Pakistan is home to many Islamist terrorist groups. Some enjoy a permissive environment despite technically being banned by the state. This has enabled them to acquire political power. Politicians sometimes court terrorist leaders to turn out voters.
While researching counterterrorism a few summers ago, I met with a high-ranking Pakistani official to talk about his decision to attend a campaign rally with the leader of a proscribed terrorist organization. He admitted that getting the terrorist leader to turn out voters for a politician was his motivation. He also suggested that encouraging such men get into politics was better than seeing them remain involved in terrorism.
I thought of that conversation last week when Pakistan’s election commission refused to recognize the Muslim Milli League, a new political party started by the social welfare arm of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the militant group notorious for the 2008 Mumbai attacks that killed 166 people. The election commission also warned independent candidates for office not to use the party’s name in campaigns.
If the commission had recognized the Muslim Milli League, that would have in effect allowed a terrorist organization to contest elections. It could have opened the door for other militant groups in Pakistan — and several militant groups were already gearing up to establish their own political parties.
Pakistan has a long history of political parties using violence to prevail in elections. Some parties have armed wings. Others rely on associated militias and criminal networks. Religious parties with ties to terrorist groups have contested elections for decades. Members of outlawed terrorist organizations have also won elected office as independent candidates. While no such organization had ever started its own party, Lashkar-e-Taiba and its social welfare wing, Jamaat-ud-Dawa, appeared well positioned to lead the charge.
On the advice of Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Pakistan’s powerful spy agency, the group has changed its name several times since the Sept. 11 attacks to evade sanctions and escape bans.
The Pakistani government still differentiates between Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is banned, and Jamaat ud Dawa, which is not. In reality, they remain two sides of a single organization, led by the same individuals. The military and the intelligence service still support the group. It remains their most reliable terrorist ally against India, sends fighters to Afghanistan, and has helped to combat separatists in Baluchistan, which borders Iran and Afghanistan.
But militancy is not the group’s only mission. It is also dedicated to proselytizing and nonviolent reformism intended to turn Pakistan into a “pure” Islamic state. Many Pakistanis see Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which runs hospitals and ambulance services across the country, as a robust social welfare organization, and not an alias for a lethal terrorist group.
Debates about whether to take part in elections have been continuing for years, according to Laskhar-e-Taiba officials I have spoken with. Yet starting a political party was a major step for an organization whose longstanding position was that Islam forbids participation in electoral politics.
The attempt to begin a party occurred at a time when the group and the Pakistani government are under increasing international pressure. Pakistan might make a cosmetic distinction between Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but the United States and the United Nations have designated both as terrorist groups. The Financial Action Task Force, an international body focused on combating terrorist financing, has also zeroed in on Jamaat ud Dawa and its leader Hafiz Muhammad Saeed.
To placate the United States, the Pakistani government placed Mr. Saeed under house arrest in January and put his organization on a watch list for groups that may be involved in terrorism.
Recasting their organization as a political party could have provided Mr. Saeed and other leaders with more influence over how the state deals with their group. It also would have given them greater freedom to operate, especially when it comes to raising money.
Rather than sucking recruits and resources away from Lashkar-e-Taiba, a new political party could have drawn in more of both. In addition to political cover for its terrorist activities, this would have been another mechanism to influence the domestic discourse and promote hawkish policies toward India.
In theory, entering electoral politics can have a moderating influence on terrorist organizations and perhaps even create conditions for mainstreaming them.
Wasn’t it preferable, the Pakistani official had asked me, for militants to involve themselves in elections than to continue engaging in terrorism? Of course, it was. Except Pakistan had never forced them to choose between terrorism and politics. Instead, these men and the groups they led have been allowed to ply their terrorist trade while simultaneously increasing their political power.
It would be naïve to think that the election commission’s decision is a harbinger of a shift in terms of Pakistan’s policy of supporting and tolerating militant groups. The men who lead them continue contesting elections as independent candidates and may persist in their attempts to register their proscribed organizations under different names. But for the moment, the election commission has held the line against allowing terrorist organizations to contest elections in Pakistan.
Stephen Tankel, the author of Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba, is an assistant professor at American University.