Bankruptcy of Pakistan’s seesawing counter-terrorism policy: The ‘escape’ of a dreaded terrorist and ‘conviction’ of another
To a casual observer, the developments that have come to light in the counter-terrorism sphere in Pakistan over the past week would come across as strange and counterintuitive. A prominent leader of a ruthless Pakistani terrorist organization whose targets were predominantly Pakistani, and which had no qualms about mass-murdering Pakistani school children, was allowed to ‘escape’ from custody with astonishing ease by the Pakistani security establishment. On the other hand, an even more coldblooded terrorist, one who had been working hand in glove with the Pakistani military establishment to keep Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) on the boil, thereby serving an invaluable strategic purpose for the establishment, was sentenced to eleven years in prison on terror financing charges by a Pakistani court. To the more discerning eye, however, the incongruity that these events represented was more easily fathomable. The first instance was merely a demonstration of the utter lack of regard that the establishment had for the sentiments of citizens and the laws of the land. The second was a sell-out, even if only temporary, of a long-serving asset in the face of an unwavering international pressure that was threatening to graduate into unsustainable consequences, primarily economic, for the military establishment.
Ehsanullah Ehsan, a top leader and spokesperson of the terrorist outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), who had surrendered to the Pakistan army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in 2017, allegedly fled last month from the safe house where he was being kept for the last two and a half years. Ehsan released an audio message late last week, in which he stated, “I am the former spokesman of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA). I had surrendered to the Pakistani security authorities on February 5, 2017 under an agreement. I honored this agreement for three years, but these shrewd Pakistani security institutions violated it and kept me in a prison along with my children. We tolerated the hardships of imprisonment calmly for three years but eventually we were forced to make a plan to escape from there. On January 11, 2020 with the help of Allah, I succeeded in escaping from custody. I can tell you that I am in Turkey at the moment along with my wife, son and daughter. Don’t ask me how I reached here as I can’t tell you right now”. Ehsan promised to disclose more at a later stage. He said, “I will also mention on whose approval this accord was made with me. And what were the terms and conditions of the agreement and which prominent figure had assured me that the agreement will be implemented”.
No Pakistani authority, military or civilian, has as yet responded to or commented on Ehsan’s claims. The BBC asserted that it had contacted the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistan Army’s publicity arm, but it refused to either confirm or refute Ehsan’s ‘escape’. As an 8 February editorial in the Dawn postulated, “Surely, this official silence will create misgivings and is unacceptable. It is time for a full disclosure. The people have a right to know if his ‘escape’ was a massive security failure or part of an immunity deal negotiated before his surrender”.
Ehsan’s case is an emotive one in Pakistan. In addition to his involvement in the shooting of the then 14-year-old peace activist Malala Yousafzai, who later won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the bombing of an Easter gathering in a Lahore park that killed at least 75 people and injured more than 300 others, Ehsan was also involved in one of the most gruesome attacks on children anywhere in the world. On December 16, 2014 a group of 8-10 suicide attackers wearing paramilitary Frontier Corps uniforms entered the Peshawar Army Public School and proceeded to go classroom-to-classroom shooting indiscriminately, killing 149 people including 132 students. This terrorist attack evoked unprecedented nation-wide anger and indignation, which was reflected in an editorial titled “Ehsanullah Ehsan’s Confession” that appeared on 28 April 2017 in the Pakistani daily Dawn. It said, “As for Ehsanullah Ehsan, he must face justice. In no circumstances should an individual who brashly and with a great deal of pride claimed responsibility for the slaughter of countless Pakistanis ever be allowed to escape punishment. There are no conceivable circumstances, no tactical gains or operational information that Ehsan can offer to justify ever being a free man again”.
Most Pakistanis had been highly suspicious of the circumstance surrounding Ehsan’s alleged surrender. This suspicion deepened over time due to the ambiguous and sketchy statements emanating from the military establishment, its curious decision of putting up Ehsan on a TV show weeks after his arrest, its failure over the years to frame any charges against him, and its choice of a safe house, rather than a high security prison, to host Ehsan and his family. According to the New York Times, Ehsan was living with his family in an upscale neighborhood of Peshawar. He fathered a child there and had phone and Internet access.
The New York Times underlined that Ehsan had been promised a large sum of money for surrendering to the Pakistani authorities, but the money was never paid, which prompted him to flee. It also claimed that “Pakistani security forces are now offering Mr. Mohmand [Ehsan] more money to turn himself back in, but he has refused the offer, officials say”. The New York Times article corroborated a Dawn report that was published on 6 September 2017, which quoted senior security officials while disclosing details of Ehsan’s surrender and his attempts to seek an agreement with Pakistani security agencies. This proposed deal included a house to live in along with his family, a huge sum to start off a business and a possible relocation to the Gulf or a Middle Eastern country.
The apprehension that the establishment could facilitate Ehsan’s release and relocation has existed for several years now. Fazal Khan, a lawyer who lost his son in the Peshawar school attack, filed a court case against Ehsan’s potential release. In December 2017, the Peshawar High Court, the apex court in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, barred the government from releasing Ehsan. After Ehsan’s escape, Khan has now filed another court case against Pakistan’s Army Chief, the head of the ISI, and some senior civilian bureaucrats for failing to implement the court’s ruling and prevent Ehsan from escaping.
The matter had also been raised in the Pakistani Senate in February 2018, when Senator Farhatullah Babar sought to know more from the government on the detention and trial of Ehsan, and the nature of cases against him. State Minister for Interior Talal Chaudhry responded that “Relevant institutions have decided not to pardon or release Ehsanullah Ehsan… The relevant intelligence agency publicized his video so people could see his confessions; this shows that the agency wants action against Ehsan, which will be taken as per the law of the land. Ehsan had surrendered to an intelligence agency; they can tell more about him”.
