Were Pakistan-based jihadis behind Sri Lankan terror attacks?

Over 300 people have been killed and over 500 injured in one of the worst terror attacks in recent history that took place on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. These terror attacks came after almost a decade of peace that returned to this island nation that had suffered over three decades of civil war and violence.

While a local jihadi organization – The National Thowheed Jamaat is suspected most analysts suspect links with external jihadi organizations, either ISIS or Al Qaeda. According to senior Sri Lankan officials “We do not believe these attacks were carried out by a group of people who were confined to this country. There was an international network without which these attacks could not have succeeded.”

There are many analysts who also suspect a link with Pakistan-based jihadi groups. Maldives, the island nation right next to Sri Lanka, has over the decades become deeply influenced by Saudi Wahhabi organizations and Pakistani jihadi groups especially Lashkar e Taiba.

The Pakistani security establishment has a long history of using Sri Lanka as a base for destabilizing India. In 2014 India alleged that a Pakistani official working at the Pakistan High Commission in Colombo “was playing a key role in planning terror strikes at the behest of ISI on the US and Israeli consulates in the southern part of India.  According to a news report “NIA had last month taken over the case which was earlier registered by Tamil Nadu Police in which a Sri Lanka national, Sakir Hussain, was arrested following a tip-off from the Intelligence Bureau (IB). Hussain was accused of having entered India with a mission to carry out reconnaissance of the US Consulate in Chennai and the Israeli Consulate in Bangalore.  The information under MLAT, which has been cleared for sending to Colombo through diplomatic channels, names Amir Zubair Consular (Visa) in the Pakistani Mission in Sri Lanka as the main conspirator who was involved in a conspiracy with some Lankan nationals for carrying out terror attacks on the two consulates, the sources said.”

The South Asian Against Terrorism and for Human Rights (SAATH) that comprises pro-democracy intellectuals and activists from Pakistan, “condemned the terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka and called for a region-wide effort to eliminate all terrorist groups.” The SAATH forum expressed “our deepest concern over the increasing violence in the region, which is exacerbated by the behaviour of some states in the region.” Further, they stated “We stand with Sri Lankan people in this hour of extreme human tragedy and urge all the regional governments to stick together and develop an effective framework to purge South Asian region of the scourge of terrorism and proxy war among the states.”

Pakistan army’s latest bloodless coup

Less than seven months after Prime Minister Imran Khan took over and amidst periodic claims of ‘military and civilians being on the same page’ the Pakistan army has ensured a bloodless coup by removing all of Khan’s men. Ten of Khan’s ministers, including Finance Minister Asad Umar, were replaced making the cabinet look even more like General Pervez Musharraf’s technocratic cabinet.

Umar was replaced Abdul Hafeez Shaikh “who served as finance minister from 2010-2013 under the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party.” Shaikh, “a U.S-educated economist who worked at Harvard University, also spent many years working for the World Bank and had also been the privatization minister during the government of former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf.”

Whatever arguments Mr Khan gave for replacing Mr Umar, as the Dawn editorialstated “it is the government’s turn to salvage its dignity. For seven years, Mr Khan presented the erstwhile finance minister as the answer to the country’s problems. His entire campaign seemed to have two planks only: eliminate corruption, and put Mr Asad in the finance seat. Eight months into his term, the fight against corruption has yet to yield any major victory, while Mr Asad has been eliminated. What does this say for the position the government is in? The prime minister now needs to explain his decision to remove Mr Asad from the finance ministry in more detail, especially considering that the latter failed massively to live up to expectations. The timing is also worrisome. The talks with the IMF are at an advanced stage and the budget is at hand. There is a brand new finance secretary in place, so it is not clear who will be providing the much needed continuity in the days ahead and the party appears ill-prepared with a replacement. In short, the removal of the finance minister at such a critical juncture has prolonged the period of uncertainty the economy has limped along with for more than a year now. The replacement will have to find his or her feet fast and hit the ground running. A gruelling set of policy decisions await — something Mr Asad hinted at in his press remarks — that will have a very negative impact on the government’s popularity. Indecision will only aggravate matters, something the government cannot afford at this moment.”

Further “Influential Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has been moved to the science and technology ministry, while retired Brigadier Ijaz Ahmed Shah has been appointed as Interior Minister. Energy expert Nadeem Babar has been appointed to lead the petroleum ministry.”

