It’s hardly a secret that rich Saudi Arabians, including those running the government, have used their considerable oil wealth to spread political and ideological influence throughout the world. One need look no further than the close-knit relationship between the House of Saud and the Bush family to understand Saudi’s powerful reach across the globe. In Muslim countries, though, its presence is more pointed and explicitly ideological. Indeed, following the 9/11 attacks it has become increasingly clear that Saudi money frequently makes its way into the hands of Islamic extremists.
In an astonishing cable published by the Pakistani newspaper Dawn, however, it would seem that significant sums of Saudi money are fostering religious radicalism in previously moderate regions of Pakistan.
The cable, dating from late 2008, paints an unsettling picture of wealth’s powerful influence in those underdeveloped areas of Central Asia in need of the most attention. Bryan Hunt, then-principal officer at the US consulate in Lahore, reported a string of troubling findings on his forays into southern Punjab, where he “was repeatedly told that a sophisticated jihadi recruitment network had been developed in the Multan, Bahawalpur, and Dera Ghazi Khan Divisions.”
The network reportedly exploited worsening poverty in these areas of the province to recruit children into the divisions’ growing Deobandi and Ahl-e Hadith madrassa network from which they were indoctrinated into jihadi philosophy, deployed to regional training/indoctrination centers, and ultimately sent to terrorist training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Locals believed that charitable activities being carried out by Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith organizations, including Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the Al-Khidmat Foundation, and Jaish-e-Mohammad were further strengthening reliance on extremist groups and minimizing the importance of traditionally moderate Sufi religious leaders in these communities.
The cable reports that Hunt’s discussions with civil society, political and religious figures were “dominated” by concerns that “recruitment activities by extremist religious organizations, particularly among young men between the ages of 8 and 15, had increased dramatically over the last year.” The exponential spread of recruitment efforts was chalked up by locals to the efforts of “pseudo-religious organizations” who had appeared suddenly, along with countless other aid organizations, in response to the devastating earthquake that hit Pakistan in 2005.
Hunt noted the widespread belief amongst locals that significant sums of foreign aid donations were
siphoned to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in southern and western Punjab in order to expand these sects’ presence in a traditionally hostile, but potentially fruitful, recruiting ground. The initial success of establishing madrassas and mosques in these areas led to subsequent annual “donations” to these same clerics, originating in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
While exact totals of money pouring into these projects were unavailable, the staggering estimates of “most interlocutors” put the total “in the region of $100 million annually.”
The cable describes ways in which recuriters
generally exploit families with multiple children, particularly those facing severe financial difficulties in light of inflation, poor crop yields, and growing unemployment in both urban and rural areas in the southern and western Punjab. Oftentimes, these families are identified and initially approached/assisted by ostensibly “”charitable”" organizations including Jamaat-ud-Dawa (a front for designated foreign terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyaba), the Al-Khidmat Foundation (linked to religious political party Jamaat-e-Islami), or Jaish-e-Mohammad (a charitable front for the designated foreign terrorist organization of the same name).
If true, the narrative of exploitation by recruiters of the local population is revolting. Locals claim that the
Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith maulana will generally be introduced to the family through these organizations. He will work to convince the parents that their poverty is a direct result of their family’s deviation from “the true path of Islam” through “idolatrous” worship at local Sufi shrines and/or with local Sufi Peers. The maulana suggests that the quickest way to return to “favor” would be to devote the lives of one or two of their sons to Islam. The maulana will offer to educate these children at his madrassa and to find them employment in the service of Islam. The concept of “martyrdom” is often discussed and the family is promised that if their sons are “martyred” both the sons and the family will attain “salvation” and the family will obtain God’s favor in this life, as well. An immediate cash payment is finally made to the parents to compensate the family for its “sacrifice” to Islam.
In exchange, families receive upwards of $6,500 per son. While some clerics were reportedly recruiting young girls as well, it is not known how much families receive in exchange for their daughters.
The cable goes on to explain that
the path following recruitment depends upon the age of the child involved. Younger children (between 8 and 12) seem to be favored. These children are sent to a comparatively small, extremist Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith madrassa in southern or western Punjab generally several hours from their family home.
While Hunt was unable to ascertain roughly how many of these madrassas were currently in operations, he estimated from his various discussions that it was likely in the neighborhood of a couple hundred.
