Terror mastermind killed in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani police gunned down one of the country’s most-feared Sunni militant leaders and 13 of his followers in a pre-dawn shootout Wednesday, killing a man believed to behind the slaughter of hundreds of the nation’s minority Shia community.

Malik Ishaq, who directed the operations of the Taliban- and Al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group, was so feared in Pakistan that frightened judges hid their faces from him and even offered the unrepentant killer tea and cookies in court.

Yet Ishaq, believed to be either 55 or 56, operated freely for years in Pakistan as the country’s intelligence services helped nurture Sunni militant groups in the 1980s and 1990s to counter a perceived threat from neighboring Iran.

Ishaq already had been detained by police, arrested two days earlier on suspicion of being involved in the slaying of two persons, police officer Bakhtiar Ahmed said.

Early Wednesday, as officers tried to transfer Ishaq from a prison in the city of Multan, gunmen ambushed the police convoy transporting him in an attempt to free the militant, Ahmed said. The ensuing gunbattle killed Ishaq and at least 13 of his associates, including two of his sons and his deputy, Ghulam Rasool, Ahmed said.

In a later statement, police said “14 or 15 unidentified armed terrorists” attacked police vehicles to free Ishaq when officers were returning from an area in Muzaffargarh after seizing weapons, explosives and detonators on information provided by Ishaq and some of his associates.

It also said Ishaq and his associates were killed by those who ambushed the convoy, without elaborating.

Shuja Khanzada, home minister of Punjab province, where the ambush took place, said the shooting wounded six police officers who “demonstrated extreme bravery.”

“Malik Ishaq was behind many acts of terrorism and he was freed by courts in the past due to lack of evidence,” Khanzada told The Associated Press. “Finally, this symbol of terror met his final fate.”

Fearing violence in Punjab, long the home of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, police mounted a heavy security presence around the province and the morgue in Muzaffargarh that took Ishaq’s body and those of his associates.

Ishaq helped found Laskhar-e-Jangvi, which allies itself with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. His group is blamed for scores of attacks on Shia Muslims and on Pakistani and US interests. They’ve also been accused of carrying out attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. The US State Department designated Ishaq as a terrorist in February 2014, ordering any US assets he held frozen.

Ishaq was arrested in 1997 and is implicated in dozens of cases, mostly murder. He was released on bail in July 2011 after serving a jail term of nearly 14 years.

Since his 2011 release he has been frequently put under house arrest as his sermons raised sectarian tensions. He was also arrested in 2013 over deadly sectarian attacks targeting the Hazara Shia community in Quetta. The first attack took place on Jan 10, 2013 targeting a snooker hall and killing 92 people and the second bomb attack occurred on Feb 16, killing 89 people. The attacks were claimed by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.

Ishaq was also accused of masterminding, from behind bars, the 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, which wounded seven players and an assistant coach, and killed eight Pakistanis.

The attacks saw Pakistan stripped of its right to co-host the 2011 cricket World Cup and jeopardised the future of international cricket in the country.

But the state could never make the charges against Ishaq or his feared group stick — in large part because witnesses, judges and prosecutors were too scared to convict.

Frightened judges treated him honorably in court and gave him tea and cookies, said Anis Haider Naqvi, a prosecution witness in two cases against Ishaq who spoke according to the The Associated Press. One judge attempted to hide his face with his hands, but Ishaq made clear he knew his identity in a chilling way: He read out the names of his children, and the judge abandoned the trial, Naqvi said at the time.

Despite the lack of convictions, Ishaq remained in prison for 14 years as prosecutors slowly moved from one case to the next. Ishaq proved his usefulness to the army in 2009, when he was flown from jail to negotiate with militants who had stormed part of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and were holding hostages

A behind-the-scenes effort by the government to co-opt the leaders of militant outfits and bring them into mainstream political life, or at least draw them away from attacking the state, helped Ishaq secure his release in 2011. He had been in and out of police custody since.

Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state, with around 15 percent of the population Shia. Most Sunnis and Shias live together peacefully in Pakistan, though tensions have existed for decades and extremists on both sides target each other’s leaders.

Pakistan has intensified its campaign against militant groups since December 2014, when a Taliban attack on a military school in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed 150 people, mostly children.

The school attack also prompted the Pakistani government to lift its moratorium on the death penalty. It has executed scores of militants and other men charged in murder cases since then. 

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