By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On January 21, 2020, a Policeman was killed and two others injured in two separate bomb blasts in Dara area of Salarzai tehsil (revenue unit) in Bajaur District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). A bomb targeting a search team of Police exploded in Dara area killing one Policeman Waqifullah. The second blast also took place, at same distance, in the same locality in which two Policemen were injured.
On January 21, 2020, Security Force (SF) personnel shot dead a terrorist during a search operation in Kulachi tehsil (revenue unit) area of Dera Ismail Khan District in KP. Four hand grenades and one rifle were recovered from the possession of the slain militant.
On January 14, 2020, unidentified assailants shot dead an Afghan refugee residing in the Gohati refugee camp, at Swabi (Swabi District) of KP. Kago Khan, the father of the deceased, disclosed that his son Ali Khan was on way home in a car when two motorcyclists shot him dead at the Badri Bridge.
On January 8, 2020, one Frontier Corps (FC) soldier was killed in a firing incident in Azadkhel Bittani Haramatala locality under Serai Gambila Police Station in Lakki Marwat District in KP. Police said FC soldier Shakirullah had left the village to reach his duty station in Shab Qadar when unidentified assailants intercepted him and shot him dead.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), KP has accounted for at least four terrorism-related fatalities (all mentioned above) in 2020 thus far (data till January 26, 2020). During the corresponding period of 2019, the Province recorded five terrorism-related fatalities (all terrorists).
Through 2019, KP recorded a total of 130 fatalities (30 civilians, 69 Security Force, SF, personnel, and 31 terrorists) as against 169 such fatalities (81 civilians, 52 SF personnel, and 34 terrorists) registered in 2018. The trend of declining fatalities established since 2014 has thus been maintained through 2019.
The number suicide attacks decreased drastically from five in 2018 to just one in 2019 resulting in an 88.88 per cent decline in fatalities, from 72 in 2018 to just eight in 2019.
However, the number of overall terrorism related incidents in KP rose to 105 in 2019, as against 73 in 2018. The number of major attacks also increased from 12 in 2018 to 18 in 2019, though the resultant causalities declined from 113 to 48. The most prominent attack in 2019 was on July 21, when 10 people, including three civilians, six Policemen and one terrorist, were killed in two back-to-back attacks in Dera Ismail Khan (DI Khan) city. Another 30 persons were injured in the incidents. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) ‘spokesperson’ Muhammad Khorasani issued a statement claiming that the attack was carried out in retaliation for the killing of a suspected terrorist by the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) in DI Khan on June 23.
KP also accounted for a greater number of IED attacks in 2019, with 32 incidents in comparison to 25 in 2018. IEDs pose a particularly serious threat in KP Districts and the erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). When the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) started returning to their homes in 2017 after a series of military operations in the tribal areas of KP and erstwhile FATA, they found their villages and areas surrounding their homes littered with deadly landmines.
Further, the terrorists manage to escape into neighbouring Afghanistan, taking advantage of the porous border, under pressure from a series of SF operations. They are now attacking border posts in order to penetrate to their old bases once again. According to partial data compiled by SATP, since September 15, 2013, when the first cross border attack was orchestrated by terrorists, there have been at least 73 such attacks in Pakistan from across the border, in which at least 148 militants, 81 Pakistani SF personnel and 12 civilians have been killed (data till January 26, 2020). While nine incidents, resulting in 23 deaths (21 SF personnel and two terrorists), were reported in 2019, there were nine incidents in 2018 (34 fatalities: 21 terrorists and 13 SF personnel), 17 in 2017 (56 fatalities: 38 terrorists and 18 SF personnel), 15 in 2016 (49 fatalities: 39 terrorists and six SF personnel and four civilian), six in 2015 (seven fatalities: all SF personnel), 12 in 2014 (61 fatalities: 48 terrorists and 13 SF personnel) and five in 2013 (11 fatalities: eight civilians and three SF personnel).
