The ongoing challenge

Published December 29, 2019
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

IN 2019, Pakistan witnessed a further decline in the number of terrorist incidents and consequent casualties. Though one might view this as an indication of terrorists’ weakening operational capabilities, the war against terrorism is still on. Terrorists have been scattered — but not yet shattered — and persisting extremist tendencies are still a primary source of their human, financial and ideological strengths.

According to data collected by the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, terrorist attacks this year decreased by around 11 per cent as compared to 2018, and the number of people killed in these attacks plummeted by 40pc. Indeed, there has been a gradual decrease in terrorist attacks and casualties since 2009 (with the exception of 2013, when a surge in sectarian violence mainly contributed to a rise in attacks and casualties). Continuous anti-militant operational and surveillance campaigns by security forces and police counterterrorism departments, as well as some counter-extremism actions taken under the National Action Plan, have apparently helped sustain that declining trend 2013 onwards.

The statistics also show that, for the past few years, much of the militant violence has been visibly concentrated in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while other regions have been facing less frequent attacks. While the number of terrorist attacks in Balochistan in 2019 declined by 27pc, the number of attacks in KP remained unchanged from the year before. The number of terrorist incidents recorded in these two regions was significant; 125 attacks took place in KP and 84 in Balochistan, which were over 91pc of the total attacks reported from across Pakistan.

Terrorist attacks in Pakistan continued to decline but the threat is not yet over.

This year, so-called religiously inspired militant groups such as the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, its splinter groups Hizbul Ahrar and Jamaatul Ahrar, as well as other militant groups with similar objectives such as local Taliban groups, Lashkar-i-Islam and IS-affiliates perpetrated 158 terrorist attacks and nationalist insurgent groups, mainly Baloch, carried out 57 attacks. Meanwhile, 14 of the reported terrorist attacks in 2019 were sectarian-related.

These trends indicate that the threat is not over yet, but talk of countering militancy and terrorism has almost disappeared from media, public and policy discourses. It seems all are becoming convinced by the narrative that we have already defeated militancy and restored peace, including in KP’s merged districts. But in reality, this is only partly true. For one, in 2019, North Waziristan re-emerged as a major flashpoint of insecurity and militant violence where 53 terrorist attacks took place, or over 42pc of the total reported attacks from KP, which killed 57 people and injured 93 others. The government and security forces need to be vigilant enough to prevent militants from regrouping in any part of the country.

The post-Pulwama situation has complicated Pakistan’s strategic challenge on its eastern side, which was further fuelled by the controversial revocation of the special status of India-held Kashmir by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP government. The situation has diverted the attention of the state institutions towards its core conventional security threat. The Pakistan-Afghanistan border security situation is also very delicate, but border security issues with Iran are becoming complicated too, as Baloch insurgents are reportedly using Iranian soil to hide.

In such a complicated national security situation, however, credit goes to Pakistan for not allowing any religious or nationalist party, or militant group, to exploit the situation despite the grim human rights violations in India-held Kashmir and politically charged sentiments in the country. This strategy has helped Pakistan draw the international media’s and rights-based organisations’ attention to the plight of the Kashmiris.

In the case of any militant movement across the Line of Control, the situation would have been entirely different. For one, India could have gained more international support by shouting ‘cross-border terrorism’, covered up its brutal actions in Kashmir and used it to undermine international moral support for the Kashmiris. Similarly, one can imagine the financial consequences for Pakistan, which is facing the critical challenge of avoiding a blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force.

While Pakistan’s focus has recently been on the situation in IHK and tension along the LoC, Pakistani militants, mainly the banned Tehreek-Taliban Pakistan, could try to exploit the situation along the western border. However, the scattered networks of militants failed to exploit the situation entirely, though they have tried making inroads into KP districts bordering Afghanistan. The patterns and geographical spread of terrorist attacks in KP indicate that most attacks in 2019 concentrated in districts that share a border with Afghanistan, including Dir, Bajaur, Mohmand, and North Waziristan. These attacks were made by Pakistani groups sheltered in Afghanistan as well as by their supporters and affiliates, who are still present in bordering and other regions of KP.

The militant Islamic State group has suffered huge losses across the world in 2019, although it has managed a few high-intensity coordinated attacks, including the Sri Lanka Easter attacks. In 2018, the group managed to perpetrate five major terrorist attacks in Pakistan, and the security departments assessed that the group could sustain this momentum in 2019. However, IS claimed only one sectarian-related suicide attack this year, which targeted the Hazara community in Quetta. While IS also announced its Pakistani chapter, it has not yet appeared to surface. One of IS’s top commanders, Hafiz Barohi, was killed in an encounter with law-enforcement agencies in Sindh, which proved fatal to the group.

Pakistan’s internal security landscape is complicated due to both internal and external threats. The internal dimension not only includes threats from hardcore radical and sectarian terrorist groups but also from groups that promote religious intolerance. The latter pose a different sort of critical challenge, because such groups can mobilise their support bases to cause more damage to the economy, social cohesion of society and global image of the country. As we enter 2020, the government and law-enforcement agencies still lack the responses and capabilities to deal with them.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, December 29th, 2019

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