As the self-styled Islamic State (IS) gains ground in the Middle East, key commanders of the fractured Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are submitting to the overtures of the violent global movement that is slowly making inroads into Pakistan. At the same time, regrouping of some of the deadliest outfits in the country could signal great trouble, even as the TTP and allied Al-Qaeda fighters are perceived to be struggling to hold fort against a military onslaught and the country-wide National Action Plan.
Read more: Govt in a state of denial about Daesh?
IS, which is led by Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi, is currently based in Iraq and Syria and occupies border areas. It is accused of killing hundreds of Muslims and some American and UK citizens, which include journalists and aid workers.
Reports of IS activity inside the country emerged in 2014 against the backdrop of two ongoing military operations against the TTP and its affiliates in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency.
First came the seemingly innocuous wall chalkings in favour of the group, largely downplayed by local media and scoffed at by the establishment and the government. Even while state officials claimed IS did not exist locally, rumours – now confirmed by militant sources and local media – emerged that a three-member IS delegation reached Pakistan from Syria, prior to the Dec 16 Taliban attack on Peshawar's Army Public School.
A militant source said the high-level delegation comprised of three IS members who reached Pakistan from Syria. The delegation was headed by Zubair Al Kuwaiti and included Uzbek Commander Fahim Ansari and Sheikh Yusuf from Saudi Arabia.
Militant sources confirmed that the delegation met with Lashkar-e-Islam (LI) Chief Mangal Bagh in Khyber Agency in order to convince him to join IS. Mangal Bagh is the TTP's main supporter in Khyber Agency. His current support of the Taliban is based on the proscribed organisation helping him in the battle against the Pakistan Army underway in Khyber Agency.
Sources said some level of understanding was reached between the IS delegation and Mangal Bagh. However, the LI chief told the IS delegates that he could not afford to pledge allegiance for fear of a military backlash, given that the Khyber-1 operation was ongoing.
The delegation went on to meet many of the key militant commanders in Pakistan and Afghanistan to convey the message of IS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi:
If all splinter groups develop an understanding among themselves, they can secure IS support.
"Daesh (local name for IS) is now taking root in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The organisation is wealthy, but it is not interested in working with small splinter groups. That is why [militant] groups are merging to be in a better position to negotiate with Daesh," Dr Hussain Seharwardi, Professor at the International Relations Department, Peshawar University says.
In an earlier Dawn report, Amir Rana, who heads the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (Pips), an Islamabad-based think tank specialising in security issues, said the move to accept allegiance of militants from Pakistan was a “strategic decision” by Daesh after which all factions would have to join hands and pool resources. The formation of a formal structure, he said, needed to be taken as a serious threat.
The IS demand for unity among all the local groups does however come at a time when the TTP is seen as on the run and greatly fractured, although their ability to carry out terror attacks remains a deadly reality.
Last year, internal strife within the Taliban and subsequent splintering saw the birth of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Jamaatul Ahrar (TTPJA) and Ahrarul Hind.
The fracturing was a consequence of the appointment of Swat's Mullah Fazlullah as the new head of the organisation after the killing of TTP Chief Hakeemullah Mehsud. The fallout from this appointment is rooted in the very creation of the TTP.
Former TTP chief Baitullah Mehsud and close militant aides from Swat, Mohmand, Bajaur, Kurram, Orakzai agencies and Peshawar established the umbrella TTP organisation in December 2007. After Baitullah's death in a US drone strike in South Waziristan, three militant commanders — Hakimullah Mehsud, Maulvi Azmatullah Mehsud and Maulvi Waliur Rehman — were seeking to become the next TTP ameer.
Hakeemullah eventually succeeded Baitullah but he too was killed in a US drone strike on November 1, 2013 after which Swat Taliban chief Mullah Fazlullah was elevated to the position of TTP supremo.
For the first time, TTP would be controlled by a non-Mehsud operating from across the border. This unlikely appointment caused initial friction, particularly among the Mehsud militant commanders.
Internal strife and the pressure of military operations in the militant heartland led to disillusioned members of the Mullah Fazlullah-led TTP to begin joining the newly established ‘Islamic State of Khorasan in Pakistan and Afghanistan’ which has continued to strengthen its ranks in the country by recruiting top commanders.
Nasir Dawar, a senior journalist from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) said disputes within the TTP triggered the defection of senior militants commanders such as former Taliban spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, Commander Hafiz Saeed Khan from Orakzai, Dawlat Khan from Kurram Agency and some others who played an important role for TTP in the recent past.
Another blow for Mullah Fazlullah came when famous Afghan Commander Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who had been the main Taliban facilitator in Afghanistan, also left TTP to join IS, Dawar said.
Anwarullah Khan, a senior journalist from Bajaur Agency, confirmed that the Taliban's Bajaur Chief Abu Bakr also joined IS along with close militant aide Gul Bali and some others.
Khan Syed Sajna, who headed the TTP group in South Waziristan, also broke away along with Azam Tariq. Having pioneered the TTP, they were among the organisation's main strengths.
A spokesperson for the Khan Syed Group confirmed their separation from the main TTP to operate as the Mehsud Taliban. He however added that Khan Syed Sajna remained loyal to Mullah Omar, and neither Sajna, nor Azam Tariq had joined IS at this time.
