The Resurgent Terrorist Threat in Pakistan: an interview with Tariq Parvez
Interview by World Geostrategic Insights (WGI)
Q1 – The return of the Taliban to Afghanistan has facilitated the re-emergence of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has launched a new wave of violence against Pakistan’s security forces. The TTP has claimed or is blamed for many of the attacks that have taken the lives of nearly 350 Pakistani soldiers and other law enforcement personnel in hundreds of attacks in the first nine months of 2022. Although the Taliban government assures that it is determined to address the security problems of Afghanistan’s neighbors, it appears to be failing to effectively block terrorist groups that threaten other countries. Is the Taliban regime avoiding decisive action against the TTP? Why?
A1 – Yes, the Afghan Taliban, after taking over the government of Afghanistan in 2021, are avoiding effective action against some terrorist organizations such as the TTP and targeting others such as the ISK. The reasons are as follows:
i – Ideological affinity. Both the Afghan Taliban (AT) and the TTP belong to the same Sunni subsection, namely the Deobandi, and thus have the same ideological and religious background. Also, their main stated goal is to fight for the enforcement of Islamic sharia law in their respective countries. Hence the AT’s reluctance to counter the leadership and cadres of the TTP based in Afghanistan and carrying out terrorist acts in Pakistan.
ii – Shared history of fighting in Afghanistan. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, large numbers of Pakistanis, then called mujahidin, crossed over to Afghanistan to fight alongside Afghan fighters against the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, but peace did not return to the country and civil war broke out between the different mujahidin groups of yesteryears. Some of the Pakistani fighters who had gone to Afghanistan to fight against the Soviets remained in Afghanistan to fight alongside some of the local warring factions who were likeminded. When the AT took control of Kabul in 1996, these Pakistani fighters in Afghanistan, multiplied and sided with the AT to fight against the AT’s enemies, namely the Northern Alliance led by Ahmed Shah Massoud. At that time, there was no TTP, and the terrorist group that was carrying out anti-Shijah terrorist attacks in Pakistan, Sipah and Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its militant offshoot Lashkar e Jhangvi (LeJ), received a safe haven from the AT starting in 1996, and used their manpower in various military roles against Massoud. In fact, the AT had provided LeJ with a military training camp for its recruits in Sarobi, near Jalalabad, which remained in operation until the fall of the AT government in 2001.
After the fall of the AT government in 2001, most Pakistani fighters returned to Pakistan, but with the revival of the AT in Afghanistan in 2003, these Pakistanis began to return to fight alongside the AT against the United States. Many members of the AT leadership and ranks, also entered Pakistan in 2001 and were helped and provided refuge by these religious fighters who had fought in Afghanistan. As the AT’s fight against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan intensified after 2003, more and more Pakistani fighters, particularly from areas bordering Afghanistan, moved into Afghanistan, increasing the AT’s numerical strength. In 2007, the TTP was formed, composed mostly of religious militants who lived in areas bordering Afghanistan. This trend of migrating to Afghanistan from Pakistan, by the militants, was reinforced by the launching of military operations against militants in the bordering areas in general, but the TTP in particular. This led a large number of TTP militants and their leadership to move to Afghanistan, not only to hide from the authorities but also to help the AT fight its war. This long association between the AT and the TTP has led to building a relationship of mutual trust and reliance, as well as looking after each other’s interests.
Fighting together over the years has also led to strong personal friendships between the leaders of the two organizations and members of the ranks. Any action against the TTP is likely to be resented by the AT from within. Therefore, although the AT may be forced to take action against the TTP because of pressure from the Pakistani government and its international commitment not to allow any terrorist group to use Afghan soil for terrorist activities abroad, the action will likely be cosmetic and may take the form of a no-noise advisory for the time being, rather than effective action to neutralize the TTP. In fact, according to some reports, the AT persuaded the Pakistani government to negotiate with the TTP in early 2022, but the initiative failed badly, without achieving much except a temporary ceasefire.
iii. – Ethnic commonality. The TTP, like the AT, is composed of Pakhtuns living on both sides of the border. Some have divided families in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. This commonality of ethnicity, culture, language and customs is another factor that prevents the AT from really hurting the TTP.
