For nearly two decades, Malik Ishaq, the leader of the banned Lashkar-e-Jhangvi sectarian group, has shuffled between jail stays and probation. For whatever reason, the terrorism charges just don't stick. According to Ishaq's lead legal counsel, Qazi Misbah ul Hassan, he has been implicated in 64 cases -- including a rash of bomb and gun attacks on religious processions, congregations, and places of worship. But he has only been held accountable for two minor and non-violent crimes, charges which lately have also slid right off.
Earlier this year, judges from two separate courts freed the sectarian militant after the prosecution failed to provide incriminating evidence. Indeed, the charge sheets were lean. Ishaq, 55, was held responsible for delivering two provocative speeches: one on Aug. 30, 2012; the other on Feb. 9, 2013. The only proof of this acerbic discourse -- and possibly the only hope of ever convicting Ishaq of any crime -- is a single, grainy-sounding CD recording.
Evidence this flimsy was sure to be tossed out, and that is exactly what happened. "The petitioner told the court it was not his voice," Khurram Khan, the prosecutor, told me. "So we sent the recording to a forensic science laboratory. Now they don't have the technology to determine its veracity. And that was that."
Ishaq first gained notoriety in 1997, when he was picked up on charges of murder, making death threats, and committing theft. In an interview with an Urdu publication in October of that year, Ishaq admitted his involvement in the killing of over 100 people, mostly from the Shiite Muslim sect, for which his outfit holds particular animosity. (Pakistan's Shiite population is estimated to be between 10 and 15 percent.)
Over the next 14 years, the firebrand leader was lodged in several state prisons across Punjab province, from where he oversaw a relentless campaign of mass casualty attacks against Shiite civilians. Then in 2011, he was released on bail. What followed was a confusing gauntlet of arrest, release, and re-arrest -- none of which brought about a pause in Ishaq's murderous mission.
The extent of his bloody vision is evident in the CD recording, excerpts of which are as follows.
On the morning of Aug. 30, 2012, the freshly-released cleric arrived at a packed-to-capacity mosque in the Bhakkar district of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous and important province. Flanked by 15 weapon-wielding guards, he alighted from a double-cabin vehicle and proceeded towards the stage. What followed was a blistering, 45-minute monologue.
Ishaq claimed that during his incarceration the Pakistani authorities had pleaded with him, repeatedly offering him a ‘get out of jail' card. "They told me, stop speaking against them [Shiites] and we will free you," he blustered, adding that: "I told them, I would rather die!" The ebullient crowd roared, punctuating his words with cries of "Shia Kafir [Shias Infidel]," and hurled a repertoire of abuses at the late leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (Iran is a predominantly Shiite country). On his way out, Ishaq vowed to rescue his 42 comrades who then were on death row.
In 2013, at the same mosque, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi chief addressed a crowd of 1,000. The gathering was monitored by a handful of policemen in civil clothes. According to a police report, after reiterating his mission to declare Shiites non-Muslims, Ishaq's underlings swore to give their blood for his mission.
Until recently, Ishaq was almost unknown outside Pakistan. Then, on Feb. 6, 2014, the United States catapulted him onto the world stage, adding his name to their list of most wanted global terrorists.
So who exactly is this firebrand?
Born to a middle-class family in southern Punjab, Ishaq dropped out of school at a young age and sold cigarettes and soft drinks for a living. Then, during his teen years, he became a protégé of the radical Islamist Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, an extremist who focused his energies on persecuting Shiite Muslims. Religiously motivated, he joined Jhangvi's incorrigible Sipah-e-Sahaba faction in 1989, but later left and founded his own militant wing of the party. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi was proscribed as a terror group by Pakistan on Aug. 14, 2001. Today, several of the men who founded the group with Ishaq have been killed or captured -- Riaz Basra was killed in a police encounter in 2002, while Akram Lohari was apprehended later that year. Yet the killings continue apace.
Ishaq has developed an aura of invulnerability -- he is everywhere and yet nowhere.
Soon after his release in 2011, Ishaq's violent Sunni outfit employed novel tactics to hunt down members of the Shiite minority sect. In the southwestern city of Quetta, for example, masked militants would stop buses carrying pilgrims, check their identifications, line up the Shiites, and mow them down. In some instances, the Lashkar men would videotape the executions. And each time, fearing public backlash, the government would shove Ishaq back into confinement. But the detentions never held, and court after court overturned the indictments, sending him back out into the world. Interestingly, Ishaq has never been on the run, a testament to his confidence that the jurors would fail to convict him.
Ishaq's clout was unmistakable. Unlike other high security prisoners, he had access to a cell phone, according to some reports. This may be due in part to his ability to enthrall the men guarding him. A senior police official had this to say when I spoke to him about Ishaq's time in the Central Jail in Lahore -- which allocates a separate block for militants involved in sectarian crimes: "He was a truly religious man. He spent the entire day reading Islamic books and praying. He commanded a lot of respect." Police departments hosting him always took extra precautions to ensure no Shiite official was deployed near his cell.
The Pakistani state's trepid response in convicting Ishaq exposes its contradictory impulses. It is clearly not serious about keeping the militant behind bars. In fact, when need be, it has not shied away from using his pull to its advantage. In 2009, the extremist was flown on a special chartered flight from his cell in Lahore to the garrison town of Rawalpindi to holds talks with gunmen holed up inside the army's general headquarters. One of the armed assailants had named Ishaq as the mastermind behind the assault. "This boy claimed Malik Ishaq had sent him," Hassan revealed to me. "But when Ishaq was brought in, the attacker could not recognize him. They were just using his name to malign him."
At present, there are only 12 cases -- mostly homicides -- pending against Ishaq, hearings of which are being conducted in several district courts, including Multan, Sargodha, and Bahawalpur, according to Hassan. Authorities also suspect Ishaq's influence in the lethal attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team visiting Lahore in 2009.
But will he ever be convicted? The prosecutor paints a grim picture.
"It will be difficult," Khan says, noting that just "to produce him in a court is a major task. There are cases registered against him in several cities across Punjab. He can't be moved around daily. A lot of security is needed, and the courts refuse to proceed until he is present."
But that is only part of the story. Potential witnesses are routinely bullied and intimidated to back out. During one particular hearing, the judge attempted to conceal his identity by burying his face in his hands, according to one media report. Ishaq accosted the frightened arbitrator, mockingly reciting the name of the judge's children. The judge quickly abandoned the case.
And Ishaq's lawyers are determined see him released. "What is his crime? He only promotes the cause of his sect. But he has never been anti-state," says Hassan.
In Pakistan's toxic mix of terrorist organizations, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi maintains ideological and operational links with the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda. When need be, its foot soldiers have not hesitated to take their mission of sectarian strife across the border. In 2011, an offshoot of the radical group claimed responsibility for killing 55 Shiites in Kabul, possibly in cahoots with al Qaeda. Other jihadist groups, including Jaish-e-Muhammad, espouse its mission of establishing a Sunni state.
More than 600 Shiites were killed in Pakistan in 2013, and over 1,000 were injured in a troubling uptick in sectarian attacks.
For now the state is engaged. On June 15, it launched a comprehensive military operation in North Waziristan, long considered a deadly crucible of local and foreign terrorists. But there is a sectarian face-off brewing in the Punjab heartland, where Jhangvi is firmly rooted. But when the state's gaze will turn to that fight remains to be seen.
Based in Lahore, Benazir Shah is a senior reporter with Newsweek Pakistan. Her articles have appeared on Newsweek.com and the Daily Beast, as well as in the Times of India.