In the wake of Peshawar’s massacre of schoolchildren, the Laal Masjid (Red Mosque) of Islamabad is once again in the news. Its cleric Abdul Aziz –who is given a free hand to mock the nation’s pain, intimidate peaceful citizens gathered outside his mosque, and threaten the government of the country- and a number of other clerics, while acting as apologists for the terrorists, have once again said that a number of girls were killed during the raid on the Laal Masjid in 2007. Thus, there still is a strong publicity and propaganda machine in motion to establish it as a massacre of innocents and put the blame on the state, or the army as a favourite target.
Following Laal Masjid’s operation, there was vociferous propaganda by a number of religious clerics, madrassahs, and political parties alleging that hundreds of girls were killed by the law enforcement agencies during the operation. This was a blatant lie but, unfortunately, a wide majority of Pakistanis allowed themselves to be duped by the Mullahs’ and militants’ wailing. That Musharraf’s government and the army were highly unpopular at that time also didn’t help as people found it convenient to believe any allegations against the regime. Pakistan’s liberals, lawyers, and the civil society were at that moment agitating against Musharraf and, thus, they too –despite knowing the truth- found it convenient to let the blame stick and further discredit the beleaguered regime. This was hypocrisy of the highest order as a deadly cloud of delusion was created by the Mullahs, lawyers, and the liberals in the unison of purpose to harm Musharraf. (Such delusions slithering across the Pakistani landscape help me understand how in Germany of the 1930s such a bright, well-educated, church-going population could be deceived by Adolf Hitler’s propaganda machine.)
That the two subsequent governments have found no motivation to dispel the misgivings about the Laal Masjid operation means that even today very few people outside or inside of Pakistan have received accurate information on the operation. Let’s try and establish the truth, using hard evidences and endeavouring to sift facts from fables.
To begin with, we need to understand what was happening in the Laal Masjid. We need to look at a number of researched and investigation reports, of which most may not have been seen by general public that usually sticks to the first impressions owing to an intellectual inertia backed by psychological bias. Thus, in order to arrive at an impartial perspective on the Laal Masjid episode we need to carefully examine the facts.
As per the City’s municipality annals, the Laal Masjid is one of the oldest mosques in Islamabad. ‘Maulana’ Muhammad Abdullah, a government lower rank employee, was appointed its first imam. Abdullah was critical of all governments except Zia’s with whom he had cordial relations. Abdullah is said to have been a supporter of the sectarian outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), banned for involvement in sectarian killings. The ‘Laal Masjid’ was built in 1965 and was named for its red walls and interiors
During the Afghan Jihad (1979-1990), the Laal Masjid played a significant role in enlisting and preparing ‘Mujahedeen’ for waging war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The clerics running the Laal Masjid enjoyed patronage from influential members of the government and army chiefs. Thousands of male and female students lived in adjoining seminaries. The mosque and its seminaries enjoyed lavish funding. Abdullah himself was an old hand at Jihad who had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, so his organisation had strong contacts with such radicals as Mullah Omar, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, Tahir Yuldashev, and Osama bin Laden. He had a particular connection with Sheikh Essa who played a pivotal role at a later stage in the strategy of the Laal Masjid revolt. Originally from Egypt, Sheikh Essa played a key role from reorienting militants focus from Afghanistan to Pakistan as the main thrust of their war against the West. Sheikh Essa was based in North Waziristan. His full name was Abu Amr Abd al-Hakim. He was the most visible and accessible Al Qaeda figure for the Punjabis, Pakistani Pashtuns, and Afghan militants. When Abdullah was assassinated in 1998, his sons, Abdul Aziz Ghazi and Abdul Rashid Ghazi, took over the mosque under the continued patronage of the government. Both the brothers turned the mosque into a hub of hard-line teachings.
CONNECTIONS WITH AFGHAN JIHAD AND AL QAEDA
When the Taliban suffered defeat in Afghanistan in 2001, Al Qaeda struggled to survive. At the operational level Sheikh Essa forged the dialectical course of action in Pakistan. That dialectical process intended to devise a conflict between the secular forces and the so-called ‘Islamists’ in Pakistan, so as to arrive at a point where the Pakistani state apparatus would either be obliged to remain completely neutral in the US war in Afghanistan or be forced to support Al Qaeda. The objective was to find strong footholds in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan, the provinces flanking Afghanistan, and from there fight the NATO forces. Sheikh Essa had earlier taken part in the revolt against Anwar Sadat and was a scholar of theology. Sheikh Essa was also held in high esteem by the Punjabi militants. They were enthralled as they listened to his interpretation of ‘takfir’ (the practice of one Muslim declaring another Muslim an apostate). His teachings paved the way for the dialectical process in Pakistan, which urged a war between diverse segments of Muslim society. Soon, disgruntled elements of Pakistani jihadis, most so the anti-Shia Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) turned into his supporters. There were several others which have been named in detail by the notable journalist Syed Saleem Shahzad in his book.
