The growth of radical Islamist influence in Pakistan


The “growth of radical Islamist influence” in Pakistan “has created an overall climate conducive to the escalation of spectacular terrorism,” wrote Yossef Bodansky in his 1999 bookBin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. The then director of the House Taskforce on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare thereby documented the recurring destabilizing dominance of Pakistan’s Islamic politics, including during this country’s “Talibanization” in the late 1990s.

“This transformation took place in the midst of a profound social upheaval that has had a direct impact on Pakistani grand strategy,” Bodansky wrote. He highlighted namely how Pakistan’s support for the jihadist Taliban movement in neighboring Afghanistan through the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had promoted the Islamization of Pakistan itself. Although the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan in 1996, the movement’s origins and much of its organizational infrastructure remained in Pakistan.

Bodansky explained:

By mid-1998 the flow of Taliban, students of the small, largely religious schools in Pakistan, reached a volume the country could no longer endure. According to Pakistani authorities, the nearly 4,000 religious schools registered have more than 540,000 Taliban students at any given time. Many more unofficial Taliban “schools” exist, with a student body of about two million. Most of these schools—both registered and unregistered—are run by militant ulema who indoctrinate their Taliban in the obligation to fight for Islam and Islamist causes. By the time these Taliban leave school, they lack skills for jobs other than manual labor. Many remain unemployed, and so they form an ideal pool for the recruitment of terrorists for local and foreign jihads.

Islamization in poverty-wracked Islamic countries such as Pakistan received further boost from Islamic charities, Bodansky noted:

These Islamist charities and social services organizations capitalize on the growing misery and destitution prevailing throughout the developing world to build popular support bases for Islamist causes. These entities entice people into the fold of militant and radical Islam by providing food and medical and educational services as well as work, religious services, and housing projects. This web of seemingly legitimate organizations is also used for sheltering Islamist terrorists and laundering operational funds. For practical reasons so as not to run into trouble with local governments the organizations themselves remain “legally clean.” Meanwhile, the growing dependence of ever-growing segments of the population on these Islamist services, especially when local governments prove incapable of providing comparable services, has already built grassroots support for the Islamists that many governments would not dare challenge to assist the United States in its fight against terrorism.

“The political might of the militant Islamist resurgence was clearly demonstrated” in Pakistan in late October 1998, Bodansky observed. About a half million Jamaat-i-Islami supporters rallied in Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad for three days. Here Jamaat-i-Islami announced that the “first step in the thorough Islamization of Pakistan would be to combat the influence of Western culture in Pakistan, including a boycott of Western-style fast food and soft drinks,” he wrote.

As in Saudi Arabia, Pakistani leaders viewed foreign jihads as an escape valve for such political pressures, Bodansky explained:

By late fall 1998 Pakistan was mired in a vicious cycle that caused Islamabad to be increasingly dependent on the support of and legitimization by the radical Islamist power base. The Islamists, however, constitute a largely disenfranchised, unskilled segment of the population, with no prospect of self-betterment in impoverished Pakistan. Islamabad must provide an outlet for their frustration and justification for their support by sponsoring foreign jihads—international terrorism—in which these Pakistani Taliban can participate. The Taliban taking part in remote struggles are not in Pakistan, where they would threaten the stability of the regime and be on hand to participate in an Islamist revolution against Islamabad. The mere existence of ostensibly independent terrorist leaders such as Osama bin Laden greatly simplifies Islamabad’s predicament because bin Laden provides deniable venues for both Pakistani sponsorship and placement of the local Taliban.

The United States could thus do little to dissuade Pakistani leaders such as Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister during three separate terms (1990-1993, 1997-1998, and 2013-2017), to abandon Pakistan’s role as a jihadist base. As Bodansky observed:

Washington cannot offer Islamabad anything that would be worth provoking a major confrontation with the Pakistani Islamists. Even if Sharif gave an order to apprehend bin Laden, his order would not be carried out by the Pakistani security services because they are riddled with, even actually controlled by, militant Islamists. For them bin Laden is a hero, not a villain. These Islamists are also the new army and ISI elite Sharif just empowered. The Pakistani security establishment knows that any cooperation with Washington will place it in a “state of war” with the local Islamist militias, the Arab “Afghans,” and the Kashmiri terrorist organizations they sponsor. With the Afghan Taliban providing safe haven to these groups, they can easily destabilize Pakistan and drag it into a fratricidal civil war the Islamists are sure to win.

This pro-jihad political calculus became evident during the August 20, 1998, American cruise missile strikes against Afghan terrorist bases harboring Al Qaeda leaders such as bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Contrary to the account in the memoirs of Richard Clarke, a National Security Council member at the time in President Bill Clinton’s administration, Bodansky claimed that Pakistani authorities had prior knowledge of the strikes. The result was predictable:

Not only did Islamabad have advance knowledge of the impending strikes, but at the very least it warned the Taliban leadership—whom Islamabad created and is sponsoring—so that they could ensure that bin Laden, Zawahiri, and their lieutenants were not harmed in the strike. According to Arab sources, the ISI even sent a senior official to Afghanistan to personally warn bin Laden about the impending U.S. strike.

As Pakistan’s example has shown repeatedly, Western principles and interests have limited support in Muslim-majority countries. Illiberal foes are many, and stable friends few and far between. This lesson should have been already apparent to American policymakers after the United States’ misadventures in Somalia in the early 1990s, as a forthcoming article will examine.


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