The ferocious attack on the Karachi airport by the militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and claimed by both the IMU and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) seems to have been the catalyst for the much awaited offensive in North Waziristan. The bids to negotiate with the TTP and the rhetoric of needing a political consensus for a military offensive have fizzled out and now, with the exception of a very few, almost all the political forces and segments of society have willingly or reluctantly thrown their weight behind the decision to take on the militants.
But one of the intended aims of the attack was to make the security establishment realise the possible backlash of an armed offensive in North Waziristan. It may well have succeeded, as it seemingly did in 2012, post the Kamra Airbase attack.
On August 14, 2012, the then COAS General Kayani made a speech at the military academy of Kakul vowing to eradicate militancy, restore peace in the troubled region and to not tolerate a parallel system or militant presence. The speech was well received by most analysts but it didn’t go down well with the militants who responded with an attack on Kamra Airbase.
The attack was then linked by some to the swirling rumours of a military offensive in Waziristan, and soon a clarification was issued that “No military offensive in North Waziristan” was on the cards. The attack and subsequent obfuscation by pro-Taliban elements seems to have worked.
The attack on the Karachi airport proved to be the last straw, but what are the potential weapons in the militant arsenal?
But this was not the case with the attack on the Karachi Airport. The reactive military strategy of aerial bombing on the militants’ hideouts has now been extended to a full-fledged military offensive.
Perhaps very little has been said about the objectives of the military offensive as the targeted region is also home to the ‘good’ Taliban faction of Hafiz Gul Bahadur and the estranged Mehsud faction of TTP led by Khalid Saeed alias Sajna. Initial reports have hinted that aerial raids were aimed at territories with a presence of Uzbek and foreign militants. If the offensive specifically aims at the TTP and its IMU allies, the possible backlash of the military offensive in the settled areas and urban centres will be from the sleeper cells of TTP Mohmand and Swat factions.
In view of the recent hyperbolic statement by the TTP spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid in response to the military offensive, we need to realise and understand the nature of the threat. It should be evident that militant factions and non-State actors pitted against the state for whatever reason cannot face the unfettered might of the state. It is this clear disparity in powers and resources which forces them to resort to unconventional means of fighting the state, and creating fear among the common people is a potent weapon in their arsenal.
Peshawar and other districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have faced the brunt of terrorists’ backlashes, with bomb blasts and attacks killings civilians, political workers, leaders of ANP, members of peace militias and Police officials alike. After KPK, Karachi tops the list of cities with supporting terror networks, terrorist-related financial crimes and other acts of terror. It is not only the militants’ ATM machine, but also a place where they settle scores.
If the offensive specifically aims at the TTP and its IMU allies, the possible backlash of the military offensive in the settled areas and urban centres will be from the sleeper cells of TTP Mohmand and Swat factions.
A look at recent terror attacks indicates that they were carried out with the help of a local support base, be it the ‘Punjabi Taliban’, the LeJ or the TTP Mohmand or Mehsud factions. The attack on the Mehran Airbase, very similar to the Karachi airport attack, was perpetrated by the militants of the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), a conglomeration of Uzbeks, Chechen and Ughur militants, with the alleged support of the Punjabi Taliban faction led by Qari Shahid.
The Mohmand faction has emerged as the firmest ally of the Fazlullah-led TTP and has one of the strongest network of recruits and militants in Karachi. Attacks on Law enforcement agencies, including those targeting CID officials such as Chaudhry Alsam and Shafiq Tanoli were claimed by the Mohmand faction. But the targeted operation in Karachi has reportedly taken on the militants from Mohmand and Swat faction, curbing their networks to a larger extent. Militants killed in ‘encounters’ with the LEAs or whose bullet riddled bodies were found in the outskirts of the city were mostly from the Mohmand faction.
Recent fractures in the TTP, as evidenced by their infighting in Waziristan and Karachi have curtailed their ability to perpetrate big attacks, and perhaps this was the reason that the IMU itself had to come forward in planning and committing an attack on Karachi airport. Previously, the IMU has shown its preference for operations in which it storms targets and takes hostages. However, exact details as to their objectives have yet to emerge and the exact identity of the local supporters has yet to be determined.
For its transnational roots, rhetoric’s of international Caliphate, Salafist ideology and its inclusive network of support, IMU may seek allies in other Jihadi offshoots as well. In Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, the IMU and its affiliates have also often been associated with Hizbut Tehrir (HuT), from which they are said to gain ideological inspiration.
Pakistan’s military establishment has also been targeted by HuT, and has conducted internal investigations of affiliates of HuT in the lower ranks of the military. Perhaps, further scrutinising and investigation might help in thwarting attacks on military installations such as the one at Mehran Base or others which pointed towards inside help.
Another factor which may favour the militants is the absence of independent sources of news and information from the region. The military’s bid to check the flow of news and information has its share of drawbacks. Due to lack of independent sources, one has to rely on the official sources for the news or on militant sources for an alternative version. Neither version can be taken as objective.
The militants also have a huge and efficient presence in cyberspace, social networks and also a deep penetration in society, which will help them in disputing the official narrative and magnifying or exaggerating the civilian losses in the offensive. Along with counter-terror, a counter-propaganda campaign will also need to be conducted.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 22nd, 2014