Many of the religious-minded civil and military bureaucrats based in Islamabad and Rawalpindi used to send their daughters to the women’s Islamic seminary run by Aziz.
Aziz had become a crucial asset of the establishment, nurtured right in the heart of Islamabad. This made Sheikh Essa feel that an uprising by the Laal Masjid would be the launch of his construal of an Islamic revolution in Pakistan. So Sheikh Essa worked hard on Aziz. Aziz was convinced to read Essa’s book, Al-Wala Wal Bara. After reading the book, he was asked by Sheikh Essa: “Do you still believe that the Pakistan Army is a Muslim army?” He forcefully reminded Aziz of his duties as a Muslim scholar, “If you refuse the call of takfir on the Pakistan Army, God will never forgive.” In a manner typical of extremists, Essa monopolised the will of God by saying this but succeeded in mesmerising Aziz. Aziz decided to follow even though it entailed jeopardising his connections with and support of the establishment as on the other hand Aziz thought that he would lose his faith.
To mark the start of the uprising, Al Qaeda prompted Aziz to issue a religious decree. Thus Aziz issued his fatwa in 2004 to declare the South Waziristan operation un-Islamic. Aziz’s decree prohibited the burial of the soldiers in Muslim graveyards and funeral prayers for those who died in action against the militants in South Waziristan. The decree was circulated throughout the country and 500 clerics signed it. That was the spin needed to ignite anti-army feelings. The damage done by this decree was more than what all the guns combined in Waziristan could have done. It belittled Pakistan and its army. The damage was devastating. The impact of this decree was such that some parents refused to accept the dead bodies of their sons who got killed fighting on the side of the armed forces. Religious clerics refused to say prayers over their dead bodies. The rank and file of the armed forces were demoralised. Several low ranking non-commissioned officers defied the commands of the officers to fight and were court-martialled. Several officers resigned on being posted in Waziristan. The Pakistan Army, which was in a clear situation to defeat the militants, was frustrated by the effects of this decree. Al Qaeda’s timely spin by using the Laal Masjid clipped the army’s wings. Pakistan tried to mount an even bigger operation than the ones before, but Al Qaeda held the Laal Masjid trump card in the heart of Islamabad, which was prepared, armed and all set to create havoc. Pakistan had to make a ceasefire agreement in Waziristan
THE MILITANCY SPREADS TO THE CAPITAL
The two brothers from the Laal Masjid, Aziz and Rashid, were in regular contact with Al Qaeda leaders, above all Tahir Yuldashev and Sheikh Essa from whom they received a regular flow of directives on strategy. By 2007, Laal Masjid had become an Al Qaeda powerhouse in the federal capital of Islamabad, straight in the face of the ISI and the GHQ. The militants took advantage of the ceasefire to consolidate their positions and numbers in South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai agencies. From less than 10,000, their strength rose to over 50,000. The government was now keen to take action against the Laal Masjid but the establishment advised against it in view of widespread reprisal. Already wary of the soldiers’ reaction over the tribal areas action, the government was scared of causing an upheaval right in the Capital. The western powers, including the US, were increasingly concerned. It was at this time that the western powers brokered an understanding between Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto to ensure widespread political support from the masses for a potential, comprehensive action against the militants. This made both these leaders the prime target of Al Qaeda.
The full map of Al Qaeda assets at that time started with the Laal Masjid and included Swat Valley with Mullah Fazlullah, plus Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM), and the affiliates in North/South Waziristan, Bajaur, etc. Knowing that the West was urging Pakistan for a coordinated strategy and an action against the militants, Al Qaeda decided to pre-empt. In January 2007, the Taliban in South Waziristan broke the ceasefire agreement and started sudden attacks on the Pakistan Army positions.