iiii. – Internal dynamics of the AT. One of the biggest challenges the TA will face after coming to power in 2021 is maintaining its internal cohesion, with many factions moving in different directions. The biggest fault in this regard is the ongoing struggle between hardliners and pragmatists, both within the ranks and leadership of AT. In such a context, the AT would not want to create new points of divergence by targeting the TTP, which could be strongly resented by those elements within the AT and thus weaken its capability to fight.
iiiii. – Security environment in Afghanistan. In addition to internal disagreements within the AT, the precarious security environment in Afghanistan makes confronting its opponents like the ISK, the AT’s top priority. The existence of the ISK is a serious threat because, like the AT, it is a militant organization that claims to be motivated by religious factors. In terms of its ideological goals, it too aims at the enforcement of Islamic Sharia law, like the AT. One major difference, however, is that the ISK continues with its rabidly anti-Shiite and anti-Barelvi policies, carrying out terrorist attacks against the Shiite Hazaras and also targeting the mazaars of the Barelvi in Afghanistan, which it considers un-Islamic. AT members also believe this, but the AT has decided not to target Shiites and Barelvi, more as a matter of expediency ,than to give the image of a tolerant and pragmatic government. The same religious beliefs apply to the TTP, which regularly targets Shiites in Pakistan. Thus, for TTP members disillusioned with their leadership for whatever reason, the ISK offers an attractive alternative because TTP and AT members share the same religious ideology and mindset. Thus, if the AT tries to be tough on the TTP in Afghanistan, the latter is likely to find welcoming arms in the ISK, where most of the dissident leaders of the TTP and AT, occupy influential leadership positions and will be only too happy to welcome their former colleagues. This is another factor that deters the AT from taking meaningful action against the TTP.
Q2 – Increased activity by TTP extremists in northwest Pakistan has triggered a strong public reaction, with thousands of residents coming out onto the streets demanding that authorities restore security. However, the public version of Pakistan’s security policy document for the next four years (2022-2026) barely mentions Afghanistan among the security challenges. When Afghanistan is mentioned, it is mostly about “fraternal ties” and “westward connectivity.” Even recently, Pakistan has called for “increased and sustained engagement” with the Taliban government to promote the goals of the global community in Afghanistan regarding human rights, political inclusiveness and counter-terrorism, saying that these goals cannot be achieved by isolating it. Is Pakistan underestimating a serious security challenge on its doorstep? What is your opinion?
A2 – No, Pakistan is not underestimating the serious security challenge coming from Afghanistan.
a – In fact, it was realized that the Taliban’s conquest in Afghanistan could pose a very serious threat to Pakistan’s security in terms of four dimensions. One, the AT’s victory in Afghanistan, after fighting the U.S. and its allies for two decades, would reinforce the narrative of religious political parties in Pakistan, generating a huge new wave of religious extremism in Pakistan. Two, the narrative of religious militants that if the AT could defeat the army of the global superpower and its allies, so could the TTP and like-minded groups in Pakistan defeat the Pakistani army, which successfully kept them at bay and forced their leadership to migrate to Afghanistan. Three, security analysts were aware that a AT-led Afghan government would have serious reservations about taking action against the TTP, and thus, with indirect AT support, the TTP was likely to grow stronger in due course. Fourth, the TTP, a predominantly Pakhtun group, will in the long run seek to tap into its ethnic identity as Pashtuns, which it shares with the AT, and will strive to strengthen Pakhtun sub nationalists and their narrative in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, posing a long-term existential threat, though highly unlikely, to Pakistan’s territorial integrity.
b – Dealing with the AT government, however, is a complex issue and the response must be very nuanced, taking into account the many layers of the problem. Simple suggestions such as isolation can prove counterproductive, not only for ordinary Afghans, but also in terms of security, large-scale migration and propagation of extremist religious ideology in neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia and China.
