In the aftermath of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, the LeT had launched a number of front organisations in an attempt to escape intense international scrutiny and financial sanctions. Multiple organisations surfaced at that time, obviously to advocate different causes, mainly focusing on charity and social work. The major one was when the LeT took the identity of the Jamaat-ud-Daawa (JuD) which acted as a charity organisation utilising the LeT’s network in Pakistan and the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). In addition, other groups included another charity organisation the Falah-e-Insaniyat Foundation (FIF), Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool (Movement for Defending the Honour of the Prophet), Tehrik-e-Tahafuz Qibla Awwal (Movement for the Safeguarding of the First Centre of Prayer or the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem) and the Al-Anfal Trust (which was used to procure goods from the Persian Gulf).
The AMS, founded in 2009, was part of this crop. It astutely used the social media in Pakistan including YouTube (before the website was banned in the country in 2012), Facebook, Vimeo, Instagram and Twitter to reach its target audience - the Pakistani youth who like in other South Asian countries use social media for communication, entertainment, job seeking and other proposes. AMS’ page on Facebook, for instance, used sleek English and Islamic verses to raise funds and promote its point of view. A prime characteristic of the AMS messaging was its opposition to India and the US. In fact, one of the banners for AMS’ social media outreach for a public rally included images of Pakistani troops storming a city and trampling on an Indian flag.
While the LeT mutated under these different front organisations, one thing that remained the same for all these organisations was the leadership. For example, the leader of the FIF was Hafiz Abdur Rauf, who was a senior LeT operative. Similarly, one of the speakers at the AMS rallies was Muhammad Masood, the brother of the LeT Amir Hafiz Muhammad Saeed. Masood had earlier been deported from the US on charges of immigration fraud. However, as the LeT kept on taking different names, it continued to remain under watchful international eyes. The JuD was sanctioned in 2008, followed by the FIF and other front organisations in 2010. The AMS however somehow escaped the international scrutiny.
However, the Pakistani establishment - civilian and military leadership alike, rather than cracking down on this network chose to turn a blind eye towards these front organisations, despite being explicitly identified as terrorist organisations. This was evident in the manner in which the Punjab provincial government donated US $ 1 million to the JuD for charity work. Moreover despite the international proscription, the JuD continued with its public activities, on its own and by aligning with like-minded extremist parties on the platform of ‘Difah-e-Pakistan’ Council (Defence of Pakistan Council - DPC), which held rallies all over major cities of Pakistan. Most of these public rallies were held with the support of the local administration, where the LeT leadership continued to spread extremist ideology, advocate terrorist violence and virulent diatribe against India, Israel, US and sometimes even the Pakistani state. The Pakistani state’s inaction further encouraged the extremist and terrorist elements to continue their activities. In August 2016, the FIF, despite being designated as a terrorist organisation, was allowed to set up a camp in Islamabad to collect donations in the name of “Kashmir Fund”.
Since its designation was announced, the AMS has been up in arms against the US. It has taken to the streets to protest, in Karachi in Sindh and in Lahore, Islamabad and its other strongholds in Punjab province. It has also resorted to social media with trending hashtags such as #USAttackOnEducation, #AMSonMallRoad and #KarachiWithAMS. And in all this social media activism, the parent social media team of JuD, played a very patronising role.
The U.S. designation effectively punctures the classic propaganda of the LeT that it has always been a social charity organisation working for the welfare of Pakistan’s poor and needy people. Yet, as was brought out by the interrogation of numerous terrorists including Ajmal Kasab captured by the Indian security agencies during the 2008 Mumbai attack, behind the garb of charity and social relief work, the LeT was in effect running an operation to spot and recruit new recruits and raise funds for its terror activities.
More importantly, the crackdown against the LeT and its affiliated front organisations reflects a deeper malady within the Pakistani state. Its continued patronage to these extremist elements for narrow strategic gains and political expediency, has in fact allowed these groups to eat away at the very legitimacy of the Pakistani state. The fact that the LeT was able to quickly morph itself into a charity front organisation and carry out relief work at the times of natural disasters and other situations (sometimes in coordination with the Pakistani Army and the National Disaster Management Authority), which even the local administration could not do. International NGOs, and even the most prominent Pakistani charity organisation, Edhi Foundation were not allowed to work in disaster affected areas but the FIF gets the permission. This actually shows the Pakistani state’s complicity in aiding and abetting such groups and also a deliberate abysmal oversight in providing the basic governance.
So even as Pakistan launched the much publicised National Action Plan (NAP) to fight terrorism, it deliberately overlooked the LeT-affiliated network of front and charity organisations, despite a plethora of evidence that it was engaged in spreading its rabid ideology against the Pakistani State, India and the US and planning terrorist attacks in India. Ironically, the most intense recent protests against the US designation of the AMS have taken place in Karachi, the city which the Pakistani establishment had claimed to have cleared from the extremist elements under the NAP. But as it now appears that the military operations were actually aimed at breaking the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM), the single largest party in urban Sindh.
Going forward it is clear that the international community and specifically Pakistan’s chief benefactor, the US will show a lesser appetite for Pakistan’s flip-flops on the counter terrorism front. Pakistan will have to show that it means business when it comes to cracking down against the terrorist groups of all hues, rather than take a selective approach for an international PR exercise. Else, it will be subject to further international embarrassment.