It's not just about Waziristan anymore. How the country's various militias are joining forces -- and what it could mean for attacks within the United States.
- By Imtiaz GulImtiaz Gul is the head of the independent Centre for Research and Security Studies in Islamabad and the author of the forthcoming book The Al Qaeda Connection: Terror in Tribal Areas.
On May 28, several mercenaries invaded two mosques in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city, and ended up mowing down nearly 100 Ahmadis, members of a breakaway sect that was officially declared to be non-Muslim in the mid-1970s. The killing was one of the boldest and most deadly in a year of bold and deadly attacks in Pakistan. And it pointed to a frightening development in Pakistani terrorism. The militants had a typical profile for jihadists in Pakistan, having trained in North Waziristan in camps connected to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP). But it also seems likely that they were connected to local Punjabi terrorist groups. In a sign of Pakistan’s increasing chaos, the groups that were formerly barricaded in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghanistan border are now joining forces with groups around the country — and the result is a networked terrorism outfit with an ever-growing capacity to produce pain and mayhem.
At the center of the current frenzy are Sunni outfits such as the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, and the Kashmir-focused Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba (which also keeps a headquarters in Lahore). These groups were born out of the vicious proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran that began in the immediate aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Concerned that Iran’s revolutionary message would inspire Shiites and weaken Sunni dominance, the Saudis, whose Wahhabi brand of Islam is virulently anti-Shiite, funded and equipped Sunni militias in Punjab tasked with intimidating and eliminating prominent Pakistani Shiites.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 extended the theater of Saudi-Iranian interests to Afghanistan and provided Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, with a golden opportunity to secure international legitimacy after his 1977 coup that deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. With active support from the CIA, Zia not only turned Pakistan into the launching pad for the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, but also tasked his security establishment with finding ways to turn the tide of jihad on India for the liberation of Kashmir.
The Pakistani terrorist groups that emerged were supposed to bleed India and thus weaken its hold over Kashmir, two-thirds of which is under New Delhi’s control. But while these radical organizations acted as Pakistan’s unofficial pawns, often trained and funded by Pakistani intelligence, they became a source of religious radicalization, particularly in rural Pakistan, where they went to recruit young men to join the struggle.
Even after Gen. Pervez Musharraf banned most of these organizations in January 2002 in an attempt to appease both Washington and India, the damage only accelerated. The rank and file of these rabidly anti-Shiite organizations found a welcoming home in FATA, where al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban had settled following their retreat from Afghanistan. Dozens of Pakistani tribesmen with a history of fighting in Afghanistan joined the Taliban in solidarity and eventually formed their own movement, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, founded in December 2007 by Baitullah Mehsud and currently led by Hakimullah Mehsud. The unintended consequence of Musharraf’s ban was to turn FATA into a lawless melting pot of violent Islamists.
The turning point for the Pakistani Army came in 2004, when after a showdown with militias in South Waziristan, extremists operating in FATA began attacking the military and its information network. First came target killings, a technique that had proved effective in Iraq. Then attacks on army convoys. Pakistan’s security establishment (called the ISI) was slow to come around, but gradually Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who was then head of the ISI and is now Pakistan’s chief of army staff, overhauled the organization, putting some officers out to pasture and transferring others.
The Pakistani Army’s advance into South Waziristan in October of last year provoked an explosive al Qaeda-led reaction. In 2009, militants staged 87 suicide bombings across Pakistan, killing more than 3,000 people, to avenge the deaths and capture of fellow fighters. (To put this in perspective, until 2002 Pakistan had only suffered one single suicide attack, on the Egyptian Embassy in 1995.) Most of the violence had a direct or indirect connection to Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan’s volatile eastern provinces. One of the most wanted Afghan insurgents, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and his son Siraj operate in and around Waziristan.
May’s failed attack on Times Square has finally brought this disastrous state of affairs to the attention of Americans. But despite the new focus on Waziristan, it’s actually the nexus between jihadists based in FATA — inspired by al Qaeda and guided by Haqqani and the Pakistani Taliban — and militants from outside the region that is today one of the most troubling developments in Pakistan.
Increasingly, members of the Punjab-based Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, as well as breakaways from Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, are joining forces for attacks inside the country. Although the TTP is fighting to hold onto its headquarters in South Waziristan, it is still able to accommodate Punjabi comrades, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi in particular. This combination of terrorist groups has already subjected Pakistan to at least 28 suicide bombings so far this year, more and more occurring outside the TTP’s traditional reach in the border regions. Tuesday’s brazen attack near Islamabad on a convoy of trucks bound for NATO troops in Afghanistan has security officials afraid the groups might be evolving their tactics as they work together and widen their area of influence into Punjab.
The establishment ostensibly doesn’t consider Lashkar-e-Taiba or Jaish-e-Mohammed the real public enemy and thus does not plan any crackdown on them in the near future. But this strategy could be a tragic mistake: Although the militants operating in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border regions may number a few thousand, their creeping ideological appeal represents the biggest threat not only to Pakistan, but to all countries targeted by jihad — perhaps most of all to America.