Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), a well-known Sunni Islamist terrorist network, is notorious for its links to militant outfits in South and Central Asia and its role in perpetrating sectarian violence across the region. The violent organization came to the forefront in the 1990s, when it instigated a brutal sectarian war against the Shi’a community in Pakistan, launching some of the deadliest attacks in the country’s history. After the 9/11 attacks, as al-Qaeda-with its roots firmly embedded within the Afghanistan-Pakistan region-came under intense pressure during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, LeJ assumed a central role in facilitating and maintaining an anti-state jihadist war within Pakistan.
While LeJ’s contributions to violence and militancy have been generally noted, less attention has been paid to how the group has skillfully leveraged its clandestine network over the years and provided hundreds of highly trained militants to wage jihad within Pakistan (especially due to the latter’s role in supporting the War on Terror) and against Western forces in Afghanistan. In the post-9/11 era, LeJ not only exacerbated violence in the region through its own attacks, but also through supporting other militant organizations’ operations-ultimately helping sustain the complex militant infrastructure in the region. During this period, drawing on connections with al-Qaeda members from time spent in Afghanistan’s militant camps, LeJ’s well-trained cadres with expertise in urban warfare developed close relations with some al-Qaeda members and, subsequently, with members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), contributing to their missions indirectly. With the arrival and rise of the Islamic State’s affiliate in the region, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), LeJ once again served as the connective node in the militant landscape by establishing operational links with the nascent ISKP. Over the years following ISKP’s initial emergence, reports would indicate that some LeJ cadres became deeply intertwined with the Islamic State’s local offshoots.
In sum, LeJ has exploited mutually beneficial relationships with several other jihadist groups in the region that have served to sustain violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan in the post-9/11 era. By serving as a critical node in the militant landscape through tactical and logistical alliances at the organizational and individual level and through sharing its expertise via a pipeline of trained fighters, LeJ has served as an enabler of jihad and a principal architect of its infrastructure in the region. Within this article, the authors trace the historical evolution of LeJ pre- and post-9/11 with a focus on its links to some of the most prominent and resilient militant outfits in the region, most notably al-Qaeda, the TTP, the Afghan Taliban, and now ISKP.
The Origins of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi LeJ’s Relentless Violence against Shi’a
The SSP’s provocative campaign against the Shi’a sect in Pakistan played a central role in exacerbating sectarian violence on both sides of the Sunni-Shi’a conflict. As SSP officials fomented anti-Shi’a sentiment, many of its members were targeted and killed in retaliatory attacks by Shi’a militants. In this context, LeJ was born as the armed wing of SSP to foster a targeted armed campaign against SSP’s opponents. This goal was highlighted in the public address in 1994 of Zia ur-Rehman Farooq (Jhangvi’s successor), who issued a threat to Shi’a communities after an attack in his hometown of Faisalabad, stating “Do not push me to organize an armed force to crush you forcefully.”
The Broader Militant Environment: Building Connections
As sectarian warfare intensified in Pakistan and Punjab became one of the worst-hit provinces, its provincial government sought to curtail LeJ’s activities. The crackdown on LeJ and SSP, however, resulted in several militants fleeing to LeJ camps in Afghanistan. As the government continued its operations, it also engaged in extrajudicial killings, which inadvertently triggered a boost in LeJ’s recruitment. Indiscriminate actions motivated the friends and relatives of those caught up in the government’s dragnet to join LeJ’s ranks in order to avenge the deaths of their loved ones.
In addition to maintaining close ties with the Afghan Taliban, LeJ members also fostered close relations with al-Qaeda and other Arab Salafist-jihadists in Afghanistan during this period. These organizations aligned with the LeJ due to their generally overlapping anti-Shi’a ideology. These links provided LeJ with critical financial support and warfare training as well as access to materials such as explosives. Overall, as would become apparent in the years following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, LeJ’s early ties with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda would prove to be a force multiplier in its jihad against the Pakistani state, which was to be deemed a legitimate target due to its role in the US-led Global War on Terror.
