A Tehreek-e-Taliban fighter in a file photo. The terror group is ramping up its attacks in Pakistan. Photo: Facebook

PESHAWAR – Pakistan is drifting towards a security breakdown as renewed terrorist attacks on military and police targets intensify following the withdrawal of US-led NATO forces and the Taliban’s creation of an Islamic Emirate in neighboring Afghanistan.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an umbrella of militant groups also known as the Pakistani Taliban, aims to overthrow Pakistan’s government and like the Afghan Taliban create an Islamic state in Islamabad. The Pashtun Islamist group receives ideological guidance and has ties with al-Qaeda.

TTP has carried out over 180 terrorist attacks on military and police personnel in restive Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces since May this year, killing or wounding over 100 Pakistani soldiers and police officials.

The militant group has said it killed over 26 “enemy personnel” and wounded 35 others in 26 attacks in July alone, a claim the Pakistani government has not yet contradicted. In an ominous portent, just hours after the Taliban took Kabul, TTP attacked an army post in North Waziristan’s Mirali area and inflicted heavy losses on security agencies.

So far this month, the terror group has killed over 15 soldiers, policemen and staff in Waziristan, Orakzai and Khyber tribal areas. The Taliban’s rise is intensifying that threat. Last week, the Taliban released hundreds of TTP key commanders and operatives from Bagram and Pul-e-Charkhi Prisons when they took control of the areas.

Former TPP deputy chief and senior commander Maulvi Faqir Muhammad, who has publicly declared his close ties to al-Qaeda chief Ayman al Zawahiri, was among those released, a TTP spokesperson confirmed.

Some media houses in Pakistan that have sought to play down the Taliban’s release of TTP operatives reported that Maulvi Faqir was released some years ago by now-fallen Ashraf Ghani’s government. However, the TTP has refuted the reports. “He just got released, news about his release two years ago is baseless and wrong,” TTP spokesperson said.

TTP’s Maulvi Faqir Muhammad in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Though most of the terror operations were carried out in the South Waziristan areas bordering Afghanistan – former TTP and al-Qaeda hotbed areas – and chiefly targeted Pakistani soldiers and policemen, some recent operations have focused singularly on Chinese interests.

In late April, a deadly bomb blast rocked the Serena Hotel in Pakistan’s southwestern city of Quetta, leaving five dead and 12 critically injured. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack in which Beijing’s ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, narrowly escaped after entering the hotel lobby.

In another TTP suicide operation last month, the terrorist outfit attacked the vehicles carrying Chinese engineers to the Dasu hydropower project in the remote Kohistan region, killing at least nine Chinese and three Pakistani security staff.

In the latest attack on Chinese interests, four Chinese nationals including a driver were injured in a suicide attack targeting a vehicle in Pakistan’s Gwadar district on Friday.

The insurgent Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), another terror group opposed to the Pakistani state that has targeted Chinese interests including projects related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), claimed responsibility for the latest suicide mission.

The rising terror-related fatalities and fast-changing security situation in Afghanistan are ringing alarms in Pakistani military circles, which convened an emergency meeting of the National Security Committee (NSC) last week. The NSC is a military-civil consultation forum that makes decisions on national security issues.

Security agencies in Pakistan are worried about the TTP’s recent reunification with a host of other terrorist groups including Shehryar Mehsud group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Hizb-ul-Ahrar, Lashkar-i-Jhangvi, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad, among others.

That reunification process began in December 2019 and has continued until now. Al-Qaeda was reportedly involved in bringing together some of these groups, which have shored up the operational synergy and capacity of the TTP.

Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters on the march in Afghanistan in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Abdul Sayed, an independent researcher focused on jihadism and the Af-Pak region, claimed in a recent research analysis that al-Qaeda organized its post-9/11 Pakistani loyalists into the deadliest jihadist threat against the Pakistani state known as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

“The TTP served as al-Qaeda’s first line of defense in the region and still publicly declares its loyalty to Osama Bin Laden and his jihadist ideology. Al-Qaeda maintains influence over the TTP, as evidenced by its covert role in the TTP’s reunification process last year,” he added.  

Syed said that although TTP has mostly limited its operations to Pakistani soil, it echoes the al-Qaeda global jihadist agenda from a local perspective, a narrative that continues to resonate among pockets of the Pakistani population.

Earlier this month, the TTP joined forces with another former al-Qaeda-affiliated, anti-state Pakistani jihadist group once led by Ustad Aslam. The group and its accomplices masterminded the abduction and killing of Wall Street Journal journalist and US citizen Daniel Pearl in February 2002.

The group was also responsible for multiple suicide attacks, including an attempt to kill Pakistani Army chief and then-president General Pervez Musharraf in December 2003.

The Aslam Group planned and executed the 2008 Marriott Hotel bombing in Islamabad, which killed at least 54 people and injured 266, as well as the October 2009 attack on the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army at Rawalpindi in which nine soldiers, nine militants and two civilians were killed.

In 2018, soon after Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud took over the TTP’s command, the group’s capacity and strength grew, according to analysts monitoring the situation. With the recent merger with other splinter groups, the TTP has become the most lethal terrorist outfit in Pakistan, they say.  

In a CNN interview last week, TTP chief Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud announced the “liberation” of the Pakistan tribal belt adjacent to the Pak-Afghan border. “Our fight is only in Pakistan and we are at war with the security forces of Pakistan. We are firmly hopeful of taking control of [the] tribal border region and creating an independent state,” he said.

TTP leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud in a file photo. Image: Twitter

The TTP’s merger with Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), another al-Qaeda-linked group with a pan-regional jihadist agenda, has amplified the threat to Islamabad.

Ryan Clarke, a senior fellow at the East Asian Institute of Singapore who has written extensively on South Asian terror and extremist networks, told Asia Times that the reunification of TTP and LeT showed that the initially Kashmir/India-focused and heavily Punjabi-dominated LeT was now fully operational in Afghanistan.

“This is an enormous problem that the Pakistani government appears to have zero awareness of and appreciation for,” he added. He said that LeT has a lot to offer to the Afghan Taliban in terms of the know-how regarding the execution of complex attacks and terror operations.

“LeT carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks that involved an amphibious landing and a multi-node urban assault operation that paralyzed the entire city of Mumbai for three days. LeT is in Afghanistan for the fight but also undoubtedly to get into the drug trade as well,” he added.

On August 20, Pakistan called upon the Afghan Taliban to act against the banned TTP.

“Pakistan has been taking up the issue of the use of Afghan soil by the TTP for terrorist activities inside Pakistan with the previous Afghan government and would continue raising the issue with the coming government in Kabul as well to ensure that the TTP is not provided any space in Afghanistan to operate against Pakistan,” Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson said at a weekly press briefing.

He noted media reports about TTP prisoners, including top leaders, being released by the Afghan Taliban. Pakistan, he said, had opposed and continue to oppose support for “any proscribed groups that remained involved in terrorist activities inside Pakistan.”

In an interview with a Middle East news channel, Ahmed Rashid, the author of Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, said that allowing the Afghan Taliban to live in the country was loaded with serious consequences, as there would be a huge upsurge in fundamentalism and extremism in Pakistan.

Rashid said the Pakistani security establishment was under the illusion that the Afghan Taliban would cut support to TTP and other militant groups including al-Qaeda. “It is unimaginable to think that the Taliban will turn their back on TTP fighters and send them back to the prisons of Pakistan,” he added.