By James M. Dorsey
Pakistan’s determination to crack down on United Nations-designated global terrorists is being put to the test barely two weeks after the South Asian nation evaded blacklisting by an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog.
A statement by a group widely viewed as a front for UN-designated Jamat-ud-Dawa and its leader, Hafez, Saeed, said it would field hundreds of candidates in elections scheduled for July 25 under the banner of an existing Islamist political party.
The agreement between Milli Muslim League, the front group, and Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek, an Islamist party, came after Pakistan’s election commission rejected the League’s application to be registered as a political party.
The agreement follows the government’s removal of a virulently anti-Shiite militant from its terrorism list two weeks ago at the moment that it was finalizing its agreement with FATF at the group’s meeting Paris.
Pakistani’s willingness to work with FATF to improve its anti-money laundering and terrorism finance regime in ten specific areas meant the country was grey rather than blacklisted by the watchdog.
The removal of Muhammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the head of Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), from the Pakistani terrorism list paved the way for the group to field its own candidates in the upcoming election.
Mr. Ludhianvi unlike Mr. Saeed, believed to be the leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba, one of South Asia’s most violent groups, which established Jamaat-ud-Dawa after it was designated by the United Nations and banned in Pakistan in 2004, has not been globally designated.
Lashkar-e-Taiba, which reportedly enjoys tacit support of the Pakistani military because it targeted India, is widely held responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed more than 160 people. The US Treasury has put a $10 million bounty on Mr. Saeed’s head.
“Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial? It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for,” said ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in May in what was seen as an attack on the military.
Pakistan’s agreement with FATF stipulates that it demonstrates “effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions (supported by a comprehensive legal obligation) against all 1267 and 1373 designated terrorists and those acting for or on their behalf, including preventing the raising and moving of funds, identifying and freezing assets (movable and immovable), and prohibiting access to funds and financial services.”
Mr. Saeed, Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Lashkar-e-Taiba have been designated under UN Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373. Milli Muslim League does not fall technically under the resolution because it has been designated only by the US Treasury and not the UN.
The Pakistani election commission’s rejection of the group’s application, however, amounts to recognition by the government that it is a front for Jamat-ud-Dawa.
"Getting into politics is the right of every Pakistani, and no one can be denied their basic, fundamental right. That's why we have decided to participate under the umbrella of Allah-O-Akbar Tehreek in the upcoming elections," the League’s spokesman, Ahmad Nadeem Awan, said.
The militants’ determination to field candidates in the upcoming election puts at stake more than Pakistan’s commitment to FATF and its determination to avoid blacklisting, which would severely limit if not cut off its access to the international financial system.
It goes to the core of a debate in Pakistan on how to deal with militants and an apparent desire by the military and intelligence to coax them into the mainstream of Pakistani politics in an effort to reduce violence and militancy in a country in which religious ultra-conservatism and intolerance has been woven into the fabric of branches of the state and significant segments of society.
Running last year as an independent in a Punjabi by-election, Milli Muslim League candidate Yaqoob Sheikh garnered together with another Islamic militant 11 percent of the vote. Traditionally, Islamists have had social and political influence but never fared well in elections.
Military support for the participation of militants in elections was “a combination of keeping control over important national matters like security, defense and foreign policy, but also giving these former militant groups that have served the state a route into the mainstream where their energies can be utilized,” a senior military official said.
Critics charge that integration is likely to fail. “Incorporating radical Islamist movements into formal political systems may have some benefits in theory… But the structural limitations in some Muslim countries with prominent radical groups make it unlikely that these groups will adopt such reforms, at least not anytime soon… While Islamabad wants to combat jihadist insurgents in Pakistan, it also wants to maintain influence over groups that are engaged in India and Afghanistan,” said Kamran Bokhari, a well-known scholar of violent extremism.
Citing the example of a militant Egyptian group that formed a political party to participate in elections, Mr. Bokhari argued that “though such groups remain opposed to democracy in theory, they are willing to participate in electoral politics to enhance their influence over the state. Extremist groups thus become incorporated into existing institutions and try to push radical changes from within the system.”
The Milli Muslim League statement puts the Pakistani political and military establishment on the line.
Said retired Lieutenant General Talat Masood: “Allowing MML (the League) to participate under some other political platform will only add to the global pressure and criticism on Pakistan regarding cracking down on militant groups. Don't forget, we have just been added to FATF's terror watch list, and there is a possibility of going on the blacklist in the coming months."
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom