New terrorism challenge for Pakistan : a regrouped TTP
Dr Farhan Zahid
Counter-Terrorism and Security Analyst (Pakistan).
The recent wave of terrorist attacks in Pakistan, during last quarter of 2016 and first quarter of 2017, is significant enough to assess that the regrouping and realignment of Islamist terrorist groups is now in the offing. A series of terrorist attacks have been claimed by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in last six months. As far as suicide attacks are concerned, there were 19 suicide attacks in 2016 claiming 401 lives, and in 2017 hitherto, 166 people lost their lives in 9 suicide attacks1. The trend showcases a reinvigorated TTP. In last four years, the TTP has experienced internal fissures, a leadership crisis and a major military operation but managed to survive. Another major issue for TTP is to compete with Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS)’s South Asia branch – i.e. Waliyat-e-Khurasan – which may become a potential rival of TTP in terms of recruitment and even managing to defect TTP human resources.
The TTP resurrection started after a November 2016 meeting of major factions of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and since then we see the unleashing of the terrorist wave with heavy casualties in all four provinces of Pakistan and the whirl is still not over.
The TTP Reconciliation Process
The TTP reconciliation process had started much earlier though news surfaced about their mending of ways came a bit later. The reconciliation efforts were underway after the consecutive defections of TTP leaders. It is pertinent to mention here that the TTP had been experiencing a deadly power rift after the death of its Emir Hakeemullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in November 2013. The TTP is not monolithic (comprising of 42 factions under a central shura) and the selection of new Emir led to the serious frictions leading to serious animosities and violent clashes in the tribal districts of Pakistan (i.e. semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas). The selection of new Emir Fazalullah paved the way for some groups to formally part ways with the central Shura (such as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar led by Omar Khalid Khurasani based in Mohmand district) and smaller factions of Sheharyar Mehsud and others to discontinue working under the TTP umbrella. The clash of wills among TTP factions greatly benefitted the security forces as the military launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in 2014 (still ongoing) and recaptured much of the territories from TTP control.
The selection of Fazalullah turned out to be the apple of discord among other group leaders, all vying for the sought-after slot from the very beginning2. The TTP was founded by Mehsud tribesmen inhibiting the South and North Waziristan districts of tribal areas in August 2007, with Baitullah Mehsud as its first Emir. Up till appointment of Fazalullah, who is from Khyber-Pakhtunkhawa province (reportedly in a lucky draw), the TTP remained Mehsud and Wazir dominated, therefore it was difficult for both Mehsud and Wazir tribesmen to appoint a non-Mehsud and non-Wazir Emir who is not even from the tribal areas. It was more or less like a non-Arab commanding Al-Qaeda Central.
The defections from TTP started with Umer Qasmi who parted ways in February2014 and formed Ahrar ul Hind. Qasmi was against any peace talks with the government. Later on, Sajna Mehsud and Shehyar Mehsud also formed their own factions after deliberations failed over the selection of new Emir after the death of Hakeemullah Mehsud in December 2013. After a stalemate, Fazalullah was selected through lucky draw3.
In March 2015, almost one year after the commencement of Operation Zarb-e-Azb against TTP, the TTP rival factions announced their merger. The alliance was critical as TTP (Fazalullah), Omar Khalid Khurasani’s Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA) and Lashkar-e-Islam of Mangal Bagh joined hands ending their three yearlong power rift4. Mangal Bagh, who commanded his own Islamist militia in Terah valley of Khyber district of tribal areas, used to have a bitter rivalry with TTP. Earlier to this important meeting, Mangal Bagh had no love lost for TTP and it was the first time that a meeting held in tribal area of Pakistan which was attended by Emirs of TTP factions, Fazalullah, and Omar Khalid Khurasani and interesting also, attended by Mangal Bagh of Lashkar-e-Islam. Mangal Bagh’s pledge of allegiance to TTP could be termed as a turning point in this relationship.
The other important and even more critical meeting was held in November 2016 in Ghazni province of Afghanistan. Seven major factions of TTP sent their representatives for the Ghazni summit. The meeting was organized by Al-Qaeda-linked sectarian terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Emir Yousaf Khurasani and attended by Javaid Swati representing TTP (Fazalullah), Wajid Mehsud of Jundullah, Maulvi Khatir of TTP (Sajna faction), Shaharyar Mehsud of TTP (Mehsud faction), Abdul Wali of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Mufti Ghufran of TTP (Khalifa Mansour faction) and Mullah Daud of TTP (Qari Hussain faction). The groups have decided to renew their alliance and work in tandem5. The summit organizer Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which is now reinvigorated as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami, has also developed a working relationship with Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) without pledging allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which is in such cases mandatory.
