Pakistani charity Jamaat-ud-Dawa is a front for a militant group blamed for the 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai, according to the United Nations. But the Islamist aid workers have been hailed as heroes by the survivors of the October 26 earthquake that hit Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan.
The organization’s response to the quake highlighted its efficient disaster response, as well as its ability to work alongside the military. Approximately 2,000 volunteers from Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) were quickly dispatched across the north of the country.
Operating despite U.S. and UN sanctions, JuD’s work shows the sharp contrast with Pakistan's intensifying crackdown on international aid groups, as well as the country’s ongoing hesitancy to address anti-India militants -- a potential flashpoint for the nuclear-armed neighbors. Pakistan has denied claims by India that it uses militants in proxy attacks.
This week, Pakistani Information Minister Pervez Rashid told media that banned groups would not be allowed to provide aid.
But 50-year-old herbal healer Najib Alam, whose mud-and-stone house was damaged by the 7.5 magnitude earthquake, says JuD is the only charity in his mountain village of Rehankot in the Upper Dir district in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
"JuD are the only people here," Alam said from the wrecked interior of his home. "Maybe those who preach humanitarianism like the U.S. should come here and help us."
The United Nations and United States say they issued sanctions against JuD and sister organization the Falah-e-Insaniat Foundation because they exploit disasters to raise volunteers and funds for militants.
According to them, JuD is a front for the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) group, responsible for attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir. LeT was also blamed for the 2008 Mumbai attack that killed 166 people.
JuD says it is unjustly accused.
"This is propaganda. The UN puts sanctions on Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but we were never told what terrorism we do, and neither has anyone ever proved any allegation of terrorism against us," said Abdur Rauf, head of JuD's humanitarian relief operations.
The United States designated Rauf a "global terrorist" in 2010.
JuD enlists 30,000 volunteers and hundreds of workers, who are paid between $100 and $200 a month, said Rauf and other JuD officials. It also pays for about 500,000 copies of weekly publications and runs 300 seminaries.
Publicly, JuD disavows armed militancy and promotes conservative Islamic rule, calling for Pakistan to retake Kashmir.
JuD founder Hafiz Saeed, who also led LeT before it was sanctioned, issued a statement on October 28 blaming Pakistan's "un-Islamic" government and "public vulgarity."
Following the 2008 Mumbai attack, the United States offered $10 million for information leading to Saeed's arrest and conviction.
Pakistan’s crackdown on international aid groups and its accusations toward some of being spies has left room for charities such as JuD to gather strength. The crackdown began after information surfaced that the CIA had used a doctor with contacts at an international aid group to find Osama bin Laden in 2011.
The Interior Ministry announced plans earlier in October to vet all international aid groups and to cancel registration of any charity not working in the "national interest" -- something which charities say could be left wide open to interpretation.
"The policy ... will worsen the already-deteriorating working climate for international humanitarian and human rights groups," said Human Rights Watch.
On groups like JuD, however, the government has imposed few restrictions, Rauf said. "Everyone is coordinating and collaborating," he said, referring to his teams, the government, and the military.
Many of the group's medical camps across the region were set up in government hospitals. Photographs show JuD volunteers working alongside the military.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently pledged to crack down on militants, specifically naming Lashkar-e-Taiba in a joint statement with U.S. President Barack Obama during a trip to the United States.
The October 26 earthquake claimed the lives of 272 Pakistanis and damaged approximately 25,000 homes, according to government numbers.
Rauf says the JuD is popular because it helps the poor when few wealthy politicians seem to care.
"(Hafiz Saeed) is always among the public, always solving people's problems," he said. "We ourselves are from the people, we are from the middle and poor classes. There is no difference between our class and theirs."
Written by Asad Hashim for Reuters