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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour in Pakistan, not in the isolated mountains of the tribal belt where the Taliban first appeared, but in the country's heartland where an extremist network has taken root.

Punjab province is home to more than half of Pakistan's 175 million citizens. It's also home to an increasingly dangerous web of Punjabi militants who've teamed up with the Pakistani Taliban and al-Qaida.

NPR's Julie McCarthy has the story.

JULIE MCCARTHY: Here in Multan, known as the city of Sufis and saints, this treeless unpaved lane is testament to the long legacy of militants in the Punjab. We're standing on so-called Martyrs Street in a row of rubble-strewn streets, housing families who've lost sons and fathers. They fought in the jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan and later against the Indians in Kashmir, and they joined up when the government was promoting jihad as a state policy in the 1980s and '90s.

Today, a new generation in southern Punjab is being raised on a brand of Islam that has declared war against the government and the people of Pakistan.

KHALED AHMED: South Punjab has always been very different from the rest of Punjab.

MCCARTHY: Khaled Ahmed is one of the foremost experts on Pakistan's militant groups. He says extremists have gained a foothold in southern Punjab because governance is weak and feudal landowners dominate.

AHMED: They have to work in tandem with the big person there, and that big person is being replaced by the clergy, the clergy which is weaponized. So that is why south Punjab is such a breeding ground.

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking Foreign Language)

MCCARTHY: Punjab is home to nearly half of Pakistan's 20,000 madrassas. Hundreds of religious seminaries in Multan follow the hard-line Deobandi school of Islam, not unlike the puritanical Wahhabism practiced by al- Qaida's founders.

A recent Friday sermon at this mosque gave prominent mention to the July 1st bombing in the provincial capital, Lahore, at the country's most important Sufi shrine.

While authorities suspect Islamist extremists, the cleric was quick to blame the Americans. Maulana Muhammad Kafeel Bukhari said the suicide attack that left dozens dead was the work of the security firm Blackwater.

MAULANA MUHAMMAD KAFEEL BUKHARI: (Speaking Foreign Language)

MCCARTHY: It's so easy to blame the Taliban in southern Punjab, Bukhari said, but I say it's been carried out by the enemies of this country, the foreign intelligence services, to create anarchy and to break Pakistan up, he says.

Punjab's governor calls the notion that Blackwater was involved rubbish, but Bukhari's sermon falls on receptive young ears. Twenty-three-year- old Ali Mardan believes the U.S. is supporting local terrorists to destabilize Pakistan and seize its nuclear weapons.

ALI MARDAN: They're afraid that if any religious man become a prime minister or a president or he takes over the government, he will create a lot of problem for U.S.

MCCARTHY: Seventeen-year-old Mohammad Noman says an Islamic state like Pakistan has a duty to prepare for jihad to defend the faith. An aspiring cleric, Noman says militant groups, although banned, must continue to train.

MOHAMMAD NOMAN: (Through Translator) We consider this training and this preparation for jihad as something good, and it is for our own protection. It is not for terrorism.

MCCARTHY: Senior Punjab police investigator Usman Anwar says there are as many as 30 armed outfits in the country's richest, most populous province. Most are splinter groups from organizations that are now outlawed: Sipah-e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangwi and Jaish-e-Mohammad, the alleged recruiter of Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.

The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan gave these groups renewed fervor.

USMAN ANWAR: Al-Qaida told them that, you know, jihadists, they have beaten Russia. Now it is time for the West to have a taste of its own medicine. Now, they had a greater cause.

MCCARTHY: Anwar says they attack Pakistani targets because they regard their government as a tool of the U.S. He says his many interrogations of young militants start out as debates about perceived international injustices and move to local inequities. And there are many in a place like the southern Punjab, says local analyst Haider Gardezi.

HAIDER GARDEZI: Militancy grows in those pockets where there is deprivations, where there is injustice, where there is lack of education. So basically, it's a question of backwardness.

MCCARTHY: Ayesha Saddiqa, a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, says it's not just madrassas in poor places providing recruits. Young, tech-savvy engineers from government-run schools are quietly being pulled into the militant network.

AYESHA SADDIQA: They are coexisting with other social forces as well, and that is the trick. You don't attract attention, so everybody can say: Oh, no, no, no, there is no - but there is no Talibanization.

MCCARTHY: Parliamentarian Waqas Akram says in his district, so strong is the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba that it flaunts its identity with flags and gun-toting bodyguards. Akram says you wouldn't know that the group's leader is on a government watch list.

WAQAS AKRAM: That man is moving freely, attending funerals, going to madrassas, going to the deputy commissioner's office, going to the police chief's office. What is this?

MCCARTHY: Author Khaled Ahmed says these groups are banned in name only and thrive because it suits the ruling party of the province, the Pakistan Muslim League, led by the country's main opposition figure, Nawaz Sharif. His brother is the chief minister of Punjab. Khaled Ahmed says the Sharifs are pulled in two directions.

AHMED: They are very much joined at the hips with the clergy in Lahore, and they have grown up like that. But they have also grown up relating to outside powers like the United States that secular societies are probably more tolerant because they are not fanatics. So there is this confusion, ideological confusion, in the family.

MCCARTHY: In the aftermath of the attack on Lahore's Sufi shrine, mainstream clerics accuse the Punjab government of being soft on extremist groups.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

Unidentified Man #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking Foreign Language)

Man #2: (Speaking Foreign Language)

MCCARTHY: Since the bombing in Lahore, protesters have taken to the streets of the Punjabi capital decrying terrorism.

The two men most responsible for administering the province - the governor and the chief minister, Shabaz Sharif - have been at odds over how to treat the growing menace.

A spokesman for Sharif insists that he is taking a tough stance, but in March, the chief minister pleaded with the militants to spare Punjab because his party shares their anti-Western attitude.

Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer, who is from the ruling People's Party, called that craven.

SALMAAN TASEER: If you don't take a tough stance against these people right now and nip it in the bud, they'll start spreading, like a cancer virus.

MCCARTHY: A cache of illegal arms, including half a million rounds of bullets, was recently uncovered outside Lahore. Detained suspects told investigators of plans to attack 18 new sites.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Lahore.

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