Jamaat-ud-Dawa: Banned Group Helping Pakistani Refugees

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

MARDAN, Pakistan — Members of a charity banned for its alleged links to the Mumbai terror attack have resurfaced in northwestern Pakistan under a new name, distributing food and medicine Thursday among thousands of refugees from the government's bloody fight against the Taliban.

The makeover of Jamaat-ud-Dawa raises awkward questions for the embattled government, which has been trying hard to convince its skeptical Western sponsors that it is serious about taming Islamist extremism.

The offensive against Taliban insurgents in the Swat Valley area, the largest in months, has driven about 800,000 people from their homes, with 80,000 sweltering in camps south of the battle zone.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani told Parliament on Thursday that it was the largest internal displacement of Pakistanis since the country's creation in 1947.

"They are sacrificing for the future, and every Pakistani is ready to help them," he said of the refugees.

But he probably wasn't reckoning on aid coming from radicals whom the government had supposedly taken out of action.

On Thursday, about 10 volunteers were manning a distribution point for relief goods and services in Mardan, the city serving as the hub of the international relief effort.

Ostensibly, they belonged to Falah-i-Insaniat, a previously unheralded charitable foundation.

But the large white flag fluttering nearby featured a black sword along with the Islamic confession of faith _ the distinctive logo of the banned Jamaat-ud-Dawa. The same logo was on the back of jackets worn by some of the volunteers.

"We have sent 2,000 of our members to help our brothers and sisters," Mian Adil, deputy chairman of Falah and a former member of Jamaat, told The Associated Press. "We are silently helping the homeless, hungry and needy people, and let us do our work without maligning us."

The U.S. and the U.N. say Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a front for Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group accused of planning and carrying out last year's attacks in India's financial hub, Mumbai, which left 166 people dead and hundreds more wounded.

The government launched a crackdown on Jamaat soon after, arresting several of its leaders, seizing its assets and closing its branches. Jamaat denied it had links to Lashkar, which in turn denied involvement in the attacks.

The clampdown was welcomed by India and the United States, but analysts at the time said it was likely the group would reemerge under another name.

Zargham Khan, a 32-year-old volunteer at the distribution point, would only talk about his duties.

"We provide newly arrived refugees with food and medical treatment and juices to the kids," Khan said.

But a nearby sign indicated where its staff stood on the offensive in Swat. "Stop slaughtering Muslims," it read, a message presumably addressed to the military.

Jamaat spokesman Yahya Mujahid confirmed the group was present in the region, but declined to say explicitly whether Falah was a new name for Jamaat.

"We know the Pakistan government banned us under a U.N. order, but we are helping out brothers and sisters in those areas," he said.

Government spokesman Ashfaq Gondal insisted neither Jamaat-ud-Dawa nor any reincarnation of the group was working in the refugee camps set up by the government and the U.N..

He said he didn't know if they were active elsewhere.

Gondal said authorities could not immediately move to shut down Falah-i-Insaniat, because it has not ben banned.

Lashkar was believed to have enjoyed close links with Pakistan's intelligence agencies, which cultivated it as an ally in Kashmir, a disputed territory claimed by both India and Pakistan. New Delhi accuses it of scores of attacks in Kashmir and India proper.

But any move by the government to stop Falah would likely be unpopular, legally difficult and risk a backlash among Pakistanis.

Jamaat helped tens of thousands of people following the deadly Kashmir earthquake in 2005 and a smaller quake in Baluchistan last year. It also ran networks of schools and clinics that have since been taken over by the government.

Analysts suspect its welfare arm helps attract donations and volunteers, some of whom may have been redirected to the armed struggle in Kashmir.

Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science in Lahore, said Pakistan's establishment understood that it could no longer tolerate groups fueling religious militancy, even if they supported the country's foreign policy goals.

But the government will find it hard to move against the group unless it is involved in militant activities.

"They will be closely watched, but if they remain confined to rehabilitation and relief probably no one is going to lay a finger on them," Rais said. "They can't really be challenged in a court of law ... unless they do some mischief."

Pakistani leaders worry that the massive disruption from the Swat offensive _ and unconfirmed reports of civilian casualties _ will sap public support for the pro-Western government and the army.

The military claims to have killed about 800 militants in the operation so far, including 54 announced on Thursday. Troops have fought their way to within four miles (six kilometers) of the valley's main town, Mingora, spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said. Nine troops also died in the previous 24 hours, he said.

The military's account of the fighting could not be independently verified.


Associated Press writers Munir Ahmad in Islamabad contributed to this report.