LeJ in the Post-9/11 Era: From Anti-Shi’a to Anti-State
In the post-9/11 era, LeJ shifted its focus in terms of its target selection. LeJ’s war expanded beyond the sectarian realm after it joined the jihad against foreign invaders in Afghanistan. Its years of militancy had prepared it well for this new fight. At the time of the U.S. invasion, LeJ cadres already had the benefit of years of experience in urban terrorism and well-established access to an underground support network in the country that dated back to the 1990s.As the United States and its allies waged a fierce counterinsurgency and counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan, LeJ cadres planned and executed devastating attacks against foreigners, Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, the Pakistani military, and Afghan and Pakistani government officials.
LeJ’s Contributions to the Dual-Attack Agenda
As the nature of jihad changed in shape and form in the post-9/11 era, LeJ refocused its war against the Pakistani state, leveraging its prior connections to survive. During this time, LeJ’s cadres emerged in distinct groups, largely defined by their key relationships, with varying levels of prioritization of their anti-state and anti-Shi’a goals. Below, we discuss how each faction contributed to the broader jihadist movement in Pakistan, intertwining sectarianism with anti-state sentiments which not only enabled LeJ’s own survival, but also contributed to the sustained lethality of other anti-state groups.
The Amjad Farooqi group
While the Amjad Farooqi group carried out attacks in collaboration with al-Qaeda and TTP, it remained an autonomous entity. In terms of the composition of its membership, the group was comprised mostly of non-Pashtuns, specifically individuals from Pakistan’s Punjab and Sindh provinces, giving rise to the nomenclature of the “Punjabi Taliban” in Waziristan. The distinct role of this group subsided with the demise of its leaders.Aqdas was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2010 in Waziristan while Aslam and Ali both were killed in Afghanistan in 2017. However, immediately following Aqdas’ death, some of the Farooqi group members joined a senior Pakistani al-Qaeda leader known as Ustad Ahmad Farooq, while the rest continued under the command of Aslam until his death in 2017, after which they merged with the TTP by August 2020.
The Asif Choto Network
The Choto network has been held responsible for some of the deadliest sectarian attacks in Pakistan, which are largely attributed to their use of suicide tactics targeting religious places and processions that inflicted heavy losses on the Shi’a community. The Usman Kurd group in Quetta, Balochistan, for example, that carried the first suicide bombing of a Shi’a mosque in Pakistan in July 2003 was an extended part of the Choto network. While LeJ’s Choto network continued LeJ’s pre-9/11 anti-Shi’a campaign, even intensifying it through the use of large-scale suicide attacks, in parallel, it also collaborated with al-Qaeda and other militants to conduct attacks against Pakistani security forces (in exchange for resources for its anti-Shi’a war).
Deadly attacks by Choto’s network triggered a response by Pakistani security forces: Choto was arrested along with several key aides in 2005 near the capital, Islamabad, while Kurd was arrested in Karachi the following year. These high-profile arrests would prove to be critical as they constrained LeJ’s attack campaign. However, another LeJ commander from Peshawar’s outskirts close to the Khyber tribal district, Amanullah Afridi, attempted to continue his predecessor’s two-pronged attack campaign. Afridi’s links to attacks associated with al-Qaeda in Pakistan ultimately landed him on the U.S. Specially Designated Global Terrorists list.Around 2008–2010, the TTP had started to coalesce as a powerful anti-state player in the regional jihadist landscape, and absorbed some anti-Shi’a elements. Within the TTP, some former LeJ commanders assumed influential leadership positions (discussed further below), which attracted additional anti-Shi’a militants to the group. The fusion of anti-state leanings and anti-Shi’a sentiments among TTP leaders created further opportunities for cooperation between TTP and LeJ members.
TTP factions, especially those influenced either internally or externally by LeJ leaders, carried out brutal attacks against the Shi’a sect in parallel with attacks against Pakistani security forces. Some LeJ members became the TTP’s most ruthless commanders and conducted attacks which resulted in high numbers of civilian casualties, while others such as the Farooqi group carried out more targeted, high-profile attacks against key security and Western targets. These notable sectarian attacks helped the TTP establish its ferocious reputation in the militant landscape of the region. However, such attacks gradually declined as LeJ-affiliated members in the TTP’s first crop of leaders were neutralized while the TTP attempted to limit its war to security forces..
