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Storming of Lal Masjid in Pakistan: An Analysis

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  • September 26, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: S K Bhutani
    Discussants: Ved Marwah & Sudhir Sharma

    Conversion of a religious place by terrorists into a heavily fortified safe sanctuary over a protracted period of time is a tactic largely restricted to Asia. Entrenched in this meticulously defended complex, terrorists challenge the might of the state.

    This terrorist fortress is characterized by the presence of a large number of their followers. Such a situation is distinct from other scenarios where terrorists use religious places to take refuge while being chased by security forces, forcibly take innocent pilgrims as hostages or launch an attack on the assembled devotees.

    Lal Masjid, a mosque complex, located in Islamabad, was being used by radical Islamist clerics and their supporters, to defy the Pakistani government and impose Islamist edicts. When the situation deteriorated, a siege was established around the Lal Masjid for over a week and finally on July 10, 2007, Pakistani army stormed it, after talks with the clergy failed. The operation was marked by fierce fighting and heavy loss of life, during which militants responded with rockets, machine gun fire and petrol bombs.

    While militants occupying such hallowed precincts are in violation of international humanitarian law, security forces tasked to clear them out need to exercise utmost restraint, use minimum force, avoid collateral damage and uphold religious sentiments. Military operations launched to flush out terrorists from places of worship have far reaching political, social and religious ramifications.

    While the Lal Masjid attracted its share of media coverage during the crisis, inexplicably a detailed analytical study of the episode is still awaited. This paper attempts to identify lessons at the macro level to deal with similar situations by using the storming of Lal Masjid as a case study.

    Events Leading to the Siege

    Following the September 11 attacks in the United States, Pakistan’s support to the US-led Global War on Terror (GWOT) was strongly opposed by the leadership of the Lal Masjid. In July 2005, Pakistani authorities attempted to raid the mosque in connection with the investigation into the London bombings, but the police were blocked by baton-wielding female students. Subsequently, the authorities apologized for the behaviour of the police. During 2006 and the first half of 2007, the mosque's increasingly aggressive students and leadership, supported by militants continued to challenge the authority of the government in Islamabad. They also launched an anti-vice campaign and instigated incidents such as kidnappings of alleged prostitutes, including Chinese, and burning films, following the example of the Taliban in Afghanistan. By early April 2007, the mosque had set up a sharia court.

    Talks reportedly broke down on the morning of July 10, 2007 over the militants' demand for an amnesty, leading to orders being issued to the army to flush them out. What pushed the government to undertake precipitous action was China's angry response to the killing of three Chinese workers on July 8 in Peshawar. Military intelligence reported that the militants who had carried out the killings were linked to the group in the Islamabad mosque. This coupled with the break-down of direct negotiations led to the final assault on July 10.

    Analysis of Lal Masjid Episode

    Reportedly, on July 8 Musharraf was presented with three options: launch an air strike, gas the compound to render the inmates unconscious or launch ground assault. The decision whether to assault a place of worship or continue with its siege, forcing the inmates into surrender is always a difficult one. Protagonists of the offensive option argue that such a siege may last a long time, even several months, as terrorists would have stocked adequate quantities of food material, water and other items of sustenance, inflaming religious passions and resulting in a mass uprising across the country. An assault on a religious place may be a relatively quicker alternative, but invariably leads to heavy loss of life and public alienation with attendant ramifications.

    The Pakistan government was criticised for allowing the situation to deteriorate and being a mute spectator to the excesses committed by the Lal Masjid vigilantes. Each new episode was met with feeble government response or appeasement. There were also differences within the government about the approach to be followed in dealing with the issue.

    Usually such a situation is misjudged in the initial stages due to an overwhelming desire to avoid taking firm action for fear of inflaming religious passions. Militarily, the best chances of success with minimum damage are right at the beginning, before the terrorists have had time to prepare extensive bunkers and stock up weapons and supplies. With operations of this kind, the battle is as much in the mind as on the ground. The more the operation drags on, the worse it is, as the initiative passes to the terrorists.

