When the Pakistani military announced the launch of a comprehensive anti-terrorist operation in North Waziristan and other tribal agencies of the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) called “Zarb-e-Azb” (named after one of the swords belonging to the Prophet Muhammad) in June, many feared an escalation of violence throughout the country, with a significant increase in terrorist attacks, especially in urban centers, where organizations like the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and others have both active and dormant cells.
Now more than two and a half months later, not only did this scenario not materialize, there has even been a noticeable decrease in attacks and the number of victims. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, in the months of July and August terrorist attacks killed 245 civilians, while in the same period of 2013 the number was 464. Two years earlier, in 2011, it was 853. The data suggest that the military operation has been quite effective.
According to the last Inter Services Public Relations’ statement, since the beginning of the Zarb-e-Azb operation 910 terrorists have been killed and various locations previously considered strongholds of the TTP and other groups active in the area have been cleared. And in addition to the action taken in the FATA, the Pakistani security forces have neutralized many other cells across the country (particularly in Karachi and in the province of Baluchistan), killing 42 alleged terrorists and arresting 114 others.
However, the Zarb-i-Azb operation is not the only reason behind the decrease in terrorist attacks in the country, although it has contributed to some extent.
The Pakistani terrorist community is experiencing a period of considerable agitation, characterized by power struggles, splits and internal reorganizations.
Since its creation in 2007, the TTP has been the most active terrorist group in the country, claiming a long series of attacks, including the one carried out on June 8 at the International Airport of Karachi, which pushed the authorities in Islamabad to take military action in the FATA. In recent years, however, growing tensions within the group have emerged, resulting in the secession of two of its main components.
On May 28, the faction led by Said Khan (known as Sajna) announced the formation of a new group based in the agency of South Waziristan. The announcement came after months of tension, during which there had been frequent clashes between the followers of Sajna, which are members of the Mehsud tribe, and a faction led by Sheharyar Khan. Fighting then resulted in the dismissal of Sajna as the head of the South Waziristan chapter. The death of Hakimullah Mehsud, leader of the TTP since August 2009 (who was killed in a U.S. drone attack on November 1, 2013), fueled tension within the group. In particular, the appointment of Mullah Fazlullah (personally advocated for by Mullah Omar, the supreme leader of the Afghan Taliban) dissatisfied the powerful Mehsud tribe, which had always been the core of the TTP and, for that reason, had always claimed leadership. The appointment raised the fear (later proven to be well founded) that Fazlullah, as the first non-Mehsud leader, wouldn’t be able to keep the group together for reasons of geographical distance (he has been living in Afghanistan for the last few years), as well as tribal loyalty.
On August 26, another faction announced its split and the birth of a new organization called “Jamaat ul-Ahrar,” which seeks to replace the TTP and become the main terrorist group in the country. It is led by Maulana Qasim Umar Khurasani, the previous head of the TTP in Swat district. Many other former leading members of the TPP have joined, among them the former head of the TTP in Mohmand agency, and former spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan. Overall, more than 50 percent of TTP’s cadres are alleged to have joined the Jamaat ul-Ahrar. This is a serious blow to the leadership of Fazlullah as well as for the very survival of the group, whose members are now mainly located in Afghanistan and may have established links with Afghan intelligence, which is keen to offset the influence of the Pakistani government over the Afghan Taliban.
Therefore, the operation Zarb-i-Azb could have accelerated a process already underway for some years, and that has now culminated in the fracturing of the TTP. Meanwhile, the military intervention has forced thousands of terrorists to settle in other countries: in Afghanistan (for those elements still associated with Fazlullah), or in Syria and Iraq, lured by the success of the Islamic State (IS). According to a recent study published by the Military Academy at West Point, the number of foreign fighters present in the FATA stood at 8,000 in 2008, but currently does not exceed a few hundred, thanks to U.S. drones as well as the Pakistani government’s new approach . In this regard, it is interesting to note that according to some experts, operation Zarb-i-Azb was also the result of strong pressure exerted by the Chinese government, alarmed by the presence of many Uighurs (an ethnic group concentrated in its western province of Xinjiang) in the tribal areas on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Therefore, the decrease in attacks is the result of a series of linked factors. However, the security framework is likely to worsen in the coming months. New groups need time to organize, but are expected to intensify their terrorist activity once they have stabilized. The current fragmentation of these formations will further complicate intelligence activities and will make it extremely difficult to establish contacts, and eventually start a process of reconciliation.
Finally, terrorist groups are showing greater sensitivity to the influence of the ideology propagated by IS, as evidenced by the proclamations of Jamaat ul-Ahrar, which advocate being part of a broader Khorasan movement that fights to establish a global caliphate. For the time being, no group in Pakistan seems able to replicate the successes achieved by IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Syria and Iraq, but there is no doubt that the rise of the IS has galvanized the entire jihadist spectrum, making many groups more ambitious and aggressive than ever, and thus strengthening their attractiveness among the younger members of the Muslim population, which is a serious threat to the entire international community.
Daniele Grassi is a security analyst and freelance writer based in Rome. Follow him on Twitter @raskolnikov86.