LeJ al-Alami (LeJ-A)
A third post-9/11 LeJ network that emerged as “LeJ al-Alami” (LeJ-A) or “LeJ International,” was founded by Abid Mehsud, an LeJ militant from South Waziristan. Mehsud joined LeJ via SSP when he studied at a religious seminary in Karachi in the late 1990s. Mehsud went on to establish a militant camp in his native Mehsud areas in South Waziristan in 2003, providing shelter to other comrades. However, TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud demanded that Abid join forces with him, as LeJ member Qari Hussain Mehsud did, in order to establish a unified front in the tribal belt. Fearful that merging with Baitullah would overshadow LeJ’s anti-Shi’a priorities, Abid elected to leave the Mehsud area and instead established training camps in the Kurram tribal district and North Waziristan.
LeJ-A included militants from Sindh and the Punjab province more generally and was responsible for sectarian attacks in these areas, including (in addition to attacking Shi’a) the targeting of shrines of the Barelvi sub-sect of Sunnis, which caused heavy civilian losses. However, LeJ-A faced a leadership crisis in 2010 when Abid Mehsud killed his deputy, Usman Punjabi, amid infighting in North Waziristan. Abid Mehsud was then killed by TTP emir Hakeem Ullah Mehsud in retaliation.
At the peak of the TTP-al-Qaeda war in Pakistan, the government mysteriously released several LeJ commanders in both 2009 and 2011, including Choto, Qari Ataur Rehman (alias Naeem Bukhari), and two LeJ co-founders who had been arrested in 1997, Malik Ishaq and Ghulam Rasool Shah. Similarly, Usman Kurd, leader of the group in Quetta, mysteriously escaped in 2008 a high-security prison in Baluchistan along with his close aides Shafiq-ur-Rehman Rind and Dawood Badini. Among those released by the governmentwas also a close aide of Abid Mehsud, Syed Safdar (alias Yousaf Mansur Khurasani) from Karachi, who reorganized the LeJ-A network. Subsequently, the group claimed its first ever anti-Shi’a attack in Afghanistan in December 2011 when it targeted an annual religious procession in the capital Kabul, killing 55 people.
2013: A Reinvigorated Anti-Shi’a Campaign
Around this same time, Choto and Bukhari quickly shifted to Waziristan and established camps there with the support of al-Qaeda and TTP militants. While Choto and Bukhari had close ties with the TTP Mehsud faction and al-Qaeda in Waziristan, respectively, LeJ maintained its autonomy, running independent attack networks in Karachi and Punjab with funds and fighters from TTP and al-Qaeda. It is generally believed that LeJ executed several attacks that al-Qaeda or the TTP took the credit for -a phenomenon that we would see later in the case of LeJ and the Islamic State Khorasan Province.
When Pakistani military operations encroached upon militant strongholds in South and North Waziristan and the rest of the tribal belt, both LeJ leaders (Choto and Bukhari) escaped to Punjab and Karachi. Around this time, the Islamic State’s transnational affiliate-one which was fiercer and more uncompromising in its sectarian focus than al-Qaeda-began to emerge in the region. The arrival of ISKP threatened Pakistan due to the possibility of an unholy alliance between a local and a transnational anti-Shi’a group. Perhaps in an attempt to prevent such an alliance, Pakistani security forces once again launched an intense campaign against LeJ supporters and cadres in urban areas. For example, Malik Ishaq was killed with his son and others in Punjab in July 2015. Similarly, Choto was targeted and killed along with two of his deputies in January 2017, while Bukhari was arrested in February 2016 in Karachi and remains imprisoned.
LeJ’s Present Transnational Links
In the post-9/11 era, LeJ sought to establish close operational and tactical collaboration with various militant organizations which could help it survive counterterrorism pressure across the region, as discussed above. To do so, it established relations with the Taliban, al-Qaeda, the TTP, and different Arab militants. However, while these early networks and alliances facilitated LeJ’s violent campaign, over time, the group’s significant manpower losses undermined its strength.
As LeJ attempted to survive through collaboration with other groups in the years after 9/11, it was unsurprising when it appeared responsive to ISKP’s efforts in late 2014 to establish a foothold in the region through mergers and alliances. As ISKP gained success in obtaining alliances from senior TTP and al-Qaeda militants, the LeJ-A faction in particular rose to the forefront as a suitable partner. Not only did ISKP prioritize targeting Shi’a populations, but it was also known for its aggressive anti-nationalist rhetoric and agenda. This would provide an unparalleled opportunity to LeJ to align with a group which shared its top target priorities and was actively seeking friends in the neighborhood.
