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Can China trust Pakistan to keep it safe?

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Just last month, a Chinese national was shot and wounded in Karachi, when two men opened fire on the car that was carrying them. This attack comes just two weeks after the horrific bombing of a bus transporting Chinese engineers who were working at the Dasu hydropower project in the Kohistan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which led to the loss of nine Chinese lives. And in April this year a suicide bombing was carried out at a luxury hotel in Quetta, which was hosting the Chinese ambassador. 

There has been a growing number of such attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan in recent months, mostly linked to Islamist terrorism. And these attacks are not restricted to a specific region but spread across Pakistan.  

Despite consistent pressure from China to investigate and hold the culprits responsible, Pakistan has repeatedly faltered, blaming foreign forces behind these attacks, even though they are clearly the result of Pakistan’s own collusion with Islamist militancy.

Although China is Pakistan’s “great economic hope and its most trusted military partner”, Pakistan also has become a crucial partner for the Chinese. Pakistan is the epicentre of China’s power projection and its link to West Asia and beyond. It is hard to imagine either of them backing out of this relationship at this point of time, no matter how complex it may be. But the crucial question remains, can China really trust Pakistan to protect its interest in the region? 

Soon after the most recent attack where a Chinese national was shot at in Karachi, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong paid a visit to the Pakistani president, Arif Alvi to discuss the matter. Much like the meeting that took place after the bus bombing in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his counterpart, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, China urged Pakistan to take appropriate actions. An enraged China even sent its own team to investigate this attack. 

This week, the Pakistani Foreign Office blamed Afghan and Indian agencies for these attacks, but will China believe such propaganda? It appears not. Since China has now reached out to the Afghan Taliban in a bid to perhaps deal with the Islamist threat it faces in the region directly.

Last month, China hosted a delegation of Taliban representatives to discuss their intentions. A meeting from which Pakistan was excluded despite being known to have connections with Taliban and despite having facilitated previous meetings between the two parties. 

Although the Taliban and China seem to have come to an agreement to peacefully coexist, one can never discount them for the future, given their closeness to groups that are anti-China, and which are gaining stronghold as the Afghan Taliban gain control of Afghanistan. 

If we were to take a closer look at the threats China faces in Pakistan from growing Islamist violence, we see several groups ranging from the Afghan Taliban, the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and the ‘East Turkestan Islamic Movement’ (ETIM) . And all of them are closely connected with each other. 

Pakistan claims to have neutralized the TTP on its soil but several ground reports point to its resurgence in the country. The TTP’s recent attacks on the bus should be a wake up call for Beijing. The same group’s attack on a hotel in Quetta aimed at the Chinese ambassador, was already too close for comfort. There are several reports of the TTP affiliated Islamist groups gaining a stronghold in Gilgit Baltistan region, next to the Pakistan-China border.

But the biggest threat China will face in the coming days will be from ETIM, which may also regroup and resurge, given the rise of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban in the region.

The ETIM or simply known as the Uighur militancy is especially close to home for the Chinese as all of this began in the Xinjiang province of China, where Beijing has intensified its persecution of the Uighur Muslims, and that can serve as a rallying call for the jihadists based in the region to unite and fight against China. In the past, Uighur militants have been using the Afghan-Pak border as its base. 

The ETIM is also being supported by the TTP which has issued statements against China condemning the persecution faced by Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. 

When the ETIM was first raised in 1993, China requested Pakistan to put an end to their activities. It took Islamabad nearly a decade (2003) to kill its leader Hasan Mahsum, while receiving economic assistance from China all along. 

Is a cash-strapped Pakistan doing the same once again? Is the threat against China growing so that Pakistan can get more aid and financial assistance from China and fill its coffers?

China has already invested money into creating and training a new Pakistani security force called the Special Security Divisions (SSDs). Two such outfits have been created with 15,000 troops each from the Pakistani Army.

But can China rely on Pakistan and trust it to provide the safety and security it seeks when operating in Pakistan? The case of the United States for one, tells us that Pakistan has betrayed its partners in the past. 

In the 1980s, the Americans got involved in the proxy war against the Soviet Union through Pakistan. The US supplied Pakistan with arms and ammunition and even with large sums of money to be used against the Soviets by training and arming jihadists in Pakistan and sending them to Afghanistan. But it later emerged that Pakistan inflated the costs of the Afghan war and used these resources in funding their jihadist agenda in Kashmir against India

Later, when the American and Western allies bombed Afghanistan to end the Taliban rule following 9/11, orchestrated by Al Qaeda that the Taliban were protecting, most of the Afghan militant leadership and its allies fled to Pakistani tribal area and Balochistan. Pakistan has been long accused of looking the other way, allowing the Afghan Taliban and their affiliates refuge in the country. But this is no longer just an accusation as it was even acknowledged by Pakistan’s current interior minister in an interview recently.