Not only that, the fact that two global terrorist organizations, AQ and ISIS, have a significant presence in Afghanistan implies that the world needs to be aware, that whatever approach it decides to deal with Afghanistan will likely affect the capacity and power of these two global terrorist organizations. Isolation would exponentially increase the difficulties of the Afghan common man, but it would also strengthen those within the AT, who are extremists and want to implement their version of sharia, whatever the cost. “The world avoids us, so we avoid the world”. “God is on our side”, they argue, leading to more oppressive policies, greater indulgence in poppy cultivation and methamphetamine production. Not only that, isolating the AT would mean it could start encouraging AQ in Afghanistan, planning acts globally, and sending the message that if they are isolated, the world may have a high price to pay for it. Isolating AT, therefore, is not a viable option. Engaging them is the only way forward. One can differ on how, when or with whom to engage, but this is the only option in Afghanistan to save the Afghan people and include some level of benefits of international cooperation for the AT so that they do not give more freedom to AQ to implement its global agenda. We need to keep in mind that there are many factions within the AT, and the most sensible approach would be to strengthen those that are more amenable to international cooperation. By involving them, we maintain the leverage to do so. It is difficult, it may take a long time, sometimes it may not work, but it is the only approach that can yield results.
c – The most important problem facing Afghanistan today is essentially a humanitarian one. Hunger, harsh winters, lack of health facilities, poor economy, poor service delivery, and gender inequality. All these problems require urgent attention from the world. The point to keep in mind is that not everything donated internationally needs to be conditional on “good behavior.” Some aid should be given only to alleviate the misery of the people. Some of it might be misused, but most of it might help the common man.
d -Pakistan, having a large land border with Afghanistan, is probably the country most affected by Afghan conditions. Pakistan must consider many factors in deciding its response and must follow a nuanced policy, weighing the costs of each policy option. Recently, the TTP has shown signs of wanting to transform itself into a political party, and its leader, Noor Wali Mehsud, has issued a statement that all foreigners in its ranks (whether Afghans or from other countries) should leave and limit themselves to making donations and praying for the TTP. It is also said that a strong faction within the TTP has opposed this policy of expelling Afghans and others from the TTP. Even within the TTP, therefore, the situation is constantly changing. It has been reported that some TTP members have torn down the border fence installed at the Afghanistan-Pakistan border because some of them do not accept the international border, called the Durand Line, and at some points the Pakistani army has returned fire. There have been reports of Pakistani soldiers pushing into Afghanistan in pursuit of militants trying to infiltrate or attack Pakistani military checkpoints. The key point to note is that relations between the AT and Pakistan are complex and stratified, with factions within the AT divided into pro- and anti-Pakistan groups. For the time being, there will be a lot of blowing hot and blowing cold , but likely to be below the threshold level, of erupting into a major border clash between the two countries. It will take time for it to stabilize. Some argue that the TTP will probably follow the model used by the AT to fight the U.S. and its allies and win. It would be useful for Pakistan to study that model in more detail and develop a long-term comprehensive response.
Q3 – The main terrorist and other groups operating and/or launching attacks against Pakistan can be classified into five broad, though not exclusive, types: (1) globally oriented (Al Qaeda ); (2) Afghanistan oriented; (3) India and Kashmir oriented; (4) domestically oriented (Balochistan Liberation Army, Jaysh al-Adl); and (5) sectarian (anti-Shiite). In your opinion, where does the main threat come from? How can these groups be countered?
A3 – Every terrorist group, large or small, must be considered a serious security threat because the life of every citizen is equally precious and it is the fundamental responsibility of every state to protect the lives of its citizens.
a – Not only that, every terrorist group, regardless of its size or the nature of its triggers or modus operandi, poses a major challenge to the state and must be given the highest priority. Moreover, the lethality of a terrorist group can vary over time, and small ones, if ignored, can turn into huge challenges.