Newly appointed I & B Ministers, Firdous Ashiq Awan “was a PPP stalwart before she joined the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) in May 2017. Awan, along with her husband, was a staunch supporter of the PPP until party co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari consolidated his control over the party.”

Petroleum Adviser, Nadeem Babar is “a former chief executive of Orient Power and Saba Power Company, had been operating in the power sector since the induction of private power producers under the 1994 power policy. In September 2018, upon the prime minister’s desire, he was appointed the head of an eight-member task force on energy sector reforms.”

Dr Zafarullah Mirza, head of health services, “is a former director of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Division of Health System Development. He joined the WHO in 2004 and served in different capacities during his more than a decade-long association with the UN special agency.”

The most serious and worrying appointment was that of Brig (retd) Ejaz Shah as interior minister. “In an unprecedented move, former intelligence chief of Pakistan Brigadier (retired) Ejaz Shah has been appointed as the new Minister of Interior of the country on Thursday. Shah’s appointment has raised many an eyebrow as he is considered as one of the most controversial Director General of Intelligence Bureau (IB) of Pakistan, with allegations of political victimisation during the tenure of former President General Pervez Musharraf. Earlier, he had also served in Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency-ISI. Ejaz Shah had served as IB Chief from 2004 to 2008 after being appointed by the then president General Musharraf.”

It is alleged that Shah helped harbor Osama Bin Laden. According to former ISI chief Ziauddin Butt “Brigadier Shah harboured the world’s most wanted criminal for years, at the same time that other arms of the Pakistani military and the US were hunting him. “The most important and all-powerful person in [the] Musharraf regime was Brigadier Ijaz Shah, then Intelligence Bureau chief,” General Butt said in a television interview. “I fully believe that Ijaz Shah had kept this man [Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad] with the full knowledge of Pervez Musharraf.” In a separate interview, General Butt said the Abbottabad compound was built to bin Laden’s specifications on Brigadier Shah’s orders.”

Further, “He was the military’s “handler” of Kashmiri terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh. In 2002, Sheikh kidnapped Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and handed the US-Israeli citizen over to other militants, who beheaded him. Days later, Sheikh handed himself into Brigadier Shah, who held him for a week in a safehouse before finally handing him over to authorities, allegedly to give Pearl’s murderers a chance to escape. Before her own assassination, former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto alleged Brigadier Shah was conspiring with terrorists to assassinate her, naming him in a letter as someone who should be investigated if she died.”

According to The News the reasons for the shuffle were: “Asad Umar was not able to satisfy Prime Minister Imran Khan, when the latter expressed his displeasure over the policies which he thought have created difficulties for the masses. Citing unnamed sources, Geo News reported that the bad performance, secret reports and public opinion led to the reshuffling. The sources said Asad Umar had faced  criticism by cabinet members during the last few meetings. Commenting on Ghulam Sarwar Khan’s removal from Petroleum Ministry, the sources told the TV channel that an investigation report into surge in gas prices put the minister into defensive. Ghulam Sarwar Khan tried to convince Prime Minister Imran Khan that he can handle the situation but the premier didn’t agree. As for Fawad Chaudhry’s ministry, the sources said the firebrand politician from Jhelum faced the wrath of leadership for criticizing senior PTI leaders and his tussle over PTV MD Arshad Khan. He was also found to have been involved in protest against the   management of  state-owned TV. The sources said the decision to give the information ministry to Firdous Ashiq Awan was taken a month ago. The prime minister had criticized Amir Kayani, the health minister, for increasing medicine prices.  Shehryar Afridi also failed to satisfy the party leadership regarding  his performance. The sources said Afridi failed to fulfill the expectations of the party leadership despite being given powers.”

‘Do democracies have ‘army approved’ analysts?

Freedom of thought and expression are essential to a democracy. In most democracies around the world national security is vigorously debated both in the legislature as well as the media. Pakistan is unique in that it is regimented democracy where the military has sought to restrict discussion of defense issues solely to ‘army approved’ analysts.

Civilian experts who write on national security issues are targeted as traitors and there are attempts to discredit them and their views. Civil society activists, journalists and bloggers who write on such issues are also targeted.

Over the years the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the media wing of the military – has sought to ensure that only army-approved analysts speak or write in the media or social media.

On April 4, Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) “instructed all television channels to seek prior clearance from the ISPR before inviting retired military officers on news and current affairs programs “to solicit their views on matters of national security”. This was because PEMRA observed “that retired military officers, when invited on TV programs, are usually not fully conversant with the latest defense and security developments due to their service background and post-retirement time.”

