Fears are growing that extremists will exploit Pakistan’s flood crisis as an Islamist charity suspected of working as a front for the militants behind the 2008 Mumbai attacks is increasingly seen to be delivering aid in the absence of government help.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is accused of links with Pakistan’s banned Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, swiftly responded to this week’s severe flooding, delivering food and medical aid to parts of the north-west and the eastern Punjab province most affected amid widespread public anger at the perceived absence of official efforts.
Observers say the agility shown by the charity and similar groups will appeal to Pakistanis despairing at the state’s failure to cope with a crisis that has killed more than 1,500 people and driven several million from their homes.
Their activities come amid widespread disenchantment with President Asif Ali Zardari’s decision to visit France and the UK during the crisis. “These people come across as selfless volunteers. They’ve consistently proved that they understand how to work this particular marketing strategy,” said Huma Yusuf, a columnist with Dawn newspaper. “All this serves as a backdrop for militant recruitment.”
A security official in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province, voiced similar concerns. “On the face of it, these groups are doing charity work,” he said. “But there is a very powerful hidden agenda, which is to be seen in the field, offering support to victims and also offering themselves as a political alternative.”
The administration of Barack Obama, US president, is trying to dispel widespread anti-American sentiment in Pakistan, offering $7.5bn (€5.6bn, £4.7bn) in civilian aid over five years as it seeks Islamabad’s help with the campaign in Afghanistan. Six US military helicopters are delivering food and rescuing survivors. Jamaat-ud-Dawa caught global attention when it mobilised relief after an earthquake in 2005 and in 2009 when 2m people fled fighting between the army and Taliban insurgents in the north-western Swat valley region. It denies ties to extremists, but security experts say it is in effect the latest incarnation of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an extremist group banned in 2002 that was blamed for the Mumbai attacks.
The UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Jamaat-ud-Dawa after the attacks, in which 166 people were killed.
How far aid sways allegiance is hotly debated in Pakistan, with some arguing that many people accept help while shunning extremism. “It’s not just for a packet of food that you will convert to another sect,” says Imtiaz Gul, an expert on militancy.
While the scale of the relief provided by Islamists cannot compete with the resources of Pakistan’s military and international donors, their ability to raise donations and distribute food and clothing with minimal red tape means they often act more swiftly.
The scope of Jamaat-ud-Dawa’s activities is hard to assess, although a spokesman for an associated charity was quoted on Monday as saying that it had already set up 13 relief and six medical camps.
Jamaat-e-Islaami, Pakistan’s most prominent and best organised Islamist political party, said it had activated its Al-Khidmat charitable wing.
“We are out with our people,” said Asadullah Bhutto, head of the party’s chapter in the southern Sindh province. “Pakistan is led by corrupt leaders who have no interest in the lives of our people.”
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