These madrassas are generally in isolated areas and are kept small enough (under 100 students) so as not to draw significant attention. At these madrassas, children are denied contact with the outside world and taught sectarian extremism, hatred for non-Muslims, and anti-Western/anti-Pakistan government philosophy. Contact between students and families is forbidden, although the recruiting maulana periodically visits the families with reports full of praise for their sons’ progress.
From there, “graduates” of the madrassas are supposedly either retained as teachers for the next generation of recruits, or are sent to a sort-of postgraduate school for jihadi training. “Teachers at the madrassa appear to make the decision,” of where the students go next, “based on their read of the child’s willingness to engage in violence and acceptance of jihadi culture versus his utility as an effective proponent of Deobandi or Ahl-e-Hadith ideology/recruiter.”
While the number and locations of the madrassas were largely a matter of speculation, most everyone Hunt spoke with agreed that the jihadist camps were easily identifiable.
Locals identified three centers reportedly used for this purpose. The most prominent of these is a large complex that ostensibly has been built at Khitarjee (sp?)…The second complex is a newly built “madrassa” on the outskirts of Bahawalpur…The third complex is an Ahl-e-Hadith site on the outskirts of Dera Ghazi Khan city about which very limited information was available. Locals…claimed that following several months of indoctrination at these centers youth were generally sent on to more established training camps in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and then on to jihad either in FATA, NWFP, or as suicide bombers in settled areas.
Despite the apparently widespread-knowledge of militant activities in the region, the cable clearly registers local dissatisfaction with the government’s inadequate response. “Interlocutors repeatedly chastised the government for its failure to act decisively against indoctrination centers, extremist madrassas, or known prominent leaders.”
Government inaction reflects both Islamabad’s inability and unwillingness to tackle the challenges of rising extremism within its borders, a persistent theme in many of the embassy cables originating in the country. On the one hand, noted a member of the provincial assembly, “direct confrontation was considered ‘too dangerous,’” by the government. On the other, “Federal Minister for Relgious Affairs, and a noted Brailvi/Sufi scholar in his own right, Allama Qasmi blamed government intransigence on a culture that rewarded political deals with religious extremists. He stressed that even if political will could be found, the bureaucracy… repeatedly blocked…efforts to push policy in a different direction.”
Faced with deficits in political will and capacity to fight the corrosive influence of local exploitation by religious radicals, Hunt reports that locals “repeatedly requested USG assistance for the southern and western Punjab, believing that an influx of western funds could counter the influence of Deobandi/Ahl-e-Hadith clerics.” Because Wahhabi extremism is historically alien to the Punjabi heartland, its “increasing prominence was directly attributed” by locals “to poverty and external funding.” Civil society leaders pressed the importance of recognizing “that socio-economic development programs, particularly in education, agriculture, and employment generation, would have a direct, long-term impact in minimizing receptivity to extremist movements.”
In post’s view short-term,” he concluded, “quick impact programs are required which focus on: (1) immediate relief in the form of food aid and microcredit, (2) cash for work and community-based, quick-impact infrastructure development programs focusing on irrigation systems, schools, and other critical infrastructure, and (3) strategic communication programs designed to educate on the dangers of the terrorist recruiting networks and to support counter-terrorist, counter-extremist messages.
In the wake of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, however, bipartisan calls for cutting aid to Pakistan, not increasing it, reflect the national mood. Just last Tuesday, Senate Armed Services Chair Carl Levin (D-MI) stated publicly that “there is a real problem with continuing financial support with Pakistan” when they fail to tackle head-on groups associated with the Taliban. And thus, the apparent paradox of Pakistani politics. If the United States continues to provide financial aid flows to Islamabad, it will be recognized as acceptance of the untenable status quo allowing militant Islamists to flourish in Pakistan’s northwestern frontier. But if the United States turns the money tap off, it’s clear that Pakistani territory will be increasingly ceded to these same antagonistic elements.
But then again, perhaps the paradox is not as impossibly puzzling as we’ve been led to believe. As the Center for Global Development’s Nancy Birdsall has recently pointed out, the question does not present a zero-sum game. “US aid to Pakistan is not a reward for good behavior,” she argued recently in favor of the very targeted programs outlined by Hunt. “We have to think about aid as an investment in the future of U.S. security. If you keep in mind the proposed $1.5 billion a year represents less than what we spend in Afghanistan in a week, than you get the point.”