New Delhi: Islamabad-based controversial cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz has been “shifted” to a private mosque from the government-controlled Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) which was seized by Aziz and his supporters in July 2007. The siege had ended after a military intervention with at least 300 dead. Agencies tracking these developments see this as a major step towards spreading radical Islam in Pakistan, even though the country is telling the international community that it has been shutting down jihadi networks functioning from its soil.

Aziz was released by the Pakistan Supreme Court two years after being arrested by the police in July 2007 as he escaped the siege clad in a burqa. He was charged with murder, abduction, arson and terrorism, but escaped punishment because of lack of evidence and for witnesses refusing to testify in court.

As per reports prepared by intelligence agencies, the Pakistan government was able to convince Aziz to let go of responsibilities of the Red Mosque earlier this month by giving him the administration of a nearby mosque, Jamia Hafsa in return. While the Lal Masjid is located at the G-6 area of Islamabad, Jamia Hafsa is at G-7.

“Post this deal, Pakistan, in its official communications to foreign agencies, has been claiming that it has come down hard on radical elements within the country. They have been telling the foreign representatives that Aziz and his family have been barred from entering the Lal Masjid. Facts on the ground are, however, different. What Pakistan is not telling the world is that under the deal, the Lal Masjid will be headed by Haroon Rashid Ghazi, who is the son of Abdul Rashid Ghazi, the brother of Maulana Abdul Aziz, who was killed by army commandos during the 2007 siege. Haroon Ghazi is also the son-in-law of Abdul Aziz. So in effect, the control of the Red Mosque will remain in the hands of Abdul Aziz only,” an official following the development told The Sunday Guardian.

Maulana Abdul Aziz was recently seen on TV, leading weekly congregational prayers without taking any anti-Covid-19 measures, with his supporters openly displaying weapons at the Red Mosque, which is just 2.8 km from the Pakistani Parliament building and the residence of the Pakistan Prime Minister.

Lal Masjid has, for years now, been treated as a subject of interest by different intelligence agencies because of the safe sanctuary it provides to jihadi elements within Islamabad. “For years now, it has been acting as a meeting point and facilitator for clandestine meetings between radical elements. The ISI is aware of it,” the official added.

In 2014, Aziz had renamed the library inside Lal Masjid in the name of Al-Qaeda chief Osama Bin Laden and had been giving yearly tributes to Laden ever since. “This latest development shows that the Pakistan civil government does not have the will or the authority to shut down jihadi networks that are operating in the country so openly,” he said.