Lal Masjid: A Case Study in Pakistan’s Self-Defeating Counter Extremism Strategy
Pakistan has long been accused of playing a “double game” in Afghanistan – supporting international security efforts while also providing direct support for Taliban militants. But it’s not just in Afghanistan that the Pakistani state’s counter-terrorism policies are causing confusion. At home, too, Pakistan appears to be pursuing a self-defeating strategy towards eliminating terrorist groups. The most recent example of this is in the state’s approach to the radical mosque known as Lal Masjid.
Lal Masjid first came to the world’s attention when a Pakistani military raid against Islamist radicals in 2007 left dozens dead. In recent years, Lal Masjid’s leader, Abdul Aziz, has been open about his efforts to cultivate a jihadi army, and the mosque’s so-called “Ghazi Force” is well known. Last year, students at the mosque’s Jamia Hafsa madrassah released a video pledging allegiance to the Islamic State against Pakistan. Today, Pakistani media reports that a new crackdown is being quietly carried out against Lal Masjid radicals that have ties with ISIS and other Islamist terror groups.
While Pakistan is carrying out a secret crackdown against Lal Masjid radicals, though, it is publicly supporting the group. Earlier this year, a documentary about the threat posed by Lal Masjid was banned by Pakistani authorities; and just last month the government of Pakistan agreed to give Lal Masjid 20 kanals of land (roughly 3 acres) to expand the extremist Jamia Hafsa madrassah. Last year, Pakistan’s Interior Minister went so far as to publicly declare that no action could be taken against Lal Masjid’s leader because no cases had been registered against him, despite the fact that multiple cases had been registered. A Pakistani high court publicly criticized the Interior Ministry as “childish,” and questioning “how they are running affairs of the state.”
Announcing upcoming trialteral talks on Afghanistan that exclude Pakistan, Secretary Kerry noted that “it is vital that Pakistan join with other nations in fighting [terrorism].” Whether or not it’s realistic for Pakistan to reconsider its self-defeating Afghanistan strategy at this time, it is imperative that Pakistani decision makers adopt a consistent and uncompromising approach to domestic terrorism. Lal Masjid is one place they could begin.