Beyond the threat from Islamic militancy that has linkages to the Pakistani state, the Chinese must also face the brunt of various rebel groups originating from the Balochistan province where China is heavily invested especially in the port city of Gwadar. The Gwadar port is an essential part of China’s ‘Maritime Silk Route’ (MSR), an initiative through which Beijing seeks to dominate the crucial Indian Ocean Region (IOR). 

But operating in Balochistan has had its risks. There has been growing discontent among the local population in the province as it remains severely under developed, despite being rich in natural resources.

Owing to this, the province has seen an insurgency that recently unified itself under the Baloch Raji Aajoi Sangar (BRAS). BRAS is an umbrella organization working towards the independence of Balochistan. Under this organization, there are various armed groups that operate, who view China and Pakistan as threats. While the groups typically work separately to achieve their aims, they have been known to band together to execute attacks. Of the multiple groups under BRAS, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) seems to be the biggest threat that China faces. In the last few years, the BLA has attacked Chinese interests several times. These include an attack on the Pearl continental Hotel in Gwadar, which is a destination for various Chinese delegations, the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, and the attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange.

With threats from the Baloch and the Islamists, China will face a difficult and tough time in the coming years achieving its strategic and economic objectives in Pakistan and beyond, given the rising violence in the region, especially with the imminent fall of Kabul, being predicted in the coming weeks.

The spillover effects of this violence are already being felt in Pakistan with Chinese interests coming under renewed terror attacks. Is mainland China next?

Is Pakistan Army trying to kill exiled Pakistani dissidents in the West?

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Following last month’s arrest of Muhammad Gohir Khan in London, who was charged with conspiring with other unknown individuals, to murder an exiled Pakistani blogger and political activist, Ahmad Waqas Goraya in Netherlands, the Metropolitan Police have warned other Pakistani dissidents living in the UK of plots against them aimed at committing serious harm. The Met police has reportedly told Pakistani exiles who have been criticizing Pakistan’s all-powerful military, that there is a credible threat to their lives. A comprehensive report published by the Guardian which enumerates the various episodes of attacks against Pakistani exiles in Europe, certainly has raised fresh concerns over authoritarian regimes targeting foreign dissidents. These factors point to the fact that Pakistan has now developed a ‘hit list’, targeting dissidents living in Europe.

Pakistan has had a long history of silencing its journalists who dared to speak against the military or the government. Although they had restricted themselves to journalists and activists living within Pakistan, a new trend has emerged of them seeking to silence its dissidents who are living abroad. The recent deaths of Pakistani dissidents Karima Baloch in Toronto, Canada, and her friend Sajid Hussain in Sweden, both under mysterious circumstances, had already raised the level of concern among Pakistani dissidents living abroad. Karima was a prominent Baloch activist who campaigned for an independent Balochistan. Similarly, Sajid Hussain was a journalist who had also been covering the extensive and brutal human rights violations committed by the Pakistani military in Balochistan. It is hard to rule out their deaths as mere accidents. Given the recent arrest of Gohir Khan, the possibility of foul play has once again come to the fore. It was only last year that a Pakistani government memo was leaked which accused several journalists living in Europe and the US of writing “anti-state content” for foreign media under pseudonyms, as per the report in the Guardian. Such memos show how committed Pakistan is in its attempts at silencing dissent of any form, virtually anywhere in the world.

However, the government in Islamabad has vehemently opposed the Guardian report, calling it “unsubstantiated allegations” and that these are part of the “blatant on-going misinformation campaign against Pakistan.”

But international human rights groups and media watchdogs disagree. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), there have been numerous cases where journalists have been threatened and that “it’s widely understood that these types of threats could only come from Pakistan’s military or intelligence service”.

In the Guardian report, Ayesha Siddiqa, a political scientist based in London has also claimed to have received an ‘Osman warning’ (Threat to Life Notice) from the Metropolitan Police.

She and many Pakistani intellectuals like her, had fled their homeland owing to the imminent threat to their lives and their loved ones in their home country. They continue to do their intellectual work in Europe and North America believing that they were now safe from the tyranny back home in Pakistan but it appears that is no longer the case. 

What is further worrying, is how there are reports of these Pakistani loyalists who have infiltrated the dissident community living abroad and sharing names and information back home. The mysterious deaths of Karima Baloch and Sajid Hussain could well be the doing of such infiltrators and Muhammad Gohir Khan could well be a part of such a network too. It has become hard to ascertain how many more Gohir Khans are out there, threatening the lives of the Pakistani dissidents in exile.

