- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The government of Pakistan’s Punjab province has given more than $1 million to institutions run by an Islamic charity that is on a U.N. terrorism blacklist and affiliated with a group the U.S. considers a foreign terrorist organization.

Budget documents presented in the Punjab assembly last week revealed this financial assistance to a mosque, a hospital and schools (known as madrassas) operated by Jamaat ud Dawa (JuD), the charity wing of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

The U.S. and India say LeT was behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which 166 people were killed, and the State Department has designated LeT a foreign terrorist group.

Pakistani officials deny any money has been given to JuD.

A Pakistani official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said his government has taken control of educational institutions run by JuD and integrated them into the mainstream.

“There is a misperception, that the government is giving money to Jamaat ud Dawa. The curriculum at these institutions is now in the hands of the government of Punjab,” the official said, adding that the decision had been made by the federal government in Islamabad.

However, Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistani analyst at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said, “The reality is that Jamaat ud Dawa is still running their own show.”

While the government of Punjab claimed to have taken over some JuD madrassas after the Mumbai attacks, Ms. Siddiqa said the curriculum at those institutions essentially remained the same.

“The religious curriculum being taught at JuD-run madrassas represents the Wahhabi extremist ideology … that did not change. Adding English to the curriculum doesn’t make it secular,” she said. “This was nothing more than an eyewash.”

JuD’s headquarters at Muridke, located outside Punjab province’s capital of Lahore, continue to provide militant training to students, including women, according to Ms. Siddiqa, who said she has met students who were trained there.

JuD was put on the U.N. terrorism blacklist in December 2008 and is considered a front for LeT.

However, JuD, which is led by Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, a founder of LeT, denies it has links to the terrorist group.

“It’s hard to imagine a more dangerous problem than the Punjab government, the Sharif brothers’ government, now providing direct assistance to Lashkar-e-Taiba to run its school system,” said Bruce Riedel, who headed President Obama’s review of U.S. policy in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is very likely the Sharifs will be back at the national level in Pakistan’s next election: Shahbaz Sharif is currently chief minister of Punjab, and his brother, Nawaz Sharif, is a powerful former prime minister.

Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution said the Pakistani government has restricted its handling of radical madrassas to “sporadic and limited actions during crisis moments … when strong pressure on the government has prevented it from turning a blind eye.”

She added that, since the 1980s, Pakistani governments have relied on religious parties sponsoring and affiliated with the madrassas for political support.

“Many of the madrassas go unregistered and unmonitored; nor have promises to the madrassas to deliver aid for reform and beef up the curriculum been upheld,” she said.

Some madrassas in Pakistan continue to provide recruits for militant groups fighting and killing Pakistani troops and even U.S. forces across the border in Afghanistan.

Ms. Felbab-Brown said while particular madrassas are “feeders for specific militant groups, others simply produce radicalized individuals.”

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, New York Democrat and a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, said at a panel discussion Wednesday that the current public education system in Pakistan is in “shambles” and that this fuels support for militancy.

“Expanding access to education can help reduce the risk of all conflict,” she said. “The violence and extremism that embroils parts of Pakistan has far-reaching regional and international security implications.”

This week, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, admitted trying to detonate a bomb in New York’s Times Square. Shahzad said he received training and financial assistance from the Pakistani Taliban.

Madrassas are not the only institutions that produce potential terrorists, as many well-known terrorists have had a college education.

“There’s nothing peculiar about that to Islam. College students have often been the leading force in revolutionary, terrorist or communist groups and movements around the world,” Ms. Felbab-Brown said.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said insurgent activity would be taking place even if madrassas didn’t exist. “But if there’s a connection between the two, it would most likely be found in the tribal areas where the government doesn’t exercise much control,” the official said.

Rebecca Winthrop, who has co-written a new report on madrassas in Pakistan for the Brookings Institution, said at the discussion Wednesday that while some madrassas do contribute to increasing militancy in Pakistan, their numbers are small.

“There is no steep rise in madrassa enrollment … this is not a growth industry,” Ms. Winthrop said. “We do need to take the militant madrassas issue very seriously … in all likelihood they should probably be shut down.”

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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