PUTTING to rest months of speculations regarding the whereabouts of a Baloch separatist commander, Gulzar Imam, the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced his arrest on Friday, describing it as a major counterterrorism achievement.

In mid-September, reports of Imam’s arrest had started circulating in intelligence and Baloch insurgent circles. Two months on, the Imam-led Baloch Nationalist Army (BNA) confirmed his arrest through its official channel ‘Baask’ and said that its founder was in the custody of Pakis­tan’s intelligence agencies. How­ever, the group did not disclose where, when, and how he was arrested.

Hailing from Panjgur district in Balochistan, Imam joined student politics in 2002 from the platform of the Baloch Students Organisation (BSO). Over the years, when several factions of BSO merged and formed the now-proscribed BSO-Azad, Imam was made president of its Panjgur region around 2006.

Allah Nazar Baloch and Bashir Zaib, who are currently leading the other two major separatist groups — the Baloch Liberation Front (BLF) and the Baloch Liberation Army, respectively — also headed the BSO-Azad during their student lives.

When a crackdown began against BSO-Azad, Imam went underground and joined the Baloch Republican Army (BRA) — a proscribed separatist group led by Brahumdagh Bugti. He soon rose to be the group’s operational commander, according to political activists and journalists from Panjgur.

Between 2016 and 2018, three major Baloch separatist groups — the Hyrbyair Marri-led Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), the BRA, and the Mehran Marri-led United Baloch Army (UBA) — started developing internal rifts.

“The fragmentation in these groups began when their field commanders from the lower-middle classes challenged the groups’ heads, who are wealthy traditional Baloch tribal chieftains living in self-exile in Europe,” explained Fahad Nabeel, a security analyst at Geopolitical Insights, an Islamabad-based research firm.

Within the BRA’s ranks, Imam developed differences with its chief Brahumdagh Bugti over several iss­ues, particularly his leadership style.

In October 2018, the BRA expelled Imam from the group over his alleged involvement in extortion and extrajudicial killings. From that point onwards, the BRA was divided into two factions.

On Jan 11 last year, Imam and Sarfaraz Bangalzai, a UBA field commander, merged their factions to form a new group, the BNA. On Jan 20, the BNA claimed responsibility for a bomb attack at Lahore’s Anarkali market. At least three people were killed and dozens injured in that attack.

Security experts and officials have hailed Imam’s arrest as a great achievement for law enforcement agencies.

“Imam’s arrest is a great achievement at the tactical level for the Pakistani security agencies, which can help them neutralise BNA’s network in Balochistan with the help of the information received from him through interrogation,” Abdul Basit, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of Inter­national Studies, told Dawn.com.

Experts are, however, sceptical of how much the arrest or elimination of one or two leaders would impact the overall Baloch insurgency. “The militants associated with the current wave of insurgency are ideologically motivated, not on the basis of tribes,” said Mr Basit.

A detailed version of this article can be accessed on Dawn.com

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2023

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