While speaking to the Guardian, former UK High Commissioner to Pakistan, Mark Lyall Grant, who was also UK’s former National Security Advisor said that, if there was definite proof that members of the Pakistani Military and its intelligence wing ISI, had been threatening exiles living in the UK, the matter would be taken seriously by the British government and appropriate actions would be taken. He said, “If there is illegal pressure, in particular on journalists in the UK, then I would expect the law enforcement agencies and the British government to take notice of that and to make an appropriate legal and/or diplomatic response.”

How to buy U.S. democracy? (The Pakistani way!)

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By South Asia Press Team

Nisar Ahmed Chaudhry, a resident of Maryland, was a well-known figure in diplomatic circles in the United States. He frequently interacted with think tanks and other institutes in Washington D.C. that shape U.S. foreign policy, organising roundtables and conferences on Pakistan with the contacts he cultivated in the U.S. and Pakistani officials. He often organized events at the United States Institute of Peace, a think tank funded by the U.S. Congress. His activities as head of the Pakistan-American League, he claimed, were solely educational in nature, and in no way affiliated with the Pakistani government.

But in 2018, Chaudhry was convicted under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) for failing to disclose that he was an agent of the Pakistani government. The investigation into his activities revealed that for six years, between 2012 and 2018, he had influenced U.S. foreign policy in favour of Pakistan without ever disclosing it. He now faces a maximum of five years in prison.

Interestingly, there are no official Pakistani “foreign agents” or FARA registered lobbyists in the U.S., a position the Pakistani embassy’s media spokesperson maintained, speaking with a leading Pakistani daily, in April this year.

However, South Asia Press investigations found otherwise, and that there are many individuals who work to “influence operations” on behalf of the Pakistani government in the U.S., but are not declared agents.

Speaking with South Asia Press, a leading expert on Pakistan, Dr. Christine Fair said “These are also the most difficult to prove because Pakistan has been very effective at laundering the money through diasporans who then “donate” the money to think-tanks to conduct “research” and hold “conferences.”.

The role of the ISI in secret lobbying in the US

Pakistan has a long history of lobbying the United States government to influence their foreign policy in favour of Pakistan, and has for many years been hiring lobbying firms for their efforts in the US. This is legal only if the firm is registered appropriately under U.S. law. However, many individuals continue to work to influence U.S. foreign policy on behalf of the Pakistani government without disclosing their status as agents of a foreign government. The United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) makes this illegal, and any agents who are connected with a foreign government or working in the interests of foreign powers in either a political or quasi-political capacity are required to disclose these connections and maintain transparency of their financial activity.

According to a former Pakistani diplomat, the unregistered lobbying is controlled by the country’s notorious intelligence service, ISI.

“The Pakistani Foreign service comprises professionals who know that it is inappropriate to break a country’s laws while lobbying,” the diplomat said. “The military people do not understand diplomatic norms or rules. They just want to advance the Kashmir cause or engage in anti-India activities, ignoring international law.”

Fair, the expert on Pakistan, was aware of Chaudhry’s activities long before his conviction, and had repeatedly reported him to the FBI, “Nisar Chaudhry frequently arranged meetings with influential Pakistan Military [officials] and he shopped these meetings around to various “think tanks.” United States Institute of Peace (USIP), happily hosted him and his entourages.” She had been invited to an event at the United States Institute of Peace by Chaudhry himself, who said he wanted to facilitate a rapprochement between her and the Pakistan army, in 2017 prior to his arrest.

Another curious case is that of Moeed Yusuf, the former Vice President for Asia at the USIP. Dr Fair had for many years been drawing attention to Yusuf’s role at the USIP, saying that he used the platform of the organisation to propagate a pro-Pakistan policy. According to Dr Fair, in programme documents written by Yusuf and his colleagues, the USIP took an overtly pro-Pakistan stance, leading to Fair reporting him to the FBI and U.S. House Oversight Committee under suspicions that he was working for the Pakistan government, only to be ignored. Fair’s concerns over Moeed Yusuf were confirmed with his recent appointment to the post of National Security Adviser to the Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Pakistan’s Nexus with American Academia

The Pakistan government has also actively built a network of scholars, who they invite to Pakistan to present their research, or to show them their military operation sites. Dr. Fair told South Asia Press about a co-author she worked with being contacted by the Ministry of Information in Pakistan to write a book about the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war, for which he would be compensated and also be given access to important archival information. The government’s choice of person was very deliberate, in Fair’s opinion, since he is not an expert on Pakistan, and is eager to publish a book and be compensated for it and was thus, easily lured in by the loaded offer.

Pakistan also exerts a great deal of control over think tanks and military universities in the United States. The Middle East Institute has gone as far as to allegedly ban established academic critical of Pakistan like Dr. Fair, who is also excluded from activities of the National Defense University in Washington D.C.

Thomas F. Lynch, a research fellow at the National Defense University himself has stated in an interview that it is “undeniably true” that Pakistan does make a concerted effort to exclude certain voices, and that the National Defense University “may honour requests” made by the Pakistan government with regard to inviting speakers to the university.