    Fears of a public backlash kept the Pakistani government from acting earlier against the radicals within Lal Masjid. Reportedly, intelligence agencies indicated that it could get help from Taliban in Waziristan and other madrassas in the vicinity, leading to large scale turbulence. While the siege of the mosque led to anti-government sentiment to fester in militant and fundamentalist communities throughout Pakistan, the response of other terrorist groups was subdued. Overall, there was widespread opinion within Pakistan that firm action should have been taken against Lal Masjid extremists at an early stage.

    The assault on the Lal Masjid by the army was launched within 72 hours of the situation being handed over to it. Once the army has been requisitioned to deal with the situation, there is a tendency to expect it to launch the operation at the earliest, largely premised on the assumption that any further delay will be indicative of a weak response. Deployment of the army is an escalatory step, bringing additional pressure on terrorists and should be given time to influence the negotiations’ process. Moreover, such an operation not only requires detailed and meticulous military planning but also extensive coordination with a host of agencies, including paramilitary forces, civil police and local administrative machinery. Since the situation has already been allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that the army has to be called out, it is imperative that adequate time is allowed for planning and preparation to the army.

    Officials hastily revised their assessment of clearing the Lal Masjid which they initially predicted would take just four hours. The militants continued to resist for over 30 hours and inflicted heavy casualties on the security forces. It has been experienced that the army always complains about lack of information to plan operations against such targets. The situation was no different in the case of Lal Masjid.

    Use of Minimum Force

    After the Lal Masjid military action, concerns have been expressed that the army did not comply with the principle of use of minimum force. The number of casualties suffered by the Pakistani SSG is indicative of their intent to ensure compliance with the principles of use of minimum force and avoiding collateral damage. More the number of civilian casualties during military action on a religious place, more vehement is the criticism. While Lal Masjid operation was a fairly successful operation from the military’s perspective, there was muted appreciation of the military’s role, fearing a backlash in glorifying the army after assault on a mosque.

    In such situations, totally different from normal law and order problems of mob control or violent demonstrations, it needs to be appreciated that the army is called out to act against highly motivated, lethally armed and well entrenched group of terrorists who have made elaborate preparations to ward off entry by the security forces into the complex. Minimum force has to be related to the terrorists’ numbers, weaponry and strength/layout of field fortifications. However, the army has to prevent or limit damage to the religious and historically important buildings by strictly controlling the application of fire power. Fire fighting teams need to be standby in case of fire incidents occurring due to exchange of fire or attempted arson by terrorists. It requires a very high degree of discipline, leadership, motivation and moral courage on the part of troops involved in the operation to exercise restraint in the face of danger and extreme provocation, with their colleagues dying around them.


    It is apparent that terrorists are increasingly focusing on religious places to carry out their nefarious activities and will continue to do so. Therefore, it is imperative that rather than knee jerk reactions after a terrorist incident, long term measures are taken to deter the terrorists. The Indian security establishment could study the French system of keeping the places of worship under surveillance.

    In situations where fundamentalists and terrorists take control of a religious place and challenge the authority of the state, the government needs to act decisively before the pot boils over. From the military perspective, tiring out terrorists to make them surrender by besieging the place of worship is a preferred option than direct assault in certain circumstances. Storming of religious places by the security forces invariably leads to collateral damage and loss of life, despite adhering to the principle of minimum use of force. This provides an opportunity to the terrorists to exploit the situation further, which can have grave religious and political ramifications.

    The seminar was chaired by Ambassador S.K. Bhutani. Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Sudhir Sharma and Ved Marwah were the two external discussants. Comments on the paper were also provided by the two internal discussants – Colonel Arvind Dutta and Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha.

    Major points highlighted in the discussion were:

    • Air strike is unthinkable in such a situation. However, air power can be used to provide real time information to the security forces.
    • Timely action is required in dealing with such situations, as storming religious places normally hurt the sentiments of the locals.
    • The Pakistan government was fully aware of the situation, but it failed to take timely action.
    • Rather than using the army in such operations, the police force trained to handle such situations should be employed.
    • Assessment of public opinion is needed before carrying out such massive military operations against religious places.
    • Theory of the relation between state and religion needs to be thoroughly analysed.

    Prepared by M. Amarjeet Singh, Research Assistant at IDSA.