Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Maulana Masood Azhar. Photo: Reuters

In a major crackdown against banned militant groups, Pakistani law enforcement authorities placed 44 members of proscribed organisations into custody on Tuesday.

Those arrested include Abdul Rauf and Hamad Azhar from the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), the terror group which had claimed responsibility for the February 14 suicide bombing in Pulwama in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Abdul Rauf, the second in command at JeM, is the younger brother of JeM chief Masood Azhar, who is believed to have masterminded the Kashmir attack. Hamad Azhar is Masood Azhar’s son and has been a part of the group’s senior leadership since the JeM chief has been in custody in a military hospital where he is receiving treatment for renal failure.

Government officials confirm that the names of Masood, Hamad and Abdul Rauf are mentioned in the dossier on the Pulwama attack sent by the Indian government, which underlined the JeM leadership’s involvement in the attack.

“We are analyzing [the dossier sent by the Indian government] and we will take practical measures on the [evidence provided]… Pakistan won’t let its soil be used [for militant attacks] against any country,” said Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi.

Pakistani officials are quick to clarify, however, that action against proscribed groups is not being taken under pressure from any other country. They reiterate that the National Action Plan (NAP) passed in January 2015 requires the country to indiscriminately target all banned militant groups and their affiliated organizations.

The crackdown on militant groups comes in the wake of terror watchdog, Financial Action Task Force (FATF), repeatedly warning Pakistan of the ramifications of letting terror groups operate in the country. The latest of these warnings came at last month’s FATF meeting at Paris, in the immediate aftermath of the Pulwama attack.

Pakistani officials privy to the meeting confirm that FATF officials had mentioned Jaish-e Mohamamd (JeM) as among the groups the country needs to take immediate action against.

“They’ve been mentioning [Lashkar-e-Taiba Chief] Hafiz Saeed and his groups in all the meetings over the past 12 months, and a lot of the focus this time was on Jaish-e-Mohammad and the action needed to counter these organisations – especially their reincarnations under new banners,” an official told Asia Times.

Government officials further confirm that Islamabad faces the prospect of FATF blacklisting, which could result in banking isolation for the country, if decisive action isn’t taken against the banned groups.

“The FATF recommendations instruct action against the banned outfits. We can face economic sanctions if we don’t implement FATF recommendations,” said Finance Secretary Arif Ahmed Khan.

The International Cooperation Review Group of the FATF expressed dissatisfaction over Pakistan’s progress last month, with the next review slated for June this year. The action against the JeM leadership comes after the Pakistani government had reinstated the ban on Hafiz Saeed linked Jamat-ut-Dawa (JuD) and Falah-e- Insaniat Foundation (FIF) immediately after the FATF meeting last month.

Tuesday’s action further included the government taking over two JuD affiliated madrassas and property owned by FIF.

Officials maintain that unlike the past, the incumbent Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government would take decisive action against the banned organizations. They believe that following the military exchanges with India last week, and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer of peace to New Delhi, Pakistan is on the verge of improving its global image.

To further bolster the anti-extremism drive, the government on Tuesday sacked the Punjab government spokesperson Fayyaz-ul-Hassan Chohan for his anti-Hindu remarks. Chohan’s remarks, intended to target India, have been widely condemned by the PTI leadership and activists on social media.

“This move is a strong message for the over four million Pakistani Hindus that there is no room for bigotry in this country, which is what Khan had promised in his manifesto. This is a new start and we hope that the hatred for religious minorities in Pakistan (will) continue to decrease,” notes human rights activist Kapil Dev.

While recent events suggest that Khan might be looking to steer Pakistan away from its extremist past, analysts feel there is still a lot to do before any actual change is visible.

“(A) crackdown would not work if there is no plan to control (the) activities of these organizations. Arresting a few leaders won’t help. These organizations need to be stopped from radicalizing the society, especially youth,” says security analyst Aoun Sahi. “We have seen several crackdowns against such organizations in [the past] 15 years or so. Let’s hope this time they will make a serious effort,” he added.

Government officials also confirm that China has been asking Pakistan to get rid of the militant organisations, citing the security threats for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

There have also been concerns that Beijing might eventually retract its veto against Masood Azhar being designated a terrorist at the United Nations.

Military scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy, said Pakistan would have to make action against militant groups ‘more visible’.

“It doesn’t matter whether Masood Azhar is designated a terrorist at the UN or not. Hafiz Saeed [a UN designated terrorist] has been roaming around free [in Pakistan],” she said.

Siddiqa also reiterates that the military establishment would have the final say on these groups. “They tried [a decisive crackdown on militant groups] under [the military rule of] Pervez Musharraf and failed because of division within the military. I hope they succeed this time,” she said.

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