Covert and Overt Lobbying by Pakistan – AGENDA: Kashmir

Other recent examples of individuals “influencing operations” secretly on behalf of Pakistani government and convicted under FARA include Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, a U.S. citizen who was funded by the ISI, and used his links to Capitol Hill to manipulate the narrative over Kashmir in Pakistan’s favour. He was the head of the Kashmir American Council which claimed to be an independent voice for Kashmiris funded by Americans to educate the U.S. about the Kashmiri peoples’ struggle. He was arrested by the FBI in 2011 and charged with secretly lobbying for Pakistan, and receiving over $400,000 in funding from the ISI. But Fai’s ability to infiltrate and influence US Congress members points towards a much larger problem of US democracy itself, and how illegal foreign money has found a place in US politics.

According to the retired diplomat in conversation with South Asia Press, “On several occasions, unlawful Pakistani influence operations have resulted in Pakistani agents being arrested by the FBI in the U.S. But that has not stopped the Pakistani military from continuing with its activities. People are dispensable when you embrace Jihad as your cause.”

Pakistan has also hired several paid lobbyists in the U.S., including Brown Lloyd James, a lobbying firm used by China, in the United States in an effort to influence the narrative over Kashmir and build support for Pakistan in Capitol Hill. Other lobbying firms have been hired for the same purpose, including Holland & Knight, which ex-Congressman Tom Reynolds was an important part of, along with other Capitol Hill veterans.

The US law allows for lobbying groups to function legally in the country, to work to influence their foreign policy, a seriously flawed system due to which, “virtually anyone can buy our democracy”, says Dr. Fair. “But this is our law. The best we can do is show light on its pernicious effects, which in the case of Pakistan has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans in Afghanistan.”

Pakistani women continue to join militant groups in Afghanistan, with many caught and imprisoned, internal Pakistan Foreign Office documents show

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By SOUTH ASIA PRESS Team

In an exclusive internal document (dated 8th June 2021) obtained by South Asia Press, Pakistan’s mission in Afghanistan has written a letter to the Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry detailing the case of 24 Pakistani women imprisoned with their children in Afghanistan for having ties with the so-called Islamic State local chapter IS-Khorasan.

South Asia Press team spoke to one of the family members of the women on the list, who confirmed that their daughter was being held in prison for over a year now.

“She had problems at home with her husband. She did not approach us and instead approached her friend from a local seminary, who recruited her, and took her to Afghanistan,” says her relative, speaking to South Asia Press by telephone from Lahore city.

The document mentions how many of these Pakistani women are mothers and living with their children. Some of them also have Pakistani husbands that have been detained in different parts of Afghanistan for militant activity. In some cases, the women have already spent their prison time and are yet not freed.


SOUTH ASIA PRESS HAS THE FULL DOCUMENT IN ITS POSSESSION, AND YOU CAN VIEW IT HERE ON OUR TWITTER PROFILE: WWW.TWITTER.COM/SOUTHASIAPRESS 

The Pakistani government officially maintains that the Islamic State group is not active in the country, and that they do not allow people to cross over into Afghanistan to join militant groups. However, the communication in the document obtained by South Asia Press between the officials of Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Pakistan is in clear contradiction of that claim.

Pakistani women joining militant groups in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region is reflective of a larger trend, ongoing since the last few years, where there are several cases of women in Pakistan being radicalised and leaving the country. Many of these women have been educated in high-profile institutions and live in urban centres of the country. These young women are inspired by the ideology of the IS and are radicalised through seminaries in Pakistan.

In a famous case from 2017, the Pakistani police and intelligence agencies revealed how a woman from Hyderabad Sindh had joined the group, admitting officially for the first time that women were being recruited for the IS from Pakistan. Noreen Jabbar Laghari, a university student, shared extremely radical religious views on her social media accounts, and it was found that seminaries of Islamist groups were working in educational institutions in this part of Southern Pakistan and radicalising students.

As United States and its allied forces do complete withdrawal from Afghanistan this September, there appears to be a growing trend of more and more people joining such militant groups. According to a recent investigative report by a well-known German media, Pakistani militant groups have intensified their collection for donations and funds and for recruiting, while Pakistani state authorities turn a blind eye.

In conversation with the German news outlet Duetsch Welle, a former Pakistani parliamentarian claimed that the Taliban was recruiting militants from Pakistan: “Come to Balochistan, and I will show the villages and areas where clerics are openly attending the funerals of those Pakistanis killed in Afghanistan while fighting for the Taliban.”

For the last 50 years, Pakistan has fanned Islamist movements in Afghanistan and in the northern parts of the country to weaken and counter nationalist sentiments among the Pashtuns population inhabiting this region. Pakistan has steadily supplied new recruits to Islamist militant movements in Afghanistan, a trend which continues even today with state authorities remaining complicit to protect their own interests.

