KARACHI, Pakistan — Radical Muslim clerics have ignored an edict to expel all foreign students from Pakistan’s madrassas, heightening fears that the Islamic schools will continue to be recruiting grounds for young Western-born suicide bombers.
After the July 7 London bombings, in which three of four suicide bombers were of Pakistani origin, President Pervez Musharraf pledged to the West that foreigners would be excluded from the schools.
Two of the bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Mohammed Sidique Khan, are thought to have visited madrassas.
Within three weeks of the attacks, Gen. Musharraf ordered that all non-Pakistanis be expelled by the end of 2005. But he backed down in the subsequent battle of wills with Islamists and the deadline passed on Saturday without the edict being enacted.
Western intelligence agencies suspect that madrassas served as rendezvous points between senior al Qaeda operatives and Tanweer, Khan and other British recruits.
Gen. Musharraf relented on Thursday after clerics said they would rather be incarcerated than comply with orders to expel foreigners or give their names to the authorities.
Hanif Jalandhri, the head of the Federation of Madrassas, said that about 1,000 foreign students had left since July. Of the 700 who remained, those facing forced repatriation saw themselves as victims of the president’s efforts to curry favor with the United States and Britain.
Fazlur Rahman, a cleric who heads Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), known for its close ties to Afghanistan’s ousted Taliban regime, said: “We’ll do our best to keep the students with us and prefer arrest to giving the foreigners to police.”
Pakistan’s Interior Ministry abruptly dropped threats to begin arresting violators, and then denied that there had been any ultimatum in the first place. “There is no deadline for it,” said Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao.
The JUI leader accused Gen. Musharraf of violating both the Pakistani Constitution and the U.N. Convention on Human Rights by forcing out students in the absence of evidence that they had committed crimes.
Some critics vowed that the measure would be contested in the Pakistani courts if it led to students being deported against their will.
Islamabad has not said it will set a new deadline for expulsion or whether it will enforce the existing one.
Dec. 31 also was supposed to have been the deadline for every madrassa in the country to register with the government.
Yesterday, however, about 6,000 of the 20,000 or so had done so — despite a watering down of the rules on the information they had to submit.
In September, ministers dropped the requirement for each school to declare its sources of funding — meaning cash from terrorist affiliates can still flow in.
At the time of the bombings, officials estimated that as many as 1,700 foreign nationals, including citizens of Britain, the United States and France, were attending madrassas.
British intelligence agencies feared that a small number could be manipulated in those schools linked to al Qaeda and recruited as bombers.
The Pakistani government’s jitters underline the delicacy of its position in trying to keep a lid on terrorist recruitment. Gen. Musharraf has swung behind the West in the war on terror, he also wants to avoid alienating influential Islamic parties within his own country, some of which have links with extremists.
Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, has known links with jihadist groups, and elements within it have provided backing for al Qaeda-type groups.