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Politics of Claiming Responsibility for Terrorist Attacks in Af-Pak Region

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Politics of Claiming Responsibility for Terrorist Attacks in Af-Pak Region

In some attacks, a terror group claims credit and then denies involvement. In others, more than one group claims credit.

Politics of Claiming Responsibility for Terrorist Attacks in Af-Pak Region

A relative mourns next to the casket of a police officer, who was killed in a shootout with militants, in an ambulance outside a morgue in Karachi, Pakistan, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/M. Noman

Terrorist groups claim some attacks and disown others, particularly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Research indicates that around 60 percent of terrorist attacks in the Global Terrorism Database are unclaimed.

Terrorist attacks are neither random nor accidental. Rather, they are planned in advance and well thought-out to take revenge, gain publicity, or highlight a terrorist group’s grievances, ideological outlook, or political demands. Hence, it seems illogical for terrorist groups not to claim attacks after perpetrating them.

In the Af-Pak region, the politics of claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks is complex and interesting. Occasionally, there are violent incidents in the region that go unclaimed, or more than two groups simultaneously claim credit for them. There are also instances where a faction claims the attack, but the main group officially denies involvement. Furthermore, in some attacks, terrorist groups disown their culpability partially or fully, after claiming responsibility.

This piece examines the patterns of responsibility claiming, or the lack thereof, among terrorist groups in the Af-Pak region and what they tell us about the region’s militant landscape.

On February 19, a Pakistani religious scholar, Mawlana Ihjaz Ahmad Haqqani, was assassinated in Peshawar’s outskirts. However, no group claimed responsibility for his targeted assassination.

A similar pattern was also witnessed during two short-lived ceasefires, in November 2021 and June-November 2022, when several violent incidents, including suicide attacks, went unclaimed. For instance, in November 2022, a deadly improvised explosive device attack targeting a peace committee member in the South Waziristan district was not claimed by any group. Likewise, the May 2020 deadly gun-and-bomb assault on a maternity hospital in Kabul was unclaimed, notwithstanding that both Kabul and Washington attributed it to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP).

In Af-Pak, there are also instances where a faction of a group has claimed an attack, but the central leadership has disowned it. The deadly suicide bombing at a police mosque in Peshawar in January 2023 is a case in point. The TTP’s Mohmand faction, also known as Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JUA), claimed the attack as revenge for the killing of its leader, Omar Khalid Khorasani, in Afghanistan on August 7 last year. However, the TTP’s spokesman Muhammad Khorasani officially distanced his group from the attack on the grounds that it violated the group’s code of conduct.

There have been instances too where more than one group has claimed responsibility for the same attack. For instance, in December 2020, both the Islamic State of Pakistan Province (ISPP) and TTP claimed credit for a bomb attack in Rawalpindi. A similar incident in the same city in January 2022 was once again claimed by both terror outfits. In October 2022, both TTP and ISPP issued statements about two deceased militants in Karachi belonging to their respective organizations.

Furthermore, there have been instances where terror groups have partially or fully walked back on their statements after claiming certain terrorist attacks. For instance, after targeting the Serena Hotel in Quetta with a vehicle-borne suicide attack on April 21, 2021, the TTP partially retracted its original statement. The initial responsibility claim mentioned foreigners present in the hotel were the main target. At the time of the attack, China’s Ambassador to Pakistan Nong Rong was staying in the hotel and escaped unhurt.

Nong was believed to be the main target of the attack, and the TTP was said to have opened a new front against China. But after realizing the consequences of their initial claims, the TTP issued a rejoinder clarifying that the Chinese ambassador was not the target. The afterthought was prompted by the fear of a strong counterterrorism backlash from the Pakistan Army and China.

Following the massacre of children at the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, the TTP claimed full responsibility for the attack. However, last year its current chief Nur Wali Mehsud denied culpability in the attack. Demanding an independent inquiry to ascertain the real perpetrators of the massacre, Mehsud claimed that the Pakistani establishment carried out the attack to malign the TTP.

Three factors explain the politics behind Af-Pak terrorist groups not claiming certain attacks, while fully or partially distancing themselves from others.

The foremost factor is the disconnect between a terrorist attack and a group’s strategic objectives. If the attack does not conform to the strategic calculus of a terrorist group, it will not claim it. As discussed above, the TTP distanced itself from JuA’s suicide attack on a police mosque in Peshawar because it violated its code of conduct. The TTP forbids its fighters from carrying out attacks in mosques, notwithstanding how high value the target is. On the contrary, ISKP does not shy away from hitting its targets in mosques.

The other factor explaining terrorist groups’ disowning behavior is the fear of a stronger counterterrorism backlash due to unintended consequences as witnessed in the TTP’s partial retraction of its initial claims in the attack at Serena Hotel in Quetta.

The third and final factor is the principal-agent problem. Largescale terrorist groups like the Afghan or Pakistani Taliban with their decentralized structures can be described as networks of networks. In decentralized terrorist groups, each faction enjoys greater operational autonomy, and they choose their own targets. At times, this can lead to a disconnect between the top leadership and various factions. Different factions, while following the organizational discipline, create their own vested interests over and above the strategic objective of the parent groups.

For instance, they become hitmen who engage in criminal activities such as kidnapping for ransom or targeted assassinations for earning extra money. Such instances where factions of a group are involved in activities that fall outside the scope of a group or do not have the approval of the top leaders also go unclaimed.

On the contrary, the multiple claims for the same attack by two groups, such as the TTP and ISPP, indicate opportunistic behavior. Often, attention-hungry groups claim attacks that they have not committed. Alternatively, in multi-actor and fluid threat environments, side-switching and overlapping membership at the foot soldier level is commonplace. In such instances, militant operatives work as freelance jihadists for more than one group, and the attacks they perpetrate can result in multiple responsibility claims. Possibly, the above-discussed attacks in Rawalpindi claimed both by the TTP and ISPP as well as statements concerning the deceased militants in Karachi could be the outcome of overlapping membership.

The politics of responsibility claiming for terrorist attacks in the Af-Pak region provide insights into the complex, diverse, and ever-evolving nature of its landscape. It also enhances our understanding of the opportunistic nature of terrorist groups, who are not just engaged in militant campaigns in pursuit of stated ideological ends but on the sidelines also participate in criminal activities as hired assassins.

Finally, it also brings into sharp focus the disconnect between top leaders and foot soldiers of largescale terrorist networks such as Pakistani and the Afghan Taliban. These insights, if properly analyzed, can help devise effective counterterrorism strategies.