The frontier territories in the mountainous north of Pakistan are used to terrorism. But U.S. and Pakistani officials are looking with unease at its spread to the country’s most important and populous province: Punjab.
This month, an attack on a Sufi shrine in Lahore, the capital of Punjab, killed at least 40 people and injured nearly 200. It was the latest in a series of deadly gun and bomb attacks in Lahore. Last month, Taliban attacked two mosques of the Ahmadi sect (which is regarded as non-Muslim by Sunni extremists in Pakistan). Some 80 worshipers were killed.
The Taliban denied that they were responsible for the attack on the shrine, but Pakistani officials speak of a new loose alliance of militant groups emerging, one they call the Punjabi Taliban.
The interior minister, Rehman Malik, said, “Factually speaking, the proscribed organizations are of course from Punjab, most of them.”
He was referring to 17 banned organizations that have their origins and headquarters in Punjab – organizations like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which has links with al Qaeda, and Jaish-e-Mohammed. And some of the groups have become influential in mainstream politics.
And that's a worry. Punjab's stability is vital: It is the country's breadbasket, its industrial heartland, home to more than half the country's population and most of its military and political establishment.
But in Pakistan, nothing is simple. The federal government in Islamabad plays up the threat of the Punjabi Taliban because it says the main opposition party, which runs Punjab, has colluded with extremist organizations. Malik belongs to the governing Pakistan People’s Party; the chief minister of Punjab is Shabaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League. Sharif throws the same accusation back at politicians of the PPP and complains of a lack of cooperation from the military in dealing with outlawed groups.
Even the Lahore police chief gives conflicting signals about the threat facing his men, who have been frequent targets of suicide bombings.
“This is a very wrong notion," Aslam Tareem said, “the impression that there is a Punjabi Taliban, which means there are some camps and training camps in the south of Punjab ... but there are not.”
But moments later, Tareem acknowledged the danger posed by Punjabi Taliban. He says they are trained by Taliban in the lawless tribal border regions, experienced fighters and bomb-makers. And he says his men have recently recovered a staggering 6,000 kilograms – more than 6 tons – of explosives.
Moderate clerics in Punjab want decisive action against extremists before the situation gets out of control. Mulana Raghib Naeemi, whose father was killed last year for speaking out against the Taliban, says that just issuing a banning order against militant groups serves no purpose.
“[The] government should ban terrorist groups completely, not only on the name but also on their working, on their leaders and on their literature,” he said.
After the shrine bombing, Sufi leaders also demanded immediate action to tackle Sunni militancy in Punjab and the resignation of one Punjab minister who had received support from the militant Sipah-e-Sahaba group during an election campaign this year. The group was banned in 2002.
Our own reporting suggests that Sipah-e-Sahaba operates freely. We caught up with its Secretary-General Khadim Hassain Dhellon.
“I have hundreds of thousands of followers,” he said. “If I'm arrested, they'll join the Taliban in the tribal region.”
He doubts he will be detained, claiming to have helped some of the country's most powerful politicians get elected by campaigning with them and telling his supporters to vote for them.
The fear among observers here is that as the political parties score points and exchange accusations, the militant groups will continue to grow in Punjab. For months, the government failed to take decisive action against the Taliban as they gained strength in the mountains near the capital Islamabad. When it finally sent the army in, the battles displaced hundreds of thousands of people. That sort of offensive in the densely populated rural plains of Punjab is not possible. Nor is it one that army commanders, their forces already stretched in the frontier regions, would entertain.