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Rise of Islamist seminaries is latest worry in Islamabad, Pakistan

In July 2007, Malik Riaz Hussain, a billionaire Pakistani philanthropist, took charge of 4,800 seminary students, the shaken survivors of a bloody battle between security forces and militants holed up at the Red Mosque in the heart of Islamabad.

The government had turned to Hussain, a developer, who quickly built a modern boarding school in one of his gated communities on the periphery of Islamabad, where students learn religious and secular teachings.

But nearly five years to the day after the Red Mosque standoff, Islamabad is practically besieged by seminaries run by militant organizations, which house about 24,800 students. Analysts say the Pakistani military, which dominates foreign- and security-policy decisions, has prevented the weak civilian government from acting against the seminaries, a growing security concern in a capital already beset by political and legal crises, economic woes and a broken relationship with its most powerful ally, the United States.

Referring to Pakistan’s history of army coups, Hussain said, “My fear is that the next time there are boots on the streets of Islamabad, it won’t be the army, it will be the seminary students.”

The growth of the seminaries – many of them housing pupils from conservative areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province and Kashmir, longtime hotbeds of Islamist militants – is to many Pakistanis just the latest example of the country’s controversial approach to addressing domestic terrorism. While many analysts have advised authorities to come up with a policy to de-radicalize the hundreds of thousands of seminary students across the country, the military’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, has instead sought to co-opt or at least redirect the energies of militant groups who haven’t turned against the Pakistani state.

The ISI is widely acknowledged to be behind the formation of the Defense of Pakistan Council, a political alliance dominated by the heads of militant groups listed as terrorist organizations by the United Nations. The group is campaigning against efforts to lift a six-month ban on transporting cargo for the U.S.-led coalition in neighboring Afghanistan across Pakistani territory.

“The authorities have not even thought of a Saudi Arabia-style rehabilitation program. To this day, they haven’t drafted a counter-terrorism policy. Instead, they are trying to bring former militants into the political mainstream,” said Mohammad Imran, an analyst based in Islamabad.

The council includes Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group that’s thought to be responsible for the November 2008 terrorist attack on Mumbai, India’s largest city. The State Department offered a $10 million reward in March for information leading to Saeed’s arrest or conviction.

Another leader of the council is Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman Khalil, a former head of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen who’s notorious for, among other things, communicating with Osama bin Laden while the late al Qaida leader was holed up in the northern Pakistani town of Abbottabad, according to CIA analyses of cellphones seized from the compound in the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden last year.

Both groups have built huge mosque and seminary complexes on the lightly populated western edge of Islamabad, many of which, civilian officials say, lack building permits, thanks to covert backing from the ISI, which worked with the groups in the 1990s to target Indian forces in the disputed state of Kashmir, according to security analysts. Another group that’s built facilities is Jaish-e-Mohammad, a group that reportedly ran an al Qaida training camp in Khost, Afghanistan, that U.S. missiles targeted in retaliation for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa.

These groups have refrained from joining the insurgency the Pakistani Taliban launched after the Red Mosque operation on July 3, 2007, when army commandos stormed the mosque to end a standoff with dozens of armed militants.

Pakistan’s then-military government put the death toll at about 100, but journalists who visited the ruins the next day estimated the casualties at 300 to 400. The majority, they suspected, were teenagers – many of them girls – whom the militants had used as human shields.

Of the 4,800 students, many of whom had been evacuated before the raid, Hussain, the property tycoon, said in an interview, “We gave them a home, food, education and computers, and there are no terrorists among them.”

Still, Hussain said, he’s urged authorities repeatedly to disband the seminaries and send the students home. His urgings have fallen on deaf ears. Lately, Hussain has been embroiled in a separate controversy: He accused Arsalan Iftikhar, the son of Pakistan’s Supreme Court chief justice, of accepting $3.5 million in cash and luxury vacations in return for fixing cases that were pending against Hussain.

Imran, the analyst, said the government was reluctant to act against the other militant groups, fearful of having them turn against the Pakistani state.

In March, the militant groups showed their clout by threatening to call the seminary students out into the streets en masse after the government detained Maulana Mohammad Ahmad Ludhianvi, the leader of a banned sectarian militant group, the Sipah-e-Sahaba, part of the Defense of Pakistan Council.

In subsequent negotiations with the Islamabad police chief to secure Ludhianvi’s release, Khalil, the former Harakat-ul-Mujahideen chief, told authorities, “This is the time for mullahs to awake,” according to a police official with knowledge of the negotiations who spoke only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic. “Once the Fajr (dawn) prayer is over, the seminary students will arrive, and we’ll both see what happens.”

Ludhianvi was released just before the call to prayer.

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