Despite this, Ehsan did ‘escape’.
Ehsan’s ‘escape’ has drawn sharp criticism from Pakistani politicians, human rights activists, journalists, and civil society alike. The Senate Standing Committee on Interior sought a detailed report on the matter after Senator Javed Abbasi questioned how a high-profile militant who was said to be in prison could escape. Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari questioned, “How can a person facing charges of attacks on the Army Public School (APS) and Malala Yousafzai flee the country? The government will have to give a reply. Was it complicit or incompetent? How can we tell the international community that we are combating terrorism when the biggest terrorist of the country has fled the country?” PPP leader Syed Naveed Qamar said, “How can you sweep the issue of the escape of Ehsanullah Ehsan under the carpet? What will be your answer if a question about it is raised at the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) meeting? What kind of a State are we running?” Former PPP senator Farhatullah Babar wrote, “Reports that TTP spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan fled from custody highly disturbing. One of the two explanations possible; Complicity or sheer incompetence. What about massacred APS children? Jailing HR defenders and freeing self-confessed terrorists. Demand explanation”.
Mohsin Dawar, the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM)-backed independent parliamentarian, while speaking on a point of order in the National Assembly posed three questions before the government, “In which case had Ehsanullah Ehsan been arrested? Before which court was he presented? And in which prison had he been detained?” He asserted in an interview with the Voice of America that Ehsan’s escape supports the PTM’s claims that Pakistan’s war against terror was only aimed at squeezing funds out of the United States (US) by ostensibly allying in its war on terrorism. He averred that “All the false operations against the terrorists were conducted toward this end”. Dawar added, “The state is extending special treatment to people like Ehsanullah Ehsan, who killed our children and engaged in the mass killings of our people, while over the past two years, numerous members of the PTM have faced sedition, rioting, and terrorism charges for peacefully campaigning for their rights and demanding accountability in Islamabad’s war on terrorism in their homeland”.
Another PTM activist Afrasiab Khattak stressed that “Nothing exposes bankruptcy of Pakistani counter terrorism more effectively than the ‘surrender’ & ‘escape’ of notorious terrorist and self-proclaimed mass murderer #EhsanullahEhsan. The silence of both the selected (Prime Minister Imran Khan) & the selectors (the military establishment) is deafening. Too big an affront to be hidden!”
Abbas Nasir, a former editor of Dawn, eloquently summed up the plight of Pakistanis thus, “But of course the icing on the cake for other terror suspects is that they won’t have to wait for the good life in the hereafter, as their TTP ‘groomers and handlers’ drummed into their heads, but only cross over to the other side to enjoy all facilities including conjugal rights. In Ehsan’s case, he is said to have fathered a child while in captivity… However, please, please don’t take the respect accorded to terrorists’ human rights to mistakenly believe that your rights will be afforded the same protection; if you feel an inflated sense of your own rights, lock yourself up in a room till you dispossess yourself of that notion. And, in any case, don’t exercise your right to free assembly and free speech in a public place as that could land you in thick soup, one with a twist of sedition on top. You are not a terrorist. You are the miserable loser, the type that protests against rights’ violations. Where do you go? Don’t ask me. I have no idea”.
On the external front, the ‘escape’ of Ehsan, who in September 2010 had been included in the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, as well as the Pakistani military establishment’s shady role in the ‘escape’, need to be taken careful note of by the international community. It would also be worthwhile to recall, before the next session of the FATF commences in two days’ time, that the TTP had threatened attacks against the US, and the outfit had claimed responsibility for a failed May 2010 bomb attack in New York’s Times Square.
The role that the FATF can play in straightening Pakistan’s crooked tail on the issue of its support for terrorism was, meanwhile, glaringly on display when a Lahore anti-terrorism court on 12 February convicted Lashkar-e-Taibah leader Hafiz Saeed in two terror-financing cases and handed him jail terms of five and a half years in each of the cases. Hafiz Saeed has, over the years, been a highly valued asset of the ISI, which despite coming under concerted international pressure after the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks to act against Saeed and his LeT cohorts, has withstood or circumvented this demand of the international community. What emboldened it to do so was the fact that the international pressure was mainly limited to words, without any of the several punitive leverages that were available to the international community being brought into play. That made ignoring the threats low cost, and hence easier, for Islamabad.
The FATF, over the last couple of years, has changed that narrative. It has placed the economically severely stressed Pakistan on its grey list, with the threat that the country would be blacklisted unless it demonstrated serious resolve to tackle the terror that it had spawned. Saeed and his LeT figured high on the FATF list. The Pakistani military establishment recognized that blacklisting was not an option that Pakistan, or the establishment, could afford or endure. Once that was clear, the hitherto untouchable Saeed did not stand a chance. Of course, given the unscrupulous and slippery track record of the Pakistani military establishment, in all likelihood Saeed’s fate would change for the better if and when the FATF pressure eases even slightly. Saeed’s lawyer, Imran Gill, seemed to also indicate exactly that when he claimed after his client’s conviction that, “There was nothing to the case really, this was just due to pressure from the FATF”.
The international community has long been struggling to convince Pakistan to stop its rampant support for terror. Rawalpindi, however, appeared immune to counsel or threat. The FATF process has, at last, broken this trend. It has provided an effective template to deal with Pakistan and other terror-sponsoring nations.
What must now be ensured is that the foot does not come off the pedal.