CHARSADDA, Pakistan — A militant Islamist group linked to the 2008 terrorist assault on Mumbai, India, is openly distributing aid to victims of the floods in northwest Pakistan, according to members of the group.
Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which the United Nations listed as a terrorist front group in the wake of the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, is working across the flood-hit areas, its spokesman told McClatchy. In Charsadda, a town in the northwest that suffered some of the worst flooding, JuD could be seen distributing food and running an ambulance service. The group claims to be involved purely in charity work.
Pakistan's ambivalent attitude toward violent Islamist groups, including the Afghan Taliban, has alarmed Washington and other Western allies. Last week British Prime Minister David Cameron accused Pakistan of promoting the "export of terror."
Concern centers on groups such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, widely thought to be a front for extremist organization Lashkar-e-Taiba, which has links to al Qaida and is now said by U.S. officials to have global ambitions. More than 160 people were killed when a group of Lashkar-e-Taiba gunmen attacked Mumbai.
With the government overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster and accused of a slow response to the worst flooding in Pakistan in at least 80 years, a gap opened that the country's well-organized Islamic groups, mainstream and extremist, are filling.
Through relief work, they've been able to win hearts and minds in a region of the country that's threatened by Islamic militancy and a Taliban takeover. Across the deluged northwest, locals complained that the government was all but absent.
The U.N. said Tuesday that the flooding, caused by torrential rains, has now affected 3 million people, with the death toll put at around 1,500 by the provincial government. The World Food Program, a U.N. agency, estimated that 1.8 million people urgently need water, food and shelter.
There are fears of an outbreak of water-borne diseases such as cholera. The flood has now moved farther south, along the Indus River, to the heartland Punjab province, where the U.N. Tuesday reported that the river had breached its banks in seven places, affecting 990 villages.
At the JuD aid "camp" on the main road east out of Charsadda, huge pots, used to cook on an industrial scale, were lined up, and the cooked food already had been distributed to the needy. An ambulance, no longer needed to ferry the injured, was being loaded with bundles of second-hand clothing to be given away. JuD also was running a first aid clinic in a building in town belonging to a college, the group said.
The group is operating under the name of Falah-e-Insaniyat but has made little effort to disguise that it's JuD. Its staff said that it had 2,000 members working for flood relief, across the northwest and south into Punjab province. The uniform vests worn by many of the volunteers bear the badges of both JuD and Falah-e-Insaniyat.
"If the government were doing this work, there would be no need for us," said Hajji Makbool Shah, a 55-year-old volunteer at the aid camp. "When the floods came, we carried people out on our shoulders to our own ambulances. Where were the government ambulances?"
Shah said he's a member of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, but the aid was being distributed under the Falah-e-Insaniyat arm of the organization.
"They put the blame on us for the Mumbai attack, but we have nothing to do with such activities, we do only relief work," Shah said.
Yaya Mujahid, the national spokesman for JuD, said the group is working "in coordination" with Falah-e-Insaniyat.
"We're present to help in all the places where the flood waters have gone," Mujahid said.
Lashkar-e-Taiba was banned in Pakistan in 2002, after which the group used the name Jamaat-ud-Dawa, though it claims to be unrelated to Lashkar-e-Taiba. JuD has a legally ambiguous status in Pakistan. After the U.N. proscribed the group in late 2008, the Pakistani government announced that it outlawed the organization, but when the group challenged this in the courts, judges ruled that no legal ban had been issued by the government.
Many Pakistani experts say that Lashkar-e-Taiba is the militant group that has the closest relationship to Pakistan's shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency.
JuD also was active in the aid effort after the massive 2005 earthquake in northern Pakistan, even winning international praise for its work, and also in caring for those displaced from the Swat valley last year when the army mounted an operation to recapture the area from the Taliban.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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