Street Fighting Men

by Nicholas Schmidle | July 3, 2007

Islamabad--Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the strategist and brains behind the Taliban-inspired movement that has taken over the Pakistani capital in recent months, may have overplayed his hand. On June 23, just after midnight, a squad of Islamist vigilantes set out from Ghazi's Lal Masjid, or "Red Mosque," in the direction of a Chinese massage parlor across town. Ghazi claims that the women inside were providing massages to men (a jihadi no-no) and performing other "un-Islamic activities." When his bearded, bamboo-staff-wielding shock troops arrived, they overpowered three security guards and took nine people hostage, including six Chinese women. That same day, the women were released, albeit significantly more clothed, in their new, Lal Masjid-supplied black burqas, than when they had arrived.

But the Chinese government, which has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into building and upgrading the Pakistani port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, as well as the Karakorum Highway, wasn't willing to overlook the kidnapping so easily. In Beijing, a Chinese official told Pakistan's visiting minister of the interior, "We hope Pakistan will look into the terrorist attacks aiming at Chinese people ... and will severely punish the criminals." Beijing's ambassador to Islamabad told the press he was, "shocked and surprised at such an unlawful incident." One can assume that he used a much harsher tone in closed-door meetings, because within a few days of the masseuses' release, police and paramilitary units had encircled the mosque and pledged to crack down on the neo-Taliban.

Today, months of escalating tensions between Ghazi's self-described mujahideen and Musharraf's security forces finally broke out into fierce street battles that, as of this evening, had left nine people dead. Just before noon, while police were setting up a roadblock near Lal Masjid, male and female madrassa students attacked the police officers, who fired tear gas in response. Before long, the Taliban, wearing ammunition vests, holding Kalashnikovs, and sporting gasmasks, emerged from the mosque's Pepto-Bismol pink walls. Some took up positions behind sandbag bunkers, while others brazenly walked around in the streets.

Around 4:00 p.m., I headed in the direction of Lal Masjid to get a closer look. On the way, I passed a market that had locked its doors hours earlier, as the standoff began. People in the neighborhood were frantically pushing suitcases into their cars and hurrying to get out. I hadn't walked one hundred yards when I saw the crowd turn and start sprinting my way, arms waving wildly. That's when I heard the "clink" and "fizz" of a metal tear gas canister hitting the pavement and spraying its contents, at which point I also took off running, crying and coughing the whole way.

I finally turned into an alley, where a group of people had gathered around an old man lambasting the government. "The army is shooting the girls of Pakistan!" he said, in reference to three female madrassa students who were among those killed today. The crowd nodded. Though none of them wore beards or looked like typical Taliban supporters, their sympathies clearly lay with those in the mosque. Sadiq, a real estate agent from Islamabad, told me, "This is not a civilized approach to resolving a dispute. These people, after all, have small demands," he said, apparently less than aware of Ghazi's plan to overhaul Pakistan and turn it into Mullah Omar's Afghanistan. "In this world, there is no justice. Extremists have rights too, you know! Think about it, the army has all the latest weapons and chemicals and gases to use. The other side has nothing. Now the government has cut off their electricity and water supply. This is plain cruelty."

When I visited Lal Masjid on various occasions in the past, however, I saw a much more sophisticated cache of weapons than Sadiq gives them credit for. Besides an array of Kalashnikovs, Ghazi kept one specially equipped with a mini-grenade launcher (affixed to the AK-47 barrel). Apparently, there are even a few shoulder-held RPGs inside. Moreover, most of the female students come from the North West Frontier Province or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where locals always crave a good gun battle. When the government besieged Lal Masjid in January, the girls' brothers and fathers showed up to defend the mosque en masse, bringing their own weapons. And as for the male students, even Musharraf admits that they are a dangerous bunch. Last Friday, he acknowledged that members of the banned jihadi organization, Jaish-e-Mohammad, were holed up inside, as well as plenty of eager suicide bombers. "I am not a coward," Musharraf said, addressing a media workshop, "But the issue is, tomorrow you will say 'What have you done?' There are women and children inside.'"

In this case, Musharraf seems to have decided that the need to crack down on Ghazi and his supporters outweighs the potential for negative headlines. But his instinct that those in the mosque won't go down without a fight is clearly right. Throughout the day today, a voice on the mosque's PA system threatened the government with great bloodshed, exhorted the Taliban to be brave and fight, and declared jihad. As the sun set, gunfire pierced the sky (and the short-lived cease-fire agreement), and the lights in and around Lal Masjid never switched on. In the pitch black, packs of gun-toting madrassa students roamed the streets in the front of the mosque, guarding it from attack.

While Musharraf and his advisors were reportedly in a meeting, hashing out the particulars of a larger military operation that may finally be coming, the PA system at Lal Masjid once again crackled to life: "The blood of the martyrs will not go to waste. We are ready for suicide attacks." The push to uproot Ghazi and his boys from Lal Masjid in the coming days may be a necessary one for Musharraf if he wants to stay in power and not lose the confidence of the army, but it could be an awfully bloody time for the country.

Nicholas Schmidle is a freelance journalist and Pakistan-based fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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