By Ajit Kumar Singh*
A local Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) leader, Malik Tufail, was shot dead by unidentified assailants in the Mughalkhel area of Bannu District in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on February 4, 2018.
On February 2, 2018, at least 11 Army personnel were killed and another 13 injured in a suicide bombing near an Army camp in the Sharifabad area of Kabal tehsil (revenue unit) in Swat District. The suicide bomber targeted the sports area of the military base camp where soldiers were playing volleyball. Claiming responsibility for the attack, Mohammad Khorasani, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), said they had sent a young suicide bomber, Siddiqullah, to conduct the attack.
On January 23, 2018, a ‘commander’ of the Haqqani Network, Ehsan alias Khawari, and two of his associates were killed when a US drone targeted a house in the Speen Thall area of Hangu District.
According to partial data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management (ICM), KP has accounted for at least 19 terrorism-related fatalities (two civilians, 11 Security Force, SF, personnel, and six terrorists) in the 2018, thus far (data till February 11, 2018). During the corresponding period of 2017, the Province had accounted for just two fatalities, both terrorists.
Through 2017, KP recorded a total of 123 fatalities (40 civilians, 26 SF personnel, and 57 terrorists) as against 213 such fatalities (123 civilians, 50 SF personnel, and 40 terrorists) registered in 2016. The trend of decline in overall fatalities thus continued for the fourth consecutive year since 2014.
Other parameters of violence like major incidents (each resulting in three or more fatalities), bomb blasts, and sectarian attacks also registered declines. There were 16 major attacks causing 80 deaths in 2017; as against 17 such attacks resulting in 121 fatalities in 2016. The most prominent attack in 2017 was on December 1, when at least nine persons, including six students, were killed and 37 were injured as TTP terrorists attacked the Agriculture Training Institute (ATI) in Peshawar, the provincial capital. All the four terrorists involved in the attack were also killed. KP accounted for 17 incidents of bomb blast, resulting in 23 fatalities and 110 persons injured, in 2017; as against 32 such incidents, resulting in 70 deaths and over 218 persons injured. Also, as against six incidents of sectarian attack, resulting in eight deaths and three persons injured in 2016, KP recorded only one such incident in 2017, resulting in three fatalities.
However, little has changed on the ground in terms of dealing with the reasons responsible for the growth of terrorism, including mischievous state policies, radicalization and growing fundamentalism, among others. In the most recent example of growing radicalisation, life in KP’s Mardan District came to a halt on February 9, 2018, as thousands of workers and supporters of the Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm-e-Nubuwwat (AMTKN, the International Organisation for the Protection of the Finality of Prophethood), joined by locals, participated in protests to pressure the Government into releasing 31 men convicted in the lynching of Mashal Khan, a resident of Swabi and a student at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, on April 13, 2017. Holding banners that read “Mashalyon [Mashal supporters], stop us if you can!” the protesters chanted slogans against Mashal and the Government. Qari Ikramul Haq, leader of the AMTKN demanded that the men convicted for the murder be released. Several of the 26 men acquitted by the court in the same case, including Ajmal Mayar, attended the rally and were given a ‘Ghazi (Muslim warrior) welcome’. The people in rally offered a dua (grand prayer) for those acquitted. AMTKN is a Pakistan-based anti-Ahmadi group, closely affiliated with Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP); Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan (JI) and the Fazl faction of JI (JI-F)
Mashal Khan was lynched to death after being falsely accused of blasphemy. A group of students had shouted religious slogans during the attack and had stripped Mashal naked and about 10 of them assaulted him with planks until his skull caved in, as the others students looked on. An anti-Terrorism Court in Abbotabad awarded the death sentence to one of the accused on February 7, 2018. It also awarded 25-year prison sentences to five others and four-year sentences to another 25 accused. The decision, announced by judge Fazal-e-Subhan Khan at Haripur Central Jail, exonerated 26 of the accused. There were a total of 57 accused in the Mardan lynching case.