TTP Jamaatul Ahrar, a powerful group that has claimed many of the recent devastating terror attacks in Pakistan has yet to decide on Baghdadi's offer.
TTPJA spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan said the organisation would consider the offer, given that both TTP and IS were fighting for a common cause.
"We will see whether we can fight better for the cause on our own or by joining IS...if the offer is serious, the matter will be decided by our political shura," he said.
Ehsan added that the TTP was divided into several factions over administrative matters, but they were now regrouping.
Some evidence of this regrouping has emerged only recently, with militants belonging to the Jamaatul Ahrar and Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) pledging allegiance to the Mullah Fazlullah-led TTP, even as there is heightened speculation that the TTP is slowly fading away.
Examine: Lashkar-i-Islam merges into TTP
While the regrouping of TTP, LI and TTPJA suggests efforts may be underway for broader cooperation, possibly to meet the IS demand for unity, security experts believe the move is not a significant event.
According to security expert Brigadier (retd) Mahmoud Shah, TTP has become an "ordinary group of militants” unlike its former strong and powerful status.
“TTP is now a militant group in name and does not have strongholds in Fata and Pakistan,” said Shah, adding that the organisation's leadership has left Pakistan for safer grounds in Afghanistan's Kunar and Nuristan provinces.
His words are echoed by retired Brigadier Asad Munir, a former intelligence operative with extensive experience of working in KP and the tribal areas, who spoke to Dawn in a recent interview.
When asked about the re-unifaction of TTPJA and LI with the TTP, Munir said:
"The timing of this and so-called merger is not really significant. All three [TTP, LI, TTPJA] were already on the same page in terms of tactics and objectives and already had close links with each other. The ongoing military operations have forced them to adopt such tactics just to show their power. In fact, these groups have broadly lost their ability to conduct major terrorist activities and are on the run."
Being 'on the same page' is a view that those within the main faction of the TTP echo.
Mohammad Umar Khorasani, spokesperson for the TTP, denied speculation that groups had split away, saying: "So far no proper group has defected from TTP to join any other militant faction. However, there have been certain instances where a few individuals have either left the main group or they have been expelled. A big chunk of Mehsud Taliban is still with the TTP."
Khorasani said considerable portions of Mohmand and Orakzai agencies are still part of the TTP. He further said TTP's presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh is also playing a role in strengthening the organisation.
"Some people were expelled owing to their incompetence hence they started to politicise the issue," he alleged, adding that a majority of people are returning through the jirga system which, in turn, is strengthening the movement.
Alluding to IS' Baghdadi, Khorasani added that, "We hold our alliance with Mullah Omar and will continue to do so until his death. There is no question of choosing a new leader while he is alive."
Of those who left the movement, one was the leader of Orakzai Agency while the rest were commanders who worked under Hafiz Saeed Khan of Orakzai Agency, he said. "The places made vacant by those who left the movement have been filled by more compatible and experienced leaders."
Khorasani said it was too early to comment on the strengthening of IS.
Even while movement continues within the TTP and other local militant factions, the lure of IS has spread in other forms across the country.
As the timeline below highlights, IS literature has been distributed discreetly among those who could be influenced by what the 'global' and critically, wealthy organisation has to offer. Lower ranking commanders, militant foot soldiers and other extremist elements are vulnerable to being enticed.
Along with its appeal rooted in sectarianism, the group offers religious militants a compelling new vision because of the territory it controls and available finances to back grand plans. As mentioned in locally distributed booklets, the caliphate declared in parts of Iraq and Syria will expand to Khorasan, comprising Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asian countries.
Consequences of a local push by IS could be on a global scale.
In January this year, security forces arrested a man they believed to be a commander of IS in Pakistan, as well as two accomplices involved in recruiting and sending fighters to Syria, charging IS about $600 per person.
Bangladeshi police recently arrested four suspected members of IS in the capital, Dhaka, including a regional coordinator for the militant group who told police they had been trained in Pakistan.
In the midst of all this activity, the state seems torn over what the official narrative on IS in Pakistan should be.
A government secret report cited an alarming local IS recruitment drive that aims to get thousands on board.
While terror outfit Jundullah claims IS has visited Balochistan, and Islamabad's Lal Masjid students have come out in vocal support of Baghdadi's ideology, officials have, at varying times, said IS is non-existent, or – volte face – a serious threat.
The military viewpoint, as expressed most recently by Corps Commander Lieutenant General Hidayat-ur-Rehman, appears to be the most coherent response from the state so far:
“For us it’s just a change of name, and there is no need for Pakistanis to worry. There are several defections in the Taliban now, which are becoming part of Daesh. But we’re well aware of the situation and are able to tackle them effectively.”
Similarly, as cited in an earlier Dawn report, a security official said the emergence of IS was unlikely to change the militancy scenario in Pakistan. He said local militants owed allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar and considered him to be their Amirul Momineen. Therefore, an IS affiliate in the country would not be able to attract militant groups.
He said that Al Qaeda had been operating in the region for a long time and had its allies. It will never allow the IS to take its place.
The next few months will be critical in determining where IS fits into the local landscape – as a small faction of a greatly fractured terror landscape, a simple name change for some existing groups, or as a new, unifying umbrella organisation with a grand shift in agenda for the country, and the region.