Yousuf Mansur Khurasani, who had reorganized LeJ-A at the time and was based in the Balochistan-adjacent provinces of Afghanistan, led the attack campaign in Balochistan while LeJ-A spokesperson Ali Bin Sufiyan acknowledged the outfit’s alliance with ISKP. Additional research indicates that LeJ’s utilitarian approach to alliances and its animosity towards the Pakistani state were two key factors that produced the close LeJ-ISKP operational ties. Given LeJ’s inclination to conduct attacks on behalf of other groups in exchange for mutual benefits, as it had done before, research suggests that LeJ also aligned its targeting priorities with those of ISKP, at least during the latter’s early years.
Khurasani, who was reportedly facilitating the attacks in Balochistan on behalf of ISKP, seemed to go underground after an insider attack in Afghanistan’s Zabul province. According to some sources, this was potentially due to a planned merger between LeJ-A and ISKP (it is notable that, subsequently, only ISKP claimed attacks in Balochistan). In an issue of the Islamic State’s weekly publication, al-Naba’, however, a biography of a slain LeJ leader identified as ISKP Baluchistan emir Mufti Hidayat Ullah Baruhi suggested that LeJ was in fact in an operational alliance with ISKP during its early years and that Baruhi had convinced LeJ to formally merge with ISKP.However, after July 2018, when Baruhi was killed by Pakistani security forces, the number of major ISKP attacks in Balochistan declined significantly. The death of Baruhi likely undermined ISKP’s ability to conduct attacks in the province insofar as these attacks were effectively conducted by LeJ militants on behalf of ISKP. Another factor behind the drop in attacks could be that, around this time, ISKP militants were under growing counterterrorism pressure in their strongholds in Nangarhar province in Afghanistan, which may have resulted in the relocation of militants from Pakistan to reinforce the core group in Afghanistan. Finally, in part, the decline in ISKP attacks in Balochistan could be linked to the reorganization of the Islamic State’s presence in the wider region, as seen in the creation of IS-Pakistan and IS-Hind in May 2019, which may have led ISKP to refocus the geographic scope its attacks.
The anti-Shi’a war in Pakistan can help ISKP’s efforts to establish itself in the country, as the TTP restricts its elements from any sectarian target in favor of attacking security forces. The TTP consequently declares the anti-Shi’a sectarian war a conspiracy concocted by its enemies and the security agencies to undermine the anti-state jihad in Pakistan.
Conclusion: LeJ in 2023 and Beyond
An overview of LeJ’s behavior in the pre- and post-9/11 eras highlights a few important notes. First, LeJ remains one of the most resilient and aggressive terrorist groups in the region and has arguably played a central role in the exacerbation of sectarian violence across the country. At various times, LeJ has shown a remarkable ability to revamp its strategy, seek out practical alliances, and expand its targeting priorities in order to survive counterterrorism pressure. While LeJ’s Islamist ideology overlaps with various groups in the region, it has also demonstrated an eagerness to remain autonomous, even if its individual factions have closely worked with other militant groups. Moreover, LeJ has managed to take advantage of the Pakistani state’s inconsistent operations against jihadist militants, seizing any and all opportunities presented by lapses in Pakistani security efforts to regroup and consolidate its bases. Finally, with the arrival of the Islamic State in the region, LeJ’s willingness to collaborate with this transnational affiliate that maintains a rivalry with the Taliban and al-Qaeda underscores the group’s willingness to facilitate the operations of any terrorist group whose targeting priorities can further its own agenda and reach.
This article has provided insights into some of the many ways through which LeJ has helped build and sustain the jihadist infrastructure in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, with serious repercussions for regional stability. Further research should focus on uncovering the ways in which the group recruits, trains, and raises finances to sustain its activities. Furthermore, the Pakistani government would be wise to undertake a concerted campaign to undermine the foundation of LeJ, which would include not just dismantling its capacity and reach, but also its ability to form networks throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan.