(Refiles with link to PDF)
* Read story in multimedia PDF link.reuters.com/nah53t
* Sunni radical LeJ group expanding reach across Pakistan
* Targets Shias, aiming to provoke Iraq-like civil war
* Pakistan intelligence says it gets Saudi funding
* Pakistan a proxy battleground for Iran-Saudi influence
* Sectarian attacks change way of life in affected towns
By Michael Georgy
GILGIT, Pakistan, Oct 24 About 20 men dressed as
Pakistani soldiers boarded a bus bound for a Muslim festival
outside this mountain town and checked the identification cards
of the passengers. They singled out 19 Shi'ites, drew weapons
and slaughtered them, most with a bullet to the head.
The shooters weren't soldiers. They were a hit squad linked
to the Sunni Muslim extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, or LeJ.
They had trekked in along a high Himalayan pass that hot August
morning to waylay a convoy of pilgrims.
Here and across Pakistan, violent Sunni radicals are on the
march against the nation's Shi'ite minority.
With a few hundred hard-core cadres, the highly secretive
LeJ aims to trigger sectarian violence that would pave the way
for a Sunni theocracy in U.S.-allied Pakistan, say Pakistan
police and intelligence officials. Its immediate goal, they say,
is to stoke the intense Sunni-Shi'ite violence that has pushed
countries like Iraq close to civil war.
More than 300 Shi'ites have been killed in Pakistan so far
this year in sectarian conflict, according to human rights
groups. The campaign is gathering pace in rural as well as urban
areas such as Karachi, Pakistan's biggest city. The Shi'ites are
a big target, accounting for up to 20 percent of this nation of
In January, LeJ claimed responsibility for a homemade bomb
that exploded in a crowd of Shi'ites in Punjab province, killing
18 and wounding 30. LeJ's reach extends beyond Pakistan: Late
last year, LeJ claimed responsibility for bombings in
Afghanistan that killed 59 people, the worst sectarian attacks
since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001.
"No doubt - (LeJ) are the most dangerous group," said
Chaudhry Aslam, a top counter-terrorism police commando based in
Karachi, whose house was blown up by the LeJ. "We will fight
them until the last drop of blood."
For an outlawed group accused of fomenting such mayhem, the
leader of LeJ is surprisingly easy to find.
Malik Ishaq spent 14 years in jail in connection with dozens
of murder and terrorism cases. He was released after the charges
could not be proved - partly because of witness intimidation,
officials say - and showered with rose petals by hundreds of
supporters when he left prison in July 2011.
Although Ishaq is one of Pakistan's most feared militants,
he enjoys the protection of followers clutching AK-47 assault
rifles in the narrow lane outside his home. There, in the town
of Rahim Yar Khan in southern Punjab province, Reuters visited
him for an interview.
"The state should declare Shi'ites as non-Muslims on the
basis of their beliefs," said Ishaq, calling them the "greatest
infidels on earth." Young supporters with shoulder-length hair
in imitation of the Prophet Mohammad hung on every word.
FOLLOWING THE TRAIL
To assess the LeJ threat, Reuters followed the group's trail
across Pakistan - from Ishaq's compound, to Gilgit in the
foothills of the Himalayas, recruiting grounds in central
Punjab, and the backstreets of Karachi on the Arabian Sea coast.
In interviews, police, intelligence officials, clerics and
LeJ members described a group that has grown more robust and
appears to be operating across a much wider area in Pakistan
than just a few years ago. But it had a head start.
The LeJ once enjoyed the open support of the powerful spy
agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. The ISI
used such groups as military proxies in India and Afghanistan
and to counter Shi'ite militant groups.
Since being outlawed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001,
LeJ has worked with Sunni radical groups al Qaeda and the
Pakistani Taliban in several high-profile strikes. Among them
were assaults in 2009 on Pakistan's military headquarters and on
Sri Lanka's visiting cricket team. Washington says LeJ was
involved in the killing of Wall Street Journal correspondent
Daniel Pearl in 2002.
Now it is gathering strength anew. The risks are heightened
by Pakistan's long-standing role as a battlefield in a proxy war
between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran, which have been
competing for influence in Asia and the Middle East since the
1979 Iranian revolution.
That competition has heated up since the United States
toppled secularist dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq and left the
country under the control of an Iranian-influenced Shi'ite
government. Intelligence officials say the LeJ is drawing
financial support from Saudi donors and other Sunni sources.
"Unfortunately, the state for strategic reasons turned a
blind eye to the LeJ for a long time," said a retired army
general. "Now we have a situation where it has become Pakistan's
Interior Minister Rehman Malik, who is in charge of internal
security, told Reuters that "we always take action" against the
LeJ when the group is suspected of murder or terrorism. "We
track people and arrest them."
