Abbast Town Blast: LeJ’s Chotoo Group Key Suspect
Despite the absence of a responsibility claim for the March 3 bombing in the Shia-dominated Abbas Town area of Karachi, the investigating agencies are certain that the deadly assault was carried out by the Asif Chotoo faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ) on the pattern of the January 10 and February 16 Quetta suicide attacks that killed over 200 Shia Hazaras.
At least 48 people, including women and children, were killed and over 135 injured in the Abbas Town attack which targeted the port city’s Shia-dominated neighbourhood.
The investigators are not yet sure if the explosive-laden vehicle used in the bombing was driven into adjoining blocks of Rabia Flowers and Iqra City by a suicide bomber or a time device was used to explode over 150kg of explosives which were laced with ball bearings. Conspicuously, none of the two major anti-Shia terrorist groups operating in Karachi — the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi — has so far claimed responsibility for the attack which is quite unusual.
TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan has refuted his group’s involvement in the Karachi carnage but he did not condemn the tragedy.
Those investigating the Abbas Town massacre have reliable evidence to suggest that the attack was carried out by the LJ. Asked as to why no one from the LJ has claimed the attack as usual, a senior security official said the terrorist group has apparently changed its strategy because the previous responsibility claim led to Malik Mohammad Ishaq’s house arrest for a month.
“Had the LJ claimed the Abbas Town attack as well just like the Quetta attacks, it would have created bigger problems not only for Malik Ishaq but also for his aides in the Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ) which was previously known as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP).” It must be mentioned here that Malik Ishaq is also the vice president of the Sunni Deobandi ASWJ, headed by Maulana Mohammad Ahmed Ludhianvi, the former chief of the SSP.
According to those investigating the Karachi carnage, there are at least seven factions of the LJ which are currently active in Karachi — Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami, Asif Chotoo group, Akram Lahori group, Naeem Bukhari group, Qari Zafar group, Qari Shakeel group and Farooq Bengali group. Most of these groups are al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked and are allegedly being string-pulled by Malik Mohammad Ishaq who is largely believed to be the de facto chief of the LJ. While targeting the law enforcement agencies and the Shia minority in Karachi, the seven LJ groups also coordinate with three Tehrik-e-Taliban factions which are active in Karachi — Waliur Rehman group (of South Waziristan), Badr Mansoor group (of North Waziristan) and Mulla Fazlullah group (of Swat).
However, the Asif Chotoo faction of the LJ is the prime suspect in the March 3 bombing. Chotoo became the chief operational commander of the LJ following the June 17, 2002 arrest from Karachi of Akram Lahori, the Salar-e-Aala of the outfit. Three years later, Asif Chotoo was also arrested by the security agencies [on September 25, 2005] along with his accomplice Rashid alias Shahid Satti when he was travelling to Lahore from Rawalpindi via Motorway. The head money for Asif and Satti was Rs 2.5 million and Rs 1 million respectively. Asif became the most wanted LJ operative along with Riaz Basra after the 1997 killing of five under training Iranian Air Force cadets in the garrison town of Rawalpindi.
Almost three months after Asif Chotoo’s arrest, the security agencies also captured his No. 2 Osman Chotoo, from Karachi [on December 20, 2005]. Osman, who had stepped in as the LJ chief after Asif’s arrest, had been wanted by the Punjab police for taking part in the May 6, 1997 murder of SSP Gujranwala right in front of his official residence at the age of 13. Considered to be a trainer of suicide bombers, Osman had been on the run since then, having moved to Karachi. The arrest of the Chotoo duo became possible due to the seizure of Arifa Baloch and Saba Baloch, the daughters of a Karachi banker Sher Muhammad Baloch. Both the sisters were married to Asif and Osman and nabbed by the security agencies from Swat in June 2005 following intelligence information that they had been trained in suicide bombing by one Azra, the widow of an Uzbek militant commander, who was killed in the Waziristan tribal region.
Although Asif Chotoo is behind the bars for the last many years, his faction of the LJ is very much active in Karachi. The LJ had carried out 50-plus terrorist attacks across in the port city in 2012, mostly targeting the Shias. In the wake of recent media reports pertaining to a seat adjustment deal between the Sharif-led PML-N and the LJ-linked ASWJ for the upcoming general elections, Interior Minister Rehman Malik had accused the Punjab government of being soft on the Jhangvi network in Punjab, adding that the liaison between the Punjab government and the LJ-linked sectarian groups has created a threatening situation for the Shia minority. Malik further said that the Punjab-based LJ network and its leadership were mainly responsible for the ongoing killing spree of the Shia community in Quetta and Karachi.
“I ask the Punjab government if it is not supporting and patronizing Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, why these terrorists are not carrying out terrorist activities in the Punjab despite having their headquarters there,” Rehman Malik said on March 4 in Karachi. “Had the Punjab government initiated action against the LJ, over 90 percent of terrorist acts could have been prevented. I gave a list of 734 LJ militants to the Punjab government and put their names in the Fourth Schedule, but due to political expediency, the Punjab government is reluctant to take action against them. Pervez Rasheed, I know you people are afraid of the LJ and are supporting them. If that is not the case, then tell me why Malik Ishaq’s younger brother withdrew his nomination papers in favour of Shahbaz Sharif in the 2008 Bhakar by-polls,” he asked.
Even though the Punjab government’s spokesman Senator Pervez Rasheed has strongly refuted Malik’s claims as a pack of lies, a 2012 classified report prepared by Counter Terrorism Department of the Punjab government had conceded that 2,487 militants trained in Afghanistan and 556 militants released from Afghan prisons are now running the terrorist networks of the Tehrik-e-Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi not only in Punjab but also in Sindh and Balochistan.
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