The ISIS Factor
It is obvious that ongoing military operation is the primary reason for the regrouping of TTP factions as this helped allow them to mend ways. Another important reason was the establishment of ISIS’s Waliyat-e-Khurasan in Pakistan and Afghanistan right after the proclamation of Islamic Caliphate in June 2014 by Emir of ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Establishing ‘Islamic Caliphate’ is indeed primary agenda of almost all Islamist terrorist and insurgent groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The rise of ISIS and its achievement of this highly coveted feat, has allowed the group to gain instant popularity amongst Islamist networks. The ISIS achievements have put Al-Qaeda sympathizers and supporters in a fix. Since Al-Qaeda’s former Emir Osama Bin Laden had pledged allegiance to Taliban Supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, technically making Al-Qaeda part of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (or simply Afghan Taliban), the Al-Qaeda sympathizers also consider Mullah Omar as their Emir ul Momineen.
The ISIS’s Khurasan chapter has presented itself as a new force available for Pakistani Islamists indicating that Al-Qaeda and TTP may be discarded as spent-forces. Hitherto, only three TTP allied groups (Al-Qaeda linked) have pledged allegiance to Islamic State and Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Tehreek-e-Khilafat Pakistan, Jundullah, and a faction of TTP led by former spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid).
The surfacing of ISIS also created panic and confusion in TTP ranks. Amid serious fraternal rifts and an ongoing military operation, the TTP factions viewed emergence of ISIS in Pakistan in utter confusion and could not figure out whether to embrace or consider it a competitor.
Jamaat al-Ahrar issued a statement in a conciliatory tone without declaring allegiance to the Islamic State, the spokesperson said : “We respect them. They are our Mujahideen brothers. If they ask us for help, we will look into it and decide6.”
TTP-Fazalullah also handled the matter with care in a similar manner : “Oh our brothers, we are proud of you in your victories. We are with you in your happiness and your sorrow. In these troubled days, we call for your patience and stability, especially now that all your enemies are united against you. Please put all your rivalries behind you… All Muslims in the world have great expectations of you (…) We are with you, we will provide you with Mujahideen [fighters] and with every possible support7“.
Immediately after realizing the situation amid this crossroads, the TTP Fazalullah clarified its position and said : “Some media did not publish our statement correctly, we are not supporting any specific group in Syria or Iraq; all groups there are noble and they are our brothers (…) Mullah Omar is our head and we are following him.”8
Jamaatal Ahrar spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan followed the suit and welcomed the establishment of Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Ehsan said : “We welcome the new announcement of the subcontinent branch of Al-Qaeda. We believe that the branch will work hard for the achievement of the rights of Muslims in the subcontinent, rights of Muslims in the region could only be achieved through Islamic sharia law and the establishment of a caliphate”9.
Indeed it was difficult for warring factions of TTP to deal with the surfacing of ISIS Khurasan in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The TTP and its linked groups were long associated with Al-Qaeda and considered Al-Qaeda as mentor organization. The emergence of ISIS created much confusion in militant ranks of Pakistani Islamist terrorist groups. Initially they were quite cautious to tackle the situation; some pledged allegiance to ISIS whereas others remain vigilant and adopted a wait and see approach. But eventually the Pakistani military operation coupled with ISIS factor became the modus vivendi for them and regroup and fight for the common causes.
Death of Mullah Omar in August 2013 (whom the TTP and other Islamist terrorist groups consider ceremonial patron and Emir ul Momineen) was another shock for the TTP and allied groups. Afghan Taliban (Islamic Emirate Afghanistan) have motives other than TTP as the TTP was fighting the Pakistani state and Afghan Taliban the Afghan government and US forces but both had their base of operations in Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions (i.e. tribal areas of Pakistan and adjacent districts of eastern Afghanistan). Therefore the relationship was there and ISIS right after its surfacing in Afghanistan had started to compete with Afghan Taliban and bloody clashes took place between the two in eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar and surrounding areas. Amid military operation in tribal areas of Pakistan, scores of TTP on-the-run militants joined hands with ISIS Khurasan which became another factor for TTP to consolidate its forces against the ISIS as it appeared that ISIS was aiming to recruit from TTP rank and file. A marginalized TTP deemed it as a turf war and ISIS, on the other hand, capitalized on a disarrayed TTP. The situation was perplexing for TTP and helped allow its warring and competing factions to regroup. Afghan Taliban may have provided mediators for the regrouping as a major summit was held in Ghazni, Afghanistan.