b – Having said that, I will try to express my opinion on the relative importance of the various terrorist groups targeting Pakistan. The terrorist groups active in Pakistan can be divided into two broad categories. One, we can lump all religiously motivated groups into one category and call it Militancy in the Name of Religion (MITNOR). Two, all sub-nationalist terrorist groups active in Pakistan can be placed in another category, called Sub-Nationalist Militancy (SNM). To get an idea of the relative lethality of the two categories of militias or militant groups in Pakistan, it might be pertinent to mention that in 2021, 67% of terrorist attacks were carried out by MITNOR, mainly by the TTP, while 33% of attacks were carried out by SNMGs, i.e., SNMG attacks were almost half of those carried out by MITNOR. Moreover, in terms of the state’s response, 80 terrorist organizations have been banned, of which 60 can be placed in the MITNOR and 19 in the SNM, of which one is of the miscellaneous type: 75% of the banned militant organizations are MITNOR and 24% SNMG. Thus, it can be said that in terms of lethality, in 2021, MITNOR, with the largest number of attacks by the TTP, was the most lethal terrorist threat and SNM followed it.
c – Within MITNOR, there are many terrorist groups targeting Pakistan, and all of them are based in Afghanistan. The main threat, of course, is the TTP. MITNOR can be divided into three broad categories. One, those based in Afghanistan and friendly to the AT, such as the TTP and AQ. Two, those based in Afghanistan and opposed to AT such as the ISK. Three, those based in Afghanistan or Pakistan that target Afghanistan or India. It is likely that the last category is currently inactive because, since the AT took control of the Afghan government, Pakistanis fighting alongside the AT against the United States are no longer much needed. In addition, terrorist groups targeting India, such as the LeT and JeM, thanks to effective action against them by the Pakistani government, seem to have slumbered for some time.
d – Currently, the most dangerous terrorist organizations for Pakistan are the TTP and AQ, because they are based in Afghanistan and being friends of the AT, they are likely to be protected by them and the chances of action against them in Afghanistan are nominal. In fact, in the years to come, the TTP may become more powerful and pose a more serious threat to Pakistan, both in terms of terrorist attacks and ideological defiance, promoting the cause of Islamic Sharia enforcement. The poor condition of the Pakistani economy, the slow absorption of the formerly semi-governed FATA into the KP province, and the failing judicial system provide much ammunition for the TTP narrative to resonate with the people of the KP and Balochistan, the two provinces that border Afghanistan.
The other terrorist organization, based in Afghanistan and with the intention and long history of targeting Pakistan through terrorist attacks, is AQ. Its leader, Aymen Zawahiri, was killed in July 2022 by a U.S. drone using Pakistani airspace. He was living in a house provided in Kabul, by Jalaluddin Haqqani, the de facto AT regime’s interior minister. It is therefore more likely that, for the time being, the AQ will focus more on consolidating and strengthening its base in Afghanistan and its franchises abroad. It cannot be ruled out that as soon as the organization consolidates and can launch a terrorist attack, with reasonable deniability, Pakistan is likely to be an early target. For two reasons. One, being close to Afghanistan, where AQ is now based, accessibility is easier. Second, it may have sleeper cells already inside Pakistan that can be easily activated. Therefore, Pakistan must view the resurgence of Al Qaeda in the years ahead as a serious security threat. At this time, however, more than AQ, it is ISK that poses a greater threat, as it has regularly carried out terrorist attacks in Pakistan since its inception in 2015. In 2021, of the 207 terrorist attacks carried out in Pakistan, 19 were claimed by ISK, or 9 percent of the total attacks. In the coming years, the strength of ISK will depend on the effectiveness of the AT in neutralizing this group. Indeed, this is a terrorist organization to fight which the AT could welcome indirect international assistance, as it poses a very serious threat to the AT regime. Some have raised the possibility of AQ and ISK uniting and fighting against the common enemy, i.e., the U.S., although it seems remote for now.
e – The other terrorist threat Pakistan faces is subnational militant groups (SNMGs). Almost all Balochistan SNMGs have their safe havens in Afghanistan or Iran. With the establishment of the AT government in Afghanistan in 2021, these Balochistan SNMGs may not be very welcome because the AT has no ideological affinity with them and would not want them to become an obstacle in their relations with Pakistan. In all likelihood, these SNMGs might be forced to leave Afghanistan and move to their bases in Iran or back to the semi-governed B areas of Balochistan province.
