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Officials: Pakistani Religious Schools Increasingly Linked to Afghan Taliban

Afghan boys study the Koran at a madrasah during the month of Ramadan in Kandahar.
Afghan boys study the Koran at a madrasah during the month of Ramadan in Kandahar.

WASHINGTON — When Afghan intelligence officials, assisted by international investigators, probed a terror attack last month that killed five Emirati diplomats in Kandahar, they traced the suspects to a conservative religious seminary in Pakistan.

"The attack was planned at the Mawlawi Ahmad madrasah in Chaman, Quetta," said Sediq Seddiqi, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry.

The investigation shed light on the increasing links of some madrasahs -- Islamic seminaries -- in Pakistan with Afghan Taliban who are fighting the Afghan government and U.S.-led international forces in Afghanistan.

Thirty thousand madrasahs operate across Pakistan, most of them legal and adhering strictly to religious teaching. But thousands are not registered with the government and are teaching grounds and recruiting points for militants and the Taliban, according to Pakistan and Afghan intelligence officials.

Much of the militant activity is centered in Balochistan, where 5,500 madrasahs operate as boarding schools. Many are kept from government scrutiny and are considered breeding points for terror.

"There are many seminaries where the Afghan Taliban are studying, and many are owned by the Afghan Taliban group," Balochistan's home and tribal affairs minister, Sarfaraz Bugti, told VOA's Deewa service.

Unregistered Madrasahs

Experts say the abundance of unregistered madrasahs across the country has led to an increase in militancy in the region. The schools nurture militant ideology and provide foot soldiers for the Taliban, who have been engaged in a bloody insurgency with the U.S.-backed Afghan government for more than a decade.

"You can see madrasahs on every street, and they are spreading extremism to every house, community, and village of Pakistan," said Khadim Hussain, a Pakistani security analyst.

According to Balochistan provincial government estimates, more than 5,000 Afghans study at madrasahs in the province. The Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah, reportedly operated a madrasah in Kuchlak, near the provincial capital, Quetta.

The Afghan Taliban's influence over the unregulated madrasah network is most visible in the Pashto-speaking belt of Balochistan, where Afghan militants can easily travel between Afghanistan and Pakistan, officials say.

"There are 191 madrasahs in my district, 21 of them unregistered, and some 20 percent of the enrolled students are Afghans," said Qaisar Khan Nasir, a provincial official in Qilla Abdullah district, which has a Pashtun-majority population and borders Afghanistan's Kandahar Province.

Washington and Kabul accuse Pakistan of harboring armed opponents of the Afghan government, including the Taliban's Quetta Council, which is composed of Taliban leadership and the Haqqani network -- a U.S.-designated terror organization.

Extremist groups that support militancy in Afghanistan and are U.S.-designated terrorist groups run countrywide networks of madrasahs, according to American intelligence reports. Though banned in Pakistan, the groups operate under different names while supporting the Afghan Taliban.

Last year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government was scathingly criticized for a $3 million grant it allocated to the Darul Uloom Haqqania madrasah, a controversial Islamic seminary that some critics call the "University of Jihad."

Headed by former senator Samiul Haq, the madrasah houses about 4,000 students and is widely known for links to, and has publicly expressed sympathies for, the Taliban fighting in Afghanistan. That association has won the Islamic cleric the title of "Father of the Taliban."

Funding Connections

Both Mullah Omar and Jalaluddin Haqqani -- the founders of Afghanistan's Taliban and the lethal Haqqani network, respectively -- are believed to have studied at the Haqqania madrasah. Taliban leader Mullah Akthar Mansoor, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in May, may also have been a former student.

Pakistani officials say they are investigating funding connections of madrasahs associated with the Taliban.

"The funding these madrasahs receive usually originates from Arab and some other countries, and we're aware of it," said Amin-ul-Hasnat Shah, Pakistan's state minister for religious affairs. "The government is monitoring the money trail and how this money is spent and utilized by madrasahs. We want to ensure these funds are not used for any suspicious activity or to promote extremism through Islamic seminaries in Pakistan."

The Pakistani government says a new national counterextremism policy is being formed, which includes reforming the madrasah system, according to Ihsan Ghani, chief of the National Counter Terrorism Authority. The government vows to register all unregistered madrasahs.

"The government has pledged to reform these madrasahs through registration, change of syllabus, and to keep an eye on any extremism-related activities or links in these madrasahs," Shah said.

Muhammad Mir, a madrasah principal and member of a madrasah committee in Balochistan, said he hoped the government would keep its promise to clean up radical religious schools.

"We're in touch with the government and have requested them to look into the matter on urgent basis," he said. "If there are extremist elements within any madrasahs in Balochistan, the government should take strict action against it."

-- Written by Naseer Ahmad Kakar for Voice Of America