ISSUE 34 July 2006

Humanitarian Exchange Magazine

Earthquake jihad: the role of jihadis and Islamist groups after the 2005 earthquake

by Jawad Hussain Qureshi, ICG

Pakistan’s jihadi groups and other Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups played a prominent role in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in the aftermath of the 8 October earthquake. They conducted relief and reconstruction work, provided health services, organised and managed displacement camps and carried out needs assessments. This article explores the part these groups played, reviews how international humanitarian actors engaged with them and outlines the political consequences of their activities, locally, nationally and regionally.

The jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ response

Pakistan has 58 Islamic religious parties, and 24 known Islamist militant groups operate in the country. At least 17 Islamist groups banned by President Pervez Musharraf’s government undertook relief and reconstruction work in the aftermath of the earthquake. These jihadi and Islamist organisations were also prominent in camp management, running 37 out of the 73 organised camps in and around Pakistani-administered Kashmir’s capital, Muzaffarabad. These groups had a presence in every affected district of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) in the Neelum and Jehlum valleys, including Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Hattian, Dhir Kot, Rawalakot, Haveli and Athmuqam. In their response to the earthquake, jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups drew on their existing infrastructure in AJK, their knowledge of the local terrain and their close cooperation with the Pakistan army, which provided logistical support and other facilities, including helicopters, to enable the jihadis to continue their work.

Jihadi and Islamist groups were the first to conduct rescue operations, establish initial medical emergency camps, surgical units and dispensaries for earthquake survivors and send assessment teams to isolated areas. They raised a volunteer army of thousands of madrassa students. Jihadi outfits and Islamist groups provided doctors, clinics, x-ray services, dental care, reconstruction materials, ambulance services, burials and mosque rebuilding. They also cared for orphans, the displaced and widows. They organised mule transport for relief goods to isolated areas, and commandeered lifting equipment and tents. In the reconstruction phase, these groups have established programmes providing cheap reconstruction materials and subsidised saw mills.

 

Interaction with international humanitarian actors

Whether knowingly or out of ignorance, international humanitarian actors (NGOs, the UN and foreign military assistance teams) established working relationships with some of the banned jihadi groups and other Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups, either supplying relief goods to jihadi camps or coordinating distributions with Islamist groups. UNHCR supplied camps managed by the JI and Al Rasheed with shelters, Jamaat-ud-Dawa distributed US relief aid and an American surgeon operated in a Jamaat-ud-Dawa relief camp. Jamaat-ud-Dawa is reported to have worked with the ICRC, WHO, UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR and Khalsa Aid (a pan-Sikh humanitarian agency). Jamaat-ud-Dawa claimed that it received funding from Indonesia and Turkey, and Indonesian and Turkish doctors worked as volunteers in hospitals and clinics that it sponsored. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) delivered blankets, pillows and mattresses to Islamic Relief staff for distribution in Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Dhirkot and Rawalakot. Meanwhile, non-sectarian organisations like the Edhi Foundation were overlooked by the UN and international NGOs.

There is no reason why international NGOs, regardless of the urgency of the earthquake, interacted with these banned jihadi groups or Islamist humanitarian actors. The jihadis were brought in from outside the region in the aftermath of the earthquake, although options existed in secular mainstream civil society groups or NGOs, which were instead marginalised or not engaged by the international NGOs. This has contributed to building the capacity and legitimacy of Islamist groups in AJK, and has raised their profile as humanitarian actors. A number of possible consequences flow from this.

 

The ramifications of the role of jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups in the earthquake response

The most important implications of jihadi and Islamist involvement in the earthquake response are likely to be felt in the education sector. AJK is one of the country’s most literate regions, and the earthquake destroyed almost all of its education institutions. Integral to jihadi and Islamist relief efforts was the establishment of schools and madrassas for young people in AJK. The Deobandi Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabiya (Pakistan’s largest union of madrassas) plans to build 1,500 mosques and 300 madrassas in AJK and NWFP. The purely Islamic education that these institutions will provide will inevitably sideline provincial/state curricula. In the medium and long term, if the jihadis and Islamist groups are allowed to continue with their rigid religious curriculum this will radicalise the young in AJK, and will form a convenient recruiting base for the militant activities of these organisations. The Jamaat-ud-Dawa has openly called for all orphans to be handed over to the organisation for an ‘Islamic education’.

The second effect is likely to be political. AJK has a history of functioning mainstream secular and nationalist political parties, but the ‘goodwill’ created by the jihadi groups means that they were likely to increase their political influence following elections in the region scheduled for July 2006. Such an outcome would distort the development and reconstruction priorities of AJK since the jihadis and the Islamists are working towards a limited Islamist social and political agenda for the region. The presence of Islamist groups in the AJK legislature would also do little to help relations with India over Kashmir. There were signs ahead of the polls that the Pakistani government and military were strengthening their cooperation with jihadi and Islamist groups. The Pakistani government had indicated in April 2006 that the Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba could enter politics if it undertook not to use its political platform to engage in sectarianism.

 

Conclusion

The earthquake has exposed the precarious political situation confronting international humanitarian actors in Pakistan. Their close cooperation with the Pakistani military and jihadi and Islamist ‘humanitarian’ groups has raised concerns as to how the UN and other international NGOs should engage in a country under military rule. In the future, the following recommendations for international humanitarian actors may address some of the challenges such an environment can pose:

  • Stress local partnerships with secular NGOs and civil society groups, rather than ideological or missionary groups.
  • Maintain knowledge of, and links with, local NGOs and civil society groups, especially in disaster-prone areas.
  • Seek to ensure that elected federal and provincial legislative bodies, rather than the military, oversee and scrutinise relief and reconstruction operations.
  • Donors and international humanitarian actors should encourage the government to create mechanisms to allow local NGOs and civil society groups to participate in relief and reconstruction.

 

Jawad Hussain Qureshi is South Asia analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), Pakistan. His email address is: jqureshi@crisisgroup.org. This article is based on the Crisis Group Policy Briefing Pakistan: Political Impact of the Earthquake, Asia Briefing 46, 15 March 2006.

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