f – The current wave of sub-nationalist militancy in Balochistan began in 2000. This type of threat, with its ups and downs, has intensified since then, not only in terms of lethality and engagement, but also in terms of geographic expansion. In terms of the lethality of attacks, there was an increase in the number of terrorist attacks in 2021 compared to 2020, and the trend seems to have continued in 2022. The increased engagement of SNMGs is evident from the fact that, for the first time, they resorted to suicide bombings. In Karachi in 2022, a female suicide bomber belonging to the Balochistan Liberation Army blew herself up, targeting a van carrying Chinese teachers from the local university, killing three. In terms of increasing geographical spread, the SNMG was initially confined mainly to Baluchistan province, but recently, in 2022, there has been an intensification of activities by subnational Sindhi militant organizations, such as the Sind Liberation Army.
The threat of Baloch subnationalists is serious not only because it challenges the security of our people and the territorial integrity of the state by demanding independence, but also because China’s Belt and Road initiative, which is very crucial for both Pakistan and China, mostly passes through this province. Baloch terrorists have been known to target Chinese interests as well as target Pakistani law enforcement authorities. The Pakistani government has taken a number of measures to address the grievances of the Baloch people, such as providing more employment and higher education opportunities for Baloch youth. These measures are having limited impact as the Baluchis continue to demand an end to the policy of extrajudicial arrests and killings implemented by the security forces, who are responsible for maintaining law and order in the province. They are also demanding a greater role for civilians in the administration of the province.
g – Pakistan`s response. The best way to counter these terrorist groups is to follow a comprehensive, inclusive, and politically shared national strategy against terrorism. The terrorist threat to Pakistan has two dimensions: external and internal. Almost all terrorist organizations targeting Pakistan, whether religiously motivated or driven by subnational factors, are based in Afghanistan or Iran. Moreover, it is obvious that these foreign-based terrorist organizations can only act in Pakistan on the basis of local support networks. Consequently, Pakistan’s response to the terrorist threat from these organizations must have two dimensions: external and internal.
i.- External dimension.
1 – To deal meaningfully with the terrorist threat of Afghanistan-based MITNOR, Pakistan must remain engaged with the AT government for two reasons: to put maximum pressure on the AT to keep both TTP and AQ in check. This must be an ongoing process, with Pakistan demanding quid pro quos for the concessions they give to the landlocked Afghanistan, in terms of AT actions against TTP and AQ. Second, pool information and efforts against ISK, which both, AT and Pakistan, view as a serious security threat.
2 – It may be pertinent to point out that two of the Afghanistan-based MITNOR terrorist organizations, namely AQIS and ISK, are known to be local chapters of AQ and ISIS, which have global agendas and pose a threat to the world in general and the West, in particular. They may have been significantly downsized at this time, but if we keep them off the radar, taking advantage of the world’s indifference, they can develop the capacity to attack globally again. Pakistan can therefore become an important partner of the West in countering these two terrorist organizations based in Afghanistan. Cooperation between Pakistan and the West can take the form of knowledge sharing, databases, capacity building of CT departments or even action plans.
3 – Similarly, with Iran we need to stay engaged and not only address misgivings between the two countries on the issue of harboring each other`s militant groups, but also broaden areas of convergence in dealing with Baluch sub nationalist militants based in Iran or those groups which Iran believes to be based in Pakistan. A common approach needs to be evolved against terrorist groups, whether targeting Pakistan or Iran.
4 – Another aspect of Pakistan’s response to the terrorist threat is to ensure that terrorist infiltration from Afghanistan and Iran is made difficult. To this end, most of the border between these two countries has been fenced and manned. Border management needs to be improved, both by Pakistan and the two neighboring countries.
ii. – Internal dimension. Regarding the response of the internal dimension to the terrorist threat, the following steps are suggested:
1 – The National Action Plan (NAP), drafted in 2014, with the national consensus of all political parties and the armed forces, should be continued as the framework for response to the current resurgence of terrorism in Pakistan. Relevant agencies should prepare, short term and long term action programs for the implementation of the NAP, with specific goals and timelines.