Significantly, according to a report published on September 29, 2014, by the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Pakistan, a total of at least 59 persons ‘accused’ of blasphemy have been victims of extra-judicial killings in the country since 1990. Of these, only one case was reported from KP: Ashiq Nabi was shot dead on April 20, 2005, in Nowshera District. Though no further definitive data is available in this regard, according to open media sources, the April 13, 2017, killing of Mashal Khan, is the second such incident reported from the Province.
The Imran Khan led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), in alliance with JI – which formed the Government in the Province under the Chief Ministership of Parvez Khattak on May 31, 2013, replacing the Awami National Party (ANP) led Government of Chief Minister Ameer Haider Khan Hoti – came to power on a platform that is deeply sympathetic to the Islamist extremist ideology. The stated position of the present Government on TTP and other Islamist terrorist formations, according to Chief Minister Khattak’s declaration of January 26, 2014, is that military operations against these groups would be opposed. This was only a further reiteration of the position that Imran Khan and other party leaders, both of the PTI and the JI, had defined well before the elections, and that brought them to power. In October 2012, Imran Khan had claimed that the Taliban were fighting a ‘holy war’ justified by Islam in neighbouring Afghanistan: “It is very clear that whoever is fighting for their freedom is fighting a jihad… The people who are fighting in Afghanistan against the foreign occupation are fighting a jihad.”
More recently, on February 4, 2018, Imran Khan defended Afghan Taliban (to which the TTP pays allegiance) against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), claiming that they represent Western “liberals [who] are thirsty for blood.”
In the meantime, the Islamic State (IS, also Daesh) has made some inroads into KP, as in other parts of Pakistan. On June 24, 2017, at least two suspected Daesh terrorists, including its KP ‘chief’ Arif aka Khalil aka Abuzar, were killed and five SF personnel (three Policemen and two Army soldiers) injured in an exchange of fire which lasted for six hours in Shahpur village, Peshawar. A large quantity of explosives, AK 47s and material used in assembling improvised explosive devices was found at their hideout. According to reports, the terrorists had completed their ‘preparations’ for terrorist attacks in the city with the help of videos of their intended target sites.
It is not surprising therefore that terror groups continue to get more ‘dedicated cadres’ for them to work. Indeed, incidents of suicide attack, which are an important indicator of the level of existing threat in a particular region witnessing a protracted conflict, more than doubled. In 2017, KP accounted for seven such incidents resulting in 34 deaths and 80 injuries as against three such incidents recorded in 2016 which had resulted in 21 fatalities and 53 injuries. The current year, 2018, has already witnessed one such incident (February 4, mentioned above).
The surge in violence during the first 40 days of the current year, as compared to the same period last year, indicates that terrorists continue to have a significant presence in the region. Acknowledging the danger on January 10, 2018, the US Government issued a new travel advisory to it citizens cautioning them against travel to KP, Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), and Balochistan. The US State Department statement read:
Reconsider travel to Pakistan due to terrorism. Some areas have increased risk. Do not travel to Balochistan province, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, (FATA) and the Azad Kashmir area due to terrorism and armed conflict.
Apart from ‘domestically oriented’ terror groups, the Haqqani Network continues to operate out of the tribal regions of KP and FATA. Significantly, US drone attacks returned to KP in 2017. A US drone strike killed a ‘commander’ of the Haqqani Network and his partner in the Speen Tal area of Hangu District on June 12, 2017. The last such attack had taken place on November 21, 2013, when at least eight suspected terrorists were killed and five were injured in a US drone strike at a seminary in the Tal area of Hangu District. The Haqqani Network’s ‘spiritual leader’, Maulana Ahmad Jan, was among eight persons killed in the attack. More recently, on January 23, 2018, a ‘commander’ of the Haqqani Network, Ehsan aka Khawari and two of his associates were killed when a US drone targeted a house in the Speen Thall area of Hangu District.
Despite recording a continuous decline in terrorism-related fatalities over the past four years, KP remains a troubled region, where terrorism is just under wraps and can flare up again at any moment. All the factors responsible for the rise of terrorism, including its political sponsorship, remain intact, and no honest effort has been made to deal with these issues, as the declared state policy, both at Islamabad and Peshawar, is against taking any hard measures.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow; Institute for Conflict Management