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Bahawalpur’s Real Estate Boom

22/09/2009

Last week Saeed Shah reported on Jaish-e-Mohammad‘s [JeM] construction of a walled-off 4.5-acre compound three miles outside of Bahawalpur, located in the south of Pakistan’s Punjab province.

JeM already has a headquarters and a seminary in the city center. This new facility is much grander. It includes a swimming pool, stable for horses and a playground for children. Gotta love those kid-friendly militants. The compound sounds just like my sleep-away camp, except I have a feeling its riflery range may be a bit more robust.

In all seriousness, this is deeply troubling. Over the past six months Pakistan has made strides in its fight against the TTP and TNSM, two organizations that consistently threatened the state. At the same time there seems to be no sign that a seeming reengagement with militant groups, which appears to have begun in 2008, has abated. Rather, the security services continue to provide – at least – passive support to groups like JeM.

It is likely that support for JeM goes beyond merely tolerance. According to a number of interlocutors I’ve spoken with in Pakistan the group is far more dependent on state assistance than is Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is financially independent. Further, JeM’s hands are not nearly as clean as Lashkar’s in terms of violence within Pakistan or involvement with al-Qaeda plots against Western countries. It is JeM’s involvement in such plots that makes the compound in Bahawalpur so troubling.

The site could serve multiple purposes. First and foremost, it could probably be used for training. At the very least, this could include indoctrination. More worrying is that unlike the many guerrilla warfare camps in the mountains, this compound will be used to provide the types of skills needed for urban terrorism. These include not only bomb making, but also reconnaissance and other intelligence-related skills.

Second, according to Shah’s report, Bahawalpur serves as an “R&R” safe haven for jihadists battling in Afghanistan. They can rest up far away from the FATA, where militants must be more mindful of U.S. unmanned aerial drones. This means it can also serve as a hub for networking among current and would-be jihadis, which provides another type of functionality: a meeting point for Westerners seeking access to al-Qaeda.

In the past JeM and LeT were valuable to al-Qaeda because of what is called the “Kashmiri Escalator.” A disproportionate number of British Pakistanis are of Kashmiri decent and those interested in making contact with a militant group often can employ familial connections in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir to find their ways to Lashkar or JeM.

Recruits procure training from one of the two groups, after which some of them are passed on to al-Qaeda operatives who are often in the FATA. In 2009 British security officials estimated that approximately 4,000 people were trained in this way since 9/11 and accounted for three quarters of the serious terrorist plots the UK faced. Westerners in search of training in the FATA now have another jumping off point to get there.

I’m still a proponent of staying in Afghan because I believe it is important to deny al-Qaeda safe haven there as well as to degrade the capacity of al-Qaeda and its allies to destabilize Pakistan.It appears al-Qaeda Central’s power in FATA may be attenuating and fissures may be developing with the Afghan Taliban. If remaining in Afghanistan is necessary to keep things moving in that direction, then I’m still on board with the mission.

But developments such as this one give me pause. The Obama Administration recently released its metrics for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Objective 2b is ‘Develop Pakistan’s counterinsurgency (COIN) capabilities; continue to support Pakistan’s efforts to defeat terrorist and insurgent groups.’ One of the metrics involved in measuring success is ‘Extent of militant-controlled areas in Pakistan.’

JeM is a banned organization and known to be a close al-Qaeda ally. Indeed it is historically closer to al-Qaeda than LeT. JeM operatives have been involved in a number of plots against the West, and more than a few in Pakistan as well. Bahawalpur is not S. Waziristan. It’s not ungoverned space. This militant-controlled area exists in the country’s heartland and is being developing in full view of the authorities.

Enormous sacrifices are being made to keep Afghanistan free from al-Qaeda and its allies. Meanwhile, next-door some of those same allies are building away in the seemingly safest of havens.

On a completely unrelated matter, I’ve been absent from FREErad!cals for too long. A summer associate position at RAND and a book deadline pretty much devoured my entire summer. Blogging suffered as a result. My apologies for that. The summer gig is now over and last week I turned in a draft manuscript for Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. So I plan to get back to blogging here at least once a week.