Islamabad: The black-and-white flag of Jamaat-ud-Dawa still flutters over a relief camp for survivors of an earthquake that hit a remote corner of Pakistan in October.
But bearded medics who work with the group had vanished from the huddle of tents and mud huts when half a dozen police showed up to close the operation following allegations the charity was linked to militants blamed for the deadly Mumbai attacks in India.
How Pakistan deals with the Islamic group—popular among many for its aid to the needy—is a key test of its pledge to help investigate the Mumbai tragedy and, more broadly, to prevent militants from using its soil to attack both India and Afghanistan.
Raided: An abandoned Jamaat-ud-Dawa camp on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad on 13 December. In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has moved against both Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, although under intense international pressure. Rosahn Mughal / AP
The US and the UN say Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group India says trained and sent the gunmen who attacked India’s commercial capital last month, killing 183 people and straining what had been improved relations between the countries.
Lashkar-e-Taiba has been an unofficial ally of the Pakistan army in Kashmir, a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan.
Some believe the moment has come for Pakistan, which also backed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, to make clear it has abandoned a shadowy policy of using militant proxies as a foreign policy tool.
The country stands before a “moment of change in people’s attitudes and thinking” toward militants, Senator John Kerry said on Tuesday in Islamabad.
Pakistan must see that Lashkar-e-Taiba has “morphed into a more al-Qaida-esque and radicalized entity” that is damaging the country’s interests, said Kerry, incoming chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Growing Islamic extremism is tearing at the country’s social fabric as well as deterring investment. The secular, pro-Western party that took control of the government in March lost its leader, former premier Benazir Bhutto, in a gun-and-bomb attack blamed on Pakistani militants.
In the wake of the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan has moved against both Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, albeit under intense international pressure.
Interviews this week with officials from both groups and the government examined the extent of the crackdown. On paper, it looks considerable, but questions remain about the long-term impact.
The interior ministry says 53 people are in custody, including Lashkar-e-Taiba’s purported leader, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, and two men accused by India of being key plotters of the Mumbai carnage.
Abdullah Ghaznavi, a spokesman for Lashkar-e-Taiba, said some of its members were arrested when troops raided a camp near Muzaffarabad on 7 December. The camp was widely known to be a militant training facility before the 2002 ban, but officials have said it was subsequently used only for Jamaat-ud-Dawa welfare activities.
Ghaznavi didn’t say what kind of activities Lashkar-e-Taiba was carrying out there more recently.
Ghaznavi would not identify those seized, but said none of its people were detained elsewhere in Pakistan. He also denied media reports that it had any training facilities in the region near the Afghan frontier.
“We don’t need any camps now, as we have enough mujahedeen (holy warriors) to fight Indian soldiers in Kashmir,” he said by telephone from an undisclosed location.
Abdullah Muntazir, a spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa, said dozens of the group’s members, including nine of its 10 top leaders, had been detained. Others went underground.
Pakistan also has shut the group’s offices across the country and frozen its accounts. The charity publicly severed its links to Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2002, but some doubt its insistence that resources are channelled into welfare projects rather than the struggle for Kashmir.
“This time the ban is more effective,” said Arif Ahmed Khan, the top law enforcement official in the southern province of Sindh. “We have choked their breathing” by targeting their funds, he said, though it remains unclear how much authorities have seized.
Still, India has reason to be sceptical. Pakistan has moved against its violent Islamist fringe before, but with patchy results.
In 2002, under pressure in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and a militant assault on Parliament, former president Pervez Musharraf outlawed several Pakistan-based extremist organizations.
At least some Lashkar-e-Taiba training camps were closed, and militant crossings into Indian-controlled territory in Kashmir declined.
But there was no visible attempt to round up its thousands of devout, disciplined and well-trained fighters and Saeed was released after nearly a year under house arrest.
The current diplomatic manoeuvring echoes that period.
Then Musharraf, like President Asif Ali Zardari today, demanded evidence from India before acting. The move suggests an unwillingness to acknowledge what Pakistan’s own agencies know about the workings of extremist groups in Kashmir and elsewhere—allegedly with clandestine Pakistani backing. Religious hard-liners and nationalist commentators are spewing anti-India rhetoric, stirring nationalism and anti-US sentiment that already is high.
Mohammed Amir Rana of the Islamabad-based Institute for Peace Studies, which tracks militant groups in Pakistan, said Jamaat-ud-Dawa also had benefited from some government actions.
As well as demanding firm evidence from India and refusing to hand over any suspects, the government has taken over many of the hundreds of schools the group was running, though most of its clinics have closed, said Muntazir.
“I assume that, after a few months, they will release most of the people, who might change the name of their operation again and continue their activities,” Rana said.
An AP reporter who tried to visit the Lashkar camp near Muzaffarabad on Thursday was barred by soldiers guarding the site.
Shabir Ahmed, who runs a small nearby shop, said militant training at the camp stopped in 2002 and it had recently served only as a religious school.
“Why did they need to raid? Just to avert Indian pressure,” Ahmed scoffed.
He said militants were sometimes seen in the area, but suggested they were only involved in relief activities for the massive earthquake, which hit the region in 2005.
Many analysts say the attack is an opportunity for Zardari to exert more control over the army and its intelligence agencies.
“My sense is that Zardari would like to move forward (against the militants), but won’t rush because of a possible backlash,” said Rahul Roy-Chaudhary of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. “The focus will be on this tension ... whether he is able to actually convince his military that this is the right thing for Pakistan.”
Abdul Sattar in Quetta, Roshan Mughal in Muzaffarabad, Ashraf Khan in Karachi and Munir Ahmad and Nahal Toosi in Islamabad contributed to this story.