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Pakistani Extremist Group In Focus After Unprecedented Attack On Afghan Shi'a

People react seconds after a suicide blast targeting a Shi'ite Muslim gathering in Kabul on December 6. Fifty-five people were killed and over 160 injured.
As Afghanistan recovers from a deadly and unprecedented attack on a Shi'ite shrine in Kabul, the finger of blame is pointing directly at a Sunni extremist group with a long history of carrying out such attacks in neighboring Pakistan.

At least 55 people were killed and more than 160 wounded in the December 6 suicide attack, which occurred as Shi'ite worshippers were assembled outside the shrine to commemorate Ashura, a Shi'ite religious holiday. A separate attack near an Ashura procession in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif killed at least four people.

Shortly after the midday attack in Kabul, a man claiming to be a spokesman for Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami contacted RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal to claim responsibility on behalf of the Pakistan-based militant group.

It was impossible to independently verify the claim made by the man, who identified himself as Qari Abubakar Mansoor.

The man first contacted a Radio Mashaal correspondent in Pakistan who covers the western Kurram tribal district, where the group is believed to be headquartered. A man going by the name of Qari Abubakar had previously contacted Radio Mashaal to provide information regarding the Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami. Following RFE/RL's report tying the group to the attack in Afghanistan, various media reported receiving similar claims from the same spokesman.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who cut short a European trip and returned to the Afghan capital to deal with the crisis, appeared to accept that the attack was carried out by Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami. While visiting survivors of the attack in the hospital, he was quoted as telling reporters that "we are investigating this issue and we are going to talk to the Pakistani government about it."

Ties To Al-Qaeda, Taliban

Farzana Sheikh, a Pakistan specialist at the Chatham House think tank in London, says the group evolved from the Anjuman-e Sipahe Shaba Pakistan, an extremist political party intent on transforming Pakistan into a Sunni state. One of its splinter groups, Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) was considered the most deadly sectarian militia in the South Asian state in the 1990s.

More than 15 people were killed in this suicide bomb blast targeting a Shi'ite Ashura procession in Karachi in 2009. Lashkar-e Jhangvi and its splinter groups have killed thousands in Pakistan.
More than 15 people were killed in this suicide bomb blast targeting a Shi'ite Ashura procession in Karachi in 2009. Lashkar-e Jhangvi and its splinter groups have killed thousands in Pakistan.

Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami is now considered a splinter group of the LeJ, which was banned in Pakistan in 2002 because of its role in the killing of thousands of Shi'a.

"Its roots really lie in southern Punjab [Province], in the district of Jhang, from where they have clearly spread to other parts of Pakistan," Sheikh says, "but particularly the [southwestern province of] Balochistan, where they have been responsible, and indeed claimed responsibility, for a series of murderous attacks against Shi'a Hazaras."

Sheikh says that the group once enjoyed close links to Pakistani intelligence agencies. This, she notes, enabled LeJ to maintain bases in Taliban-controlled Afghan regions because of Islamabad's relationship with the Taliban regime. However, the LeJ's Shi'a-killing campaign made it a prime security threat for Pakistan, according to observers.

The demise of the Taliban regime forced LeJ back to Pakistan. But observers say its uneasy relations with the government led it to become a surrogate for Al-Qaeda in Pakistan's tribal areas. The group is also believed to have influenced the Pakistani Taliban, which has former LeJ members among its key leaders.

The LeJ and its off-shoot Lashkar-e Jhangvi al-Alami have been involved in fierce attacks in Pakistan. It was held responsible for the 2008 bombing of the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad, which killed more than 50 and injured hundreds. Its March 2009 attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team -- in which six police escorts and one civilian were killed -- shocked the cricketing world and has prevented Pakistan from hosting international cricketing events to this day. The group has taken responsibility for killing some 600 ethnic Hazaras in Balochistan since 1999.

Sheikh says the LeJ might now be attempting to precipitate a much wider conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Relations between the two neighbors have been tense since the September assassination of former Afghan President Buhannuddin Rabbani. Islamabad recently boycotted an important international conference on Afghanistan's future in Germany and suspended supplies to NATO forces though its territory after accusing the alliance of killing 24 of its troops in a border attack.

"If it is shown that this group has been responsible for this attack, it will not only further inflame relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan but, of course, it also for many spells the possibility of widening the conflict in Afghanistan, which until now has been political and ethnic," Sheikh says.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits victims of the blast in Kabul on December 7.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits victims of the blast in Kabul on December 7.

One Objective: Sectarian War

Pakistani journalist Azmat Abbas has been tracking LeJ's evolution for the past two decades. He says LeJ today is a transnational organization with mostly Pakistani membership. Abbas claims the group provided Al-Qaeda with some of its first suicide bombers to foment a sectarian war in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003. LeJ was also instrumental in propping up Jundallah -- an Sunni extremist group responsible for several large-scale attacks inside Iran.

Abbas says that despite its history of cooperation with the Taliban, the two groups have distinct objectives. "Lashkar-e Jhangvi's declared agenda is to target the Shi'a. They have never said that they want to establish an Islamic state [in Afghanistan] or want to drive U.S. forces from it. Their only agenda is to target the Shi'a. And their choice targets are the places where the Shi'a live."

The Afghan Taliban has rejected government claims that it orchestrated the December 6 attacks. A statement attributed to their spokesman called the attacks "savage acts" whose aim was to divide the Afghan people.

Chatham House's Sheikh says that bombings showcase the "Pakistan-ization" of the Afghan conflict, as sectarian conflicts have been rare in Afghanistan. "If the current trends are to go by, it is an extremely disturbing development," she adds.

RFE/RL Radio Mashaal correspondent Abdul Hai Kakar contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also the author of the weekly Gandhara Briefing newsletter, which features some of best reporting and analysis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.