Pakistan cracks down on extremist groups, but is it for real this time?

Mohammad Rafi is certain who is to blame for his school being taken under government control and his organisation banned. His sprawling Hudaibiah education complex three weeks ago became one of nearly 300 seminaries, schools, hospitals and dispensaries taken over for links to outlawed groups.

“It’s propaganda. Indian and US propaganda. Two or three times this has happened to us and then we go to court,” the school principal predicted confidently last week.

The school principal has for 17 years been a member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) which operates an estimated 300 madrassahs as well as a fleet of ambulances.

JuD calls itself a humanitarian organisation, but both America, Britain and the United Nations instead recognise it as a front for the Laskhar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorist group accused of the Mumbai attack that killed 166.

Pakistan’s powerful military has long been accused of sponsoring and harbouring militant groups to provide foreign policy muscle in Afghanistan, Kashmir and India.

After years of demands it tackle militant-linked organisations waging jihad from its soil, Pakistanhas begun what observers say appears to be the biggest crackdown on proscribed groups in years.

The latest drive was launched soon after another banned group Pakistan-based group, Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) brought Pakistan and India to the brink of war when it claimed a suicide bombing killing 40 police.

At least 121 people have been taken into “preventative detention”, the ministry of interior says. Yet there is doubt over whether this push is any more determined than a series of largely cosmetic prior crackdowns, or whether it is just a ploy to head off international sanctions.

And if the purge is genuine, Pakistan also faces the dilemma of what to do with the thousands of members of these organisations. JuD was banned as part of the crackdown.

Mr Rafi denied his 13-acre complex in Chakri on the outskirts of Rawalpindi was a madrassa and said his 300 students were taught the broad government syllabus of subjects.

He also denied links to militants in Kashmir. “If India and America make these accusations, then they have to provide proof,” he said.

The crackdown has meant the appointment of an administrator from the local education department and the resignation of a couple of teachers, but otherwise he said lessons continued.

At the al-Quba mosque in Islamabad, also run by JuD, doors were last week again open for Friday prayers after it had been taken over and given a new imam. Posters said the mosque was now under government administration.

The former preacher had delivered sermons “mostly about Kashmir and Kashmir jihad. There was nothing about violence in Pakistan,” said one worshipper, Riaz Bukhari.

A failure to follow through on previous promised crackdowns has bred widespread international scepticism about Pakistan’s intentions.

Islamabad promised to root out militants after Mumbai in 2008, and after the 2016 attack on India’s Pathankot air base.

Yet the most recent US State department of terrorism in the region said Pakistan “did not take sufficient action against other externally focused groups such as LeT and JeM” and they “continued to operate, train, organize, and fundraise in Pakistan”.

A government ban on JuD’s activities was overturned in court last year. The founder and leader of LeT, Hafiz Saeed, remains a free man despite a $10m US bounty on his head.

Whether this crackdown is different depends on whether the military has decided the groups are still useful, or have become an international liability, analysts believe.

Zahid Hussain, an analyst, said domestic political consensus and international pressure appeared to make this crackdown more serious.

He said: “There’s urgency because of what happened, the Indian and Pakistan stand off and also growing international pressure."

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