By Sanchita Bhattacharya*
On July 28, 2020, an alert was received by intelligence agencies about a possible attack on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s (KP) Inspector General of Police (IGP), Sanaullah Abbasi. The threat alert stated: “A reliable source has revealed that terrorists belonging to TTP [Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP)]/Jamaat-ul-Ahrar have planned to attack the IG KP in the Central Police Office; vigilance is indicated.”
The United Nations (UN) on July 16, 2020, designated TTP leader, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud aka Abu Mansoor Asim, as a global terrorist. Mufti Mehsud was listed pursuant to paragraphs 2 and 4 of resolution 2368 (2017) for “participating in the financing, planning, facilitating or perpetrating of acts or activities by, in conjunction with, under the name of, on behalf of, or in support of” entities associated with Al-Qaeda. The United States Security Council (UNSC) 1267 Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee added Mehsud to its ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions List.
Later, on July 23, 2020, the UK Government placed Mufti Mehsud on its ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) and Al-Qaeda terrorist financial sanction list, froze his assets and imposed a travel ban.
Mehsud was earlier listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) by the United States (US) Department of State on September 10, 2019. Mehsud was named the leader of TTP in June 2018, following the death of former TTP leader Mullah Fazlullah, who was killed on June 14, 2018.
TTP was formed on December 11, 2007, under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. 13 groups met in an undisclosed location in South Waziristan, in the tribal belt of Pakistan, and formed the TTP. The sole objective of the meeting was to unite the small militant factions under the leadership of TTP against NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) forces in Afghanistan and to wage a defensive jihad (Holy War) against Pakistani forces. Since its formation the outfit has lost three of its ‘chiefs’, in drone strikes: Baitullah Mehsud, killed on August 5, 2009; Hakimullah Mehsud, killed on November 1, 2013; and Mullah Fazlullah on June 14, 2018.
According to partial data collated by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), TTP has been involved in at least 1,261 incidents of killing since its inception in 2007, in which 2,216 civilians, 1,161 Security Force (SF) personnel and 5,120 terrorists, including its own cadres, have been killed. Further, a total of 3,263 TTP terrorists have been arrested, so far.
The worst attack by TTP occurred when a seven-member suicide squad killed at least 133 school children and nine staff members, including the Principal, in an attack at the Army Public School (APS), Peshawar (capital of KP) on December 16, 2014. Earlier, on June 8, 2014, TTP had attacked the Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, killing 36 people.
A week after the attack on the Airport, Operation Zarb-e-Azb (‘Sword of the Prophet’, also ‘sharp and cutting’) was launched on June 15, 2014. However, following the APS attack, the National Action Plan (NAP) was formulated in January 2015, to root out terrorist elements from the country. NAP gave a boost to Operation Zarb-e-Azb and amplified counter terrorism efforts. The operation inflicted a severe blow on TTP’s terror bases in the Tochi and Shawal Valleys, both in the North Waziristan District of KP.
Moreover, the ongoing Radd-ul-Fasaad (Elimination of Discord) Operation, initiated on February 22, 2017, aimed at eliminating terrorist sleeper cells across Pakistan. Since the start of the Operation, reported violent incidents and fatalities involving TTP have declined sharply. According to partial data collated by SATP, after February 22, the year 2017 recorded 37 incidents of killing involving TTP, in which 149 persons, including 34 civilians, 40 SF personnel, and 75 terrorists were killed. Through 2018, 20 such incidents were reported, in which 76 persons (33 civilians, 20 SF personnel, and 23 terrorists) were killed; 2019 recorded 18 such incidents, in which 64 persons (26 civilians, 23 SFs and 15 militants) were killed; and 2020 (till, August 2) reported just two incidents, in which three persons, including two civilians and one terrorist, were killed.
