Despite hundreds of attacks and the deaths of thousands of Pakistanis, there is still a great deal of confusion about the number, nature and end goals of the militant organisations operating in Pakistan. For some, they remain figments of a fevered imagination. To others they are proxies of foreign powers.
This belief has not come out of the blue. It is part of an obscurantist narrative the state itself created and propagated. The problem with this narrative is that while it may have delegitimised some jihadi groups within public ranks, it is counter productive in the long run for a number of reasons. First of all, it fails to address the very ideology that promotes militancy and hence the state’s failure to present an effective counter-ideology. Secondly, the jihadi groups simply have to prove that the state-promoted narrative is a “baseless lie” to win recruits, as indicated by scores of interviews of jihadis. The fact is that these groups are very much in existence and the ones who carry out attacks against Pakistan’s civilians and armed forces have a clear and stated objective: to dominate and overthrow the Pakistani state.
Unfortunately, the state has also promoted a concept of “good” and “bad” militants. This narrative itself has been problematic. There are often strong links between the “good” and “bad” jihadis that also take the form of material, logistical, manpower and other support.
As Pakistan debates engaging the Islamist militants in the tribal areas and beyond, it is imperative that the policy-makers as well as the public understand the militant groups and their interrelations.
THE BIG FOUR
It is difficult to draw hard lines around these groups, as there is a great deal of cooperation and inter-linkage. Sometimes, for operational and propaganda reasons, a Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attack on Shias will be claimed by the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and so on. This also helps maintain the fiction that these groups are somehow entirely distinct entities.
Al Qaeda (AQ)
Arguably the most dangerous out of all the jihadi groups, AQ is not just a conventional group but the fountainhead of a violent ideology.
The organisation was founded at the end of the ’80s by Osama bin Laden while he was in Afghanistan/Pakistan waging war against the Soviets. According to Al Qaeda literature, the organisation’s ultimate goal is to establish a hardline global caliphate. It seeks to fight America and her “apostate” allies in the Muslim world.
While the organisation maintains a relatively low profile in Pakistan, it is behind much of the coordination between different jihadi groups in a bid to “channelise” and “streamline” the effort.
In contrast with many other jihadi groups, the overwhelming majority of their cadres in Pakistan are university graduates hailing from well-off urban families.
Al Qaeda regards Pakistan as a “Daar-ul-Kufr wal harb” (abode of disbelief and war). It classifies the rulers as “apostates” against whom it is obligatory to rebel and fight.
Al-Qaeda considers Shias as disbelievers “in the garb of Islam”. As such, the militant organisation considers it permissible to shed the blood of Shia Muslims and confiscate their wealth. However on strategic grounds, the Al Qaeda chief has advised the operatives not to engage minority groups anywhere in a confrontation unless “absolutely required” such as in Syria and Iraq.
The organisation rejects the concept of nation-states. It seeks to expand the theatre of war, topple governments in Muslim countries and form a global caliphate.
Formally launched in 2007, the TTP is effectively Al Qaeda’s local franchise in Pakistan. Among anti-state jihadi groups here, TTP maintains the strongest footprint with operatives all over the country.
Its stated objective is to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic state” as envisaged by Al-Qaeda. The group regards the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Umar, as its supreme leader. Though not always openly declared, the TTP maintains strong relations with the Afghan Taliban, with both groups providing each other strategic backyards in their respective countries.
As with Al-Qaeda, the TTP regards Pakistan as a “Daar-ul-Kufr wal harb” (abode of disbelief and war) and considers its rulers apostates.
While the TTP also considers Shia Muslims to be apostates, there is currently a debate within the organisation on whether a front should be opened against them — there is a difference of opinion over the strategic merits and demerits of indiscriminately targeting Shia Muslims. Some TTP commanders are arguing that other sects should not be targeted indiscriminately and only “certain elements” should be targeted. However, this debate does not affect their open cooperation with the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi.