In this context it is interesting that on Monday April 15, the ISPR issued a notification with a list of 26 retired officers of the armed forces who would be allowed to appear on media as defense analysts but added that “their views/comments/opinions on media shall remain personal/independent expression and not attributable to the institution.”

The names of “army approved” officers are “Lt Gen Moinuddin Haider, Let Gen Amjad Shoaib, Lt Gen Khalid Maqbool, Lt Gen Naeem Khalid Lodhi, Lt Gen Asif Yaseen Malik, Lt Gen Raza Ahmed, Lt Gen Ashraf Saleem, Maj Gen Ejaz Awan, Maj Gen Ghulam Mustafa, Brig Saad Rasool, Brig Farooq Hameed, Brig Ghazanfar Ali, Brig Aslam Ghumman, Brig Nadir Mir, Brig Asadullah, Brig Asif Haroon, Brig Harris Nawaz, Brig Said Nazir, Brig Simson Simson Sharof, Admiral Ahmed Tasnim, AM Shahid Latif, AM Ikram Bhatti, AM Masood Akhtar, AM Riaz-u-Din, AVM Shahzad Ch and Air Cdre Sajjad Haider.”

The best comment on this topic was given by analyst and columnist Dr Mohammad Taqi

1338 Suicides in year that Pakistan Forgot Human Rights’

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has documented 1338 suicides in the country during 2018. This reflects a rise in suicides resulting from depression over the country’s political and economic situation. At the launch of its flagship annual report, State of Human Rights in 2018, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that, “in a year of general elections, it was inevitable perhaps that the progress and observation of human rights issues might be suspended, if not forgotten. The elections themselves were plagued by allegations of pre-poll manipulation and vote rigging – never fully resolved – and some appalling outbreaks of violence. Nonetheless, there were more women candidates for general seats in these elections than in any past election, and for the first time, transgender candidates contested the polls.”

Further, HRCP commented on “the unprecedented level to which the fundamental right to freedom of expression was overtly violated, particularly in the run-up to the elections,’ adding that ‘in the guise of “national security concerns”, restrictions on media coverage were stepped up, journalists took increasingly to self-censorship, the distribution of a national newspaper was severely curtailed, and a media blackout was imposed on coverage of certain events.”

The HRCP also noted “reports of enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, the abuse and murder of children, violence towards women, child labour, religious intolerance, the persecution of minorities, and crimes committed in the name of “honour”. Women, children and labour remained highly vulnerable. HRCP monitoring data showed at least 845 incidents of sexual violence against women, and 316 crimes in the name of ‘honour’ perpetrated against both men and women. In Thar, Sindh, 638 children died of malnutrition in 2018.”

Finally, the HRPC pointed out that “While the interventions of the Supreme Court attracted much attention, the long-awaited reform of the criminal justice system remained on the back burner and the steady accumulation and growth of the backlog of cases went unchecked in all the courts. By year-end, there were close to 1.9 million cases pending in over 250 lower, special and superior courts. At the end of the year 4,688 prisoners were on death row. At least 500 have been executed since 2014, 14 of them in 2018.”

Stop harassment of human rights activists and journalists

Harassment of journalists and human rights activists, torture of civil society activists, and censorship of the media has been rampant in Pakistan for many years now. We at New Pakistan have routinely spoken out about it and brought to the forefront every time something like this happens. We are therefore perturbed by the recent attempts to malign Pakistani academic Dr Arfana Mallah and the lodging of a FIR against well-known journalist Shahzeb Jillani.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has “expressed alarm at the frequency with which human rights defenders and journalists are made the subject of propaganda amounting to incitement.”

The HRCP “stands in solidarity with both Dr Mallah and Mr Jilani. The fact that an unverified news item implying that Dr Mallah expressed “anti-state” sentiments was broadcast by the channel 92 News is troubling. In addition, the FIR lodged against Mr Jilani under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016, accusing him of casting aspersions on state institutions, is baseless and absurd. While 92 News has already apologised to Dr Mallah, HRCP urges the channel and all media houses to institute higher reporting and verification standards, especially given that civil society voices are already subject to intimidation and harassment at the slightest provocation. HRCP also demands that the FIR against Mr Jilani be quashed: questioning a journalist’s “loyalty” or “patriotism” for having criticised state institutions must cease to be the norm.”