Apart from the impact of military operations, TTP also lost its prominence due to internal rifts. The appointment of a leader from outside the Mehsud tribe, following the death of Hakimullah Mehsud (i.e., Fazlullah in November 2013) created numerous fissures in the organisation, and resulted in the emergence of splinter groups. In February, 2014, Ahrar-ul-Hind, was formed under the leadership of Maulana Umar Qasmi. The group claimed that its goal was the establishment of sharia, or Islamic law, and acknowledged that the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, TTP, were still “our brothers” despite separation from the group. The faction split from TTP due TTP’s engagement in talks with the Pakistani government. In May, 2014, another split emerged in TTP, after the Mehsud faction walked out, saying the group leaders’ tactics were “un-Islamic”. The faction comprising militants from the Mehsud tribe, formed its own separate group called Tehrik Taliban South Waziristan. As reported on May 28, 2014, the ‘spokesman’ for the new group, Azam Tariq Mehsud, stated, “We consider the bombing of public places, extortion and kidnappings un-Islamic, and since the TTP leaders continued with these practices, we decided we should not share the responsibility…” Further, in August, 2014, a new group, known as Jamaat-e-Ahrar, was formed, combining with disaffected Taliban factions along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, and controlled by Omar Khalid Khorasani, an ambitious ‘commander’ with strong ties to Al Qaeda. As reported on August 26, 2014, in a lengthy video statement explaining the decision to break away, Khorasani argued that the Taliban had become undisciplined and suffered from factional infighting. “This was devastating for our movement,” he said.
However, TTP gradually resurfaced after having largely faded away. Conceivably, the most threatening sign of TTP’s growing power came on July 31, 2019, when the group issued a written warning to locals in Miranshah in North Waziristan, demanding a ban on music and women going out without a male family member. The one-page message in Urdu cautioned the locals,
We remind you [residents] that similar statements issued by Taliban several times in the past had fallen on deaf ears, but this time we are going to take to task those who violate the Taliban order. There will be no use of DJs, neither inside the house nor in open fields and those ignoring the warning will be responsible for consequences…Women shouldn’t go out of their homes alone as it is harmful for our society. There is one informer of Mujahideen in every three people and it was misconception on the part of the people to think we will not get information about non-compliance of our order. Follow the order or be ready to face worst consequences.
In a video released in April 2020, TTP renewed the focus on its extensive ties to jihadist groups in the wider Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Afghan Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network. Indeed, the 26th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of UNSC noted, “the total number of Pakistani foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan, posing a threat to both countries, is estimated at between 6,000 and 6,500, most of them with TTP.” The report further disclosed that TTP was led by Noor Wali Mehsud, supported by his ‘deputy’ Qari Amjad and ‘spokesperson’ Mohammad Khorasani.
Meanwhile, the state of affairs in Pakistan vis-à-vis TTP can very well be assessed with the ‘escape’ of Ehsanullah Ehsan, along with his wife and children on January 11, 2020. Ehsan, the former ‘spokesperson’ of TTP had ‘surrendered’ before the Pakistan Army in 2017, but ‘escaped’ from the safe house where he was being kept for two-and-a-half years. In an audio clip, following this incident, Ehsan audaciously stated:
I am Ehsanullah Ehsan. I am the former spokesman of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and Jamaatul Ahrar. I had surrendered to the Pakistani security authorities on February 5, 2017 under an agreement. I honoured this agreement for three years, but the Pakistani authorities violated it and kept me in a prison along with my children. On January 11, 2020 with the help of Allah, I succeeded in escaping from custody…
Since his escape, a Twitter account, with the handle, @Ehsanofficial32, reportedly used by him has been fairly active, propagating TTP’s murderous ideology.
Also, on June 17, the Peshawar High Court (PHC) ordered the release of 200 convicts, including 196 TTP militants, convicted by the military courts on terrorism charges. The Supreme Court (SC), however, on July 21, 2020, suspended the PHC order. The next hearing in the SC is awaited.
While there is no doubt that the TTP is again trying to make inroads in Pakistan and to carve out an area of influence for itself, the Government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan also appears to be seeking support from the hardline Islamist lobby. Moreover, TTP’s attempts to restore its former operational capacity has serious potential repercussions on the US’s fight against Al-Qaeda, given the TTP’s close relation to the global terrorist formation.
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management