Sleeper cells active again? by Dawn Editorial

THE existence of sleeper cells is often the caveat to declarations about militancy having been eradicated. That is especially the case in a complex urban scenario where violent extremism has spread its tentacles deep within society. Recent developments in Karachi appear to illustrate this phenomenon. On Wednesday, Sindh Police’s Counter Terrorism Department claimed it had arrested five men suspected of having links with the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, a sectarian outfit responsible for having murdered thousands of Shias across the country. These individuals, according to the CTD, have revealed that four teams of hitmen had become active on the directions of two incarcerated LJ leaders who had told them to target religious personalities and policemen. The detainees themselves are said to have ‘confessed’ to the murder of six people. A list of potential targets has allegedly also been recovered from them.

After a considerable period of relative calm, Karachi’s crime graph of late has shown an uptick in targeted killings, with policemen comprising the majority of victims. At least four cops have been attacked this month in separate incidents, with three of them losing their lives as a result; the most recent incident occurred yesterday when an ASI was killed in the Lines Area. While law-enforcement agencies have yet to definitively link these murders to the alleged confession of the men they have apprehended, the implications are ominous. The LJ is among the most dangerous extremist groups ever to have existed in Pakistan. Not only is it virulently sectarian, it has also at times joined hands with global terrorist organisations, at first Al Qaeda and later — through its ‘international’ chapter — the militant Islamic State group, to carry out horrific, high-casualty attacks. The LJ’s shadowy nature and its tendency to operate through splinter groups makes it more difficult to trace. Law enforcement must be on its toes to ensure that this outfit does not find a conducive environment to once again become the hydra-headed monster it was.

The claim about LJ leaders having issued orders from behind bars to their foot soldiers on the outside is a plausible one. While security features have been enhanced in Karachi’s Central Jail, the main chink in the armour is not the infrastructure but the ill-paid human resource. Prison personnel have been known to smuggle in mobile phones and SIMs to the inmates; in the past, raids on prison barracks have turned up shocking amounts of such contraband. In June 2017, two high-profile LJ militants — one of whom had committed nearly 60 murders — escaped from Karachi Central Jail. A subsequent investigation determined that over a dozen prison officials had “abetted and facilitated” the jailbreak. Unearthing sleeper cells requires a revival of the old ‘beat’ system and the community policing model. Interaction between law enforcement and society at the grassroots is vital to nip this threat in the bud.

Published in Dawn, July 24th, 2020

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