PROJECTING trends of insecurity and violence is not an easy task especially for countries like Pakistan where security challenges are complex and state responses cursory and sporadic. Against all prognostic fears over the past year, the security situation in the country remained relatively stable for which law-enforcement agencies can take the credit. However, keeping in mind the fast-changing militant landscape, 2021 will be another challenging year, and countering terrorism will remain the top priority of the security forces.
The year 2020 sustained the declining trend in the incidence of terrorist violence in Pakistan that has been ongoing since 2014; the year witnessed a 36 per cent decrease in the number of terrorist attacks as compared to 2019. Contrary to different assessments, even in the time of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic the security landscape of Pakistan did not witness any major shift. However, the frequency and intensity of terrorist attacks slightly increased from May to July, particularly in the North Waziristan district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Again in October, the terrorists stepped up their attacks and that trend continued until the end of the year. Despite the huge dent in the militant infrastructure, the operational capabilities of terrorist groups are still intact and new formations also emerged over the last year, which according to some conventional assessments could negatively affect the security situation in the country.
Tackling religious extremism will remain a low priority for the state.
As in the past several years, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan remained the major actor of instability in 2020 when it was found to be involved in 46 terrorist attacks. The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) was the second major lethal group, which perpetrated 19 attacks in the course of the year. The trend shows that the TTP’s operational base is shrinking fast as out of the 46 attacks it perpetrated in 2020, as many as 40 were concentrated in KP alone. The TTP is regrouping in the Waziristan and Bajaur districts to create physical space for itself. But so far, even after the merger of several small groups and splinters, there has not been any major shift in the group’s operational priorities.
The militant Islamic State group carried out two terrorist attacks last year. However, the group’s claiming the killing of 11 Shia Hazara coal miners in Mach early this month was an indication that its Pakistan chapter or an organisation influenced by its ideology is still active in Balochistan and may continue to pose a threat in the future.
Last year, six Baloch insurgent groups remained active in Balochistan, but the BLA and Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) were the two major groups that carried out most of the reported attacks from the province. The BLA even carried out two attacks outside Balochistan including the coordinated one on the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi. It is an indication that Baloch insurgent groups are trying to expand their area of operation while focusing more on south and south-western Balochistan besides continuing to show their presence in Quetta. Throughout the year in 2020, violent Sindhi nationalist groups launched several attacks on the security forces and Chinese nationals in Sindh. This worrying trend indicates there may have been a possible rapprochement between the BLA and BLF, and these groups’ alliance with the Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army has complicated the security challenges.
It is likely that in 2021, terrorism-related challenges and responses will revolve around CPEC and the security and safety of Chinese nationals in the country. The Baloch insurgents are already known for their terrorist activities against Chinese nationals and CPEC, and last year, violent Sindhi nationalist groups had also joined their league while attempting to target Chinese nationals in Karachi. Religiously inspired terrorist groups are also desperately looking for soft targets, which could have an immense impact on CPEC security. In this context, the safety and security of the CPEC projects would be a top priority for law-enforcement agencies.
Fulfilling the conditions of the FATF will remain a challenge, which will ultimately put pressure on militant groups and leaders of banned militant groups. An anti-terrorism court in Lahore recently sentenced Lashkar-e-Taiba supreme commander Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi to five years in prison, which is another indication that state institutions have decided to fix the top leadership of banned militant groups involved in terror-financing cases. The top leadership of the Jamaatud Dawa (JuD) including its head Hafiz Saeed have already been booked in several terror-financing cases. There are indications that action would be taken against the leadership of other militant groups, especially the banned Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), over similar charges.
It is interesting that the JuD has not reacted to the arrest and trial of its leadership, which is an indication that the group is still cohesive and has decided to contest its cases in the courts. But JeM could be a different case, as it has a history of fragmentation and its splinters have in the past taken up arms against the state. Law enforcement will remain vigilant about the possible backlash from JeM if their leadership is booked in terrorism-financing cases.
However, tackling religious extremism will remain a low priority for the state, despite the fact that incidents of communal violence and religious and sectarian hatred have become a regular feature of Pakistan’s security and political landscape. In one of these incidents, the shrine of a Hindu saint was vandalised and torched in Karak. Similarly, while on the whole sectarian violence has come down in Pakistan in recent years, sectarian discord and the groups promoting it continue to persist.
The state’s tolerance towards extremist groups is the latter’s major strength. State institutions still believe that the threat posed by the extremist groups can be dealt with through political tactics. The government has not devised any strategy to reduce the appeal of their narratives and it is quite possible that the extremists will continue exploiting the government’s weakness.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, January 24th, 2021