The TTP is also increasingly looking at global operations. It has provided training to a number of radicals based in the West including Faisal Shehzad, who attempted to bomb Times Square in New York. Around 200 of its fighters have reportedly shifted to Syria.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)
The IMU was founded by Tahir Yuldashev and Jumma Kasimov (both Uzbeks) in 1991. The two had earlier fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion of the country. The initial objective of the organisation was to topple Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan and to establish an “Islamic state” in the country. They also fought alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Kasimov died in the fighting while Yuldashev, along with his fighters, managed to escape into Pakistan’s tribal areas during the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan. IMU maintains strong contacts with Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban as well as the TTP. Within jihadi circles, its cadres enjoy the reputation of being ultra radical and diehard fighters. Its views on the Pakistani state are the same as that of AQ and TTP. IMU commanders say their focus should be on fighting Pakistan’s armed forces.
IMU members claim that Mullah Umar had promised its founding leader, Jummah Kasimov, that the Afghan Taliban would support the IMU in consolidating their position in Central Asian states once the Taliban are strong enough. For now, its focus remains on strengthening the group as it prepares for the war in Central Asia.
An offshoot of the Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the virulently sectarian LJ was formed in 1996. Its founders Riaz Basra, Akram Lahori and Malik Ishaq had differences with the SSP and believed that the parent organisation had drifted from its original ideals. LJ’s primary targets are Shia Muslims and it has indiscriminately targeted them through both assassination and mass casualty attacks. The LJ has killed thousands of people, including many women and children. Its largest attacks to date have been against the Shia Hazaras of Quetta. LJ leaders say their aim is to turn Pakistan into a Sunni Islamic state and consider it a “priority” to target Shia Muslims. They have at times had differences with Al-Qaeda over this issue.
They have also attacked the Sri Lankan cricket team, a church, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
The LJ seeks to polarise the majority Sunni community through a showdown with the minority Shia Muslims. The group also seeks to establish stronger ties with anti-Iran groups operating in the region.
SPLINTERS, SUBDIVISIONS AND SHADOW GROUPS
The lines blur when it comes to differentiating between militant groups in Pakistan. They share space, tactics and resources and sometimes, subdivisions are created for specific purposes and for creating confusion in the public’s minds. Here are some of the more prominent such groups:
A North Waziristan based group primarily concerned with the “welfare” of locked-up jihadis. Its tasks include intelligence gathering about Pakistani jails and planning jailbreaks to release militants. It is closely allied to TTP and draws many of its fighters from TTP and IMU.
Its basic agenda is to free all militants locked up in jails across the country.
Al Qaeda allied group with a single point agenda to track down and eliminate “spies” in North Waziristan.
A small organisation affiliated with the TTP. Its primary focus is targeting armed forces personnel and politicians. Among others, the group is responsible for the killing of the former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Law Minister Israr Gandapur. As with AQ and TTP, Ansar al-Mujahideen aims to turn Pakistan into an “Islamic State” and use the state to launch “jihad” against other belligerent states.
Al Qaeda affiliated group that started off from South Waziristan. It gained most notoriety for its assassination attempt on the then Corps Commander Karachi Lt Gen Ahsan Saleem Hayat. The outfit has also targeted Shia Muslims and foreign tourists. Not to be confused with Iran-based Jundullah.
A group formed after the Lal Masjid operation in Islamabad. It is named after Maulana Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, the former Lal Masjid cleric who was also killed in the operation. Most of its members are relatives and friends of the people killed in the 2007 operation. This group has practically merged with the TTP. Some of its members and sympathisers in and around Islamabad are known to provide intelligence and a footprint in the capital. Members of the group consider it a priority to target former president Pervez Musharraf.
