KARACHI, Pakistan—In this sprawling metropolis of 20 million, access to water is a daily struggle for many. In Orangi Town, one of its roughest neighborhoods, some residents have found a way to meet that need: by turning to the country’s biggest Islamic extremist group.
Radicals from Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat have dug wells as part of their campaign to deliver public services and solidify support. The water isn’t clean, but it is better than nothing, and grateful residents come to fill up buckets.
The Sunni extremist group is the reincarnation of a banned militant outfit that security officials say was involved in killing thousands of people from the minority Shiite branch of Islam.
ASWJ itself was banned in 2012, according to officials at Pakistan’s Interior Ministry familiar with the action. But the ban was never publicized much less enforced—an effort that would pose formidable challenges given the group’s large network. The ASWJ, which operates openly, insists it isn’t banned.
“We have hundreds of thousands of people—what will you do with them if you suppress us?” said Dilshad Ahmed, who heads the ASWJ in Orangi district. “We are everywhere.”
Pakistani military officials say that they have broken with a decades-old policy of using jihadists as proxies in India or Afghanistan, and that they will eliminate them all in turn, starting with the most dangerous for Pakistan.
Last year, authorities again vowed to crack down after a massacre of more than 130 children at an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar, an attack claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. They specifically resolved to go after groups that change their name to circumvent bans.
But ASWJ doesn’t even distance itself from its original name: its officials say they are fighting in the courts for the right to again call themselves Sipah-e-Sahaba, the violent sectarian outfit banned in 2002.
The Interior Ministry didn’t respond to requests for official comment.
ASWJ claims a presence in every district in Pakistan. Its leaders deliver public speeches, its followers organize rallies and its members are candidates in elections. In Orangi, it runs dozens of madrassas, or Islamic schools.
“ASWJ wants to be the political face of the terrorists,” said Hasan Zafar Naqvi, a Shiite religious scholar. “But they cannot achieve their aims through politics. That is why they are so dangerous.”
The group’s leaders say they don’t advocate killing Shiites, though they publicly incite hatred against them and insist that Pakistan should declare them to be non-Muslims.
“Shiites are infidels,” said Ghulam Mustafa Baloch, the head of ASWJ’s Islamabad branch. “Their beliefs are not those of any Muslim. They are against Islam.”
According to security officials, ASWJ feeds hate-filled recruits to an even more radical sectarian offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is accused in some of Pakistan’s bloodiest attacks against Shiites. Those include a bombing in January at a Shiite mosque in Shikarpur, in southern Sindh province, that killed 61 people, law-enforcement officials say.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi operatives often use ASWJ madrassas as hide-outs, security officials say. ASWJ claims that it has no links to Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.
“A person has one foot in Sipah-e-Sahaba, and the other in Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” said one of Karachi’s top counterterrorism officials, using the old name for ASWJ.
Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s alleged leader, Malik Ishaq, was killed in a firefight on Wednesday after his supporters attempted to free him from police custody.
Orangi is supposed to be the domain of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, a secular political party that dominates Karachi, the capital of Sindh province. But while its members often fear to tread in Orangi’s menacing alleyways, ASWJ cadres carry themselves with a swagger.
ASWJ flags and graffiti decorate the streets in some areas of Orangi. The group’s madrassas are popular with locals who complain that the government schools don't function.
The group’s leader, Ahmed Ludhianvi, has police protection. Other senior ASWJ officials, like the firebrand leader for Sindh, Aurangzeb Farooqi, also have police escorts.
Police say that these men face death threats. Mr. Farooqi has been attacked multiple times. Mr. Baloch, the Islamabad head, was shot and wounded on June 26 as he left his house.
No one has claimed responsibility for those attacks, which police believe were either the result of infighting or revenge by Shiites.
ASWJ contends that it pursues its sectarian objectives through peaceful means. Mr. Ludhianvi maintains that he has restrained the group’s more violent elements. “What more can I do?” Mr. Ludhianvi, who is based in the eastern province of Punjab, said in an interview. He said that members of his group are being attacked and simultaneously facing government curbs, which he called “a serious injustice.”
The military, which last year launched a continuing operation against the Pakistani Taliban’s base in the tribal areas, insists that all “terrorists” in the country will be targeted. While attacks overall have declined over the last couple of years, attacks against Shiites have persisted.
Muhammad Amir Rana, head of the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies, said joining a group like ASWJ often served as the last stage before graduating to a major-league terrorist group such as al Qaeda or the Pakistani Taliban.
The ideology of ASWJ also echoes that of Islamic State, the virulently anti-Shiite group that has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, and now has a foothold in Pakistan.
“Indoctrination is the most important phase,” said Mr. Rana. “After that, they have a choice: whether to go for the political choice on the same platform, or go for the violent choice.”
—Qasim Nauman in Islamabad contributed to this article
Write to Saeed Shah at [email protected]