The GHQ was gobsmacked and while it was working out its response, the Laal Masjid ‘student’ militants took to the streets. To create an issue they took up the demolition of the illegally constructed mosques on public land. To avoid conflagration, the government bowed and agreed to reconstruct the mosques! But the Laal Masjid militants would not want the crisis to end; they insisted on the reconstruction on the same illegal locations. The Pakistan government was perplexed by the attitude of Maulana Aziz and Rashi
The government, apparently, still had no idea that the ‘maulanas’ were manoeuvring in accordance with the plans of Al Qaeda. The occupation of the Children’s Library next to the mosque by the black burqa female ‘brigade’ attracted attention around the world. Having gained the publicity, the students reiterated the demand raised in Waziristan that they will not vacate the library unless and until the Taliban version of ‘shariah’ was enforced throughout the country. The more the news of Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto’s secret meetings to make a new alliance gained currency the more the Laal Masjid activists intensified their unsettling activities. They attacked video shops in the markets, burnt the stocks, threatened shopkeepers, particularly barbers, and ordered forcible closures on the pretext of prayer times. Some of the boys spread out to even the Margalla Road and asked female drivers to stop and told them that if they would not hide their faces in future, they could be victims of acid attacks. They attacked a Chinese parlour and accused them of prostitution. The female brigade of the Jamia Hafsa abducted an alleged female pimp. The government’s writ was undermined in its own capital as a severe law and order crisis was unleashed by the Laal Masjid. When the Laal Masjid vigilantes were arrested by the law enforcing agencies, the other members of the mosque’s brigade abducted civil law enforcement personnel and used them for bargaining for the release of their men
THE BROTHERS SPURN ALL COUNSEL
The government tried to resolve the crisis through negotiations by respectable political and religious personalities. However, the clerics refused to listen to anyone. Even the spiritual guide of the Laal Masjid brothers, Mufti Taqi Usmani, flew to Islamabad from Karachi to discuss the violent reformist agenda of the brothers. The brothers could not answer his questions in the light of Sunnah; they only mumbled that the steps taken were necessary for Islamisation. Taqi Usmani felt let down and annoyed by the attitude of the two clerics. The clerics, nevertheless, chose to stick to their plan. The Masjid brigade’s activities increased when the government got engaged in the lawyers’ movement, against it, in support of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.
THE MOSQUE TURNS UP THE HEAT
A woman alleged to be the owner of a suspected ‘brothel’ was kidnapped by the women students of Jamia Hafsa, while they were still in unlawful occupation of a children’s library. To further exacerbate the situation, the Ghazi brothers declared the establishment of a ‘Shariat Court’ and vowed to enforce Islamic laws in the federal capital. “Our youth will commit suicide attacks if the government impedes the enforcement of the shariah and attacks Laal Masjid and its sister concerns,” Maulana Abdul Aziz said in his Friday sermon. Islamabad’s residents had not forgotten that the suicide bomber who had attacked Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel less than six months ago in January 2007 had been seen near the mosque the same day. Religious activists, wearing masks, also staged a demonstration before the Friday prayers. Burqa-clad girl students of the Hafsa Madrassah kept a vigil atop the seminary’s roof. The activists were chanting “Al Jihad, Al Jihad”. Islamabad was besieged by terrorists, policemen were abducted, and elsewhere, foreign engineers and technicians, particularly the Chinese, were abducted and killed. Pakistan’s tested friend China was being targeted to alienate Pakistan. Then came the attack of Laal Masjid terrorists on a Chinese beauty parlour. The raiders beat up Chinese men and women and abducted them. The situation grew to international proportions. Civil society and the media were pressing for some action. The government was even being accused of complicity by the media and civil society. The constraints of the government because of Al Qaeda’s possible reaction were not fully known to the public. Then the Chinese president directly approached the president of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf, and requested measures for the safety of the Chinese people.
The government of Pakistan was thus drawn to the brink, left with no option but considering an assault on Al Qaeda’s vanguard in Islamabad. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda associates and fighters were working on their own plan. Thousands of students were viewed as the fodder to serve the purpose of a human shield or hostages when the need would arise. Holding cells had been constructed in the mosque and the Laal Masjid was abundantly armed. They were geared up to fight.
THE CRISIS COMES TO A HEAD
Once every effort to reach a peaceful settlement failed, the government was still determined that if army action became inevitable then it is undertaken with minimum damage to life and property. As the first step, the Laal Masjid was cordoned off and the movement of the occupants was restricted. Fervent appeals were made to the occupants to vacate the mosque. Politicians including Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Ijazul Haq tried. The Imam-e-Ka’aba arrived to convince the mosque occupants to desist from militancy but all were shunned. Even the Eidhis made appeals. Hanif Jalandhari, the head of Wafaqul Madaaris, tried his best to resolve the matter. Alas, all to no avail.