EXCLUSIVE: How Pakistan Army runs Death Squads in Balochistan

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SOUTH ASIA PRESS INVESTIGATES HOW THE PAKISTANI MILITARY OUTSOURCED THE TARGETING OF BALOCH SEPARATISTS AND POLITICAL ACTIVISTS TO PRIVATE MILITIAS KNOWN AS “DEATH SQUADS” IN THE PROVINCE AND HOW MANY OF THESE DEATH SQUAD OPERATIVES ARE NOW TURNING TO MAINSTREAM POLITICS IN THE PROVINCE, AGAIN WITH THE HELP OF THE PAKISTAN ARMY.

By a Baloch Reporter AND Taha Siddiqui

During the summer of 2020 in Pakistan, Major Nadeem Abbas Bhatti and soldiers under his command were on their way back to their military base in Kech district of Balochistan province after patrolling close to the Pakistan-Iran border. According to the Pakistani military, the team was looking for Baloch separatist groups when their vehicle came under attack. An improvised explosive device planted on the side of the road hit them. Six personnel were killed including Major Bhatti. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a Baloch ethno-nationalist separatist group, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Soon after the attack several photos of Major Bhatti from his time in Balochistan started to surface on social media showing him posing with unknown armed teenagers. Prominent Baloch political and separatist leaders took to social media to allege Bhatti was running a “death squad” and the teenagers he was posing with were part of the squad. Some further claimed that even at the time of the attack, Bhatti was traveling with death squad members. One such account says three Baloch teenagers were killed alongside the six officials.

Major Nadeem Bhatti posing with Baloch youngsters who are seen with weapons in the next photo. Source: Baloch Independent Media
Two members of the alleged death squad who were seen in the previous photo posing with Major Nadeem Bhatti. Source: Baloch Independent Media

“Major Nadeem Bhatti was involved with proxy militias…” tweeted Rahim Baloch, a central figure of Baloch National Movement, a political party in the province that calls for the region’s independence from Pakistan. Rahim further claimed that three Baloch teenagers who had been recruited by Major Nadeem for death squads were also killed in this IED attack.

Rahim’s tweet contained photos of Major Nadeem in different parts of Balochistan including one from an unknown location where Major Nadeem is seen with armed civilian men. The tweet also shows the above photo of two teenagers posing with automatic weapons.

Major Nadeem posing with another alleged death squad member from Balochistan. Source: Independent Baloch Media

Further investigations by South Asia Press led to the discovery of two other photos of the same teenagers that Rahim Baloch tweeted, posing with Major Nadeem Bhatti.

Major Nadeem posing with alleged death squad members from Balochistan. Source: South Asia Monitoring Desk

Multiple local sources confirm that these armed teenagers are indeed Baloch youngsters from Buleda, a town tucked between the Iran and Pakistan border, a town Major Nadeem Bhatti frequented.

 

DEATH SQUADS: THE ORIGINS

Like late Major Nadeem, many Pakistani military officials continue to work closely with death squads in the southwestern province of Balochistan, South Asia Press has learnt in a three-month long investigation.

Although there are reports that Pakistani military has been using such squads for decades now, our in-depth investigations point out that since 2010s, the practice of using death squads in the name of private militias has been institutionalized, especially in the south-western districts of Balochistan. This is the region where a full-fledged insurgency continues to rage since the mid 2000s, triggered by the killing of former Chief Minister of the province Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti in August 2006.

Bugti, an influential tribal chieftain was murdered along with more than 35 others when the Pakistan Air Force bombed his hideout inside Marri hills in Balochistan.

Pakistan’s former dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who was the country’s military chief and president at the time ordered Bugti’s assassination.

Since partition of South Asia in 1947, Balochistan has seen five ethnic Baloch separatist insurgencies and a brutal crackdown by the Pakistani state, ensuing a conflict which has claimed thousands of lives. The latest wave is considered to be the most violent by many accounts.

“Akbar Bugti’s killing triggered a new wave of insurgency and it began from the southern parts of Balochistan. Middle-class youth especially from the south-west of Balochistan started to actively join the pro-independence movement,” says a local Baloch journalist who has been covering conflict in the province over the past two decades.’.

He wishes to remain anonymous, for the fear of reprisal from the Pakistani military for openly speaking on this subject.

The editor says that to counter this new wave, since the late 2000s the Pakistan military has deployed several strategies, one of them being the formation of the private militias known as death squads, for which they recruit local criminals, drug lords and pro-Pakistan Baloch political activists.

“The Frontier Corps [the military’s corps stationed in Balochistan], along with other paramilitary forces have been sponsoring private militias in south-western districts of the province in response to a rapidly rising Baloch nationalist insurgency there,” the editor explains.

