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Pakistani authorities have long had ties to domestic militant groups that help advance the country’s core foreign policy interests, namely in connection with Afghanistan and India. Since Islamabad joined Washington as an ally in the post-9/11 "war on terror," analysts have accused Pakistan’s security and intelligence services of playing a "double game," tolerating if not outright aiding militant groups killing NATO troops in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies these charges.
Concerns about Pakistan’s commitment to counterterrorism heightened in May 2011, when U.S. commandos killed al-Qaeda mastermind Osama bin Laden at a compound not far from Islamabad. Leadership elements of al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban have made Pakistan’s semiautonomous tribal areas their home, where they often work with a wide variety of Islamist insurgent groups like the Haqqani Network. Some groups have used Pakistan as a staging ground for attacks in Afghanistan, while others have pursued domestic targets, including schools and houses of worship, as well as organs of the state.
The numerous terrorist groups operating in Pakistan have tended to fall into one of the five categories laid out by Ashley J. Tellis, a senior associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in a January 2008 Congressional testimony:
- Sectarian: Religiously motivated groups such as the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and the Shia Tehrik-e-Jafria that are engaged in violence within Pakistan
- Anti-Indian: Groups focused on the Kashmir dispute that operate with the alleged support of the Pakistani military and the intelligence agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Harakat ul-Mujahadeen
- Afghan Taliban: The original Taliban movement and especially its Kandahari leadership centered around Mullah Mohammad Omar, believed to be based in Quetta
- Al-Qaeda and its affiliates: The global jihadist organization founded by Osama bin Laden and led by Ayman al-Zawahiri
- The Pakistani Taliban: A coalition of extremist groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), led by Mullah Fazlullah
Other militant groups fall outside of Tellis’ framework, including secessionist groups such as the Balochistan Liberation Army in southwest Pakistan.
But with greater coordination among groups, experts say, lines have blurred. The Haqqani Network, a semiautonomous faction of the Taliban and a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, is emblematic of the complex interrelations among 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, and Uzbek militants, among others. "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 group’s leading financier and emissary, Nasiruddin Haqqani, was killed near Islamabad in November 2013 under uncertain circumstances; three other senior leaders were killed in U.S. drone strikes in the two years prior. Sirajuddin Haqqani, Nasiruddin’s elder brother, leads the group.
The Pakistani Taliban
Supporters of the Afghan Taliban who sought refuge in Pakistan’s tribal areas morphed into a distinct entity following the Pakistani army’s initial incursion into the semiautonomous region in 2002. In December 2007, about thirteen disparate militant groups coalesced under the umbrella of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, led by Baitullah Mehsud of South Waziristan. Pakistani authorities accused him of orchestrating the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. Short-lived cease-fires signed with Islamabad in 2008 and 2009 provided opportunities for the Pakistani Taliban to regroup and make territorial gains, analysts say.
After a U.S. drone strike killed Baitullah in August 2009, his cousin and deputy Hakimullah Mehsud assumed leadership of the TTP. Hakimullah was reportedly prepared to take part in imminent peace talks with Islamabad when he was killed in a U.S. drone strike along with a top deputy in November 2013. But analysts say the prospects for peace talks were dim. Hakimullah declared war against the state, saying in October 2013: "Pakistan’s system is un-Islamic, and we want it replaced with an Islamic system. This demand and this desire will continue even after the American withdrawal [from Afghanistan]." Stephen Tankel, scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, notes that if talks had been allowed to fail, Pakistani public opinion would have turned more decisively against the Taliban rather than the United States, which many blame for the insurgency’s resilience.
A shura council chose hard-liner Mullah Fazlullah as Hakimullah’s successor shortly after his death. Fazlullah, who gained infamy for ordering the assassination attempt on Pakistani schoolgirl and activist Malala Yousafzai, rejected talks with the government. Analysts question whether Fazlullah can maintain TTP cohesion as the first emir from outside the Mehsud tribe.
The predominantly Pashtun group draws membership from all of FATA’s seven agencies as well as several settled districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhawa in the northwest. The TTP has declared jihad against the Pakistani state, seeks to control territory, enforces sharia, and fights NATO forces in Afghanistan. "We will target security forces, government installations, political leaders, and police," Asmatullah Shaheen, head of the shura council that selected Mullah Fazlullah, told Reuters, adding, "We will not target civilians, bazaars, or public places. People do not need to be afraid."
It’s difficult to assess the size of the Pakistani Taliban. "There are not reliable estimates of how large the TTP is, largely due to challenges associated with even defining the borders of the group and the loose-knit nature of how it is organized along either subtribal or subregional lines," CTC’s Rassler says.
The Pakistani Taliban has targeted security forces and civilians alike; among its most audacious attacks have been bombings of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel in September 2008, which killed at least sixty people, and Peshawar’s Pearl Continental Hotel in June 2009, in which seventeen were killed. TTP expressed transnational ambitions when it claimed responsibility for a failed bombing in New York’s Times Square in May 2010.
