Pakistan's Shias at centre of geopolitical storm
On the PTI’s website is a cute video of a young boy in Dubai who watched Imran Khan’s speeches every day during the party’s epic 126-day Islamabad dharna for accountability in election rigging in 2014. The video was titled the ‘dharna effect’. You could argue that the marathon protest led to ‘tabdeeli’ or the change Imran Khan had promised. For four years later he was sworn in as prime minister of Pakistan and one of his core team members, Arif Alvi, became President.
A year later, that very president ironically found himself on the receiving end of a dharna, and that too at his Karachi residence which was besieged. These protestors were also incidentally calling for accountability and transparency just as his party had five years ago. This was not the first dharna this community had held in Pakistan’s history. In fact, they had held scores of dharnas from Gilgit to Quetta, across the country. But this time, for some strange reason, it became the first one to achieve what could be seen as spectacular success.
At the end of a wide boulevard in Karachi’s vintage neighbourhood of Mohammad Ali Housing Society, the road after the food joints is abruptly cordoned off, but not because the President of Pakistan’s residence needs security there but because it has been virtually surrounded. What look like wedding tents have been pitched outside. But there is no air of celebration here.
Under the awnings of the makeshift canopies, posters of the faces of young men printed on panaflex give them a ghostly presence. Against these backdrops, other men mill around, talking quietly among themselves.
The women are in a separate section with more portraits.
“My brother disappeared on December 7 and nobody has contacted us after that night,” says Yasmeen Bano. Her brother Waseem Raza lived in Orangi Town and worked as a private contractor.
For her this is a double tragedy: Her 21-year-old son was killed in a sectarian attack in 2012. This is why she joined the hundreds of people who staged the sit-in outside President Arif Alvi’s private residence to demand that the men who had disappeared should be made to appear.
The sit-in for missing Shia men started on April 28 and ended after 13 days. It was wrapped up after an agreement was reached with the government and institutions, according to Rashid Rizvi, who has been representing the protestors. And then, in an unprecedented development, at least 29 men who had gone missing surfaced. “Four of them were released after [a period of] three years,” Rizvi told Samaa Digital. “And their families were happy to see them because they didn’t know whether they were alive or not.”
Seventeen of those men have been handed over to the police and 12 have returned to their families. Eighteen are still unaccounted for. More men will be released soon, Rizvi said. He puts the figure at 47 for people belonging to the Ahle Tasheeh community in Karachi alone who have gone missing since 2015.
It was the star power of one of the most revered Shia clerics, Allama Talib Jauhari, renowned for his powerful oratory skills, that played a crucial role in the recovery of missing persons, according to Hasan Raza Sohail, another representative of the protestors. He said Allama Jauhari had told DIG Aamir Farooqui and other police officers who visited his home that if the men were not recovered he would himself join the sit-in.
(Samaa Digital tried to contact Allama Jauhari for comment but couldn’t get in touch as he generally shuns the media. DIG Aamir Farooqui didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Two of the men who surfaced are 22-year-old Hussain Ahmed and his 31-year-old uncle, Shiraz Haider. They were picked up by men in plainclothes from their home near Jaffria Imambargah in Golimar on November 16, 2016, according to the family.
The family did not know where they were until last Friday. On May 10, Hussain and Shiraz were handed over to the police. Shiraz’s elder sister Sumbul and Hussain’s maternal aunt said that they met them at Gulshan-e-Maymar police station.
“We saw them after 32 months,” Sumbul told Samaa Digital. “It was a 15-minute meeting.”
The family couldn’t ask Shiraz and Hussain where they were kept. “But we were happy to see them alive,” said Ghazala, another sister. “In our country, the agencies are very strong but the laws are weak.” She added that Hussain Ahmed’s mother was in hospital and his sister was now the only one earning an income in the family. Hussain’s father, Raees Ahmed, was killed in 2013 in Karachi’s PIB Colony.
