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EFSAS Commentary

Why Pakistan poses multifarious challenges for those seeking to curb its sponsorship of Terrorism


The world has, especially in recent years, woken up enough to the threats posed by Pakistan’s sponsorship of terrorism to mount a semblance of a concerted pressure upon the country to mend its ways. What it has not uniformly recognized is that in dealing with an obdurate and case-hardened entity such as the Pakistani military establishment, just a semblance will never be enough to accomplish the desired objective. The reason why that is so has been demonstrated by several apparently unrelated developments that have been reported in the media over the last week. Each of these developments tell their own unique story and bring to the fore its own implications and ramifications. However, they collectively throw some light on the thinking and functioning of the military establishment, as also the complexities of the expansive terrorist infrastructure that it has set up over the years.

EFSAS had in its Commentary of 10-04-2020, ‘Pakistan’s role in the Kabul Gurdwara attack has been established, and its mounting despondency is becoming starkly evident', highlighted the role that Pakistani intelligence agencies had played in the attack on a Gurdwara in Kabul on 25 March. It had been brought out that the Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) had revealed that Abdullah Orakzai alias Aslam Farooqi, a key leader of the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), who had been arrested with 4 of his ISKP associates for carrying out the attack, enjoyed “close relations” with Pakistan-based and backed terrorist groups such as the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Taibah (LeT), and that he had confessed to having links with “regional intelligence agencies”, a euphemism for the ISI. It has since emerged that one of Farooqi’s arrested associates, whom the EFSAS commentary had identified as Ali Mohammad from Islamabad, was actually a Kashmiri terrorist called Aijaz Ahmad Ahangar who at the time of his arrest was also functioning as the chief recruiter of the Islamic State for Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

Aijaz Ahmad Ahangar’s case is an interesting one, and it sheds some light on the modus operandi of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in the region. Afghan security officials have revealed that Ahangar, after initially identifying himself as Ali Mohammad, only disclosed his true identity under more sustained questioning. Originally a resident of Nawa Kadal in Srinagar in J&K, the now 55-year-old Ahangar had been arrested on terror charges by Indian security agencies in the 1990s. Upon his release, he found a way into Bangladesh, from where he boarded a flight to Pakistan. Once he reached Pakistan, the ISI initially settled Ahangar in Islamabad. He was subsequently relocated to the Miranshah area of Waziristan in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan. Ahangar, after a brief fling with Al-Qaeda, eventually joined the ISKP on the directions of his handlers.

The details of Ahangar’s life serve to demonstrate yet again the immense advantages that a terror-exporting country has if the indiscriminate nature of its sponsorship of terror encourages it to prop up and finance terrorist groups that target both of its largest neighbours, in this particular case India and Afghanistan. The exodus of a large contingent of foreign mercenaries from Afghanistan to J&K after the Soviet departure from Afghanistan in the 1990s was an early example of the Pakistani policy of relocating its surplus, expendable, or exposed terrorist assets from the western terror front to the eastern one and vice versa. The formation of the LeT in Afghanistan and its subsequent relocation to the east to focus predominantly on terrorist acts against India, especially in J&K, was another such example. Ahangar’s arrest showed that not only entire terrorist groups, even individual terrorist leaders and cadres were being flung eastward or westward by the Pakistani military establishment, as per its requirements or its convenience. The freedom to ensure mobility and fluidity for its terrorist assets has provided an unmistakable depth to Pakistan’s terror calculus, and put serious monitoring challenges before those seeking to thwart Pakistan’s dalliance with terror.

The Pakistani military establishment’s recalcitrance and incorrigibility even at times when it is under serious international scrutiny, was also on display this last week. Castellum.AI - a New York-based regulatory technology company that automates watch list compliance - observed that even as Pakistan is scheduled to face its next evaluation by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June, the country has brashly removed as many as 4000 names from its terrorism watch list, known locally as the ‘proscribed persons list’, that is maintained by its National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA). The list contained 7800 names in 2018, which has now been reduced to 3800. As many as 1800 names have been removed since March this year. Prominent among the names that have been excluded from the list is that of Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, the LeT operations commander who is widely accepted to be the mastermind behind the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.

This is significant as Pakistan is supposedly working to implement an action plan with FATF that involves “demonstrating effective implementation of targeted financial sanctions”. The list is partly intended to help financial institutions avoid doing business with or process transactions of suspected terrorists. Peter Piatetsky, a former senior policy adviser for the US Treasury and a co-founder of Castellum.AI, expressed serious concern over the matter. He said, “Removing close to 4,000 names without a public explanation is unheard of and it raises significant questions about the listing process”. The Wall Street Journal added that no public explanation was given for the removals as they were made, whereas international standards called for countries to communicate de-listings to the financial sector immediately upon taking such action.