The Punjabi Taliban, a loose conglomeration of militant groups of Punjabi origin, gained prominence after major 2008 and 2009 attacks in the cities of Lahore, Islamabad, and Rawalpindi. The network has both sectarian and Kashmir-oriented aims. It has chafed at the Pakistani Taliban’s central leadership, Jane’s Intelligence Review reported in late August 2013, but is uniquely capable of "mount[ing] complex operations in urban environments," particularly in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and politically significant province.
The Haqqani Network, whose operations straddle the porous Afghan-Pakistani border known as the Durand Line, has proven a valuable ally to the Pakistani Taliban in some of these pursuits. The Haqqanis have not only fought alongside the TTP and Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan, but have also served as influential mediators between the TTP and Islamabad. Pakistan has long been a 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. Pakistan sees the Pashtun group, which has been among the most lethal to NATO forces in Afghanistan, as a potential source of leverage after the scheduled withdrawal of coalition troops at the end of 2014.
The Changing Face of Terrorism
Violence in Pakistan has been on the rise, particularly since 2007, as terrorist groups have targeted political leaders, the military and police, tribal leaders, minority Shia, and schools. Though virtually unheard of a decade ago, suicide bombings have become ubiquitous in recent years—a reflection of al-Qaeda’s influence, experts say. Three such attacks were documented in 2002 and 2003 combined; at the trend’s peak in 2009 there were seventy-six attacks, and there were thirty-seven in the first ten months of 2013, according to the New Delhi–based South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP).
Besides providing militant groups in Pakistan with technical expertise and capabilities, al-Qaeda also promotes cooperation among them. CTC’s Rassler wrote in 2009 that al-Qaeda "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."
The Taliban, meanwhile, has become ever more entrenched in Pakistan, building a nationwide network by finding common cause with terrorist groups that target the Shia and the Pakistani state while establishing roots—and a lucrative criminal enterprise—in Karachi. Pakistani paramilitary Rangers launched a campaign in September 2013 to address the city’s criminal and terrorist groups, reportedly arresting over 1,500 suspects in a month. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s political parties advocated negotiations with the Taliban in part to stave off even higher levels of violence in Punjab and other populated areas, Tankel writes. SATP reported 2,745 civilians and 601 security forces killed in terrorist violence in the first ten months of 2013—roughly on pace with the prior two years.
Pakistani security forces have at times struggled to muster the capacity and will to confront domestic militants, even though the army and police are increasingly targeted by militant groups. Some experts say that since the bloody encounter between Pakistan’s security forces and militant Islamic students in Islamabad’s Red Mosque in 2007, some groups previously under state patronage broke away. In October 2009, militants attacked army headquarters in Rawalpindi and held around forty people hostage for over twenty hours. Such attacks heralded a new period in army and ISI relations with many of these militant groups, analysts say.
Even though the Pakistani army and the ISI have been more willing to go after militants, analysts say they continue to form alliances with groups such as the Haqqanis that they can use as a strategic hedge against India and Afghanistan. In a September 2011 congressional testimony, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen referred to the Haqqani network as a "strategic arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency." Pakistan’s security establishment has denied these charges.
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 raised new questions about the ISI’s commitment to counterterrorism. CIA director Leon Panetta said the agency ruled out partnering with Pakistan on the bin Laden mission out of concern that it would be compromised. President Asif Ali Zardari, writing in the immediate aftermath of the operation, said allegations that Pakistan harbored terrorists amounted to "baseless speculation."
The CIA has conducted an extensive targeted killing campaign to supplement Pakistani counterterrorism efforts, particularly in the rugged, remote terrain of North and South Waziristan. U.S. drones are currently launched from Afghan soil, but it’s unclear whether this arrangement will continue after the scheduled U.S. withdrawal in 2014. If the targeted killing program is called off, veteran intelligence analyst Bruce Riedel argues, "Al-Qaeda will regenerate rapidly in Pakistan. Its allies like the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba will help it to rebuild. The ISI will either turn a blind eye or, worse, a helping hand." The program’s detractors have questioned the United States’ ability to distinguish between militants and civilians, and argue that strikes may contribute to radicalization in the frontier provinces.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who began an unprecedented third term in June 2013, has railed against U.S. drone strikes as an affront to Pakistani sovereignty while advocating for talks with the TTP. Yet, the International Crisis Group notes, "Ample evidence exists of tacit Pakistani consent and active cooperation with the drone program." Pakistan’s leadership seeks greater say over targeting, the ICG says, "often to punish enemies, but sometimes, allegedly, to protect militants" with whom the security services have cooperative relations—including elements of the Haqqani Network and Taliban.
Meanwhile, Pakistan’s own counterterrorism efforts have come under the scrutiny of human rights observers. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch charged security forces with torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention of tribal-area residents, and the enforced disappearance of "journalists, human rights activists, and alleged members of separatist and nationalist groups." A new legal framework awaiting Parliament’s approval would relieve an overwhelmed criminal justice system by establishing new federal courts equipped to handle terrorism cases, advocates say. But critics caution that the law would codify prolonged, warrantless detentions by the state.
Jayshree Bajoria and Jonathan Masters contributed to this report.