Militant Pakistani Sunni groups that trained alongside al-Qaida, fought with the Taliban in Afghanistan and launched terrorist attacks in India have pledged their support to Saudi Arabia, a key source of their funding, amid growing pressure on Pakistan to join the military coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen.
In the last seven days, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has received calls from Saudi Arabia’s king, its crown prince, its foreign minister and its intelligence chief, each seeking unspecified support from Pakistan’s 550,000-strong military, one of the largest in the Muslim world.
The calls have, since Friday, prompted four meetings between Sharif and Pakistan’s powerful military chiefs, who’ve been working to craft a response to the Saudi requests that would keep Pakistan from becoming a combatant in Yemen but provide some Pakistani bolstering of Saudi defenses.
Further pressure has been applied on the government since Friday by the Pakistani militant groups, which share Saudi Arabia’s puritanical interpretation of Islam and have benefited since the late 1980s from huge inflows of donations from the kingdom and other Persian Gulf monarchies involved in the Yemen campaign.
The militant groups have styled their support for Saudi Arabia as a movement to protect Islam’s two holiest sites, in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, invoking the belief that all Muslims would be duty-bound to come to their defense in the event they were threatened.
The militant pressure groups include the Jama’at-ud-Dawah, top activists of which are on trial in Pakistan for allegedly planning and remotely supervising the militants who killed 166 people during a three-day terrorist rampage through Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, in November 2008.
A Pakistan-based American diplomat, in a note written immediately after the Mumbai attack, said some $100 million a year was flowing from the Gulf Arab states to seminaries in eastern Punjab province tied to Jama’at-ud-Dawah and other militant organizations.
The note was among the thousands of leaked State Department cables published by WikiLeaks in November 2010.
Jama’at’s chief, Hafiz Mohammed Saeed, told supporters gathered Friday on a busy road in the Pakistani city of Lahore that he would “sacrifice everything, including my son,” to protect Saudi Arabia – thereby suggesting he would order activists to join the conflict if asked to by Riyadh.
The U.S. declared Saeed a global terrorist in April 2012 and placed a $10 million bounty for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
Other Sunni Muslim groups associated with the Afghan Taliban and al Qaida have combined to lobby for assisting Saudi Arabia, arguing that the Houthis are part of a conspiracy to undermine Sunni governments throughout the region.
They include aging cleric Maulana Samiul Haq, whose seminaries in northwest Pakistan in the 1990s produced thousands of recruits for the Afghan Taliban, with support of the Pakistani and Saudi security services.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a member of the anti-Houthi coalition, were the only states to recognize the Taliban administration that seized power in most of Afghanistan in 1997.
The pro-Saudi pressure groups also include Ahle Sunnat Wal Jama’at, whose members have been blamed for many sectarian killings of Shiites, as well as Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, an al Qaida-trained militant group that has fought Indian forces in disputed Kashmir since the 1990s and has remained faithful to the Afghan Taliban since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
Pakistani political analysts said they believe it’s unlikely Saudi Arabia would use Pakistani militants as proxies in the Yemen conflict. Nor are Pakistani authorities likely to allow it, because it would ignite sectarian tensions in Pakistan, where 23 percent of the population is Shiite.
Analysts said the pro-Saudi activism of the militant groups was a reaction to an unprecedented wave of negative public sentiment toward Saudi Arabia for its funding of Pakistani militant groups connected to the December massacre of 132 schoolchildren at an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar.
The militant groups have been under massive pressure from the government and the military after the slaughter in Peshawar.
Under public pressure, Pakistan’s interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, in January publicly asked Saudi Arabia to restrict funding of insurgent militant groups fighting the Pakistani security forces.
“The anti-Saudi lobby here is very active, to unprecedented levels in the social and broadcast media,” said Amir Zia, editor-in-chief at the Bol Media Network. “The militant groups are leading the reaction of forces close to Saudi Arabia. Both are trying to sway the Pakistani government’s decision against or in favor of militarily supporting the Saudis.”
Public anger toward Saudi Arabia has been fueled by a wave of beheadings of Pakistani drug mules in Saudi Arabia under a government crackdown against narcotics launched in the kingdom last year. Critics have contrasted the Pakistani government’s refusal to lobby close ally Saudi Arabia to halt the executions with its granting of permits to Gulf dignitaries to hunt endangered bird species in Pakistan during the winter migration season.
Dawn, Pakistan’s leading English-language daily newspaper, on Tuesday reported that 77 percent of the 22,000 readers who voted in an opinion poll conducted on its website were opposed to Pakistan joining the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen.
It was published as Pakistan’s defense and foreign ministers traveled to Riyadh to discuss Saudi Arabia’s request for military support.
Hussain is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @tomthehack.