Who really are the clerics of Lal Masjid?
Two suspected terrorists arrested by security forces from Islamabad have been identified as the sons of deceased Lal Masjid (red mosque) cleric Ghazi Abdul Rasheed. Military uniforms and arms were reportedly seized from their vehicle. The recovery of Army uniforms is obviously a very serious concern as during the recent attack on Peshawar air base the terrorist were wearing the army uniforms. Both arrested brothers are being investigated by authorities after the First Information Report (FIR) was lodged. However, a Lal Masjid spokesman said that the FIR is an attempt to bar the brothers in their attempts to pursue a case against former president Musharraf who is alleged to be the murderer of their father during Lal Masjid operation.
Lal Masjid has a very dubious reputation since decades. Last year, detainees’ uncle Abdul Aziz (cleric of the Red Mosque) clearly refused to condemn the barbaric act of Taliban, when nations across the world were condemning the terrorist attack on the defenseless children in Peshawar. It is very important to understand the background of the clerics of the Lal Masjid and their links with Taliban. It is also imperative to understand what circumstances lead to the infamous Lal Masjid operation in 2007.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the Pakistani government announced that it would be supporting the “War on Terror”. This was strongly opposed by the leadership of the Lal Masjid, which was openly pro-Taliban. The Lal Masjid was built in 1965 and is named for its red walls and interiors. Throughout its existence, it has enjoyed patronage from influential members of the government, prime ministers, army chiefs, and presidents. The mosque has for many years been at the centre of radical and fundamentalist teaching. Several thousand male and female students live in adjacent seminaries. It was under the last military dictator, Zia-ul-Haq, that the mosque became closely enmeshed in the policies, then being pursued by both the Pakistani regime and the US in the region. It served as a significant ideological and material base of support for the CIA-backed Mujahideen fighting against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. In return, Zia granted it the exclusive real estate. Maulana Abdullah, the Muslim cleric who ran the mosque for decades, was assassinated in 1998. His sons Abdul Aziz, and Abdul Rashid, killed in the assault took charge of Lal Masjid, maintaining close ties to the successors of the Mujahideen, including Afghanistan’s Taliban and Al Qaeda.
Relations between the mosque and Government of Pakistan deteriorated after September 2001, when the Pakistani government backed the US invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban. In July 2005, the Pakistani authorities attempted to raid the mosque in connection with the investigation into the 7 July 2005 London bombings but police were repulsed by baton-wielding female students. During 2006 and the first half of 2007, the mosque’s students and leadership challenged the authority of the government in the capital by setting up a Sharia Law in the premises. Meanwhile the students of Jamia Hafsa took control of Government’s children library.It seems that Jamia Hafsa grossly overplayed its hand by kidnapping some Chinese nationals and causing embarrassment to the Pakistan government. For six months, state authorities allowed the management and young students to function as self-styled vigilantes, enforcing ‘Islam’ and intimidating people. They threatened to launch suicide attacks if the government interfered with what could be described as their ‘state within a state’.
On July 3, 2007, the stand-off between militants barricaded inside the red mosque and the government resulted in bloody gun battles in which over twenty people, including students of the mosque, media persons, paramilitary personnel, and a businessman, were reportedly killed and over a hundred others were injured. An FIR was later registered against the Ghazi brothers with charges ranging from kidnapping and murder to treason, and terrorism.To avoid collateral loss, on July 4, 2007 the government offered amnesty to juvenile students if they surrendered. Over 1000 of the radical followers surrendered. Abdul Aziz Ghazi tried to take advantage of the situation by attempting to slip through a tightening siege while wearing a burqa. His unusually tall physique and large belly alerted a policewoman as she searched fleeing students in central Islamabad. Moreover, he refused to pass through the metal detectors that all surrendering students were supposed to pass through. The group of girls surrounding him claimed that their “auntie” was sick and should not be harassed by the policewomen. This increased the policewomen’s suspicions and they went through his purse, which was stuffed with lipsticks, a woman’s ID card, and a pistol. He was, consequently, arrested by law enforcement agencies. A reward was announced for the rangers who captured Abdul Aziz.
Government and Security officials had continuously asked Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi to surrender but after last ditch efforts to secure the release of “hostages” and bring the matter to a peaceful conclusion failed, “Operation Silence” commenced. 164 Elite Commandos of the Pakistan Army Special Services group stormed the Mosque/Madrassa complex from three sides. Police and Paramilitary forces secured the outer parameter of the complex. The gate and walls of Mosque were breached. Operation was affected during the night because of heavy storms and rain. Islamabad was rocked by a series of explosions and sustained automatic weapons fire beginning in the pre-dawn hours.
According to the then Inter Services Public Relations then spokesman Maj General Waheed Arshad, the militants were heavily armed and put up fierce resistance. Troops cleared the ground floor of the mosque, but heavily armed militants had retreated into the basement using women and children as human shields, and the standoff continued. Government blamed Lal Masjid Deputy Chief cleric Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the operation, for the failure of last-ditch talks to reach a peaceful solution, saying his demands were unacceptable.
Most Islamic parties and groups supported the Lal Masjid’s goal of Islamisation of the Pakistani state and society but disagreed with its tactics. In many of Al-Qaeda’s attacks on the armed forces and paramilitary forces, especially those in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, low-level “insider” elements with contacts with the Lal Masjid, which was part of the Al Qaeda network, are known to have been involved. Let’s see how seriously government of Pakistan now engages with the clerics of the Lal Masjid?