The Ghazi brothers had made the decision to follow Al Qaeda’s strategy to heighten the conflict, make ‘sacrifices’ and use those as a pretext for a larger uprising. Al Qaeda and its cohorts had gathered more than 20,000 men in Waziristan, ready for action. Then the Laal Masjid militants attacked the Army Rangers who guarded it, the military responded, and the siege of the Laal Masjid intensified. To avoid collateral loss, on July 4, 2007, the government offered amnesty to students if they surrendered and well over 1,000 students accepted, and were allowed to leave. The government offered PKR 5,000 plus a free education, to anyone exiting the mosque unarmed. Women inside the mosque were also offered safe passage to their homes. Successive deadlines were extended, as mosque leaders thwarted students from surrendering, requiring security forces to repeatedly extend the deadline to surrender. Abdul Aziz Ghazi tried to escape in a ‘burqa’, but he was spotted and arrested. Abdul Rashid Ghazi was repeatedly asked to surrender but he refused. Instead, he proposed that if the government would give him and his militant students a safe passage without surrendering arms, and allow him to live in his home village, he would hand over Laal Masjid, Jamia Hafsa, and Jamia Faridia to the Wafaqul Madaaris. This proposal was a non-starter as a considerable number of trained militants with arms would have gone scot-free and brought havoc to the city of Islamabad. It was clearly a ruse to get out of the hole.
Once the government refused to bow to Rashid’s totally unreasonable demands, the Laal Masjid terrorists attacked the army personnel around the mosque. A skirmish erupted between Pakistani security forces and students of Laal Masjid when Jamia Hafsa students stole radio sets and weapons from the Pakistan Rangers at a nearby post. They went further to burn the building of the Environment Ministry adjacent to the mosque. A senior army officer was killed and huge damage to property occurred. Colonel Haroon Islam, who was leading the operation, made a bid to free the hostages locked up in a room. He risked his life and went to blow a hole in the wall of their cell. The wall was breached, all hostages escaped, but Colonel Haroon Islam was shot and killed by the terrorists. Chaudhry Shujaat still wanted to make one last effort before the final operation started. His attempt failed as Rashid refused to surrender the armed militants. While the operation was delayed by Chaudhry Shujaat’s presence in the mosque, dawn broke. The early morning light revealed the commando positions; they were fired at and were killed. Other commandos successfully took positions.
By this time a total of 97 militants were left in the mosque. They fought stubbornly. Ninety-four of these got killed and three escaped. There were 94 dead bodies, including Rashid and four hostages killed by the militants and found locked in a basement. 10 SSG commandoes died and 33 were injured. One Rangers soldier was also killed. An army spokesman said that, during the operation, 85 people were rescued from the complex, of whom 56 were male. He also said 39 of those rescued were under the age of eighteen. Based on the rosters found in the Laal Masjid and Madrassah, the officials confirmed that the list of registered students reconciled with the number of students evacuated or captured from the mosque and Jamia Hafsa.
The dead were buried in a graveyard in Islamabad. There were no women or children among the dead. Five or six male foreigners were also among the dead.
While I have refrained from going into the gory details, the details of fighting’s course, action, and sequel are available at Wikipedia.
AL QAEDA CONNECTION CONFIRMED
Pakistani intelligence officials found letters from Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, after taking control of Laal Masjid. They were written to Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Abdul Aziz Ghazi, directing the brothers and militants to conduct an armed revolt. Government sources believe that as many as 18 foreign fighters from Uzbekistan, Egypt, and Afghanistan had arrived weeks before the final confrontation and established firing ranges to teach the students, including children, how to handle weapons properly.
Al-Zawahiri, issued a videotape on July 11, 2007, calling for Pakistanis to join jihad in revenge for the attack by the Pakistan’s Army on the mosque. Al-Zawahri’s four-minute address was titled The Aggression against Laal Masjid and was dedicated solely to the clash between the Laal Masjid militants and the Pakistan Army. The video was released by Al Qaeda’s media wing, as-Sahab and subtitled in English. Diplomats were surprised by how quickly al-Zawahiri condemned the attack on the mosque and called on Pakistanis to rise up against Musharraf’s government.