The problems of trying to rein in a dishonest and deceitful subject that is constantly using lies, concealment and evasion as means to sow confusion among those tasked to help it mend and rectify itself are amply demonstrated by this latest Pakistani action.

Meanwhile, there have been indications in the media that possibly egged on by their handlers in the intelligence agencies who have been under pressure from the FATF to block the flow of funds to proscribed terrorist groups such as the LeT and its several front organizations, including the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD), these organizations are now migrating to more sleazy and shady avenues to generate funds. The recent arrest in Bagh in Pakistan-Administered J&K of Syed Sameer Bukhari, reportedly a close associate of LeT chief Hafeez Saeed, brought this to light. Bukhari runs the Al-Muhafiz Foundation, which is a subsidiary of the JuD. He was taken into custody by Pakistani law enforcement officials for operating a prostitution racket disguised as a blood bank. Bukhari’s fate was sealed when a video of him in his office in a compromising position with some women surfaced. Not content with following instructions and operating the prostitution ring to generate funds for jihad, Bukhari made the cardinal mistake of venturing to sample the forbidden product first hand. Observers have opined that given the JuD’s close linkages with the ISI, Bukhari would have had no problems had he just adhered to the plot and run the ring professionally. The emergence of the video and the poor light in which it depicted the establishment’s assets meant that there was no option but to act against him.

The Bukhari incident is a good example of the approach that the Pakistani establishment and its terrorist proxies have towards the international order and its institutions. Rather than stick to the script dictated by the FATF to address its huge issue of terror financing, the establishment’s chosen path is to publicly and visibly put up a show of having acted against the specific entities and issues underlined by the FATF, while surreptitiously shifting its terrorist assets to other forms of fund generation while facilitating a smokescreen around the new activities. If dealing with such a country is tricky, getting it to actually mend its ways is infinitely more so.

The implications of the 21 April verdict of an anti-terrorism court in Karachi in which it directed Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to take over and auction properties belonging to the former Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mansour are deeply disturbing. The verdict related to a 2019 case lodged against Mansour and his two associates under Section 11H (pertaining to fundraising and money laundering) of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, read with sections 420 (cheating and dishonestly inducing delivery of property), 468 (forgery for purpose of cheating) and 471 (using as genuine a forged document) of the Pakistan Penal Code. Mansour, an Afghan national who had succeeded Mullah Omar as the Taliban chief, was himself killed in a drone strike near the Pakistan-Iran border in May 2016. Sheltered in Pakistan by the ISI, Mansour had over the years purchased 5 properties in Karachi, including plots of land and houses, whose cumulative worth ran into hundreds of thousands of US dollars.

The circumstances that Mansour defied to be able to purchase these properties in Karachi leave little doubt that he was assisted in the process by influential quarters in Pakistan. Some, or all, of these properties may well have been paid for by the dark, shadowy elements of the Pakistani State. After all, Pakistan was ostensibly a valuable US ally in the latter’s war against terror, and the Taliban was at the forefront of opposing the US-led coalition forces. Pakistan, therefore, ought to have been on the lookout for Taliban leaders on its territory. Quite the contrary, the senior most Taliban leader was not only sheltering openly in Pakistan, he was apparently living life king size. Even if the contention that Mansour bought the properties under fake names is taken to be true, that such large purchases which by law were required to be registered with the appropriate authorities escaped the ISI’s notice is anything but believable. Further, the fact that Pakistani authorities were able to successfully identify and find the properties in question after Mansour had died, and not while he was alive and serving Pakistan’s purpose by leading the Taliban, raises further questions.

The fact that Mansour bought as many as 5 properties in Karachi also creates serious doubts about whether the mansion in Abbottabad in which Osama Bin Laden was discovered and killed by US forces was the only property that the Al-Qaeda leader had in Pakistan. In the light of Mansour’s example, the possibility of Bin Laden having been provided other safe houses in Pakistan cannot at all be ruled out. Also, Mansour would certainly not have been the only Taliban leader to have benefitted from Pakistan’s generosity. After all, it is an acknowledged fact that the Taliban leadership had been warmly welcomed into Pakistan by the military establishment and provided sanctuary there, after the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

As brought out above, the developments and reports that appeared over the past week alone serve well to demonstrate the challenges and obstacles that countries such as the US, Afghanistan and India, among others, and organizations like the FATF, face in countering the terrorist threat that emanates from a country as steeped in subterfuge as Pakistan is.

While empathy with these countries and international organizations may be in order, it is worth pointing out that vis-à-vis Pakistan it is only unblinking sustained international weight and prompt and proportionate punitive or dissuasive action that is likely to work.

Merely a semblance of pressure will certainly not.