On the Taliban, Pakistan, and Islamic State: An Interview With the Former TTP Spokesman

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On the Taliban, Pakistan, and Islamic State: An Interview With the Former TTP Spokesman

In an ironic twist, Ehsanullah Ehsan is championing human rights after fleeing Pakistan.

On the Taliban, Pakistan, and Islamic State: An Interview With the Former TTP Spokesman

People help victims of a bomb blast claimed responsibility by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar,in Quetta, Pakistan, Aug. 8, 2016.

Credit: AP Photo/Arshad Butt, File

A former spokesman of the Pakistani Taliban, who goes by the nom de guerre Ehsanullah Ehsan, is currently raising his voice against the alleged human rights abuses of the Pakistani state.

Ehsan, who escaped from the captivity of the Pakistani security agencies in February, has written letters to Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with global rights groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Red Crescent.

The former spokesman of terror outfits Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JA) alleges that the Pakistan Army has abducted his family members, including father and brothers, without following the “process of law.”

Ehsan, reiterating that he doesn’t “want any sympathy for myself,” urges the human rights groups to take note of what he maintains are illegal activities on the part of the Pakistani military.

In a similar plea to Prime Minister Khan, he requests action as a “man of faith.” Ehsan also reminds Khan that two of those allegedly abducted were actually members of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

Over a week since sending out the letters, Ehsan is still awaiting a response. In an exclusive interview with The Diplomat he recalls his escape, discusses his future, and reiterates that his membership of the Taliban is now a part of his past.

“Contrary to what has been claimed in the media, I did not surrender, I was arrested by the Pakistan Army. I stayed in captivity as part of a deal, but escaped with my family when I realized that the agreement was being breached,” Ehsan recalls.

In a press conference in April 2017, the then-military spokesperson Major General Asif Ghafoor had claimed that Ehsan had surrendered himself to the Pakistan Army. The official stance of Ehsan, and the JA at the time, is that he had been captured from Afghanistan’s Paktika province.

Ehsan says that he had agreed a deal with the Pakistani Military Intelligence (MI), which had agreed to pay him a monthly stipend to “facilitate the start of a new life.”

“I wanted to leave my past behind and start a new peaceful life. But the Army didn’t follow through with the agreement – perhaps they feared being ridiculed. And now they are targeting my family members in order to blackmail me,” he claims.

When asked, the former TTP spokesman didn’t reveal what he offered the Pakistan Army in return for the stipend. However, he maintains that his escape wasn’t facilitated by anyone.

Military officials have claimed that Ehsan was an important counterterror asset who had been helping the military take down TTP hideouts across the country, especially in the former tribal areas along the Afghanistan border. The military and government officials have refused to comment on Ehsan, only confirming his escape initially, while claiming that “a lot” is being done in its aftermath.

The Army aired Ehsan’s confessional statement in April 2017, which was followed by an interview with Pakistan’s top media house. However, the Geo TV interview was blocked from being aired by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regularity Authority (PEMRA) over “glorification of a terrorist.” The aired trailer of the interview was deemed insensitive by many, given that the interviewee had taken responsibility for the killings of thousands of Pakistanis.

The attacks Ehsan owned on behalf of the TTP and JA included bombings targeting religious minorities and marginalized Islamic sects. Among the most high-profile attacks claimed by Ehsan on behalf of the Taliban was the one aimed at now Nobel Laureate and education activist Malala Yousafzai in October 2012.

Ehsan does not seem to have had a change of heart regarding the attack on the then-15-year-old girl. “Malala was used by her father and certain elements to promote an anti-Islam narrative. When you work against someone, they will obviously retaliate,” he maintains.

While reiterating that he has “abandoned his past” Ehsan expresses no remorse in being a part of outfits with blood of tens of thousands on their hands. He says those killed were “victims of war” and refuses to condemn the Taliban.

Critics of the Pakistan Army have called it out for not making an example out of a representative of groups that orchestrated attacks like the gruesome Peshawar school massacre in December 2014.

“I was against the Peshawar school attack, and I condemned it as well. Personally, I was against targeting schools and expressed my views during meetings as well. But once an attack had been carried out, it was my responsibility to own it on behalf of my organization,” says Ehsan.

By the time the Peshawar school attack had been orchestrated by the TTP, Ehsan had joined its breakaway faction JA. The splinter group was formed owing to a leadership clash within the TTP, with the group’s chief Fazlullah sidelining Omar Khalid Khorasani, who was its head for the Mohmand Agency.

Ehsan had his reservations about Fazlullah and chose to side with Khorasani, joining the JA. He also says there were ideological divisions within the TTP, which were crucial since the “Taliban’s war is based purely on ideology.”

Having been significantly decimated over the past few years, the Pakistani Taliban have resurfaced near the Afghanistan border. This has further overlapped with the shift of the Islamic State (IS, Arabic acronym Daesh) increasing its focus on South Asia.

Ehsan recalls that many in the TTP and JA had left to join IS when the group first began to expand from the Middle East to South Asia. That resulted in multiple attacks across Pakistan being simultaneously claimed by the Taliban and the Islamic State.

The former Taliban spokesman, however, believes that following the February deal with the United States, it is the Afghan Taliban who hold the most clout in the region as far as the militant outfits are concerned.

“The influence of Daesh has decreased [in Afghanistan]. They had established many of their hideouts in Nangarhar, but were then forced to flee to Kunar. The Afghan Taliban have targeted them there in operations as well. What remains to be seen is how the Afghan Taliban react after coming to power. They could demand action against the Pakistani Taliban, but at the same time they have an ideological bond with them as well,” he says.

However, Ehsan reiterates they he personally will not be involved in any potential future warfare, claiming that he is eyeing a “fresh start.” He is currently working on a book, wherein he would look to “reveal the actual truth” with regards to the activities of the Pakistani Taliban during 2007-2017 and also “expose [the] Pakistan Army.”

When asked if he has been backed by anyone to further his new narrative against the Pakistan military, Ehsan insists he is working independently. He claims that he isn’t receiving any funding, and only pursuing an agenda “based on human rights.” Ehsan maintains that is currently being “fed by Allah Almighty.”

He refuses to comment on his current whereabouts or reveal what he has been up to since escaping in February. He communicates through a mobile number based in Turkey, where he had reportedly fled to following his escape, which he neither confirms nor denies.

However, Ehsan categorically refutes claims that he provided information that helped the Pakistan Army eliminate the Taliban hideouts, maintaining that as the group’s spokesman he was only required to deal with the politics and media, and never had any operational details to divulge.

When asked why then the Pakistan Army kept him in captivity for three years, with a paid monthly allowance, Ehsan says, “you should ask them that.”

Ehsan claims that he fears for his life, and believes he will be targeted by “Pakistani institutions” to “hide their failures.” However, he reiterates that his immediate concern is the safety of his family.