WASHINGTON – Abdul Maulana Aziz, a follower of Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar who led the infamous Red Mosque rebellion in Pakistan, has declared his support for the newly formed Islamic State, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The jihadist army of the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS, had taken over large swaths of Iraq and declared the establishment of a caliphate, governed by Islamic law, or Shariah, that also includes northeastern Syria.
Aziz’s backing of Baghdadi is seen as ominous by Western intelligence, since he is close to such groups as Sipa-e-Sahaba and the Tehnik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, which seek the overthrow – even by violent means – of the Pakistani government, which possesses nuclear weapons.
Aziz’s support for Baghdadi and ISIS comes as Pakistan, a predominantly Sunni country, faces yet another political crisis that threatens the existence of its democratic secular government. Political opponents of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have demanded his resignation, which he has refused.
His opponents want sweeping constitutional reform to replace parliamentary democracy and confront alleged corruption that has crept into the electoral process.
However, jihadist groups see an opportunity now to assert their influence as Pakistan’s political crisis grows worse.
Aziz was thrown into jail after the 2007 Red Mosque attack but later released. Although there were some 27 charges pending against him at one time, the Pakistani courts dismissed all of them.
The government then asked Aziz to be part of a negotiating team of the Taliban, which are an instrument of Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence Group, or ISI.
The Pakistani government enlisted Aziz in an effort to have a militant interlocutor to negotiate with the TTP, which seeks the overthrow of the Pakistani government.
However, Aziz pulled out as a negotiator with the government, insisting Shariah must replace Pakistan’s constitutional law. His recent move comes despite what sources say are his strong ties to the ISI.
Aziz has vowed that Islam will “spread all over Pakistan, then all over the world.”
As an apparent supporter of the TTP as well, Aziz backs groups that are actively training jihadists, including Uzbeks, who would give jihadist fighters access to all of Central Asia.
He also is supportive of the training in jihadist Pakistani camps of Chinese Uighurs, who seek to separate the westernmost Xinjiang province from the rest of China and declare an independent Islamic state of Turkestan.
Sources say Pakistan’s ISI has been complicit in such training.
The development has also created problems in Beijing, which sources say Aziz blames for the reported death of his mother and brother in the July 2007 siege of Red Mosque.
According to sources, Red Mosque jihadists had targeted Chinese sex workers as part of a purification effort. The Pakistani government, then led by President Pervez Musharraf, bent to Chinese demands and sent in Pakistani troops to storm the mosque, which resulted in the death of hundreds of Muslims, including Aziz’ mother and brother.
Aziz, who was at the Red Mosque at the time of the siege, had disguised himself in a woman’s burka from head to toe, but he was discovered and paraded in a “humiliating fashion,” sources say.
Nevertheless, the Red Mosque encounter showed that Islamic militancy, which has acted as a proxy for the Pakistani policy, especially toward India, was becoming a threat to the government itself.
Aziz’s backing of ISIS puts Baghdadi and his Sunni radical caliphate in direct contact with the TTP, China’s Uighurs and the Afghan Taliban, which was created by the ISI.
With the Afghan Taliban biding its time until U.S. forces completely leave Afghanistan in 2016, ISIS has the opportunity to extend its influence in that country as well.
For years, Aziz was a backer of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and recently named a library after bin Laden, who was killed in May 2012 by U.S. SEALs in a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, with the apparent knowledge of the ISI.
“If Pakistan truly has freedom of expression,” Aziz said at the time of the inauguration of the library, “then we should be able to express our love for our heroes. And we love Osama bin Laden.
Aziz recently named a dispensary after Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman who is serving a life term in U.S. prison on charges of attempting to kill an American soldier and an official of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Afghanistan.
Sidiqui is an MIT-educated neuroscientist who also is known as “Lady al-Qaida.”
Her release was one of the demands by ISIS captors of American journalist James Foley before he was beheaded in retaliation for U.S. air strikes against ISIS in Iraq.