(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday played down concerns that militants could take advantage of the floods in Pakistan to extend their influence, although that is exactly what some analysts say happened after the last big natural disaster in the region.
During an interview with Pakistan’s Geo TV, Clinton was asked whether the U.S. was worried that banned militant organizations could gain strength as a result of their involvement in relief work.
“I don’t think so,” she replied. “I mean, very often, these reports are overstated and when time passes, you look back and find out that it was not as reported.”
Clinton implied that the concerns were being raised as part of politically motivated criticism of the Pakistani government.
“It’s sort of the right of anyone in a democracy – which thank goodness Pakistan is, especially with a free press – to criticize one’s government,” she continued.
“But at this point in time, the people and institutions of Pakistan must pull together. There’s a time to be critical and pointing fingers and trying to score political points, and then there’s a time to put that to one side and save lives and rebuild Pakistan. And that’s what I hope is happening.”
Among the groups undertaking relief activities in flood-hit areas in the northwest, according to Pakistani media accounts, is Jamaat ud-Dawa (JuD), an ostensibly charitable organization which the U.S. State Department calls a “front operation” for Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT).
LeT is the group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, and said by U.S. security officials to be playing an expanding role in anti-U.S. terrorism in Afghanistan.
Set up in the late 1980s with the backing of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency to fight Indian rule in disputed Kashmir, it was banned by Gen. Pervez Musharraf under U.S. pressure following an attack on the Indian Parliament shortly after 9/11.
Jamaat ud-Dawa was the name of LeT’s pre-existing parent organization, and experts say that after the banning LeT simply reverted to that name and continued to operate.
The U.N. Security Council has placed both JuD and its leader, Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, on a list of entities supportive of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Saeed denies that JuD and LeT are related.
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari on Thursday expressed concern that terrorists could exploit the situation in the country.
“All these catastrophes give strength to forces who do not want a state structure,” he told a press conference. “There is a possibility that … the negative forces would exploit this situation.”
Zardari said militants may take babies orphaned by the disaster “to their camps and train them as the terrorists of tomorrow.”
Also voicing concern was visiting U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who is visiting Pakistan and was with Zardari at the news conference.
“None of us want to see this crisis to provide an opportunity or an excuse for people who want to exploit the misery of others for political or ideological purpose and so it is important for all of us to work overtime,” he said.
‘Gaining a foothold’
Barnabas Fund, a British-based charity working with Christian minorities in the Islamic world, said Thursday one of its partners helping with its relief effort among Pakistani Christians raised similar concerns.
“The Islamists are helping people in areas where even the government has failed to reach,” the charity quoted him as saying. “In the time of need, the government’s slow response has given them the opportunity to win the hearts of the affected people.”
“The month of Ramadan has also given the Islamists opportunity to preach their version of Islam and attract people,” he said. “They are gaining a foothold in the area.”
“Pakistani Christians have been targeted by Islamist groups on a number of occasions in recent years and it is a matter of urgent concern that Islamists are now capitalizing on the flooding crisis to harness support for their militant agenda,” said Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, Barnabas Fund international director.
“We must pray fervently that the Pakistani people are protected from the insidious influence of Islamic radicals and receive the help they need from genuine sources.”
Sookhdeo urged Christians to pray that donations to reliable agencies would increase quickly, so that victims of the flooding do not have to turn to Islamists for help.
The last major disaster in South Asia, a 2005 earthquake which had its epicenter in the Pakistan-controlled part of divided Kashmir, also saw JuD-LeT and other jihadist and Islamist groups play a prominent role in relief work.
Pakistan reported a death toll of 80,000, and another 1,400 were killed in Indian-administered Kashmir.
Pakistan’s military government did not prevent the militants from operating, and in fact the army reportedly provided logistical and other support to them.
“The military’s support for its jihadi proxies was most evident in the October 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, when it sidelined civilian administrators and secular non-governmental organizations in rescue and relief efforts, instead channeling funds to the [JuD-LeT] and other jihadi groups,” the International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict resolution think tank, said in a 1999 report on Pakistan.
Back in 2006, ICG South Asia analyst Jawad Hussain Qureshi compiled a report on militants’ relief efforts after the disaster.
“Whether knowingly or out of ignorance,” he wrote, U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations established working relationships with some of these groups.
JuD, which ran a field hospital and ambulance services, built shelters and provided power generators, reportedly worked with agencies including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, the World Food Program and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Qureshi said implications of the Islamist groups’ involvement including the spreading of Islamist education, noting that JuD had called for children orphaned by the devastating earthquake to be handed over for Islamic education.
“In the medium and long term,” he wrote, “if the jihadis and Islamist groups are allowed to continue with their rigid religious curriculum this will radicalize the young in [Pakistani-controlled Kashmir], and will form a convenient recruiting base for the militant activities of these organizations.”