Besides death squads, another strategy employed by the military to suppress the local rebellion – especially in the northern parts of Balochistan – is to Islamize the youth, with the help of seminaries run by religious groups close to the military.

“In the northern parts of the province, Pakistani paramilitary forces promote radical Islamist groups to counter secular voices, especially of Pashtuns, who live mostly in the north of Balochistan,” the editor further explains.

Reportedly, many of these Islamist groups in the north also have linkages with the members of death squads in the south, like that formed by the infamous Shafiq Mengal, who is credited to be one of the first to form such a private militia aka death squad in 2008.

 

DEATH SQUADS: THE BEGINNINGS

Shafiq Mengal is the son of Pakistani politician Mir Naseer Mengal from Khuzdar district, where he and his family currently reside. A drop out of the well-known Aitchison College in Lahore (the Alma mater of the current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan), Shafiq also later attended a Deobandi seminary for religious education. His family is involved in the mining sector in Balochistan, an industry known to be run with military’s patronage. Shafiq’s father, who was part of General Zia ul Haq’s government is also famous for signing the controversial Reko Diq mine deal as the caretaker Chief Minister of the province in 1993. The father joined Pakistani military dictator General Musharraf’s party Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) (formed after Musharraf’s coup in 1999) and then became the oil minister in the general’s government. When PML-Q lost power in the 2008 elections and Musharraf resigned, his father disappeared from the political scene. But it was not the end of the road for the junior Mengal.

The same year, in 2008, Shafiq launched Baloch Mussallah Diffa Tanzeem (BDM), a tribal militia with the mission of defending Baloch locals from separatists. Locals say he had support of the Pakistani military in launching the militia, helping him acquire weapons. But instead of protecting the Baloch, Shafiq unleashed a reign of terror through the BDM, credited to be one of the first-known death squads of Balochistan. At first, he was only targeting suspected Baloch separatists but then he reportedly started killing political, non-political and criminal rivals too, as highlighted by the leading Pakistani daily Dawn in this report from 2014.

“Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies and paramilitary forces permitted Shafiq to expand his private militia network and provided him unlicensed ammunition in large quantities and bomb proof vehicles, to fight against Baloch insurgents seeking separation from Pakistan,” says a former bureaucrat from Balochistan, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

For the next three years, despite his murderous campaign, Shafiq managed to stay low profile, but all that changed in 2011 when he became the target of the first-ever suicide bombing by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the same separatist insurgent group that recently killed Major Nadeem Bhatti in an IED attack.

According to the police, a car packed with around 50 kilograms of explosives tried to ram into the house of Shafiq Mengal. BLA said its suicide wing known as Majeed Brigade targeted him to avenge deaths of the Baloch targeted by his death squad. He and his family remained safe but 13 other people including women and children were killed in the attack according to local media reports.

Two years later as the 2013 general elections approached in Pakistan, Shafiq Mengal made headlines again, when Akhtar Mengal (not related), a politician and parliamentarian from Khuzdar (where Shafiq is headquartered) said his men were gunned down by a death squad run by Shafiq Mengal in their hometown, Khuzdar city, the capital of the district of the same name.

DEATH SQUADS: THE FAILED CONTAINMENT

Many say post the elections of 2013, there was an attempt to shift the government policy towards Balochistan initiated by the new chief minister (CM) Dr. Abdul Malik. Credited to be the first non-tribal leader to serve as the CM, with roots in the south-west of Balochistan, Baloch political circles say he was brought in to reconcile with the insurgency that the Pakistani military was grappling to deal with despite unleashing a deadly campaign of violence against the Baloch.

As Dr. Abdul Malik assumed power, he announced many measures to reconcile with the separatist Baloch including a crackdown against death squads. Just a few months into this crackdown, Abdul Malik faced his biggest challenge.

On January 25th, 2014, a local shepherd while herding his cattle stumbled across mass graves in a small town of Balochistan. He alerted the local authorities who reached the site and dug out several dead bodies buried together.

Government sources say they found 17 bodies only but Baloch activists dispute this and say around 169 dead bodies were recovered, as per reports in the international media.

The Balochistan government formed a judicial commission in February 2014 to launch a probe into the discovery of these bodies. And once again Shafiq Mengal name surfaced and he became the center of attention. Local media reports say the bodies were found near his property in Khuzdar’s Tootak area, a deserted locality, and several locals have alleged his involvement in the mass graves.

Subsequently, the Pakistani Supreme Court also took notice, but to date no one has been held accountable and the government’s commission report also remained inconclusive. Many of the suspects including Shafiq Mengal refused to appear before the commission.

“Everyone knew Shafiq Mengal’s BDM and intelligence agencies were behind these mass graves. They were the dead bodies of missing persons. The judicial commission report was a mere eyewash like if you try to hide the sun with your hand,” says the Baloch editor.