Some families of the missing men have claimed that they were picked up by the paramilitary Rangers. For example, 12-year-old Syed Muhammad Raza Rizvi said that his father Zamrud Hussain Rizvi was picked up by the Rangers from Gulistan-e-Jauhar on September 30, 2018. “There were 25 to 30 people and some of them were wearing masks,” he said.
A Rangers spokesperson has denied the assertion.
The case of the missing men is generally understood to be linked to two developments: one local and one regional. And law-enforcement believes that the both are connected. (The limitation of this article is that it is confined to reporting in Karachi).
On the local front, for a long time, Karachi had been mercifully spared sectarian killings but a fresh wave of attacks started in January 2019 and they are the local part of this larger story. The timeline was swift:
On January 18, two seminary teachers belonging to the Ahle Sunnat wal Jamaat, a Sunni group, were wounded in a targeted attack near Sohrab Goth.
On January 22, Shia Ulema Council’s vice president Muhammad Ali Shah was killed.
On February 4, Muhammad Nadeem Qadri, a member of the ASWJ, was killed in a targeted attack in Saddar.
On March 22, a prominent Sunni cleric, Mufti Taqi Usmani, survived an assassination attempt.
If law-enforcement’s radar was already up, it was the attempt on Mufti Taqi Usmani that sent alarm bells ringing. A month later, on May 6, DIG Aamir Farooqui held a press conference to declare the arrests of five men in connection with the spate of sectarian attacks. Their names were given as Matloob Moosavi, Syed Muhtashim, Imran Haider Zaidi, Waqar Raza and Muhammad Abbas. According to the DIG, the additional information was that they were believed to be involved in “anti-state activities” and had links with a “neighbouring country”. These five names had all been on the list of missing persons.
A representative of Shia families, Hasan Raza Sohail, confirmed that the men were “arrested in a recent wave of arrests after an attack on a religious scholar”. He was referring to Mufti Taqi Usmani.
One of the five men is a reporter of daily Urdu newspaper Jang. The DIG said that Matloob received training abroad and downloaded a list of personalities from an official website and provided it to a “foreign handler”.
Matloob’s brother Minhaj told SAMAA Digital, however, that his brother was not a religious but a progressive man. “He went to Iran once after his wedding because the family insisted,” he said.
Shia clerics rejected the DIG’s claims on May 6 and said that they believed he had implicated the five men after representatives of the Shia missing person families had refused to end the sit-in (that started in April 28) at an initial stage of talks. Hasan Zafar Naqvi, a powerful Shia cleric in Karachi, sees a “foreign hand” behind what he said was a ‘crackdown’ on the community. “We live in an unfortunate country where leaders spread sectarianism,” he told Samaa Digital. “The people who are giving them money tell them to target Fiqah-e-Jaffaria,” he claimed. “There is a law and constitution in the country; produce them in court. Don’t their families deserve to know about their children?”
Law-enforcement is, however, of the opinion that the sectarian attacks were the work of a group in Karachi that was trained and funded by a “neighbouring country”. No official or person engaged in negotiations with them named the country because this could be perceived as a diplomatic disaster.
“We were going after the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaat-al-Ahrar but the attack on Maulana Taqi Usmani moved our attention to this group,” a counterterrorism official told Samaa Digital on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak with the media.
The counter-terrorism official said that they don’t know how many more people are active in Karachi with this group. “Even the boys, who are working with this group, don’t know about the other members,” he claimed. “They become active after they are given targets and then they slip away to Iran.”
In his May 6 press conference DIG Amir Farooqui had said that one of the suspects, Syed Imran Haider Zaidi, had visited a neighbouring country in 2015 and 2017 and received 25 days of “militancy training” twice under the supervision of their “national guards”. He said that Zaidi had tasked his group members to recruit media persons belonging to the Shia community and send them to the neighbouring country for training.
