The hundreds of radicals in the mosque, symbolically located only 400 meters from the offices of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf who is also head of the armed forces, had consistently defied the government for years. They had kidnapped police officers and held them hostage for exchange whenever a mosque leader had been arrested and often hosted suspected Islamic militants and al-Qaeda terrorists, whose number may also have included the London subway bombers of July, 2005.
A major goal of the Red Mosque extremists was to Islamize Pakistani society. To this end, they established a sharia court in the mosque, kidnapped suspected prostitutes, including nine Chinese nationals, and threatened music shop owners, among their other radical religious activities. The Red Mosque also ran an extensive madrassa (religious school) system for thousands of children that taught jihad as part of the curriculum, despite the prohibition of Pakistani authorities, and sent hundreds of ‘graduates’ to fight in Afghanistan with the Taliban, with whom the mosque was well-connected. So it is not without cause that the Red Mosque has been described as the Taliban’s “ideological heartland.”
But the extent of the mosque’s countrywide power, influence and willingness to oppose the state was exhibited in 2004 after the Paksitani army had launched an offensive against al-Qaeda and its allies in the lawless North-West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan. The two brothers who led the Red Mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Aziz, then issued a ‘fatwa’ (a religious decree), signed by 500 religious scholars, that “called on people not to say funeral prayers or bury soldiers in Muslim graveyards if they were killed fighting against the Taliban”, according to one Pakistani journalist. The same journalist claimed this fatwa provoked “a fierce reaction” in the NWFP, where the Pakistani army was to lose 600 soldiers in the offensive, causing the government to make peace agreements with the jihadists.
As for the two brothers, Ghazi was killed in Tuesday’s final assault, while Aziz was caught a few days earlier outside the mosque dressed in a burqa with a full veil. In a subsequent television interview, still dressed in the burqa, Aziz said he and his brother had often left the mosque disguised in this fashion when wanted by authorities. In response to the question why he had left the mosque this time in female attire instead of staying to attain the martyrdom in the jihad he had always preached, and as the mosque loudspeakers were apparently calling for during the siege, Aziz said he had been tricked into leaving. But it must be noted that it was the same Aziz who, on those same mosque loudspeakers at the start of the siege, had called for students to put on suicide jackets.
The ostensible reason for the storming of the mosque after so many years of defiance was, as indicated by Musharraf himself, the presence of al-Qaeda-linked suicide bombers in the compound. There was also a fear that control of the mosque had slipped out of the hands of the brothers into the hands such violent extremists. Previously, when the brothers were supposedly in control, members of Pakistani’s intelligence agency, the ISI, were reported to have visited the mosque, indicating a tolerance for its anti-government activities by the authorities.
This was probably part of Pakistan’s covert policy of supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan, one analyst maintains, follows this policy in order to establish, through the Taliban, a presence in that country again to oppose the India-friendly course of the Kabul government. In pursuit of this policy, Musharraf has also called for talks between the Taliban and Kabul and the inclusion of the former in the Afghan government.
However, the skilled defense of the compound during the siege indicates its inhabitants, if not suicide bombers, were more than just religious students. They successfully trapped a police commando unit in the initial assault, killing its leader. One report also said these fighters threatened the brothers with death if they should surrender the mosque. But hundreds of other students were allowed to leave peacefully. The women among them were sent home, while the men were incarcerated.
Other observers give different reasons for the attack on the Red mosque at this time. They range from Musharraf losing American support if he did not act against the radical religious institution to the Pakistani president using the incident to detract attention from other problems in Pakistan, especially from his ongoing troubles relating to the dismissal of a Supreme Court judge who had defied him. Another says that Pakistan’s leader also wanted the support of the middle and upper classes, which approved of the attack and wondered why it took so long, in an election year.
But whatever the reason, there seemed to be a general consensus that the Islamic extremist movement was becoming too powerful in Pakistan. The Islamic radicals all but rule the NWFP, while al-Qaeda has always called for Musharraf’s toppling and the setting up of an Islamic state. A too strong extremist movement would also have alienated China, Pakistan’s biggest ally in its showdown with India on the subcontinent, since the Islamists are waging jihad against China too. It is interesting to note that three Chinese nationals, and no other foreigners, were executed in the NWFP in response to the mosque siege.
Analysts see the seizure of the Red Mosque as the first of the pre-planned moves, made with America’s involvement, to close down the operations of the Islamic radicals in Pakistan. President Musharraf announced the second step on Thursday when he said he was going to shut the radical madrassas, eliminating the flow of recruits to the extremist Islamic organizations and reducing the threat from that quarter to Pakistan’s social stability and national security.
Another important step, and the most difficult, will be to eliminate the Taliban bases in the NWFP. To this end, one Pakistani journalist claims a secret agreement has already been made between America and Pakistan to allow American forces to pursue Taliban forces over the Afghan-Pakistan border into Pakistan, which was previously forbidden. America already knows from the Vietnam conflict the futility of waging a war against insurgents who can rest, plan and launch attacks from an off-limits country. In the case of Vietnam it was Cambodia, while the NWFP is serving the same function in the current Afghanistan war.
In order to keep the Pakistan military on side in the campaign against the Islamic extremists within its borders, the United States sent the first two of an estimated 12 F-16 Falcons to Pakistan on Tuesday just before the attack on the mosque, which begs the question whether it was a mere coincidence. The head of the Pakistani air force and the American ambassador to Pakistan were on hand to greet their arrival, indicating the importance of the event.
Pakistan ordered the warplanes, which are capable of carrying nuclear missiles, in the 1990s, but the order, which may grow to 28, was not filled. M K Bhadrakumer, the journalist who reported the information, believes the fighters’ appearance at this time is meant to help Pakistan’s “wobbly army commanders hold the line.”
It now remains to be seen whether a country-wide war will break out between the Pakistani army on one hand and the Taliban and other allied Islamic extremists on the other as a result of Tuesday’s attack. While there have been disturbances in the NWFP, there has been no general, popular, countrywide uprising so far. But if one does occur, at least the extremists will no longer have the Red Mosque to pray in.