After Dr. Abdul Malik left office, he reportedly said that the Pakistani military, which is considered to be the de-facto power in the province, had also agreed to a crackdown against death squads. But was the military willing to deliver on its commitment? Seeing how Shafiq goes unpunished even today, it seems the military was never on board with Abdul Malik’s plan.

The same year, Shafiq again became the center of attention but got away this time too. On May 25, 2014, eight levies security officials were allegedly killed by his men. A case was registered against him but despite the passage of several years now, there has been no progress in the case.

A Baloch politician, who was part of Dr. Malik’s government at the time claimed that during following the killings of security officials, Shafiq Mengal sensed some pressure and moved to Afghanistan for some time.

“In Afghanistan, Shafiq Mengal developed a closer nexus with sectarian outfits in the Nangarhar province,” the Baloch political leader claims, speaking on the conditions of anonymity, due to the sensitivity of the subject.

Shafiq Mengal’s sectarian links were also confirmed in a 2017 investigation by the Police’s Counter Terrorism Department (CTD) in Pakistan’s Sindh province. In the investigation report available with South Asia Press, he is named as a suspect in having helped orchestrate sectarian attacks in the province, including the 2017 failed suicide bombing on a Shiites Imam Bargah (mosque) in Shikarpur city.

A suicide bomber, who could not detonate his explosive jacket told the Sindh police during interrogation that he stayed in Khuzdar city at Shafiq Mengal’s residence before moving to Shikarpur to carry out the attack.

Baloch journalists on the ground say his links to such sectarian anti-Shia groups were not only developed with his time in Afghanistan but already existed in Pakistan, especially due to his relationship with Ramzan Mengal (not related), the provincial chief of the Ahl e Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ) in Balochistan, a radical-right religious group that declares the Shia sect Kafir. ASWJ, formerly known as Sipah e Sahaba, is also known to be close to the Pakistani military establishment.

Shafiq Mengal in a meeting with Ramzan Mengal, Head of ASWJ Balochistan Chapter. Source: South Asia Press

Journalists in Balochistan tell South Asia Press it is such religious alliances of Shafiq Mengal that provide him an out-of-jail card in Pakistan and keeps his relationship with the military establishment intact, even if the relationship has seen its ups and downs.

DEATHS SQUADS: THE NETWORK

By early 2010s, the experiment that started with Shafiq Mengal’s death squad – to counter the insurgency fueled by Bugti’s assassination – had spread across the province with the Frontier Corps (FC) allegedly backing similar militias in Khuzdar and other parts of south-west Balochistan, and like Shafiq’s BDM, most of these private armed groups also quickly turned into death squads.

South Asia Press investigations reveal that the majority of such militias are run by hardcore criminals and drug lords, while a few of them are also led by extremists, pro Pakistan politicians, and former separatist insurgents who have surrendered to authorities under reconciliation schemes in the recent past.

During these investigations, it also emerged that five Balochistan districts are more known for death squads, namely Khuzdar, Awaran, Kech, Panjgur, and Mastung. Besides Mastung, the rest of these districts are next to each other and lie in the extreme southern part of the province where, as mentioned earlier, the Baloch insurgency is said to be the strongest. (Note: There are reports of death squads in some other parts of Balochistan too, scattered across the province, like in Dera Bugti, but South Asia Press was unable to find reliable sources on ground. However, we plan to focus on it in future). 

THE WHO’S WHO OF DEATH SQUADS

As illustrated in the above map, within Khuzdar district, besides Shafiq Mengal, another well-known private militia aka death squad organizer is Zakria M. Hasni. He is a young man in his thirties and is believed to be responsible for assassinations and abductions of people linked to the Baloch cause not just in Khuzdar but across Pakistan. His sister is an officer in the Pakistan Army, according to highly-placed sources, however South Asia Press could not independently verify this claim.

Just next to Khuzdar district, where Shafiq and Zakaria run their militias, is the Awaran district, considered to be the heart of the latest wave of Baloch insurgency. Here the private militia aka a death squad is led by Deen Mohammad Deenu, a former Baloch insurgent.

Next door to Awaran is the Kech district, where the military has supported several death squads, starting with that of Rashid Pathan, a known hardcore criminal. Rashid’s brother-in-law was a key commander of Baloch Liberation Front, a separatist organization fighting the Pakistani state and was killed in a Pakistani intelligence operation with the help of Rashid in 2010. This insider info made Rashid a key ally for the military to find more about the Baloch insurgency which has been going strong in this district, especially around the city of Turbat.

Besides Rashid, Samir Sabzal is another hardcore criminal, also running a private militia in the district. He recently ran into police troubles after his death squad was involved in a shoot-out that resulted in the killing of a woman and injuring her five-year-old child.

Besides these two, another known militia chief from Kech is Sardar Aziz, who runs a religious seminary in the area since 2010.