In another press conference, on April 15, the counter-terrorism department had said that it had arrested six sectarian target killers, including a police constable, suspected of ties to a neighbouring country.
Counter-Terrorism Department DIG Abdullah Sheikh had told reporters that the arrested men received financial help from a neighbouring country. “The arrested terrorists would hide in a neighboring Islamic country after killing people in Karachi on sectarian grounds,” Shaikh said. “They are highly qualified and are trained in a foreign country from where they would also get financial help.”
They belonged to the Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan and Sipah-e-Muhammad Pakistan, Raja Umar Khattab, another CTD official said. Their names were not on the list of missing persons, a representative of the Shia missing person families added.
A security officer told Samaa Digital that the five arrested men (declared on May 6) had been in contact with “handlers” in Iran and their numbers had been traced. One of the numbers belonged to a non-local recruiter of the Zainebiyoun Brigade, he said.
The Liwa Zainebiyoun (People of Zainab Brigade) is a pro-Iran group that was formed to protect the shrine of Sayyidah Zainab (May Allah be pleased with her) in Syria in what is believed to be 2014 or 2015. “Around 800 to 2,500 Pakistani fighters are in the group,” according to Phillip Smyth, a Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps recruits Pakistani Shias to fight using Shia religious networks.”
He told Samaa Digital that the recruitment is often done through local clerics and other leaders. “Then individuals travel to Iran (often to Tehran or Qom), ostensibly for pilgrimage or for religious education and are then sent to training camps.” Liwa Zainebiyoun has been deployed throughout Syria, particularly in the north and east of the country, he added.
It seems that the authorities in Pakistan had picked up on this early on. In August, 2014, the National Counter Terrorism Authority wrote a letter to all the provincial home secretaries and law enforcement agencies, warning them that, “Iraqi and Iranian missions in Pakistan are actively attracting Shia students desirous of studying in their countries.” The confidential letter said that Shia students were being brainwashed and motivated against other sects and Pakistani government officials over the killings of Shias in Pakistan.
According to Aamir Rana, a security analyst and the director of the Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, scores of Pakistani Shias have been to Syria. “Many were arrested from Punjab and Parachinaar after they returned to Pakistan,” Rana said.
The clerics, however, declined to confirm that there were any links between the community and Liwa Zainebiyoun. Hasan Raza Sohail said, however, that members of the Shia community haven’t broken any laws in Pakistan even if they had hypothetically gone to Syria to fight. “We will proudly own them If they go to Syria,” Sohail said, adding that for them it was a religious obligation to protect the holy sites such as the resting place of Bibi Zainab (AS).
Loyalty to Iran is a factor for some Shia clerics in Pakistan, argues Lt Gen (retired) Amjad Shoaib, a defense analyst. “Many of them were educated in Qom and they still get Wazifa from Iran,” he told Samaa Digital. “When we sign any agreement with Saudi Arabia, people here object that Iran would be offended,” the former army official said, pointing to the delicate balances of geopolitics.
It certainly doesn’t help that the Shias have faced countless attacks in Pakistan, he said. “The Hazaras were targeted because they could be recognized [easily].” Iran believes that the Shia community in Pakistan is oppressed and they train their people, he added. Iran has faced terrorism in the past and has suspected Pakistan was behind it.
“They recruited Pakistani Shias when Daesh came to Syria,” he said. “Many people from Parachinar were recruited, trained and sent to Syria.”
He believes that both those who joined Daesh and Zainebiyoun were equally dangerous. “A brainwashed individual is dangerous regardless of his sect,” he said. “No matter what their sect is, they commit acts of terrorism.”
And so the desperate torsion of interlocking local and regional politics continues to exert its pressures on the lives of people. The State grapples with the threat of terrorism, its law-enforcement machinery working overtime. The Shia community in Pakistan continues to find itself at the centre of a widening regional battle. But if the dharna is anything to go by this time, at least some effect was to be had.