Pakistan takes aim at Sim cards in anti-terror drive

  • Published
Media caption,

M Ilyas Khan visits a Sim card registration centre

Pakistan has ordered mobile phone users to register their Sim cards in a national database which is being compiled as part of efforts to curb terrorism. As this huge logistical enterprise draws to a close, the BBC's M Ilyas Khan looks at how anti-terror measures are being implemented.

Men gather around a canopy set up by a mobile phone company near a small rural market in Tirkhi Nangyal, a small village about an hour's drive south-east of the capital Islamabad.

They are here to show that the phone connections they own are registered in their own names. If they are not, their service will be shut off by 13 April.

This is one of the many anti-terrorism measures the government has adopted after the deadly attack on Peshawar's Army Public School on 16 December, in which more than 150 people were killed.

Investigators later found out that the phones used by gunmen were issued in the names of people who had no obvious link to any militant groups.

Subscriber Identity Module (Sim) cards - the small chips that are inserted into mobile phones to activate a connection - have been used by militants for communication during attacks.

They have also been used to make threatening calls, to extort money and to detonate bombs.

Pakistan's anti-terror measures

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Students are being taught to handle weapons as part of the government's anti-terror initiative
  • Raising of boundary walls of all schools up to 8ft (2.4m) and topping them with 2ft (0.6m) high razor wire
  • Training students and teachers in the use of arms for self-defence, and allowing teachers to keep arms at school
  • Lifting a seven-year-old moratorium on the executions of prisoners sentenced to death
  • Setting up military courts to try terror suspects
  • Pursuing militant groups in all parts of the country including the north-western tribal areas, parts of Punjab and the southern city of Karachi
  • Cutting off the funding and communications networks of some militant groups
  • Repatriating Afghan refugees, some of whom are suspected of militant sympathies

The re-verification of the cards is such a massive operation because there are approximately 130 million mobile phone users in Pakistan.

But the task is made easier by a system of Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) which has been in place since 2005.

Under this system, all Pakistani nationals provide their biometric data to the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) to obtain their CNIC.

Image caption,
Each mobile phone subscriber is required to supply an electronic thumb impression which is matched against the Nadra biometric national database
Image source, AP
Image caption,
Critics say that the failure of the government to arrest Maulana Aziz, the radical chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque, shows that they are not serious in fighting terrorism

The five private sector telecom companies that operate in Pakistan have been selling Sim cards to subscribers if they were able to show their CNICs, but without obtaining fresh biometric data.

Since January they have processed more than 70,000 biometric devices - costing an estimated $30m (£20m) - at their countrywide outlets as part of the phone re-verification initiative.

Each subscriber is required to produce his or her CNIC against which the Sim card is issued. He or she then has to provide an electronic thumb impression which is matched against the Nadra biometric database.

Experts say that the new measures will make it harder for militants to misuse mobile phones - as long as lost or stolen Sim cards are promptly reported to the authorities.

'Tacit protection'

But questions have been asked about other anti-terror initiatives, not all of which are being implemented so efficiently.

Image caption,
The re-registration programme has been described as one of the world's largest biometric information gathering exercises
Image source, AP
Image caption,
Mobile users who do not get their phones re-verified face disconnection

The initial shock of the Peshawar massacre seemed to create a mood in which it was thought the Pakistani establishment would abandon what many had seen as a policy of tacit protection of some militant groups.

And it didn't take long until the government produced a 20-point National Action Plan (NAP) to combat terrorism.

The plan included measures to crack down on radical madrassas or religious seminaries, to ban groups from operating under new names, to curb the activities of pro-militant propagandists and cut off the funding and communication networks of militants.

But last week the head of Pakistan's National Counter-Terrorism Authority, Hamid Ali Khan, admitted that madrassa reforms and action against banned groups were no longer on the government's list.

He told the Express Tribune newspaper that these were "time consuming issues" that required long-term planning.

Political expediencies

Some put this dampening of enthusiasm down to a lack of conviction. The government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is "not convinced in its heart of hearts that the narrative of militancy needs to be countered", says Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi, a security analyst based in Lahore.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
More than 150 people were killed in the Peshawar school attack and another 100 were injured

This, he says, is because Mr Sharif's PMLN party has traditionally banked on the right-wing conservative religious vote in the central Punjab region.

Most hard core Pakistani militant groups are linked to Punjab and have spawned non-Punjabi groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and its various offshoots.

The PMLN is often accused of forming alliances with the political fronts of these groups.

But while the political expediencies of the ruling party do have an effect, many believe the real power lies with the military.

The army's storming of the central militant sanctuary of North Waziristan in June, and the subsequent rhetoric of the military leadership, created the impression that it intended to eliminate militants of "all shades".

So is there a change in the military's thinking as well?

"I think the earlier stance that some militant groups were instrumental in achieving our security objectives still persists," says Ayesha Siddiqa, an Islamabad-based defence analyst and author of 'Military Inc', a book about the military's $16bn (£10bn) business empire.

She points out that three months after the Peshawar massacre, there is still no sign the military wants to take action against hardliners such as Jamatud Dawa chief Hafiz Saeed or Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Maulana Masood Azhar.

Some civil rights groups have in addition accused the authorities of double-standards by failing to arrest Maulana Aziz, the radical chief cleric of Islamabad's Red Mosque.

Likewise, Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi, the man suspected of masterminding the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008, is close to being a free man again because his current detention is only tied to a shaky legal technicality.

All this is making analysts such as Ms Siddiqa fear that some politicians and officials are dragging their feet when it comes to fighting militancy.

"The only militants they want to put out of action are the so-called 'bad' Taliban. The 'good' ones are likely to stay, though with reduced visibility," she says.

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