Pakistan Cracks Down on Extremists

Michele Norris talks with documentary filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid. Obaid, who just returned from Pakistan, talks about the government crackdown on extremists there since the London bombings. She says a week before the bombings, she was able to easily contact militants for interviews, but since the bombings, it has become impossible to reach them. She describes what she found new in President Musharraf's televised speech last Friday, and how his words have been implemented by Pakistan police and military in the streets and in schools.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Pakistan has made another arrest in the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Hashim Qadir is suspected of arranging a meeting between Pearl and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh. He was convicted of Pearl's beheading in 2002. A new crackdown against suspected Islamic militants is under way in Pakistan. Up to 600 clerics and others have been detained. The effort follows the July 7th attacks in London, when three of the four suspected suicide bombers were found to be of Pakistani descent, and two of the four were known to have visited Pakistan.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Sharmeen Obaid is a documentary filmmaker for the Discovery Times Channel. Her latest work is called "Reinventing the Taliban?" an investigation of the radical fundamentalism within Pakistan. She recently returned from Pakistan, and she joins us now from Toronto.

Thanks for being with us.

Ms. SHARMEEN OBAID ("Reinventing the Taliban?"): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: What's going on with the current crackdown against militant groups in Pakistan?

Ms. OBAID: You know, Michele, I've actually never seen this strong a crackdown by the Pakistan government. I just returned a few days ago, and I've seen that Islamic religious schools are being raided. Banned militant organizations are being--you know, members are being arrested. I think the government has finally realized that it can't play this dual game of supporting homegrown terrorists while they arrest Arab and Chechen militants that are fighting in Waziristan in Pakistan. They really feel that they need to curtail this homegrown terrorism. And the London bombings, of course, have given them an impetus to do that.

NORRIS: Where's the crackdown centered? Is it in the capital city? And what's the reaction been?

Ms. OBAID: The crackdown is actually all over the country. I was in Karachi. There were huge crackdowns in banned organizations over there in Islamabad. They're raiding Islamic seminaries in Lahore, in small cities across the Punjab, in Sindh. So it's actually a nationwide crackdown. And last Friday there was a nationwide protest by the Islamic religious organizations. But what was interesting for me to see was that this nationwide strike was unsuccessful because the Pakistani police and the Pakistani paramilitary forces were out on the streets really controlling the Islamic religious rallies. And for the first time, they were successful in making sure that these rallies were peaceful.

NORRIS: You know, it seems like President Musharraf is in a very, very difficult position. He must appease the West to show that he's, indeed, an ally in the war on terror, but he must, it seems, be careful not to anger the powerful conservative Muslim base at home. How does he carry out that very careful balancing act?

Ms. OBAID: One of the things I've realized is that they are essentially fighting two wars in Pakistan right now--one in the mountains, one in the cities--against these banned organizations, against these militants. And I think it's a no-win situation for the government. Whether it cracks down on militants up in the mountains or in the cities, they really have their backs against the wall. Public opinion in Pakistan is not favoring any of these activities.

NORRIS: The president, President Musharraf, has vowed to crack down on al-Qaeda in Pakistan. How much success has he had in that area, and has that been complicated with elections that have installed a strictly fundamentalist party in two of the nation's four provinces?

Ms. OBAID: Yes. In terms of fighting al-Qaeda, I think Pakistan has been very successful, but it has paid a high price for it: over 250 Pakistani soldiers dead, more than 500 injured, countless members of the police injured. So, really, I feel that a lot of people inside Pakistan, at least in the government and the army, have taken this crackdown and this rounding up of al-Qaeda operatives seriously. But, you know, they arrest two or four people, and--I've been told this privately--and 10 other people emerge with links to al-Qaeda. It's like a mushrooming effect.

And having these Islamic fundamentalists in the government makes the government's job, I think, a little easier actually, not more difficult, because with these religious fundamentalists in the government, the government can use these people in a way in saying, `Look, we've given you some sort of lever in parliament. Help us,' so that they don't kind of come up in arms against what's happening in Waziristan.

NORRIS: This effort to crack down on al-Qaeda seems almost like a cat-and-mouse game. You've just been in the country. Is there a belief in Pakistan that Osama bin Laden is within the country somewhere?

Ms. OBAID: I spoke to a lot of people in the tribal region, and privately a lot of people told me, `Look, for $25 million, we will sell our own brothers. Why would we not give up Osama bin Laden?' And I thought that that was an interesting notion to come up with because a lot of people in the tribal region don't believe he's there at all. They believe that either he's died or that he's in Afghanistan.

NORRIS: Sharmeen Obaid, it's been good to talk to you.

Ms. OBAID: Thank you so much.

NORRIS: Sharmeen Obaid's latest documentary is called "Reinventing the Taliban?" an investigation of the radical fundamentalism within Pakistan. She spoke to us from Toronto.

SIEGEL: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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