It appears that all major factions of TTP have reached some kind of détente and decided to consolidate and pool their dilapidated resources amid military onslaught and surfacing of a competitor in the shape of ISIS. The TTP has never been a monolithic entity and has remained a decentralized conglomerate of Islamist militant groups based in tribal areas of Pakistan. The widening of gulf among them was over selecting the new Emir crisis as all Emirs of major TTP factions wanted to clinch the head the central Shura slot. As far as areas of control were concerned, they operated in their own territories with little or no influence in other groups’ bases of operation. Together they gave tough time to Pakistani security forces in re-implementing the writ of state as each group fought like a unit in its area of influence (i.e. district or sub district of tribal areas) and the military had to conduct a series of operations to dislodge the TTP factions but with little significance. The drone strikes did enormous damage to TTP as repeated drone attacks depleted the TTP leadership, hardcore militants, Al-Qaeda high value targets embedded with TTP and overall terrorist infrastructure. The TTP was resilient enough to survive the drone strikes in which notable leaders were killed, but it suffered because of factional fighting. Now, after consecutive setbacks, the various factions of TTP are reconciling and even attempting to cajole Islamist militants like Mangal Bagh of Khyber district of tribal area to join hands. Reportedly all major factions of TTP are now at least cooperating and if not reconciling then developing working relationships. Best example could be of arch rivals Sajna Mehsud and Shaharyar Mehsud who now have stopped infighting in South Waziristan district. As Pakistani state, Afghan and US forces are pretty hard on ISIS-Khurasan, the TTP is capitalizing on the emerging situation. The recent use of Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB) in Nangarhar by US forces, coupled with joint operations of US and Afghan ground troops, provides the Afghan-US governments resolve to eradicate ISIS-Khurasan from Nangarhar. Perhaps his would be the only issue on which the Afghan Taliban and US-Afghan governments are on the same page. In Pakistan, despite severe power rifts between civil government and military, the issue of ISIS is being taken very seriously. According to Pakistani military’s official spokesperson and director of Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), hitherto 309 ISIS militants have been arrested in Pakistan10.
The crackdown against ISIS in Pakistan and Afghanistan is of key importance but this does not mean that the ISIS is losing support among the jihadi community of Pakistan. Though a number of cells have been busted by security forces in Pakistani cities, the ISIS’s recruitment drive on internet and social media is at full scale and it could be assumed, from data gathered in previous various surveys, that support for issues such as Khilafat, implementation of Sharia laws and hatred against religious minorities is in fact quite high in Pakistan. The recent surfacing of cells displayed the traits of ISIS militants in Pakistan. The cells busted by law enforcement organizations in Karachi, Islamabad, Sialkot and Lahore show urban, highly educated, internet-savvy, and highly radicalized individuals joining ISIS in Pakistan; for example, the Karachi cell was comprising of young educated individuals with university educations, and involved in perpetrating terrorist strike at a bust carrying Ismali-Shias, killing 43 in cold blood. Saad Aziz, the cell’s point man, studied at Pakistan’s premier business school Institute of Business Administration (IBA) at Karachi and hailed from an affluent family of Karachi.
According to a recent PEW survey, Pakistanis are confused about the emergence of ISIS and its proclamation of Islamic Caliphate as 62% Pakistan do not have a definite opinion about ISIS whereas 28% has a negative view and 9% views the terrorist group positively11. The Jihadi landscape of Pakistan is apparently conducive for ISIS to capitalize and recruit young male and female jihadis.
- South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), http://www.satp.org/satporgtp/countries/pakistan/database/Fidayeenattack.htm ↩
- “Pakistani Taliban elect Mullah Fazalullah as new chief”, Dawn (November 8, 2013) http://www.dawn.com/news/1054794 ↩
- Kamran Yousaf, “Former spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan rips apart TTP in confession video”, Express Tribune, April 26, 2017, https://tribune.com.pk/story/1393995/ispr-releases-former-ttp-spokesperson-ehsanullah-ehsans-confessional-video/ ↩
- Bill Rogio, “Pakistani jihadist groups, Lashkar-i-Islam merge into the Movement of Taliban Pakistan”, Long War Journal, March 12, 2015, http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/03/pakistani-jihadist-groups-lashkar-i-islam-merge-into-the-movement-of-the-taliban-in-pakistan.php ↩
- Azaz Syed, “Terror outfits make alliance against Pakistan”, Geo News, November 15, 2016, https://www.geo.tv/latest/120617-Terror-outfits-make-alliance-against-Pakistan ↩
- Amir Mir, “TTP’s support for IS disturbing for Pakistan”, News International, October 6, 2014 ↩
- “Pakistan Taliban pledges support to ISIS as coordinated West-hatred gains momentum”, RT News, October 5, 2014, available at: http://rt.com/news/193268-isis-islamic-taliban-pakistan/ ↩
- “TTP says, backs all Syrian militants, not just Islamic State”, Dawn, Karachi, October 6, 2014 ↩
- “Pakistani Taliban faction welcomes new Al-Qaeda branch”, Channel News Asia, September 5, 2014 ↩
- “Over 300 IS militants arrested in Pakistan”, Xinhua News, September 1, 2016, http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-09/01/c_135652408.htm ↩
- “62% of Pakistanis ‘don’t know’ how they feel about Islamic State”, Express Tribune, November 15, 2015, https://tribune.com.pk/story/993966/62-of-pakistanis-dont-know-how-they-feel-about-islamic-state/ ↩