who India accuses of masterminding the 2008 assault in Mumbai, dismissing a government appeal.
A U.N. Security Council committee last year added Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a charity headed by Saeed, to a list of people and organizations linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban.