The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s urban militant threat

Militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus is undergoing a demographic renaissance and nowhere is this clearer than in the public space occupied by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Since 2011, the insurgency’s operational sphere and target selection has witnessed a meteoric expansion from the unregulated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – from where it first emerged in 2007 ...

Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images
Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

Militancy along the Afghanistan-Pakistan nexus is undergoing a demographic renaissance and nowhere is this clearer than in the public space occupied by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Since 2011, the insurgency’s operational sphere and target selection has witnessed a meteoric expansion from the unregulated Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – from where it first emerged in 2007 – to the heart of Pakistan’s teeming metropolises.

A recent report by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies on the geographic distribution of nationwide attacks revealed that between January and May of this year, only 12 out of a total 148 attacks took place in the FATA; 50 occurred in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, 49 in Balochistan, 30 in Sindh, and 7 in Punjab. As for Pakistan’s cities, Karachi alone has experienced 25 separate terrorist attacks this year that have claimed 60 lives while injuring 291 others. In early July, the contagion spread to Lahore and the densely populated Anarkali bazaar. Notably, the target of the Anarkali explosion was not one of the many upscale eateries that cater to Lahore’s elite, but a nondescript middle-class restaurant popular with lower-income families.

In 2010, American political scientist Robert Pape linked the causality of suicide terrorism to foreign military occupations, arguing that ideological grievances were secondary drivers of terrorist violence. However, the true toll of unplanned military operations in the 21st century is best measured in the aftershocks, not the epicenter. A growing strategic dissonance between the eastward spread of terrorism in Pakistan and the prevailing insurgency against U.S. policy is an expression of this truism.

The geographic delocalization of Pakistan’s militant threat from the hinterlands of Wana and Miramshah – traditional nerve centers for transnational militants – suggests an evolution of both tactic and strategy in the TTP’s war against the Pakistani state and foreign policy. As the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan approaches, it is becoming clearer that the TTP’s socio-historical anchoring in the borderlands has been broken. This is partly due to a virulent counterinsurgency campaign that includes targeted aerial hits, such as the drone strike that killed TTP second-in-command Wali-ur-Rehman in May, as well as increased migratory flows of workers from the countryside into towns and cities. This latter process has been embraced by the TTP, inducing a covert but steady trickling of militants from the FATA to the six Frontier Regions of Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan, Kohat, Lakki Marwat, Peshawar, and Tank – gateways to urban Pakistan.

In the case of violent non-state actors, such migratory patterns have allowed for greater access to social networks, recruits, cash flows, technological innovations, weapons markets, and sensitive high-value targets. In February 2011, Anatol Lieven wrote: "If Pakistan is to be broken as a state, it will be on the streets of Lahore and other great Punjabi cities, not in the Pushtun mountains." The Anarkali attack is symptomatic of the militancy’s move from Peshawar to Quetta and Karachi, and now to the gated citadels of Lahore.

But Lahore itself is no stranger to terror, having experienced first-hand the attack on the touring Sri Lankan cricket team in 2009, the abduction of Shahbaz Taseer (son of slain Punjab governor Shahbaz Taseer) in 2011, and the assault on police cadets just last year. The discernible difference now is that the targets of the TTP’s guerrilla war are civilian, rather than governmental, in nature. Minutes away from the Wagah border crossing, TTP activity in Lahore threatens to spill over into India. In January, five months before he was killed, Rehman even made a rare video appearance calling for jihad in the Kashmir valley, as well as the spreading of sharia law to the Indian subcontinent – reinforcing the point that the TTP’s scope is no longer transfixed to battles in the Af-Pak theater.

The urbanization of militant factions remains, however, path-dependent on the structural design of individual non-state actors. The TTP, for instance, retains three enduring features that make its move successful: its undisputed opposition to the Pakistani state, its decentralized operational command, and its ability to congregate in a number of different environments. These last two features are mutually reinforcing, and allow the TTP to exploit its geographic diffusion. Beyond the central core of the TTP, individual commanders are empowered enough to operate independent of diktats issued by Hakimullah Mehsud, the group’s central commander.

At the same time, economists agree that the TTP’s external environment is on the cusp of an urbanizing boom. Karachi’s current population easily outstrips that of New York City, and it is expected to overtake Shanghai as the world’s most populated megalopolis by 2025. With one of the highest rates of national urbanization in South Asia, the proportion of Pakistanis living in cities is also expected to increase to 50 percent. When coupled with militancy, these demographic shifts heighten the ability of violent non-state actors to project their power, and raises both their own technical capacity and their comparative advantage relative to that of the state, given their ability to hold entire cities, and fragile economies, hostage with the threat of collateral damage.

In the north, this eastward displacement has also brought the TTP into closer contact with Punjab-based militant groups. While contact between the TTP and sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) pre-dates the TTP’s own inception, the sectarian strain in the TTP’s operations has been relatively circumscribed thus far. However, the group’s infiltration of the provinces threatens to reinforce existing sectarian motivations and create alliances of convenience with the dreaded LeJ. Such partnerships are likely to become a permanent fixture of the group’s operational psyche.

Similarly, the TTP’s inroads into Karachi, a city mired in syndicated terror networks, suggest bloodier days are ahead. Against the backdrop of the port city’s neon lights, a dangerous marrying of TTP ideology, extortion, and venture capitalism has proved to be lucrative for the organization’s inner-city militants, helping fund costly operations elsewhere in the country. With rising unemployment, the economic alternative presented to young, out-of-work men pushes them towards the TTP. As auxiliary fighters from universities, not madrassahs, flock to join the rebel movement, the group’s diversification threatens to transform the TTP from a tribal phenomenon to one that transcends provincial demarcations while still adhering to staunch religious moorings.

The metropolitan face of Pakistani militancy carries staggering pitfalls for security and threat perceptions, with the TTP and its affiliates having masterfully created niche habitats within pre-existing pockets of urban discontent. What began as inter-tribal warfare between the Wazirs and Mehsuds of South Waziristan has morphed into a much more complex and intricate network of associations and allegiances that span the length and breadth of the Indus Basin and deserts south of Balochistan. Within the rank and file of the TTP, tribal identities are now being superseded by ideological motivations that unite as much as they divide.

Through a range of incremental processes, the TTP’s urbanized sub-factions are now more fluid, versatile, tech-savvy, and resistant to traditional modes of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. As the sovereignty of the government declines in the battle for Pakistan, and the TTP continues to infringe upon the state’s monopoly of violence, it is clear that the insurgency is moving from a localized threat to a national one. The consolidation of the insurgency’s urban footing also means that civilian casualties, and attacks such as the one in Anarkali, are likely to become the new normal; at least until Islamabad’s own counterinsurgency models start exhibiting greater flexibility and creativity in their larger attempt to save the country’s megacities from falling.

Fahd Humayun is a graduate of the University of Cambridge and the London School of Economics, and researches conflict and post-conflict security in Islamabad. He tweets at @fahdhumayun.

Fahd Humayun is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Yale University. Twitter: @fahdhumayun

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