By Syed Saleem Shahzad
SWAT VALLEY, North-West Frontier Province - To Pakistan’s Western allies, the military’s attack on the radical Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in Islamabad was a crackdown on a Taliban asset, much like crackdowns on other militant organizations across the country.
For the administration of Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf, though, the move is viewed as the first blow against an emerging extremist armed movement committed to the enforcement of Islamic sharia law.
A leading figure in this movement summed it up on Thursday: “God willing, Pakistan will soon have an Islamic revolution.” Maulana Abdul Aziz was speaking at the funeral of his brother, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, who was one of more than 60 people killed in the seven-day siege of the Lal Masjid. The brothers ran the pro- Taliban mosque and Aziz was apprehended outside the mosque before the main military action began on Tuesday.
With the Lal Masjid saga all but over now, the second phase in the battle against an “Islamic revolution” has began many kilometers away in the picturesque Swat district in North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Reaction to the events at the Lal Masjid has been the strongest here, as it is home to the banned pro-Taliban Tehrik-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM - Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws).
The Pakistan Army has mobilized thousands of troops in the area, and on Friday it was declared “highly sensitive” and parts of it placed under an unofficial curfew. Over the past few days there have been incidents in which several security personnel have been killed.
Unlike the Lal Masjid’s small complex, this new battlefield will be a huge valley where militants will be able to trap soldiers at sites of their choice, and the army will be free to bomb their hideouts in the high mountains.
By Thursday evening in the Mingora district of Swat, the military had already made its presence felt. The airport and other important installations were guarded by Frontier Corps and Swat Scouts. All government buildings were protected by bunkers made from sandbags.
Earlier, a convoy of tanks and artillery trucks crossed a bridge leading into town seconds before a bomb went off. The military vehicles picked up speed, but were chased by a civilian car that rammed into the police escort and exploded. Three policemen and three passers-by were instantly killed.
“I caught a brief glimpse of the suicide bomber as he was about to ram his car into the convoy. He was a bearded man of about 40 years,” a shaken policeman, Bakht Rahman, told this correspondent.
With the bomb at the bridge and the suicide attack as foretastes, a military operation in the Swat Valley is beyond doubt, probably within a few weeks, if not days.
This will pit the army against a radical armed insurgency dedicated to an Islamic revolution with the aim to establish a firm base in Pakistan from where it can fuel the Taliban-led insurgency in Afghanistan and ultimately announce a regional caliphate.
A tuned-in leader
There is an air of anticipation in the area, with occasional shouts of “Long live Imam-Dhari.” Imam-Dhari is a small town in the Swat district where Maulana Fazalullah, the head of the TNSM, lives.
It was time to pay a visit. I had no trouble finding my way there - everyone knew the location, and everyone was a TNSM member. Imam-Dhari is, after all, the headquarters of the TNSM.
After passing through a narrow alley, we reached the modest house of Fazalullah, and within five minutes I was chatting to him. At first he was visibly disconcerted as I had not made an appointment or been referred by anyone, but local custom dictated that he welcome the stranger standing at his door. So I received a hug from the short 28-year-old man with a long beard and a black turban.
“I am extremely sorry that I cannot spare much time for you because you did not warn me that you were coming, and I am avoiding the media because it is a delicate situation here,” Fazalullah said.
“I need to go to my FM radio station now to announce that I am not behind any attacks, and secondly people should not become outraged by the presence of the military in the area. I need to be in constant contact with the people of the area to ask them to restrain themselves from attacks or violence,” said Fazalullah.
Fazalullah - “Maulana Radio” as he is widely known - runs FM stations that have been banned by the local authorities. One of his pet subjects is electronic goods, which he wants destroyed, including televisions.
“They [Pakistan Army] are here because they are a Pak-American army. They are here not to guard us but to protect British laws. We are the flagbearers of Islamic sharia - that’s why they are here, to prevent us demanding Islamic law.”
Fazalullah is wanted on a number of charges, including running the FM stations and aiding the Taliban, but the authorities are reluctant to take action against him because of his large following.
“The government objected to my FM radio stations. I rejected those objections. These are non-commercial stations from which I only broadcast Islamic programs. There are other FM stations which are also illegal, but since they broadcast music and vulgarity, the government does not take heed of them,” Fazalullah said.
All roads in the area, including the important artery of the Silk Road leading to China, have been blockaded by TNSM members. Fazalullah insisted he had nothing to do with this, saying it was a reaction by the masses against Islamabad’s Lal Masjid operations.
“The TNSM is not the only organization in this area. There are others, including the Jaish-i-Mohammed, the Harkatul Mujahideen, the Jamaat-i-Islami, but whatever is done by them is blamed on me.
“Even today’s attack on the military will be blamed on me. I tell you, I was with Maulana Abdul Aziz and am still with him, but I am convinced that implementing sharia is the duty of the government, not of any individual. We just aim to demand that the government implement sharia,” said Fazalullah.
In the months prior to the attack on the Lal Masjid, students from adjoining men’s and women’s seminaries had waged a high-profile campaign to impose sharia law in the capital, including abductions and sit-ins in government buildings.
“As far as the Lal Masjid is concerned, we are with it, and if we had the resources we would have gone there to fight with them. Lal Masjid was fighting for a just cause.”
Fazalullah was dismissive of the official charge that he is a member of the Taliban movement. “It is not a charge, it is an honor. I say that I am with the Taliban and I consider [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar as my amir [head].”
The TNSM was founded by Fazalullah’s father-in-law, Sufi Mohammed, in the early 1990s. He gathered more than 10,000 youths to fight in Afghanistan when the US-led invasion began in 2001. With the Taliban withdrawing so fast, these youths took the brunt of the casualties.
When Sufi Mohammed returned from Afghanistan, he was arrested and put in jail, where he remains. The TNSM was almost destroyed, but it has become stronger over the past few years through the efforts of Fazalullah and his network of about 107 FM stations in Swat Valley and nearby Bajaur Agency.
Thousands of people - young and old - are part of the TNSM. Fazalullah calls it a peaceful movement in favor of virtue and against vice. The Western alliance in Afghanistan calls it a Taliban asset in Pakistan that distributes huge dividends to the Taliban movement. Pakistan calls it a serious threat to its national security.
Whatever the perspective, once the showdown starts between the Pakistan Army and the TNSM, one thing is sure: the conflict will transcend any borders.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online’s Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.