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Last Updated: Friday, 13 July 2007, 14:24 GMT 15:24 UK
Can Musharraf contain the militant threat?
By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC Urdu Service, Islamabad

There were no signs of joy on the face of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf when he declared that Islamabad's Red Mosque and its affiliated religious school for women had been "liberated from terrorists".

Pakistani soldier in the Red Mosque
There have been widespread troop redeployments in recent days

Understandably so, as the battle for the radical institution in the heart of the Pakistani capital may have pushed the country's military leader into a war that he had been working hard to avoid since 11 September 2001.

The 102 people killed in the week-long siege included 11 soldiers and an as yet unknown number of extremists and their hostages.

It was the fiercest battle fought by security forces in mainland Pakistan since Gen Musharraf vowed to dismantle the militant jihadi network in the country in the aftermath of the attacks on the US.

But even with the battle won, the president's mind may not be on its ferocity or the resultant death toll.

Instead, he may be wondering what message the battle may have sent to other religious extremists camped in mosques, religious schools or secret hideouts across the country.

Defunct militant group

Among the many questions about the Red Mosque episode which remain unanswered are the critical issues of who the militants were and what exactly they wanted.

Did they really believe that they could defeat Pakistan's half-million-strong army?

Maulana Masood Azhar
Because we had lost contact with [Jaish-e-Mohammad], we had no idea where most of its activists spent their time before some of them resurfaced at the Red Mosque.
Pakistani security official

Security officials told the BBC during the siege that they had reasons to believe that most of the militants holed up inside the mosque belonged to the supposedly defunct Jaish-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammed).

Jaish-e-Mohammad was formed by a radical cleric, Maulana Masood Azhar, in early 2000 to support the insurgency in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Before that Maulana Azhar had been arrested and jailed in India.

He was released by the Indian authorities in 1999, in exchange for passengers on a hijacked Indian Airlines jet. The aircraft was allegedly seized and flown to Kandahar in Afghanistan by his supporters.

He formed the Jaish-e-Mohammad soon after returning to Pakistan and, according to Pakistani security officials, the Red Mosque was used by its members to regroup.

Despite this, Pakistani intelligence reportedly failed to monitor what the group was doing.

Security officials say they severed contact with the group after it was suspected of being involved in the December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament in Delhi.

"Whenever the state suddenly withdraws its support from such groups, they tend to splinter," said one senior security official.

"That is exactly what happened to Jaish, and because we had lost contact with the group, we had no idea where most of its activists spent their time before some of them resurfaced at the Red Mosque."

'Well-known figures'

Midway through the week-long siege of the mosque, interior ministry officials said they had "a very good idea" of who the militants were and to which group they belonged.

RED MOSQUE STAND-OFF
3 July: Clashes erupt at mosque, 16 killed, after long student campaign for Islamic Sharia law
4 July: About 700 students leave mosque, now besieged by security forces; mosque leader caught trying to flee wearing woman's burka
5 July: More than 1,000 students surrender to security forces
6 July: Women are allowed to leave the mosque; students' deputy leader says he would rather die than surrender
8 July: Ministers say wanted militants are holding women and children inside the mosque
9 July: Negotiators talk to mosque leader via loudspeaker without progress; three Chinese workers are killed in Peshawar over siege
10 July: Pakistani troops storm mosque after failure of talks; army says Ghazi killed
11 July: Pakistani army says all militants cleared from mosque

Many of the militants inside the mosque had clearly worked with Pakistani security services before and knew how to deal with them.

The deputy leader of the mosque, Abdul Rashid Ghazi, who was killed in the final assault, had never been secretive about his contacts with the intelligence services.

Although it seems highly unlikely that he and his supporters believed they could defeat the Pakistani army and take over Islamabad, it was obvious before the final confrontation that they were itching to take on the security forces.

Despite this, President Musharraf said he tried every trick in the book to reach a negotiated settlement with the militants.

In the hours before the final assault, many leading religious and secular figures, including politicians from the ruling party, were involved in efforts to find a last-ditch peaceful settlement.

Ghazi himself said that many of the proposals floated by the negotiators were acceptable to him but not to his "friends".

Setting the agenda

"Our analysis of the failed negotiations only points to one direction - the militants were determined to trigger a full-fledged battle," a senior security official said.

If that indeed is the case, then the logic driving their determination could have been similar to the one that had led them to attack the Indian parliament.

Those killed in the Red Mosque siege are buried
The obvious conclusion for an extremist mind was that the only way they could establish an Islamic state in Pakistan was through an armed and bloody uprising.

Security officials say the militants probably wanted to demonstrate to others across the country that their worldview had no political space in Pakistan.

None of the political parties, including the religious ones, were likely to come to their support if the government turned on them.

And very few people across the world were going to be concerned militants were killed on the pretext of eliminating extremism.

The obvious conclusion for an extremist mind was that the only way they could establish an Islamic state in Pakistan was through an armed and bloody uprising.

Security officials have said that if this was the message the militants wanted to send, then it may be the beginning of a new low-intensity conflict between religious fanatics and law enforcers across Pakistan.

The coming weeks and months may therefore see a series of clashes, probably starting in the conservative North West Frontier Province and then spreading elsewhere in the country.

Hence the reports of widespread troop redeployments in recent days.

President Musharraf must be painfully aware that such events could further erode his credibility as a bulwark against radical Islam, and force him to turn his army against its own people - a possibility inimical to his agenda of enlightened moderation.




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