2 – Military role vs Civil. Pakistan’s current response to the fight against terrorism is military-dominated. There is no doubt that the army and its intelligence agencies have played an important role in reducing the number of terrorist attacks from 2586 in 2009 to 146 in 2020. Military operations (2014) in the former FATA semi-governed region, now merged with the KP, and in Swat (2009) were also necessary to stem the tide of terrorism. But we must keep in mind that this approach to fighting terrorism is not sustainable in the long run, and it must change for two reasons. One, counterterrorism is essentially a matter of law enforcement, where terrorists are arrested, investigated, prosecuted and sentenced by the courts, and this is the role of the police and civilian intelligence agencies. Second, policymaking for counterterrorism must be inclusive, that is, it must include input not only from the military and police, but also from academia, politicians, the media, etc. The military’s dominance relegates civilians to a secondary role and thus leads to unbalanced policy formulation, hampered by their presumptions and blind spots. The military’s role in combating terrorism should be supportive of civilian power and should be a temporary measure when terrorists are better armed than police forces, as in all developed countries. The role of the military should be ad hoc, with the short-term goal of creating space for the police and other civilian departments to build their capacity to deal with terrorists. In Balochistan, despite the government’s many efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Baluchis, the discourse continues to be dominated by the tactics adopted by the military, such as the phenomenon of missing persons, negating the impact of positive measures to address their grievances. The best way to civilianize national counterterrorism efforts is to strengthen civilian institutions such as the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), Counter Terrorism Departments (CTDs) in the provinces, and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) by allocating more resources, equipment, authority, and expertise. A five-year plan should be drawn up leading to the gradual withdrawal of the role of the military and its assumption by civilian agencies.
3 – Kinetic vs Non kinetic. Another aspect of Pakistan’s current response to the challenge of terrorism is that most of the focus/allocation of resources is on kinetic measures, and the non kinetic dimension of counterterrorism is ignored. There is a need for non-kinetic factors to contribute more to Pakistan’s efforts, such as addressing issues that generate extremism, countering violent extremism, and militant narratives. The central institution created by a law enacted by Parliament in 2013 to play this role is NACTA. This institution needs to be strengthened and owned politically by the government so that it can play the role assigned to it by law.
4 – Sources of funding. It is now generally recognized that funding is the lifeblood of any terrorist organization. Terrorist finance investigations, however, are complex and require investigators with specialized training dedicated exclusively to this type of investigation. The FIA has a Terrorist Finance Investigating Unit (TFIU) and some provincial CTDs also have them. There is a need to build the capacity of these underutilized, specialized investigative units and integrate them with the national suspicious transaction reports (STRs) detection system through the Financial Monitoring Unit (FMU), based at the State Bank of Pakistan, as required by the Anti-Money Laundering Act (2010).
5 – Role of technology. The Internet has revolutionized the entire human society, and there is strong evidence indicating that terrorist groups use information technology extensively to spread their ideology, recruit volunteers, seek funds, and communicate encrypted with each other. Although almost all counterterrorism agencies in Pakistan have cells dealing with the use of information technology by terrorists, there is a need to give more importance to these cells and update them regularly on the ways terrorist groups use information technology and how to counter it. A global effort in this regard could be more useful and effective.
6 – Developing and implementing a counter narrative. Although it was briefly mentioned in the section on non kinetic measures, it is believed that developing a counter-narrative for terrorists should be an important component of any counterterrorism strategy. The reason is simple: ideology is the soul of any terrorist organization, which helps it recruit volunteers, win sympathizers who provide it with all sorts of help, such as funds, safe havens, etc. Developing a counter-narrative is difficult and complex work and cannot be conducted by either the police or the military, but by a number of different actors, such as those skilled in interpreting religion, using the media, etc.
Tariq Parvez – President, Advisory Board, National Initiative against Organized Crime (NIOC), Pakistan. He has been Minister for Home Affairs in the government of Punjab, Pakistan, National Coordinator of the Pakistan National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), and Director general of the Pakistan Federal Investigation Agency (FIA).