Malik Ishaq, head of the Pakistani Sunni militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), was killed on Tuesday night in an encounter in Punjab province, Pak police have said. Ishaq’s sons, Usman and Haq Nawaz, and 11 others, too, were killed in the gunbattle with 12-15 men who, the police said, had freed them from custody, and were attempting to flee on motorcycles. Who are the LeJ, and who was Ishaq? Who stands to gain from his death?
Ishaq, along with Riaz Basra and Akram Lahori, founded the LeJ in 1996 after breaking from the Sunni militant Sipah-e-Sahaba (SiS), which they believed had deviated from the principles of its founder, Maulana Jhangvi. LeJ was named after Jhangvi, who was killed by Shia militants in 1990.
For much of his career of terror, Ishaq was treated well by the Pakistani establishment. His clout can be gauged from the fact that he was flown from jail in Lahore to Rawalpindi by the Pak army on a special flight to hold talks with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorists who had stormed the GHQ building on October 10, 2009. In July 2007, the Musharraf regime had involved Ishaq in negotiations during the Lal Masjid siege in Islamabad.
Ishaq had been charged with murdering 70 people in 44 cases, but was acquitted in all after witnesses refused to testify. Prosecutors and judges in cases involving LeJ have been threatened and killed, and many have fled Pakistan. Ishaq had publicly claimed to have personally killed more than 100 Shias.
The LeJ is virulently anti-Shia, its hatred of Shias being the raison d’etre of its existence. It is aligned with groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, al-Qaeda and the TTP, and also advocates the destruction of Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism. LeJ gained prominence with the 1997 attack on the Iranian Centre in Multan, in which an Iranian and two dozen others were killed. It has since carried on a relentless campaign of suicide bombings, armed assaults and kidnappings against Shia targets.
The US State Department included LeJ in its list of Foreign Terrorist Organisations on January 30, 2001. On February 3, 2003, it was included in the UN list of terror organisations. President Pervez Musharraf banned the LeJ, but Ishaq remained a powerful political player in Pakistan. Following an agreement with the SiS — which had reinvented itself as the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) to contest elections — Ishaq became vice-president of ASWJ in 2012. ASWJ is a part of the anti-India militant grouping, Difa-e-Pakistan, which includes Hafiz Saeed and other UN designated terrorists.
If, as is suspected by some, Ishaq was eliminated in a fake encounter, the question arises why? It could be seen as evidence of the resolve of the Pakistani state to take on terrorist groups — not just along the Afghanistan border, but also in the heartland of Punjab. But that should logically mean action, in the coming days, against other Punjab-based terror groups, including the Lashkar-e-Toiba, which masquerades as the religious charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa.
It does not seem likely though, that Hafiz Saeed or Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi have anything to fear immediately. The killing of the LeJ leader then, would seem like the removal of a terrorist whose utility for Pakistan’s establishment had declined or disappeared.