BAHAWALPUR, Pakistan – On the congested streets of Bahawalpur, a city in southern Pakistan’s jihadi heartland, emotions run high in favor of Jaish-e-Mohammad, a U.N.-designated terror group that recently pushed nuclear-armed India and Pakistan to the brink of war.
Such support complicates Prime Minister Imran Khan’s latest crackdown on militant groups, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. In recent days, Khan has ordered the takeover of assets and property of dozens of banned militant organizations that operate in Pakistan.
Many of the groups are popular among the poor because they operate networks of charities. Some groups have also enjoyed the support of the military and intelligence services.
"Jaish-e-Mohammad is not a terrorist group, they just want to spread Islam," said Tahir Zia, a gray-bearded resident of Bahawalpur, a city whose 18th-century founders claim to be direct descendants of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.
According to Pakistan’s counter-terrorism agency, the government has outlawed 68 militant groups. This includes Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lahskar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul Mujahedeen — Pakistan-based groups that seek to wrest control of Indian-controlled territory in the disputed Kashmir region.
Kashmir is split between Pakistan and India and claimed by both in its entirety. The region has been the flashpoint of two wars between the South Asian neighbors as well as several lower-level face-offs.
The latest confrontation began Feb. 14 when a suicide bombing in Indian Kashmir killed 40 Indian soldiers. Jaish-e-Mohammad, which is based in Pakistan, claimed responsibility, even though the attacker was identified as an Indian Kashmiri militant. The bombing escalated tensions between India and Pakistan, with India launching an airstrike against suspected militant training camps. Journalists, who visited the site hours after the bombing, said the area was a deserted forested hilltop.
Under pressure to rein in the militants, Pakistan took over mosques and religious schools belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammad. Their students and teachers have been barred from talking to the media. Police and paramilitary rangers armed with AK-47s, now guard the group’s buildings.
The group’s headquarters on the northern outskirts of Bahawalpur, a city of 2 million, are ringed by a 20-foot-high (6-meter) brick wall.
On a recent morning, several bearded men and two Pakistani police officers armed with automatic rifles turned away visitors approaching the compound’s large steel gates.
Bahawalpur is located on the edge of Pakistan’s Cholistan desert in the southern part of Punjab province. In recent decades, the area has become a jihadi heartland encouraged by state sponsorship and financial support from abroad, particularly Saudi Arabia, and several Gulf States.
The donors have financed a vast network of religious schools that cater to the poorest residents, teaching a brand of Islam that promotes sectarianism, brands Shiite Muslims as infidels and espouses jihad, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
Khan, who adopted the role of peacemaker in the latest outbreak of hostilities between Pakistan and India, returned a captured Indian pilot, offered peace talks with his Indian counterpart, and launched a crackdown on militant groups from which previous administrations shied away.
On Tuesday, in a gesture aimed at mending relations on the subcontinent, Pakistan announced it had arrested 44 suspected members of several militant organizations, including Jaish-e-Mohammed. Among those arrested was Mufti Abdul Rauf, the brother of Masood Azhar, the founder of the organization. Azhar’s whereabouts are unknown.
Rauf was also among those named by India in a dossier it gave to Pakistan after Khan promised to investigate suspected links between Pakistani-based militants and the February bombing.
On Wednesday, more schools, hospitals and charities run by banned groups were taken over by the government. Padlocks were put on some facilities.
In a tweet Wednesday, Interior Minister Shahryar Afridi promised his government would implement a widely cheered 2015 National Action Plan that calls for zero tolerance of militant groups. Pakistan’s previous government devised the 20-point plan to combat terrorism and extremism in Pakistan, only to ignore it.
Still the move by Khan’s government is fraught with dangers in a country where militant groups provide social services to poor residents ignored by the government. The 2016 Crisis Group report called south Punjab "the poorest region of the country’s richest and most populous province."
In Bahawalpur, Jaish-e-Mohammad and its leader enjoy considerable support.
Storekeeper Sajjad Ali called Azhar a "man of peace" and dismissed accusations that he is a terrorist as Indian propaganda.
Hafiz Muzamil, a fiery young man, railed against India’s violent suppression of a 30-year insurgency in Kashmir __ India’s only Muslim dominated state __ and championed Jaish-e-Mohammad and Azhar as warriors for Islam. Crowds gathered as he spoke, most nodding vigorously.
Adnan Naseemullah, an expert in international affairs at King’s College in London, warned of a short-term backlash against the crackdown.
"Pakistan, if it takes an aggressive, no-tolerance stand against Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Harakat ul-Mujahidin, will suffer a violent backlash domestically," he said.
"But a zero-tolerance policy from the Pakistani state will over time shift the focus back on Kashmir and the treatment of the Kashmiri people, which is in Pakistan’s long-term interest," he added.
International human rights groups have accused India of widespread abuses as it seeks to crush dissent in its part of Kashmir. "India’s policy on Kashmir under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi is straightforwardly and violently repressive," said Naseemullah.
For Pakistan, the deadly mix of militant groups on its soil is a decades-old problem with roots in the 1980s war in neighboring Afghanistan, when the United States and Pakistan were allies against the former Soviet Union. Together they nurtured an army of mujahedeen, or holy warriors, to oust the former Soviet Union from Afghanistan. When the war ended with a Soviet withdrawal in 1989, young Pakistani recruits to jihad were sent to the Indian half of disputed Kashmir to fight for a united Kashmir under the Pakistani flag.
It’s a history that analysts like Zahid Hussain, author of two books on militancy, say haunts Pakistan.
"Various Pakistani governments have promised to take action against the many groups but have not done so," said Hussain. "Not only does it pose a danger to Pakistan’s own national internal security, there is always the danger they will use Pakistani soil to launch an attack across the border."