IFTIKHAR CHAUHDRY’S SUPREME COURT CONFIRMS NO WOMEN OR CHILDREN KILLED
The former Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Chaudhry – a known Taliban sympathiser- was not satisfied by the official investigations took a suo motu action to bring out the truth about the incident. The senior officer of the Islamabad Police, Tahir Alam, submitted a report pertaining to the operation in the court. He said that 103 people were killed in the operation, which included 11 from law enforcement agencies, four innocent persons and 88 terrorists.
The chief justice, however, said that it should be made public that who was responsible for this incident. He said if the State could not handle that small issue, then what the use of the State was.
Tahir Alam submitted that people of the Laal Masjid violated the law and took weapons against the personnel of law enforcement agencies. “We ordered the people to leave the Laal Masjid but they disobeyed our orders,” he added.
The chief justice remarked that the government could not declare them terrorists on this ground that they were not vacating the building. He also questioned that whether any independent investigation agency declared the dead people as terrorists. Tahir Alam, however, informed the court that no bodies of girls were found from the Laal Masjid after the operation. He said that no family of any girl had submitted complaint to the police in this regard. The court, however, observed that the report was not correct as innocent girls were also killed during the Laal Masjid operation. The chief justice said that it was reported that several orphaned girls, who were the victims of the 2005 earthquake, were residing there.
Justice Azmat Sheikh told the capital police officer “Truth will set you free”. He said that the State should tell the truth to the nation regarding this incident. Justice Azmat also observed that he could not believe that no girl was residing in Jamia Hafsa at the last moment of the operation.
A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, heard a suo motu case of Laal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa along with a contempt petition filed by Maulana Abdul Aziz. The court constituted a one-man judicial commission comprising Justice Shehzad Al-Shaikh, the Senior Judge of Federal Shariat Court. The judicial commission was assigned the task to ascertain as to whether the State had paid compensation to the heirs of killed people; whether the bodies were identified and handed over to their heirs; whether the action has been taken against the people who are responsible for the tragedy, and whether the people who are responsible for the tragedy could be marked with the available evidences and facts.
The report of this commission formed by the Supreme Court that probed the operation in the Laal Masjid extensively verified from reports, claims, witnesses and media reports that 103 people were killed in the operation. The commission worked on eight terms of reference, including how many persons, if any, male or female, civilian or law enforcement agencies’ personnel, lost their lives in the Jamia Hafsa-Laal Masjid operation.
The commission’s 304-page report is a comprehensive document, which stated that of the 103 persons killed, 92 were civilians and 11 belonged to the armed forces of Pakistan. Among the 92 civilian casualties, 76 were traced/identified, whereas 16 bodies remained unidentified. It verified that no other claim of any killing could be brought in front of the commission. On page 142 of the report, it is verified that 103 persons died in the operation and no woman was killed.
Hence, even this commission under Iftikhar Chauhdry had no option but to declare that there were no women or girls killed in the Laal Masjid.
Well over seven years on, not a single family or a person have come forward as the heirs of a female student who was killed in the Laal Masjid.
The Laal Masjid as the forward-post of Al Qaeda was cleared. However, most of those who were allowed to leave before the ‘action’ joined the uprising in Swat and Waziristan. As they had planned, Al Qaeda and its cohorts craftily used the Laal Masjid tragedy to impart impetus to their terrorist and militant activities round the country, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including women and children, and thousands of soldiers and policemen.
In October 2013, Musharraf was arrested for being personally responsible for ordering the siege. It came two weeks after a case was filed over his responsibility. General Musharraf has repeatedly asked that why the heirs of female students who were claimed to be killed during military operation have not registered FIR against him or anyone else.
In the aftermath, propaganda of a ‘massacre of innocents’ continues by the Taliban, pro-Taliban individuals, and ill-informed politicians keen to discredit the Pakistan Army and the state by twisting the facts. It needs to be countered.
Let’s not forget the automatic rifles, machine guns, mortars, rocket launchers, landmines, grenades etc that Abdul Aziz and his late brother had secreted in the Laal Masjid? And for what purpose?
People conveniently forgot SSG’s Lt-Col Haroon Islam being killed with a shot in the neck and another officer badly wounded by a sniper rifle using a night vision device. What was the need for such sophisticated weapons for those holed up inside the Laal Masjid if their intentions were peaceful? And why did nearly a dozen of SSG boys –regarded among the best commando fighters in the world- die clearing the mosque of the militants, not to count the dozens badly injured? Were those inside the Laal Masjid throwing flowers at them?