LAST week’s heinous attack on a passenger bus traversing the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Chilas area is a reminder of the escalating terrorist threat that casts a long shadow over Pakistan. This tragic incident, coupled with a series of high-intensity attacks on the Mianwali training air base, a cross-border incursion in Chitral, and the assault on the Zhob Cantt military installation in recent months, prove that terrorists have gained the confidence and the capabilities which they had lost before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The militant landscape is turning increasingly similar to that of the pre-2014 era when multiple religiously motivated groups were active in various parts of the country. While the authorities remain hesitant to acknowledge the Chilas bus attack as sectarian, citing the diverse backgrounds of the victims, unconfirmed reports circulating on social media suggest that the banned Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) has claimed responsibility.
If true, this would substantiate the concerns of counterterrorism practitioners regarding the regrouping of LJ in parts of the country, particularly Chilas, where it previously held a scattered support base. The outlawed Tehreek-i-Taliban presence in the area also raises concerns due to the presence of Chinese firms working on the Dasu dam project.
Notably, the TTP conducted an attack on a Chinese workers’ bus in November 2022. These terrorist organisations historically employed the tactic of firing at passing buses, believing that a majority of the passengers belonged to rival religious sects.
The militant landscape is turning increasingly similar to that of the pre-2014 era
The resurfacing of LJ is a dangerous sign for internal security. The Sindh and Punjab counterterrorism departments have claimed the arrest of several LJ suspects from Karachi and south Punjab in the past few weeks. The LJ is not merely a sectarian terrorist group; it also has a history of allying with the TTP and Al Qaeda and contributing to major terrorist attacks orchestrated by these organisations. This is particularly concerning because it serves as the first point of contact for indoctrinated youth and connects them with groups like the TTP and the militant Islamic State group.
There is a need to analyse the strategies, tactics, and nexuses of the terrorist groups based in the Pakistani tribal area before Operation Zarb-i-Azb in 2014. We should also examine how they deployed their resources to trigger one of the worst terrorist campaigns in the country’s history. Notably, the actors involved are essentially the same, except they are now based across the border.
It is unclear whether the terrorists involved in the Nov 4 attack on the Mianwali training air base of the Pakistan Air Force had local support. However, such high-intensity attacks are typically well-planned and executed, often involving collaboration between multiple organisations. Historically, Al Qaeda has masterminded major terrorist assaults on military installations in Pakistan with local support. Their modus operandi often involved engaging three organisations in a single attack: the TTP, as a significant partner for providing human resources and logistics, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement or Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan for providing skilled foreign fighters, and a local support group like LJ or another banned militant group.
Al Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban were employing sophisticated techniques similar to those used by insurgents in Iraq. These tactics were utilised, among others, in three major terrorist attacks between 2008 and 2014: the attack on the Federal Investigation Agency building in Lahore and attacks on the Danish embassy and Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. In 2009, these groups further refined their operational strategies. They successfully replicated the Mumbai attacks in four major assaults in Pakistan: the attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi, the attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore, and two attacks on the Manawan Police Training School in Lahore. Additionally, 2009 marked the year when militants began targeting cities through repeated strikes to amplify the impact of terror, a trend that continues to this day. For instance, they targeted Peshawar in 2009 and Lahore in 2010 and focused on Karachi, Quetta, and Peshawar in 2011-12.
The terrorist attacks in 2023 indicate that a similar alliance has come into being, or the TTP has transformed itself into an organisation that can conceive and launch Al Qaeda-style collaborative attacks.
The Tehreek-i-Jihad Pakistan claimed responsibility for the Mianwali air base attack. This group is considered a subsidiary of the TTP. Suspicions also exist that the TJP may have Afghan nationals among its ranks, alongside recruits from south Punjab, Zhob, and Dera Ismail Khan districts in Balochistan and KP.
The TTP’s ability to recruit fighters in bordering Punjab, KP, and Balochistan districts would be difficult without sufficient local support or an established organisational network. Consequently, LJ and other banned organisations like Jaish-e-Mohammad are suspected of providing such support due to their adequate infrastructure in these areas.
Further investigation is needed to determine whether Al Qaeda remains involved in orchestrating terrorist attacks like those executed by the TJP in recent months. While Al Qaeda’s presence in the region is weakened, it has not been completely eradicated. Therefore, they may be supporting the TTP under the guise of the TJP.
So far, a crucial feature that has emerged is the possibility of the LJ’s revival. This organisation had been absent from the terrorist nexus for the past six to seven years, as law-enforcement agencies had almost dismantled its network. Its reappearance would complete the missing piece of the terrorist puzzle. While banned militant and sectarian organisations could provide an alternative, the LJ remains a strong suspect. It has historically served as an ideological inspiration for radical youth, particularly those with a madressah background. The LJ also gains narrative power from sectarian organisations such as the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, towards which state institutions continue to have a soft approach. Radical madressahs with a history of association with militant and sectarian groups cannot be ignored either.
The evolving terrorism threat necessitates vigilance and keen monitoring of changing behaviours within sectarian and terrorist organisations. This is crucial to avert a situation similar to pre-2014.
The writer is a security analyst.
Published in Dawn, December 10th, 2023