Pakistani authorities have long had ties to domestic militant groups that have largely focused their efforts abroad, as in Afghanistan and India. But with Pakistan joining the United States as an ally in the post-9/11 "war on terrorism," experts say Islamabad has seen harsh blowback from Washington for its support of militant groups. In May 2011, al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden was killed by a U.S. raid at a compound not far from Islamabad, raising new questions about Pakistan's commitment to fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, leadership elements of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, along with other terrorist groups, have made Pakistan's semi-autonomous tribal areas their home, and now work closely with a wide variety of Pakistani militant groups, like the Haqqani Network, which in September 2012 was added to the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). Links between many of these new and existing groups have strengthened, say experts, giving rise to fresh concerns for the country's stability.
Many experts say it is difficult to determine how many terrorist groups are operating out of Pakistan. Most of these groups have tended to fall into one of the five distinct categories laid out by Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a January 2008 testimony (PDF) before a U.S. House Foreign Affairs subcommittee.
- Sectarian: Groups such as the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, and the Shia Tehrik-e-Jafria, which are engaged in violence within Pakistan;
- Anti-Indian: Terrorist groups that operate with the alleged support of the Pakistani military and the intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), such as the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and the Harakat ul-Mujahadeen (HuM). This Backgrounder profiles these organizations, which have been active in Kashmir;
- Afghan Taliban: The original Taliban movement and especially its Kandahari leadership centered around Mullah Mohammad Omar, believed to be now living in Quetta;
- Al-Qaeda and its affiliates: The organization led by Osama bin Laden and other non-South Asian terrorists believed to be ensconced in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Rohan Gunaratna of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore says other foreign militant groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad group, the Libyan Islamic Fighters Group, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement are also located in FATA;
- The Pakistani Taliban: Groups consisting of extremist outfits in the FATA, led by individuals such as Hakimullah Mehsud of the Mehsud tribe in South Waziristan, Maulana Faqir Muhammad of Bajaur, and Maulana Qazi Fazlullah of the Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM).
There are some other militant groups that do not fit into any of the above categories--for instance, secessionist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army in the southwest province of Balochistan. BLA was declared a terrorist organization by Pakistan in 2006. Also, a new militant network, often labeled the Punjabi Taliban, has gained prominence after the major 2008 and 2009 attacks in the Punjabi cities of Lahore, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi.
Hassan Abbas, a professor of international security studies at the Washington-based National Defense University, wrote in 2009 that the Punjabi Taliban network is a loose conglomeration of members of banned militant groups of Punjabi origin--sectarian as well as those focused on Kashmir--that have developed strong connections with the Pakistani Taliban, Afghan Taliban, and other militant groups based in FATA and the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP).
Since there is also greater coordination between all these groups, say experts, lines have blurred regarding which category a militant group fits in. The Haqqani Network, a semi-autonomous faction of the Taliban, is particularly emblematic of the complex interrelations between militant groups in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. A 2011 report from the Combating Terrorism Center (CTC), an independent research institution based at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, characterizes the group as a "nexus player" with ties to Pakistan's ISI, al-Qaeda, Uzbek militants, and other global Islamists. "For the past three decades, the Haqqani Network has functioned as an enabler for other groups and as the fountainhead (manba') of local, regional and global militancy," write Don Rassler and Vahid Brown in the report.
The Pakistani Taliban
Supporters of the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas transitioned into a mainstream Taliban force of their own as a reaction to the Pakistani army's incursion into the tribal areas, which began in 2002, to hunt down militants. In December 2007, about thirteen disparate militant groups coalesced under the umbrella of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, with militant commander Baitullah Mehsud from South Waziristan as the leader. After Mehsud was killed in August 2009 in a U.S. missile strike, his cousin and deputy Hakimullah Mehsud took over as leader of the TTP. Experts say most adult men in Pakistan's tribal areas grew up carrying arms, but it is only in the last few years that they have begun to organize themselves around a Taliban-style Islamic ideology, pursuing an agenda much similar to that of the Afghan Taliban. Abbas writes in a January 2008 paper that the Pakistani Taliban killed approximately two hundred tribal leaders and effectively established themselves as an alternative.
TTP not only has representation from all of FATA's seven agencies (see this interactive map of the area) but also from several settled districts of the NWFP. According to some estimates, the Pakistani Taliban collectively has around thirty thousand to thirty-five thousand members. Among their other objectives, they have announced a defensive jihad against the Pakistani army, enforcement of sharia, and a plan to unite against NATO forces in Afghanistan.
The Haqqani Network, whose operations and relations straddle the Durand Line, has proven a valuable ally in some of these pursuits. The Haqqanis have not only fought alongside the TTP and Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, they have also served as an influential mediator between the TTP and officials in Islamabad. Pakistan has long been a large supporter and beneficiary of the Haqqanis, according to CTC. The network has helped Islamabad manage militant groups in FATA, and provided leverage against India in the struggle over Kashmir.
