An Islamist charity accused of links to the militant fundamentalists blamed for the Mumbai terror attacks has resurfaced at the centre of the aid effort to help hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Pakistan's war on the Taliban.
Six months after Pakistan, under international pressure, outlawed the charity said to be a front for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), The Independent has discovered that scores of volunteers from the charity are openly working to ferry refugees from the edge of the conflict zone to emergency camps and hospitals. They are also providing food, water and first aid.
Despite a government undertaking that it had cracked down on Jamaat-ud-Dawa – described as the charitable arm of LeT – and pledged that it would not allow it to operate under a different name, volunteers say they are providing crucial services in an area where the government's resources are stretched.
Yesterday morning, in a tent that had been erected on a traffic island in the centre of the city of Mardan, where thousands of refugees are being taken, the volunteers were operating under the name Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation (Humanitarian Welfare Foundation). In addition to the foundation's logo, the volunteers' tent was hung with black and white flags carrying the symbol of Jamaat, a curved scimitar. "The foundation used to work under the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa," said one of the volunteers, Jafar Khan. "We are operating emergency camps near the conflict zone where we are giving first aid, water, juices and food. We have 12 ambulances. We are taking people to the [refugee] camps and to the hospitals. Our supplies are coming from Punjab."
Asked about the charity's motivations, another man, Dr Fazl-e-Azim said: "This is a humanitarian organisation. We help everybody, Muslims, Christians..."
Last night, with President Asif Ali Zardari in London, the government came under fire for failing to close down the charity. The former interior minister, Aftab Sherpao, said: "They don't focus on anything. Banning Jamaat was just eye-wash. They just wanted the world to believe they were doing something." The government failed to respond to queries.
Few in Pakistan will be surprised by the revelation that Jamaat is assisting in the relief effort as a flood of refugees pour from the Swat Valley and surrounding areas as the Pakistan military intensifies an operation to "eliminate" thousands of Taliban fighters that have seized control of districts just 60 miles from Islamabad. For years the charity's volunteers have been present in the wake of natural disasters across the region.
During the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, volunteers from the charity provided aid to some of the hundreds of people affected by the disaster.
Yet after last November's attacks on Mumbai that left 160 people dead, the government moved against the charity, shutting down its offices and arresting a number of its senior leaders. The government acted after a chorus of international condemnation and repeated allegations that Jamaat was operating as a front for LeT. The UN described it as a terror organisation. A senior Jamaat leader, Hafeez Mohammed Saeed, remains under house arrest in Lahore.
The foundation and Jamaat appear inextricably linked. Volunteers readily said the organisations were one and the same. Asked to provide a contact detail for the foundation's head office in Lahore, they gave a number that was answered by an official who described himself as a spokesman for Jamaat. The spokesman, Yahya Mujahid, said: "We work in close co-ordination with the foundation but are not the same."
What is certainly clear is the impact the supposedly banned charity is having in the relief operation, in which the resources of the local authorities are strained. At Mardan's district hospital – where a Jamaat ambulance was parked outside the emergency wing – one doctor said three foundations linked to the charity were helping the relief efforts. Adnan Jamshed added: "Their ambulances are arriving all the time."
Another medic at the emergency desk, Dr Aziz Khan, said: "There is a chronic shortage of staff, we don't have sufficient beds."
The apparent re-emergence of Jamaat will raise alarm about its capacity to use its charitable work among civilians as a recruiting sergeant for the Jihadist cause. It will also revive the anxieties of those who questioned the willingness of Pakistan's government to seriously tackle militants blamed for the Mumbai attacks. "I am not surprised by [the emergence of a front group]. Jamaat has been playing a very active role in the relief operation," said Bahakutumbi Raman, an Indian security analyst.
Christine Fair, a Washington-based expert on LeT, said: "I had heard reports that Jamaat had changed its name. I'd also heard that even before it was shut down, its money had already been moved. Of course, it's Jamaat's strategy to continue cultivating public support."
LeT has traditionally enjoyed intimate links with Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency. In the late 1980s, the group was backed by the army during conflicts in Indian-administered Kashmir. In 2002 the group was banned by the former president Pervez Musharraf but its leadership continued its activities under the cover of Jamaat.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa The jihad masquerade
* The history of Jamaat-ud-Dawa is intertwined with that of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant organisation that Indian investigators blame for the Mumbai terrorist attacks last November. The relationship is described as being similar to the links between the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein. One disillusioned former member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa told The Independent last year: "Though they [Jamaat-ud-Dawa] don't engage in jihad themselves, they encourage people to move towards it."
* Jamaat-ud-Dawa is said to have been founded in 1985 by Hafeez Mohammed Saeed, the same man who founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, which was branded a terrorist organisation in 2002 by the Pakistani government. Since then, Jamaat-ud-Dawa claims to have distanced itself from the banned group, saying it is only engaged in welfare work – but suspicions of a different agenda remain, and the US State Department listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa itself as a terrorist organisation and blocked its assets in 2006.
* After the Mumbai attacks, Pakistan vowed to clamp down on Jamaat-ud-Dawa. But the charity still enjoys influence under a new name, Falah-e-Insaniat. It runs schools and clinics in the Muridke district of Lahore. Where there is a vacuum in public provision, it plays a role, for example after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake it says it built 5,000 homes and 39 schools. With its financial status secured by landholdings, it will take vigorous action by the Pakistani government to ensure its demise.
The sign that gave it away
Parked outside Mardan's district hospital, an ambulance raised The Independent's suspicions that Jamaat were back. The tell-tale sign on the vehicle is the curved scimitar, the group's symbol in its distinctive black and white colours. When questioned about the ambulance, hospital doctors freely admitted that foundations linked to Jamaat were helping relief efforts.