When asked why those arrested are often freed, he said:
"Look, my job is to arrest people, not to let them go. We all
know who lets them off the hook and why," he said, referring to
local politicians and elements of the military who turn a blind
eye to their activities or even support them in some cases.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose name means Soldiers of Jhangvi
(after its founder, Haq Maulana Nawab Jhangvi), isn't the only
lethal militant group that once enjoyed patronage from the spy
One is Lashkar-e-Taiba (Soldiers of the Pure), which fights
against Indian control in disputed Kashmir. It is blamed for
several deadly attacks on Indian soil, including the November
2008 attacks in Mumbai, and an audacious raid on India's
parliament in December 2001 with another Kashmiri militant
group, Jaishi-e-Mohammad (Army of Mohammad). That raid brought
India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Another is the Pakistani Taliban. Its attack this month on
14-year-old Malala Yousafzai in Swat was only the most recent in
a long list of strikes on civilian and military targets, mainly
in the unruly tribal area along the Afghan border.
What makes LeJ particularly dangerous, however, is that the
group is based in Pakistan's Punjab heartland. And it is not
just attacking targets in Pakistan's neighbours, but has also
targetted the state, including the 2009 attack on Pakistan's
LeJ was established as an offshoot of another anti-Shi'ite
organisation called Sipah-e-Sahaba (Soldiers of Mohammad's
LeJ believes it has a sacred calling - to protect the legacy
of the companions of the Prophet Mohammad - and it sees Shi'ites
as the main threat.
Mahmood Baber, educated in a madrassa, was drawn by LeJ's
call to holy war against Shi'ite infidels. His 16-year career in
the movement ended in October, when he and other LeJ members
Handcuffed and with a cloth thrown over his head at a
Karachi police station, Baber described for Reuters the "great
satisfaction" he felt killing 14 Shi'ite "terrorists" over the
years. His voice choked with emotion when he said that for 1,400
years Shi'ites had insulted the companions of the Prophet.
"Get rid of Shi'ites. That is our goal. May God help us," he
said, before intelligence agents led him away for a fresh round
The schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites developed after the
Prophet Muhammad died in 632 when his followers could not agree
on a successor. Sunnis recognize the first four caliphs as his
rightful successors; the Shi'ites believe the prophet named his
son-in-law Ali. Emotions over the issue have boiled through
modern times and even pushed some countries, including Iraq five
years ago, to the brink of civil war.
The LeJ's leader, Ishaq, lives in a house whose gate bears a
sign inviting residents of the town to debate whether Shi'ites
These days Ishaq calls himself a leader of Sipah-e-Sahaba,
the LeJ parent group. Pakistani officials say he still runs, or
at least inspires, LeJ. Ishaq denies any wrongdoing, repeatedly
saying: "I've been acquitted." He has indeed been acquitted 34
times on charges of culpable homicide and terrorism.
He does not hide his feelings about Shi'ites, his voice
growing strident as he opened a plastic folder filled with
printouts from what he describes as Shi'ite Internet sites.
One contained a photo of a pig, an animal considered by
Muslims to be dirty, and is accompanied by an insult to Sunnis.
Another alleges the Prophet Mohammad's wife committed adultery -
all proof, he says, that Shi'ites are blasphemous, and deserve
"Whoever insults the companions of the Holy Prophet should
be given a death sentence," Ishaq declares.
Ishaq and other hardline Sunnis believe that Iran is trying
to foment revolution in Pakistan to turn it into a Shi'ite
state, though no evidence for that is offered.
THE SAUDI CONNECTION
In the Punjab town of Jhang, LeJ's birthplace, SSP leader
Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi describes what he says are
Tehran's grand designs. Iranian consular offices and cultural
centres, he alleges, are actually a front for its intelligence
"If Iranian interference continues it will destroy this
country," said Ludhianvi in an interview in his home. The state
provides him with armed guards, fearful any harm done to him
could trigger sectarian bloodletting.
The Iranian embassy in Islamabad, asked for a response to
that allegation, issued a statement denouncing sectarian
"What is happening today in the name of sectarianism has
nothing to do with Muslims and their ideologies," it said.
Ludhianvi insisted he was just a politician. "I would like
to tell you that I am not a murderer, I am not a killer, I am
not a terrorist. We are a political party."
After a meal of chicken, curry and spinach, Ludhianvi and
his aides stood up to warmly welcome a visitor: Saudi
Arabia-based cleric Malik Abdul Haq al-Meqqi.
A Pakistani cleric knowledgeable about Sunni groups
described Meqqi as a middleman between Saudi donors and
intelligence agencies and the LeJ, the SSP and other groups.
"Of course, Saudi Arabia supports these groups. They want to
keep Iranian influence in check in Pakistan, so they pay," the
Pakistani cleric said. His account squared with that of a
Pakistani intelligence agent, who said jailed militants had
confessed that LeJ received Saudi funding.
Saudi cleric Meqqi denied that, and SSP leader Ludhianvi
concurred: "We have not taken a penny from the Saudi
government," he told Reuters.
Saudi Arabia's alleged financing of Sunni militant groups
has been a sore point in Washington. U.S. Secretary of State
Hillary Clinton warned in a December 2009 classified diplomatic
cable that charities and donors in Saudi Arabia were the "most
significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups
worldwide." In the cable, released by Wikileaks, Clinton said it
was "an ongoing challenge" to persuade Saudi officials to treat
such activity as a strategic priority. She said the groups
funded included al-Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba.
The Saudi embassy in Islamabad and officials in Saudi Arabia
were unavailable for comment.
Some Shia groups do look to Iran's clerical establishment
for spiritual leadership, but insist they have no aims beyond
protecting members from Sunni attacks.
In the offices of a Shi'ite organisation in Karachi, images
of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini are
featured on a wall clock. There, a Pakistani Shi'ite woman named
Shafqat Batool described what happened to her son, a judge, when
he left for work on August 30.
Minutes after Sayid Zulfiqar stepped out of the family home
in Quetta, she said, witnesses told the family three men on a
motorcycle opened fire with Kalashnikov rifles. One of the
assailants then grabbed a weapon from Zulfiqar's bleeding driver
and pumped more bullets into her son.
It prompted Zulfiqar's family to move to Karachi. "We are
not safe anywhere in the country," his mother said. "People are
horrified, people can't sleep."
The fear is palpable in Quetta, the mountainous provincial
capital of southwestern Baluchistan. LeJ has unleashed an
escalating campaign there of suicide bombings and assassinations
against ethnic Hazaras - Persian-speaking Shi'ites who mostly
emigrated from Afghanistan and are a small minority of the
Shi'ite population in Pakistan.
At least 100 Hazaras have been killed this year, according
to Human Rights Watch, leaving some 500,000 Hazaras fearful of
venturing out of their enclaves.
"We are under siege; we can't move anywhere," said Khaliq
Hazara, chairman of the Hazara Democratic Party. "Hazaras are
being killed and there is nobody to take any action.
In Quetta and Karachi, Shi'ite leaders say they are urging
young men to exercise restraint and buy weapons only for
"We are controlling our youth and stopping them from
reacting," said Syed Sadiq Raza Taqvi, a Karachi cleric, seated
beside a calendar with images of Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
But with each killing, the temptation to take revenge grows.
Shi'ite extremists have not adopted the kind of attacks
favoured by LeJ. But they have hunted down members of the SSP.
One such case was an attack survived by Sohaib Nadeem, 27,
son of an SSP member. Men he described as "Shi'ite terrorists
backed by Iran" opened fire on the Nadeem family in their car.
Nadeem survived nine gunshot wounds but his father and brothers
were killed. "The Shi'ites are our enemies," Nadeem said.
CONFEDERATION OF MILITANTS
When the Taliban and al Qaeda want to reach targets outside
their strongholds on the Afghan border, they turn to LeJ to
provide intelligence, safe houses or young volunteers eager for
martyrdom, police and intelligence officials said.
"Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is the detonator of terrorism in
Pakistan," said Karachi Police Superintendent Raja Umer Khattab,
who has interrogated more than 100 members. "The Taliban needs
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Al Qaeda needs Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. They are
involved in most terrorism cases."
The massacre of Shi'ite bus passengers outside Gilgit has
had a profound impact on this mountaineering hub in the
Himalayan foothills. Never before had Sunni extremists asked for
identification to single out Shi'ites and then kill them on such
a large scale.
Sunnis and Shi'ites, who had lived in harmony for decades,
now cope with sectarian no-go zones.
"Sunnis can't go to some areas and Shi'ites can't go to
others," lamented Gilgit shopkeeper Muneer Hussain Shah, a
Shi'ite whose brother was killed in a grenade attack.
When violence erupts, text messages circulate rallying one
sect or the other. Shops and schools close. Authorities have
banned motorcycles to stop drive-by shootings.
Law enforcement itself is a victim of sectarianism in
Gilgit, said police chief Usman Zakria. Shi'ite officers are
reluctant to investigate crimes committed by Shi'ites, and the
same is true of Sunnis.
"They are in disarray," said Zakria. "None of this has
(Additional reporting by Imtiaz Shah in KARACHI, Mehreen
Zahra-Malik in ISLAMABAD and Matthew Green in QUETTA; Editing by
Bill Tarrant and Michael Williams)