Moreover, the Aman Lashkar (Peace Committee) members and tribal elders who had supported the Government in its fight against domestically oriented terror formations, are facing increasing threats. There was a spike in attacks against Aman Lashkar members and leaders, and in resultant fatalities, in 2018, after a noticeable decline observed in 2016 and 2017, in comparison to previous years. There was no respite from such violence in 2019 as well. According to the SATP data base, there were five such attacks resulting in six deaths in 2019, six fatalities in four incidents in 2018; two tribal elders were killed in three incidents in 2017; two such deaths were recorded in two incidents in 2016; and 14 killings in 11 such incidents in 2015.
Irfan ud Din, Security Analyst for Pakistan & Afghanistan at the FATA Research Centre (FRC), argued that military operations against militant groups in KP and Tribal Districts had considerably weakened the operational capacities of militant organisations: “Instead of suicide attacks, militants are now largely relying on cross-border attacks, target killing and IED attacks, to remain in the limelight in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.”
The FRC, meanwhile, in a report released on January 15, 2020, disclosed that it had recorded 160 violent incidents, including 106 terrorist attacks, during 2019; while there were 264 such incidents including 127 terrorist attacks in 2018, a decline of 16 per cent in acts of terror. A further breakdown showed that, of the total of 106 terrorist incidents in 2019, 54 attacks (50.94 percent) targeted SFs while 48 (45.28 per cent) were directed against civilians. Four terrorist attacks (3.77 percent) targeted members of civil militia or Aman Lashkar.
On the other hand, Pakistani SFs, as a part of the ongoing military operation Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord), launched on February 22, 2017, conducted 54 intelligence-based operations (IBOs) through 2019. However, a majority of these IBOs were reactive in nature, as they were conducted after a terrorist incident. There were 137 such IBOs in 2018. Though IBOs were conducted in all the tribal districts of KP, North Waziristan, South Waziristan, and Bajaur remained the prime focus of these operations.
According to the SATP database, out of 34 Districts of KP, 20 Districts were more or less affected by militancy in 2019, as against 18 in 2018. The most violent District was North Waziristan with 22 incidents of fatalities, accounting for 50 deaths in 2019, as against 49 fatalities in eight incidents in 2018. North Waziristan shares borders with Bannu, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and Kurram Districts of KP in the North and Northeast; Sherani and Musakhel Districts of Balochistan to the south; and Khost, Paktia, and Paktika Provinces of Afghanistan to the west and north-west. Its strategically central and vulnerable location gives North Waziristan tremendous importance for the militants.
After North Waziristan, the second most affected District of the Province in 2019 was Dera Ismail Khan with 30 fatalities from 12 incidents while the number in 2018 was 10 fatalities in four incidents. With a population of more than 1.6 million people, Dera Ismail Khan has long been a centre of terrorist activities due to its strategic location. It shares borders with South Waziristan, Tank and Lakki Marwat Districts in KP; Mianwali, Bhakkar and Dera Ghazi khan Districts in Punjab, and the Zhob District of Balochistan. Two of these adjacent Districts, South Waziristan and Zhob, share borders with Afghanistan. Dera Ismail Khan has served as a transit point for militants operating in these areas. Bali Khiara, associated with TTP has been active in the Dera Ismail Khan District and adjacent areas bordering Punjab. The group led by Bali Khiara carried out 28 terrorist attacks in 2018 and another 14 in 2019. Though, Police killed 21 cadres of the Bali Khiara group in Dera Ismail Khan District during 2019, Khiara remains at large. Two main factions of the TTP – one led by Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud and the other led by Hakimullah Mehsud – remained the major actors in the instability of 2019.
Despite making tremendous gains in its fight against domestically oriented terror groups across Pakistan, and more particularly in KP, Islamabad’s attempts to restore normalcy remain far from complete success. The reason is simple and well known: Islamabad’s liking for other terrorist formations – the purported ‘good terrorists’ that Islamabad and Rawalpindi favour and support – remain intact, and their cadres are often undistinguishable from the ‘bad terrorists’ the state seeks to eliminate.
*Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management