Pakistani authorities accused the TTP's former leader, Baitullah Mehsud, of assassinating former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Some experts have questioned the ability of the different groups working under the Pakistani Taliban umbrella to stay united, given the rivalries between the various tribes. However, the group has proved since its inception, through a string of suicide attacks, that it poses a serious threat to the country's stability. On May 12, 2011, the Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for bombing a paramilitary academy that killed eighty people and injured more than 100 (BBC). A Taliban spokesman said the suicide assault "was the first revenge for Osama's martyrdom" (al-Jazeera). TTP also expressed transnational ambitions when it claimed responsibility for a failed bomb attack in New York in May 2010.
Changing Face of Terrorism
Violence in Pakistan has been on the rise as more militant groups target the state. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), a terrorism database, 8,953 civilians were killed in terrorist violence from January 2009 to September 2012, compared to around 1,600 civilian deaths from 2003 to 2006. This new generation of terrorists is also more willing to engage in suicide attacks; in a 2009 documentary (CBC), journalist Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy reported that the Taliban are recruiting increasingly younger children to carry out suicide attacks. According to SATP, there were seventy-six suicide attacks in Pakistan in 2009 as compared to only two in 2003. Gunaratna attributes this to the influence of al-Qaeda. He says bin Laden's group is training most of the terrorist groups in FATA.
Besides providing militant groups in Pakistan with technical expertise and capabilities, al-Qaeda is also promoting cooperation among a variety of them, say some experts. Don Rassler, an associate at CTC, writes that al-Qaeda "has assumed a role as mediator and coalition builder among various Pakistani militant group factions by promoting the unification of entities that have opposed one another or had conflicting ideas about whether to target the Pakistani state." Al-Qaeda's greatest strength today, says counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman, is its "ability to infiltrate and co-opt other militant groups that have existing operational capability."
In an interview with CFR, Bruce Riedel, the original coordinator of President Obama's policy on the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, also stressed al-Qaeda's growing cooperation with groups like the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and others. "The notion that you can somehow selectively resolve the al-Qaeda problem while ignoring the larger jihadist sea in which [al-Qaeda] swims has failed in the past and will fail in the future," he said.
In December 2011, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi-al-Alami --a splinter of the sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi --claimed responsibility for deadly attacks on Shias in Afghanistan. But some experts raised doubts over the group's capacity to carry out such an attack on its own, pointing to possible support from al-Qaeda, Pakistani Taliban, or "rogue elements inside Afghanistan" (AFP). Pakistani author Ahmed Rashid writes "al-Qaeda and its attendant Pakistani extremists" are using sectarian warfare as a tool (Spectator) to divide Afghanistan and thwart any U.S. effort to reconcile with the Taliban.
Experts say militants have also expanded their control over other parts of Pakistan such as in South Punjab, some settled areas of NWFP, and as far south as Karachi. Military analyst Ayesha Siddiqa writes, "South Punjab has become the hub of jihadism" (Newsline). She argues South Punjabi jihadists have been connected with the Afghan jihad since the 1980s and the majority is still engaged in fighting in Afghanistan. Some estimates put between five thousand and nine thousand youth from South Punjab fighting in Afghanistan and Waziristan. According to some experts, the Karachi wing of TTP provides logistics support and recruits new members.
Pakistan's security forces are struggling to confront these domestic militants. As this Backgrounder points out, efforts are under way to reform the forces, but challenges remain both in terms of willingness to fight some of these militant groups as well as capabilities. Security forces, especially the army and the police, have increasingly become the target for the militant groups. In October 2009, militants attacked the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and held around forty people hostage for over twenty hours, much to the army's embarrassment.
These attacks have heralded a new period in army and ISI relations with many of these militant groups, say analysts. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, says since the bloody encounter between Pakistan's security forces and militant Islamic students in Islamabad's Red Mosque in 2007, there has been a pattern of some of these groups previously under state patronage, breaking away from the state. He says Pakistan's security establishment is now trying to figure out how to control them.
Most analysts believe that even though the Pakistani army and the ISI are now more willing to go after militant groups, they continue some form of alliance with groups, such as the Haqqanis, that they want to use as a strategic hedge against India and Afghanistan. But Pakistan's security establishment denies these charges. In October 2009, ISI Chief Ahmad Shuja Pasha said: "The ISI is a professional agency and does not have links (DailyTimes) with any militant outfit including the Taliban."
However, in April 2011, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen accused the ISI of having "a long relationship with the Haqqani network." Addressing the Haqqanis, Mullen said, "is critical to the solution set in Afghanistan."
The revelation in May 2011 that Osama bin Laden had been hiding in a compound around the corner from the Pakistan military academy at Kakul--Pakistan's version of West Point--raised new questions about the ISI's commitment to counterterrorism. CIA Chief Leon Panetta says the agency ruled out partnering with Pakistan out of concern that Pakistanis "might alert the targets" (TIME), highlighting the deep distrust in the relationship. Both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani defended Pakistan's military and intelligence services, declaring claims of support for terrorists to be "baseless speculation" (WashPost).
The prospect of further deteriorating relations is concerning to both countries, but it remains to be seen whether mutual need will be enough to keep the relationship alive. "Pakistan needs the U.S. for its economic aid, and Washington needs Islamabad to continue its fight against terrorism and because it is home to the most important routes supplying the war in Afghanistan," writes Susanne Koelbl in Germany's Der Spiegel.