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Last Updated: Friday, 27 July 2007, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Profile: Islamabad's Red Mosque
By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News

Jamia Hafsa students outside the seminary building
Militant women students were often seen at the mosque
The controversial Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) is again the focus of a bloody confrontation between Pakistani security forces and radical students in the centre of the capital, Islamabad.

In the latest violence, a bomb went off near the mosque after clashes between police and Islamist students. Officials say that at least 11 people were killed.

At the beginning of July, the mosque was the scene of a bloody siege that ended with the deaths of more than 100 people after Pakistani troops stormed the building.

Before the bloodshed, the mosque had a reputation for radicalism, mostly attracting Islamic hardline students from North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and tribal areas where support for the Taleban and al-Qaeda is strong.

A religious school for women, the Jamia Hafsa madrassa, was attached to the mosque. A male madrassa was only a few minutes' drive away.

Throughout most of its existence, the mosque was often favoured by the city elite, including prime ministers, army chiefs and presidents.

Pakistan's longest-ruling dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, was said to be very close to the former head of the Lal Masjid, Maulana Abdullah, who was famous for his speeches on jihad (holy war).

This was during the 1980s when the mujahideen's fight against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was at its peak, and jihad was seen as an acceptable clarion call in the Muslim world.

The mosque is located near the headquarters of Pakistan's shadowy ISI intelligence service, which helped train and fund the holy warriors, and a number of ISI staff are said to go there for prayers.

'Terror links'

It was no secret that the Lal Masjid was a centre of radical Islamic learning, housing several thousand male and female students in adjacent seminaries.

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf
Gen Musharraf was understandably perturbed by the mosque and its leaders and repeatedly ordered action against them

Maulana Abdullah was assassinated in the mosque in the late 1990s, and after that the entire complex was run by his sons, Maulana Abdul Aziz and Abdul Rashid Ghazi.

Abdul Rashid Ghazi died in the assault earlier this month, while his brother is under police detention after trying to escape the building in disguise - wearing a burka - shortly before the security forces launched their attack.

The brothers admitted to having had good contacts with many of the wanted leaders of al-Qaeda, including Osama Bin Laden.

This was in the years before the 11 September, 2001 attacks on the US, when jihad was part of Pakistan's state-sanctioned policy.

Since the "war on terror" began, however, both the Lal Masjid and the Jamia Hafsa denied having had any links with organisations now banned for supporting terrorism.

But they were vehement in their support for the "jihad against America" and openly condemned President Musharraf.

Tribal areas

In speeches after Gen Musharraf openly announced his support for the "war on terror", the mosque was the centre of calls for his assassination.

One of these speeches was delivered by Maulana Masood Azhar, whose Jaish-e-Mohammad fundamentalist group members were later involved in several failed attempts on the life of the president.

Gen Musharraf was thus understandably perturbed by the mosque and its leaders, and repeatedly ordered action against them.

Up until July, all attempts to subdue the mosque and its leaders were unsuccessful.

The Lal Masjid and its madrassa had strong links to the tribal areas of Pakistan, which provided many of their students.

In a recent interview, Abdul Rashid Ghazi said that they had the support of the Waziristan Taleban and any actions against the madrassa would generate an "appropriate response".

Those warnings seem to have been true: since the violent storming of the mosque, a peace deal between the government and militants in North and South Waziristan has broken down, and violence has soared with scores of soldiers and militants being killed.

The Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa have seldom escaped the headlines. In July 2005, Pakistani security forces tried to raid the mosque following suicide bombings earlier that month in London.

The security personnel were met by baton-wielding women, who refused to let them enter the mosque or seminary compound.

Authorities said the security forces were investigating a link between the seminary and Shehzad Tanweer, one of the 7 July bombers.

The school has been under the spotlight ever since. Earlier this year it launched a high profile campaign against massage parlours and DVD stores which it said embraced decadent Western values.

'Fight to the death'

The madrassa's administration was particularly vocal in raising the issue of missing people in Pakistan - hundreds of suspected radical militants and their families who are allegedly in the detention of Pakistan's intelligence agencies.

Jamia Hafsa
A large number of Jamia Hafsa students came from the tribal areas

It was also a leading light in the protests in Pakistan against Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which led to demonstrations all over the Muslim world.

And it was the Jamia Hafsa which British schoolgirl Misbah Rana, also known as Molly Campbell, was reported to have been interested in joining after arriving in Pakistan at the centre of an international custody row.

The mosque was at the centre of another controversy recently when it launched a campaign against the demolition of mosques in Islamabad by the capital authority.

After the administration started the demolition of part of the mosque, said to have been constructed illegally, students of the seminaries launched an all-out campaign against them.

They prevented the authorities from reaching the site and then occupied the building of a nearby children's library.

Most of this was done by the female students, many of whom were carrying Kalashnikovs during the occupation.

The students then set-up a round the clock vigil and promised to "fight to the death" after the government threatened to evict them.

The situation was only defused after the authorities backed down and offered talks.

But now the option for talks is no longer there, replaced by a protracted outbreak of violence.

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