Photo: Maulana Abdul Aziz, center, the radical preacher of the Red Mosque, at a news conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2014. Credit European Pressphoto Agency
By Rod Nordland
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — All cellphone coverage was blocked by the government for three hours one recent afternoon in the Pakistani capital, and it did not take people long to discover why: Maulana Abdul Aziz, the radical preacher of the Red Mosque, was sermonizing again.
Barred from giving sermons in the mosque, the scene of an army siege on extremists that killed as many as 75 people in 2007, Mr. Aziz had announced that he would relay his latest Friday sermon by cellphone, calling aides at the mosque who would rebroadcast it over the mosque’s loudspeakers.
But instead of arresting the jihadist preacher, as many moderate Pakistanis would like, the authorities simply turned off the city’s cell networks last Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the traditional time for Friday Prayer, according to senior Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the news media.
Mr. Aziz’s relative untouchability is a measure of how enduring the power of militant Islamist ideology has remained in Pakistan. Even as the Pakistani military has driven some jihadist groups out of business or into hiding over the past year, other technically banned jihadist or sectarian groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat are still thriving, with little apparent effort by the government or military to curb them.
The ascendance of such groups and of radical mosques and madrasas was well underway during the years that Tashfeen Malik, half of the husband-wife pair of attackers in California, returned to Pakistan for her university education in Punjab Province.
Many Pakistani officials have been quick to suggest that Ms. Malik must have found her extremist beliefs while she was growing up in Saudi Arabia. But the reality in Pakistan is that hard-line Islamist views in line with some of the most conservative Saudi teachings are more mainstream than ever.
While the Shariah law the hard-liners here tend to espouse calls for their women to be kept in purdah — strictly separated from men at all times — some Pakistani women have been at the fore in pushing the Islamist agenda themselves.
That fact came into view most prominently with the case of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist and member of Al Qaeda who was convicted in 2010 of trying to kill American personnel in Afghanistan. She is serving an 86-year prison sentence in the United States.
A recent example popped up here at the Jamia Hafsa school, a girls’ madrasa attached to Mr. Aziz’s Red Mosque. About 15 of the older students recently posted a video of themselves in full burqas in front of the flag of the Islamic State, praising the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and asking him to come help them avenge their followers and others who have been killed — especially Osama bin Laden.
“May God annihilate America and those who support it,” their spokeswoman said. “We pray for you every night here in the land of Pakistan.”
Mr. Aziz, sitting this week in the Martyr Osama Bin Laden Library at the school, said the girls who took part in the video were scolded for their actions. “We have nothing to do with this video: Some students in an individual capacity did this, but we don’t endorse it,” Mr. Aziz said. “We told them not to do this.”
He added, however, that “this is kind of a reaction to what the West has been doing in this region the last 30 years.”
Often derided in the Pakistani press as Mullah Burqa — he tried unsuccessfully to escape the Red Mosque siege disguised in a burqa — Mr. Aziz, after a period of detention following the 2007 siege, has re-emerged as an apparently untouchable force in Pakistani society. That is true even as some of the armed groups he has openly admired in the past have been marginalized by an effective Pakistani Army campaign over the past year.
That is the case with the once-powerful Pakistani Taliban, as even a senior official of the insurgents, meeting privately with a Western journalist last week, conceded.
“In Pakistan we can hardly operate anymore,” he said, saying the organization has mostly moved to Afghanistan and has forged closer ties with the Afghan Taliban. “In Afghanistan, we have no problem going anywhere.”
He attributed the Pakistani Taliban’s declining fortunes to the Taliban’s bloody attack on a military school in Peshawar last December, in which 145 students were slaughtered. “That was a flawed strategy from our leadership; it was disastrous for us,” he said.
The public outcry was a tremendous lift to the military and its anti-militant operations — which many had earlier complained were halfhearted at best — against the Pakistani Taliban and some of their allies.
“They have been defeated militarily,” said Saleem Safi, a prominent journalist and commentator on Geo TV here. “But their ideology has not been defeated. Islamic extremism or militancy can emerge in a changed shape in this region anytime.”
The prevalence of that ideology has become a factor even in the news and entertainment industry. Take, for instance, the relatively mainstream commentator and television host Zaid Hamid, with almost 800,000 “likes” on his official Facebook page and a warm relationship with Pakistan’s de facto military rulers, who has long espoused views regarded elsewhere as extremist or at least on the fringe.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he insists, were engineered by the C.I.A., which also helped the Indian intelligence service introduce suicide bombing to Pakistan, in Mr. Hamid’s view. The killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan by a United States Navy SEAL team had to have been faked, because the Qaeda leader was not even in Pakistan.
Then there is this recent post: “I told you years ago that ISIS is Jewish Israel secret service gangs pretending to be Muslim jihadis.” As evidence, Mr. Hamid cited a Daily Mail article about Israeli medics treating Islamist battle casualties in Syria.
As for Ms. Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farouk, they were clearly executed, Mr. Hamid said, in order to blame Pakistan for the crime. The real killers were masked unknowns.
“Both Tashfeen and her husband were handcuffed, sitting in their car when police killed them,” Mr. Hamid asserted, citing a photograph of a body, said to be Mr. Farouk but not authenticated, showing him handcuffed and lying in a pool of blood. Those claims are not restricted to Mr. Hamid. They have been spreading across social media, and some of Ms. Malik’s family members have also claimed the couple were framed.
That such views, and places like the Red Mosque and schools that adhere to its creed, find such a wide audience raises questions about how effective any military-only campaign against militancy can be in the long term, some argue.
“The state needs a comprehensive counterterrorism plan,” said Muhammad Amir Rana, the director of the Pak Institute for Peace Studies. “This whole menace of terrorism cannot be dealt with purely as a security threat. The ideological threat still needs to be addressed.”
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