The continuing threat

Published June 29, 2014
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

THE militants are on the run. But they can turn around and hit back if they find a pause or sluggishness in the ongoing pursuit. They still have the capacity and ability to protract their terrorist activities. A more realistic assessment of their will and power to launch terrorist attacks can be made once the counter-insurgency operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan is over.

At the same time, the fear that the militants may step up retaliatory attacks during and after the operation provides genuine reasons to re-evaluate their strengths and weaknesses as well as the capacity of state institutions. This is important not only to measure the extent of the risk of violence and insecurity they pose but also to develop responses.

In the post-operation scenario, the possibility of an enhanced or a reduced terrorist threat would largely depend on three factors. First, it will depend on how tribal-based militants and their foreign allies behave and react. Secondly, it is quite possible that Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) allies and affiliates based across the country will not hesitate to launch attacks inside Pakistan. Among these groups, sectarian terrorist outfits are better organised and have the operational skills to trigger violence in the major urban centres of the country.

The third factor comprises a potential threat which cannot be measured unless it exposes itself. Militants in the making — radicalised individuals who are influenced by terrorist ideologies — can pose this threat. Though not ‘officially’ affiliated with any local or international terrorist organisation, they are in search of such outlets. These kinds of potential militants could be large in number. Failure to find and join some ‘proper’ terrorist group can encourage them to plan and launch terrorist attacks by defining the targets themselves.


The militants can overcome their differences, restructure their cadres and reorganise their networks.


Many religious scholars and madressah teachers consider this segment of potential militants quite crucial as they are an important source of recruitment for militant organisations. They think that such militants are not only present in madressahs but in other educational institutions as well.

This threat is not new and can be understood by examining the emergence of the Punjabi Taliban during the Red Mosque crisis in Islamabad when militants of Kashmir-based organisations started leaving their groups to join the TTP and Al Qaeda. During that time, self-radicalised youths had also formed small terrorist cells. These groups or individuals did not succeed in affiliating themselves with any terrorist group but were found involved in planning terrorist attacks by themselves. Such small groups were quite active in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore and carried out small scale, low-intensity attacks on cultural sites, girls’ schools and posh markets during 2008-2010.

The security institutions had taken many initiatives to weaken and divide the militants before launching the full-scale operation in North Waziristan Agency, which, in a way, helped thwart retaliatory attacks by disturbing the nexuses and shared operational channels of terrorist networks.

Some media reports also indicate that it was not only the Sajna group of the TTP that revolted against the central leadership, leading factions of the Punjabi Taliban too were not happy with the TTP leadership. These Punjabi Taliban factions decided they would not provide any operational assistance until internal differences among the militants are resolved.

These tactical moves that led to divisions among the terrorists caused temporary damage to them and halted their operations for a while. But such moves cannot cause a big dent in their capacity and outreach.

The militants have the ability to overcome internal differences, restructure their cadres and reorganise their networks. The North Waziristan operation will push the militants, especially those belonging to the TTP and Al Qaeda and its affiliate international groups, into Afghanistan. They will continue to cause border tensions and insecurity by attempting to infiltrate Pakistan and carry out attacks on Pakistani security forces. Meanwhile, their sectarian affiliates in Pakistan will not only continue launching sectarian attacks but will also look for any opportunity to launch some large-scale terrorist attacks.

There is no doubt that the operation in North Waziristan will help scale down the violence significantly; the Swat and South Waziristan military offensives helped bring down the level of terrorist attacks by more than 30pc. Though retaliatory attacks are expected in mainland Pakistan, in the short- to medium-term the operation will help reduce violence in the Peshawar valley, Fata and, to some extent, in Karachi. These are the areas where terrorist violence has been concentrated over the past many years.

There is a major loophole in Pakistan’s security framework, which can lead to an escalation in violence. This is the lack of vision and strategy to deal with sectarian tensions. This weak area is the terrorists’ strategic strength. They can provoke sectarian tensions to get connected with their broader support base, which is maintaining a tactical silence because of the operation in North Waziristan. This support base includes sectarian madressahs and radical and non-radical religious organisations. A single incident of sectarian violence, such as the one last year in Rawalpindi on the occasion of Ashura, can provide the militants an opportunity not only to connect with their sectarian and ideological support base, but also to exploit the situation and further expand the violence.

In these critical times, making recruitments and establishing hideouts becomes easy for the militants. The state has been in denial and has chosen to overlook the fact that sectarianism is a big issue. It is thus underestimating the threat. The crisis in Iraq can provide insights into how terrorists create space for themselves through exploiting sectarian tensions.

The state must be vigilant and try hard to maintain sectarian harmony in the country. It has many options available for this purpose, including engaging the clergy, messaging through the media and enhancing security of religious processions and vulnerable religious places. It must deal with sectarianism as a strategic threat posed by Al Qaeda, the TTP and their affiliates. By leaving this loophole unaddressed, the state will not be able to successfully repel the militants.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2014

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