The ‘OTHER’ Militants
Then there are those jihadi groups who, for one reason or another, have historically been classified as ‘good’ militants by the state. Part of the reason for this is that these groups do not prioritise targeting the Pakistani state and instead turn their energies outwards. However, there is evidence that militants from their ranks can and at times do join other organisations, such as the TTP, AQ and LJ. They also share ideological commonalities with those groups and in some cases even share resources and physical space.
Formed in the early 90s in Afghanistan, the group has been primarily operating in Indian-held Kashmir. It seeks to “liberate” the people of Kashmir from “Indian oppression” and establish an Islamic state” in the region.
It sees India, the United States and Israel as eternal enemies of Islam and boasts about defeating them through armed struggle. Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the head of Jamat-ud-Dawa denies that his charity is simply a cover for the banned militant outfit. However the lower cadre not only acknowledges their connection with LeT but proudly boast about their operations in India.
In line with their particular brand of Salafism, the organisation is strongly opposed to rebellion against the Pakistani state. They say that while the ruling elite are living in a state of sin, rebelling against them is not permissible. Largely avoiding questions about other Muslim sects, the LeT says there should be unity within the Ummah and the priority should be to target the “real enemy” — the US, India and Israel, as they say.
Members of the group say they are bracing themselves for the Ghazwa-i-Hind — a grand war in which Muslims will regain control of India, they claim.
Jaish-e-Muhammad was formed in 2000 by Maulana Masood Azhar. Shortly after its inception, it effectively swallowed a previously existing but now largely defunct Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM). Its primary goal is to “liberate” Kashmir from Indian rule and it has carried out various attacks on Indian interests including the 2001 attack on Indian parliament. The group was banned by then President Pervez Musharraf and rebranded itself as Khuddam-ul-Islam. It continues to engage in open fundraising outside many Pakistani mosques on Fridays.
The group emerged as an offshoot of Jaish-e-Muhammad after serious differences emerged between various commanders. TGI is led by Commander Abdul Jabbar and operates primarily in Afghanistan.
Publicly, the organisation opposes rebellion against the Pakistani state. It stresses on its cadre to focus on Afghanistan.
The group has recently emerged in parts of Balochistan bordering Iran. It has targeted Shia Muslims and claims to be countering Iranian interference in Pakistan. The group also seeks to extend the theatre of war into Iran.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur group
He is one of the most influential figures in North Waziristan but at the same time, maintains a very low profile. Bahadur is politically affiliated with Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam. He is considered a pragmatic figure who knows how to consolidate his position. He has successfully managed his relations with both the military and the TTP.
He has never made his position on the Pakistani state public. However one of his most prominent commanders, who has since been killed in a US drone strike, gave an hour-long interview to Al Qaeda’s media wing As Sahab in 2009. In the interview he made it clear that he did not have any differences with Al Qaeda or the TTP and that they were his “brothers”. He had also said that his men would fight against the Pakistan army if it sided with the Americans.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur and even his spokesman have been very secretive about their plans. In public, they have always maintained focus on “liberating” Afghanistan and re-establishing Taliban rule.
This setup operates primarily in the Eastern Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika even though it has carried out “daring” attacks in Kabul. The network has also attempted to assassinate Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The group is currently headed by Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of the sons of veteran Afghan jihadi commander Jalaluddin Haqqani. He is one of the most powerful commanders in the region and maintains good relations with Al Qaeda and the TTP. Insiders say that one of his mothers is a Yemeni and has had a radicalising effect on him, in addition to his already close association with many Al Qaeda leaders.The group has been silent on their view of the Pakistani state, however when questioned about the TTP, Sirajuddin Haqqani is on record as saying that he does not have differences with his “brothers”.
Their future plans focus on the reinstatement of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
The group was formed in the 90s in response to the anti-Shia violence perpetuated by Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). It maintains a very low profile and seeks to primarily target leaders of anti-Shia militant organisations such as SSP and LJ. Its leader Syed Ghulam Raza Naqvi has been in prison since the mid-90s. Pakistani intelligence agencies claim the group is backed by Iran in a bid to extend its influence in the region.