In the first week of July, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant organization announced the return of the Hakimullah Mehsud group to its fold. The faction and several others like the Mehsud division led by Khan Said “Sajna” and the Jamaatul Ahrar group commanded by Omar Khalid Khurasani splintered from the TTP in 2014 following violent inter-factional feuds after then-Emir Hakimullah Mehsud’s death in a U.S. drone strike. Compounded by the government’s launching of Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the same year, this reduced the TTP to a shadow of its former self. The alliance of Islamist outfits based in Pakistan’s erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) had plunged the country into unprecedented levels of violence after its formation in 2007. This included notable plots such as the assault on the Karachi airport in June 2014 and the Peshawar army school attack in December 2014.
The return of the Hakimullah Mehsud faction is by no means unprecedented, given developments such as the merger of the Sajna faction in 2017 and the rehabilitation of the Jamaatul Ahrar outfit within the framework of the TTP’s ideology in 2015, albeit with a great degree of operational independence. Moreover, the TTP has incurred significant leadership losses in the past two years, including the killing of the previous emir, Mullah Fazlullah, in June 2018 and the death of former Deputy Chief Khalid Haqqani in February, and has maintained a muted operational presence even in past strongholds such as Pakistan’s North and South Waziristan, where its elements managed to return in 2018-19 after being dislodged due to Operation Zarb-e-Azb, and later, Operation Radd-ul-Fassad. Yet, the TTP remains resilient due to a number of factors.
Fazlullah’s demise seemingly catalyzed a process of adjustments by the TTP Markazi Majlis-e-Shura (Central Advisory Committee) with the aim of centralizing control over various sub-groups, mostly by defining ideological and operational boundaries. This was evidenced by the succession of a Mehsud tribesman, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, to reunite warring factions, considering hostilities came to the fore in 2013-14 with the elevation of Fazlullah, a non-Mehsud from outside the tribal areas. All of the TTP’s emirs before Fazlullah were from the Mehsud tribe. The theme of internal changes geared toward consolidation was then seen in the release of a code of conduct in September 2018, which laid out the TTP’s strategy and lines of authority while codifying aspects such as the group’s target selection.
Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud’s leadership has its unique set of benefits for the TTP, chief among which is his apparent emphasis on alliance-building. Apart from being a battle-hardened jihadist, he possesses the advantage of having a strong intellectual grounding in the TTP’s core Deobandi principles by virtue of his experience as a religious scholar and a writer, and this is likely a key component of his outreach as well as his appeal among various constituent groups and dissident factions. The circumstances surrounding the Hakimullah Mehsud group’s return bear testament to this. According to sources, more than 13 TTP functionaries, including members of the Hakimullah Mehsud group, were killed by unidentified assailants in the Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of neighboring Afghanistan over May-June.
While there are a number of possible explanations for this violence, the fact that the Hakimullah Mehsud group turned to TTP Central during such a time of crisis indicates a sense of confidence in Mufti Noor Wali’s leadership, aside from the underlying pragmatism behind this shift. His continued role at the helm could see the TTP further its position in South and North Waziristan, bolstered by potential defections of Islamic State commanders from areas such as Kurram and Khyber back to the group.
Ties to Broader Jihadist Networks in Af-Pak Region
A video released at the beginning of the year by the TTP once again renewed the focus on its extensive ties to jihadist groups in the broader Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network. Featuring a tribute to Hakimullah Mehsud, the release also paid homage to jihadist heavyweights such as Osama bin Laden and Taliban founder Mullah Omar. These links are an important driving force behind the TTP’s survival in the face of greater security cooperation between Pakistan and the United States in 2019, resulting in Islamabad’s counterterrorism reach extending to the outfit’s strongholds in the Loya Paktia and Kunar regions of Afghanistan. Apart from being ideological partners and providing a safe haven for TTP commanders in Afghanistan, these groups have historically also liaised with the outfit in operational terms.
The TTP’s Future Outlook
The return of the Hakimullah Mehsud group is only the latest sign of the TTP’s ambitions. In the near-to-medium term, the group is only likely to grow stronger, more so given the prevailing regional and domestic conditions which are conducive to this. Domestically, the flagging economy in Pakistan and the government’s haphazard measures to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 are expected to raise levels of disaffection among vulnerable sections, aiding the recruitment prospects of groups like the TTP. This is specifically relevant for Pashtun populations across areas in the former FATA belt, where decades of developmental neglect from the center have already deepened anti-government sentiment. The TTP is particularly likely to use COVID-19 to further its aims, as hinted by its anti-Semitic allegation that the pandemic is a conspiracy spearheaded by Jews.
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan also appears to be courting support from the hardline Islamist lobby to maintain stability during these testing times, seen in Khan’s recent reference to bin Laden as a “martyr” and the compromise with Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz in February. This may create space for TTP elements to ramp up domestic outreach and consolidation, even in Sindh and Punjab provinces, by leveraging the common pool of operatives based out of Deobandi seminaries. It remains to be seen how far Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud’s alliance-building will take the TTP, although the future reintegration of splinter groups like Hizbul Ahrar is not completely out of question.
As regards regional dynamics, the Afghan Taliban, an ideological ally and longtime patron of the TTP, is in the driving seat after signing a preliminary deal with the U.S. in late February. This also works in the favor of the TTP, as Pakistan will prioritize better relations with the Taliban and its allied Haqqani Network in a bid to maintain strategic influence in Afghanistan upon the U.S. withdrawal. In doing so, it will have to overlook the Afghan Taliban-TTP symbiosis and the TTP’s rebuilding near the Afghan border, exacerbated by confidence within the security establishment in Islamabad that intelligence-based operations will serve to prevent the TTP from doing too much damage within the country in the interim. The TTP’s attempts to return to its previous operational capacity also has implications for the U.S. fight against al-Qaeda, given the TTP’s close relation with the transnational jihadist group. This is especially critical as it is in the interest of both outfits to rebalance the Islamic State’s influence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan corridor.
Tarun Nair is an intelligence analyst from Mumbai, India with an interest in security and geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region.