Next door to the territory of these three death squads is the district Panjgur where Maqbool Shambezi – a drug kingpin involved in cross-border smuggling – leads a state-backed private militia. Little is known about this drug kingpin except that he is involved in the illegal trade and runs a death squad. Panjgur has witnessed a moderate insurgency in the area since the late 2000s.

Beyond these death squad clusters in the four adjacent districts, another infamous but recently defunct one to that South Asia Press was able to confirm information about from local sources was that of Baloch politician Siraj Raisani.

Siraj was running a private militia in Mastung until his recent killing. Besides running the squad, he comes from a politically active family with his brother – Nawab Aslam Raisani serving as the former Chief Minister of Balochistan.

FOCUS: KHUZDAR

ZAKARIA M HASNI’S REIGN OF TERROR

Along with Shafiq Mengal, a key recipient of support from the state since 2010 has been Zakria M Hasni.

Zakria M. Hasni runs a death squad in Khuzdar. Source: South Asia Press Monitoring Desk

Zakria claims to local journalists that he fights BLA, BLF, and Baloch nationalist militants. Multiple images collected by South Asia Press show him riding a horse, holding AK47, and wearing prayer beads – symbolic attire that reflect his radical Islamic thinking. Zakria is also believed to be close to the local chapter of the so-called Islamic State – Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), which encompasses modern-day Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Zakria’s foray into crime began with him imposing taxes on people involved in the mining business in Khuzdar around 2012. It was at this time he also became notorious for a graphic mobile phone photo showing him torturing a man identified as Mohammad Baloch. The image, published by a local daily paper called Tawar (translation: the Voice) (now banned) shows the man being tortured while he hangs upside down. The paper claimed the man was allegedly being tortured after his family failed to pay ransom for his release from the custody of military authorities.

The Baloch nationalist have also accused Zakria and his death squad in Khuzdar of torturing and killing political activists and nationalists. Zakria’s close circles that South Asia Press spoke to claimed he has also admitted to being involved in the killing of Sabeen Mahmud, a progressive Pakistani human rights activist, and social worker. Sabeen was murdered after she held a talk on Balochistan at her intellectual initiative in Karachi. This claim could not be independently verified and further details are not available to establish the extent of his involvement. A Baloch journalist also told South Asia Press Zakria claims to be involved in the deadly attack on prominent Pakistani TV journalist Hamid Mir in Karachi. Mir surived the attack. This claim could also be not independently verified.

Zakria M Hasni and his death squad patrol Khuzdar district often. Source: South Asia Monitoring Desk

Like other death squad chiefs mentioned blow, eyewitness accounts say he roams openly in the province with automatic weapons. He is also known for organizing rallies on Pakistani national days in Khuzdar.

 

FOCUS: AWARAN

THE DEATH SQUAD CHIEF WHO LOVES FACEBOOK

South-west of Khuzdar district where Shafiq and Zakria run their squads is the Awaran district, where Deen Mohammad aka Deenu runs a private militia. Awaran is considered to be Balochistan’s most volatile region in the south-west as it also serves as the headquarter of the Balochistan Liberation Front (BLF), a separatist armed group currently led by Dr. Allah Nazar, a medical doctor who went underground in 2008 and joined the Baloch resistance.

According to Baloch sources, Deenu is himself a former insurgent, and was once close to Dr. Allah Nazar Baloch, commanding BLF in the Mashkey region of Awaran district but he surrendered to the forces in 2017 under the Balochistan Reconciliation Process.

Exact reasons for him changing sides are not known but experts say the reconciliation process is usually a way out for those who want safety for themselves and do not want their families to be harassed by the state any more. Money is another motivation for leaving the insurgency, as the government offers a significant amount of cash to those who give up arms.

Death squad chief Deenu posing with Pakistani military officials. Source: South Asia Press Monitoring Desk

Deenu also has the support of another of Dr Allah Nazar’s former close associate – his brother-in-law Mehrullah Baloch, who lives in city of Hub, near Karachi.

Since leaving the rebellion, several photos documenting Deenu’s atrocities in Awaran have appeared on social media, with him posing for the camera. A photo posted on Facebook in April 2018 shows Deenu with a group of Pakistan Army soldiers in Awaran district.

Deenu and his private militia on an alleged mission together in Awaran, Balochistan. Source: South Asia Press Monitoring Desk

Sources say these photographs (show above) are from a joint operation by Deenu and the military against Baloch separatists hiding in Awaran’s mountainous region.

FOCUS: KECH

RASHID PATHAN: PART TIME DEATH SQUAD CHIEF, PART TIME CRIMINAL

Next door to Awaran district is the Kech district which has also seen its fair amount of insurgency and therefore death squads.

In the early 2010s, Rashid Pathan started to emerge as a terror face in Kech’s district capital – Turbat.