Changing militant landscape

Published September 6, 2020
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

SOME recent developments may significantly impact Pakistan’s militant landscape. Two breakaway factions have remerged with the banned Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP); the militant Islamic State (IS) group announced its new head for the region; and Baloch and Sindhi insurgent groups became more active in Sindh, suggesting a possible nexus between them. Meanwhile, the government continued to ban militant organisations; five groups have been banned so far in 2020.

These developments may also partly explain the recent upsurge in terrorist violence in the country. Yet it remains to be seen whether or not the militants will be able to sustain or consolidate this trend.

Over the past some years, mainly since early 2015, militant organisations in Pakistan have had difficulty in planning and executing terrorist operations. After realising that factionalism was also hurting their operational strength, Pakistani Taliban groups began trying to resolve their internal differences and reunify.

The TTP, led by Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, has close connections with Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, but it proclaims ‘jihad’ only in Pakistan. The group has apparently convinced its breakaway factions Jamaatul Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar, as well as a few other annoyed commanders and small groups, to rejoin its ranks. This also implies that the TTP managed to survive as a potent militant group in Pakistan, while its splinters, including JuA and HuA, could not endure the challenge of weakening organisational and operational strength and structures.

Certain developments may partly explain the recent upsurge in terrorist violence.

Wali Mehsud apparently steered this unification by bringing angry elements back within the TTP’s organisational fold. This will have consequences for Pakistan’s internal security. For one, it will strengthen the TTP by bringing most of the Pakistani militants hiding in Afghanistan under its umbrella. A recent report of the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanction Monitoring Team estimated that over 6,000 TTP militants are hiding in Afghanistan. If the TTP succeeds in bringing back all of its breakaway factions, its strength can cross 10,000, which is quite a worrisome figure.

The same UN report estimated that 2,200 members of IS Khorasan are present in eastern Afghanistan. The nationality of its new leader, Shahab Al Muhajir, is still contested; while most of the international media identify him as an Iraqi national, some experts have contradicted this claim. Whatever his nationality, IS-K has been very lethal in Afghanistan recently, and there are fears that Al Muhajir has been tasked with restructuring the organisation in the region. Pakistan cannot ignore this development. However, there are very slim chances that the TTP and IS-K would unite, as both represent different sectarian and ideological leanings, with the TTP more close to Al Qaeda. The UN report also linked the TTP and IS-K, but the spokesperson of the Pakistani Taliban immediately rejected this claim and declared IS-K a puppet of the US and Pakistan.

Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) is also active in the region, with 150 to 200 members. All these terrorist groups have the potential to maximise the impact of terrorism in Pakistan, but they cannot gain the same upswing they once enjoyed for more than a decade in parts of the erstwhile tribal areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

However, the reunification of the TTP can pose a threat in some districts of Punjab, Balochistan and KP as the former factions had networks in these areas. Bajaur witnessed four terrorist attacks last month. Bajaur borders Kunar and Nuristan in Afghanistan, where many of the TTP, AQIS and IS-K militants who originated from Bajaur, Khyber and Orakzai are believed to be hiding. The dynamics of militancy are also changing in North Waziristan and its adjoining areas. This entails an increased number of attacks against security forces, as well as the growing presence of anti-Pakistan militants in parts of the district. A united TTP and an invigorated IS-K can also exploit the sectarian divide in Kurram, Hangu and Orakzai. Sectarian terrorist groups are also becoming active in Karachi, where incidents of targeted killings are increasing. The state and its institutions need to be vigilant about the changing dynamics of militancy in the country.

The National Counter Terrorism Authority has added five groups to its list of proscribed organisations. Three are Sindhi nationalist groups that were reportedly involved in acts of sabotage and terrorism in recent years; one is a Shia group from Kurram district that allegedly recruited militants for proxy warfare in Syria; and the last is the Ghazi Force, formed after the operation against Lal Masjid, Islamabad, in 2007, which triggered a wave of suicide attacks. There are indications that the group can become functional again, and security agencies need to take the threat seriously.

After the inclusion of these groups, the total number of banned outfits has reached 78. There are also six other organisations that are under observation or listed under UNSC resolutions. However, there is a need for scrutiny of the list to remove duplications. Many of the banned groups are merely new names of previously banned groups. Factionalism is also a common practice within militant organisations, with most later reuniting — as is the case with the TTP, which has brought back four groups under its umbrella. Considering these two factors, a recount of banned groups would put the number at 56, including six foreign terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and IS. The Pak-Turk International Education Foundation is also included in the list, which has visible political grounds. Among the 56 banned groups, 42 are religiously motivated militant groups, while 14 are violent ethnonationalist groups. But, among these, the number of functional groups is not more than 30.

It is understandable that listing all names of militant groups is essential for internal legal proceedings and international commitments, especially under UNSC resolutions. But security institutions need to develop a comprehensive database for all these groups, with the focus being on functional groups and their changing dynamics.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2020

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