Bombing Shows Pakistan Militant Groups Uniting

Taliban says it bombed building where another group's members were being held.

May 27, 2009, 7:24 PM

DERA GHAZI KHAN, Pakistan, May 27, 2009 — -- When a car bomb blew up in Lahore today 200 miles north of here, it destroyed an intelligence agency's interrogation room where agents were interviewing suspects from a militant organization based near this dusty city in southern Punjab, according to an intelligence official and a friend of one of the agents.

But the Punjabi militant group, known as Lashkar-e-Jungvi, didn't take responsibility for the attack, which killed 30 people and wounded 250 more. Instead, the Taliban, which is based near the Afghan border, claimed responsibility.

This was just the latest sign that diverse militant groups from across the country are uniting, just as Pakistan has started to shows signs it is cracking down on the very terrorists it once helped create -- and now admits threaten the very future of the state.

Here in the dusty plains of southern Punjab, where the vast majority of the population spend their days farming fields, there is a palpable sense among the police that a war is brewing.

The militant groups with roots in this area -- created by Pakistan's military to fight Indians in Kashmir -- have become stronger and have turned their ire inward since then President and Army Chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf banned them after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

And police officials say as the groups here grow in strength, they are unifying to a greater extent in the past with Taliban fighters. Earlier this week police officials say Taliban fighters were arrested in the northwest Punjab border town of Mianwali.

The Taliban and Punjab militant groups "are working hand in glove," says Malik Iqbal, the former Lahore city police chief.

Analysts fear that if militant groups that used to either ignore or even fight each other team up, they could extend their ability to attack the country's security forces, whose resources are already stretched thin.

"Ultimately we're going to reach a tipping point where the Taliban will have opened so many fronts in Northern Pakistan, in Punjab, that it will be almost impossible for the army to deploy against so many fronts which are so distant from each other geographically," says Ahmed Rashid, the author of "Descent into Chaos" and who lives in Lahore.

Al Qaeda, Pakistan Militant Groups Linked, U.S. Officials Believe

U.S. officials believe the Punjabi groups are stronger and more radical than ever, with links to al Qaeda. Some, officials say, are offering themselves up as guns for hire to any terrorist organization that wants their help.

Pakistani and U.S. officials blame Lashkar-e-Jungvi for teaming up with the Taliban to attack the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in March, as well as helping destroy the Marriott hotel in Islamabad last year.

Militants who have trained in Punjab or studied in its religious schools were also partially responsible for the 2005 bombings of public transportation in London.

Part of the problem, Pakistani police officials admit, is that the state has never created a basic police force with enough training or manpower to take on well-armed and well-funded militants. The province's chief minister recently doubled police salaries, which had been less than $100 per month.

"Police is not trained for this purpose. It's a force against crime. It's not force against terrorism," said Saud Aziz, the police chief in Multan, the largest city in southern Punjab. "The threat is increasing because we are not tackling the problem."

Another problem is Pakistan's inability to crack down on the Punjabi militant groups, Aziz said.

After the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, the United Nations banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Pakistani charity associated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the group accused of organizing the attacks.

But Jamaat-ud-Dawa workers were recently discovered helping the millions of people displaced from their homes by fighting in the Northwest Frontier Province. And Aziz makes a rare admission that Pakistan has not actually cracked down on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, as it has promised.

"They have been banned by the government, but they have their outfits, they changed their name, and they come through another organization, because the ideology is there," he said. "You can't kill the ideology."

The ideology is fueled, residents and officials across southern Punjab say, by rampant poverty and joblessness.

For Pakistand Militant Groups, 'Poverty Is the Driver'

On a recent visit, Dera Ghazi Khan's streets were filled with residents milling about, saying they had nothing to do.

"This is a very backward area. People raise cattle or do agriculture and literacy level is very low," says Manzoor Ahmad Laghari while standing in one of the city's main markets. "The level of education is almost zero, but neither the government nor the education department is interested" in helping.

Muhammad Kaleem, a shopkeeper, said, "In D.G. Khan, almost everyone has become unemployed. We used to find a little work but that has now finished."

One resident of the area said militant groups would recruit children in part by taking them temporarily to training camps where they would "see lives demonstrably better than those they had at home." The kids are fed well and sent back to their families, who often can provide much less.

"Poverty is the driver," said this resident, who would not speak unless allowed anonymity. "Then it becomes ideological."

The United States has spent more than half a billion dollars on health and economic programs in southern Punjab, but residents say the trend is heading in the wrong direction.

Many in Dera Ghazi Khan mentioned an explosion at a Shiite mosque in early February. They said since that incident the security situation had quickly deteriorated, especially at night in the villages outside the main city.

One resident said Shiite members of the community received envelopes with the equivalent of $6 in them -- enough, an attached note told the recipients, to buy their own coffin.

That is a tactic that Taliban militants have employed in the northwest, and Aziz said the mosque attack was likely a sign that Taliban were helping local militants become more active.

"This is a triangle, this is a nexus between all the ideologies which are coming to one point, to one pyramid, and they all have connections, and they all are involved in it," he said.

U.S. and local officials argue that one of the militant groups' main recruiting grounds are schools, especially religious schools, or madrassas, most of which are based in southern Punjab.

Madrassas Used to Convert Youth to Terror

In the South Punjab city of Bawalpaur, where militant groups are particularly strong, residents say leaders of the militant group Jaish-e-Muhammad have taken over madrassas in an attempt to convert young students to their group.

Residents have been threatened for sharing any information about the militant groups, and at least two journalists working on a story about the groups have been targeted.

In Bawalpaur, graffiti on the walls declares that "the heroes are not film stars, but mujahedeen," or holy fighters, according to one resident. "Break the bones of the infidels," other graffiti urges.

In Dera Ghazi Khan the main madrassa teaches 550 students, including 200 girls. Most of them will join mosques and become prayer leaders, claimed the leader of the mosque. He admits that only parents who can't afford better education send their children there.

"Those students who cannot afford conventional education, therefore their parents send them here to get Islamic religious education," the leader says. Asked where the money for the madrassa comes from, he declined to give specifics, saying only, "The expenses are taken care by pious people."

U.S. officials believe that the funding comes mainly from Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, which shares the same school of Islam as the southern Punjab madrassahs.

But they admit that despite efforts, they have not been able to convince the Saudis that their money is going to help fund terrorism, something that Saudi officials vehemently deny.

Regardless of the sources, officials in both Lahore and southern Punjab admit they are facing an emboldened enemy that, right now, has the upper hand.

"The money is pouring in. The money is there. The weapons are there. The philosophy is there," one senior police officer in southern Punjab said, wishing to remain anonymous. "This is our problem. And we are not concentrating."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events