Pakistan’s persistent political instability and economic troubles offer fertile ground for the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, to mount attacks on the state. Despite the Pakistani state response, the TTP remains emboldened and has begun to revamp itself.
As the political logjam and tense financial situation prevails in Pakistan, the TTP announced the formation of new wilayat (administrative units) in Punjab and Balochistan. According to Khorasan Diary, the TTP now counts 12 administrative units, most of which are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK), followed by Punjab, Balochistan, and Gilgit Baltistan.
This announcement came after April’s National Security Committee meeting, which agreed to launch an “all-out comprehensive operation” to eliminate the menace of terrorism.
Pakistan’s new multidimensional strategy prioritizes intelligence-based operations instead of full-scale spectrum operations like Zarb-e-Azb. It calls for the prosecution of terrorists and terror sympathizers by mandated law enforcement agencies, the revival of the National Counter-Terrorism Authority, and the curtailing of financial donations to the TTP. In addition, Pakistan held talks with the Taliban regime in Kabul, asking them to relocate TTP fighters in northern Afghanistan farther from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Chief of Army Staff Asim Munir also highlighted that engagement with local communities and providing economic opportunities would help dissuade growing support for the TTP in KPK, the group’s traditional stronghold.
Pakistan has seen success since then. One TTP commander, Abdul Jabar Shah, was killed by Pakistani forces in May and another, Sarbakuf Mohmand, died “mysteriously” in June. Despite the Pakistani government’s multidimensional strategy, the rival Islamic State branch in Afghanistan poaching TTP fighters, and the death of TTP commanders, however, the terrorist group seems undaunted. It continues to pose as a persistent threat to the state.
New Administrative Wilayat
The TTP now has 12 administrative units in Pakistan: seven in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one in Gilgit-Baltistan, and two each in Balochistan and Punjab.
The TTP was previously reluctant to operate in Balochistan because of the presence of several senior Taliban leaders of the Quetta Shura (whose presence was denied by Pakistan) and the restricted presence of Pashtuns in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps in Balochistan. This affected the group’s scope of operations in Balochistan. However, the return of Afghan Taliban leaders to Kabul after the U.S. withdrawal and subsequent influx of refugees also increased the Pashtun population in Balochistan. The TTP now favors a venture into Balochistan. Zhob, which hosts a considerable Pashtun population, was included as a new wilayat in 2022; subsequently, several Baloch separatists like Mazar Baloch, Akram Baloch, and Asim Baloch joined the TTP. In the latest development, a new wilayat in the Kalat and Makran regions in Balochistan is being led by Shaheen Baloch.
Similarly, the TTP has made inroads in Punjab. The announcement of the division of TTP administrative units into North and South Punjab comes as a shock, as the TTP has traditionally been more focused on northern Punjab. Cities like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Lahore are vital for the TTP to maintain its relevance in the country. Indeed, the siege at Lal Masjid in 2007 played a crucial role in the development of the TTP. In the decade after that, these cities saw an escalated wave of terror and suicide attacks that helped the insurrection of the TTP.
The TTP is looking to stage a similar resurrection this time around. The Punjab chapter of the TTP largely comprises fighters affiliated with Lal Masjid and the Al Faridia University (Jamia Faridia). The first imam of the mosque was Maulana Muhammad Abdullah Ghazi, a beneficiary of former Pakistani President Zia-ul-Haq’s program of state-directed Islamization. His sons, Maulana Abdul Aziz Ghazi and Maulana Abdul Rashid Ghazi (prominent leader of the Ghazi force), were responsible for the Siege of Lal masjid. By making Syed Hilal Ghazi the shadow governor of North Punjab, the TTP is tapping into that legacy, hoping to attract like-minded groups.
In addition, the TTP is now emboldened enough to dive into South Punjab, recognizing that Pakistan Punjab cannot be seen as a whole. The southern region has already seen the spread of militant outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), and radical Deobandi ideology is already replacing traditional Barelvi-dominated society. This, mixed with unemployment, makes it easier for the TTP to find recruitment support in this Punjab belt.
Mergers and Infighting
Rising terror attacks suggest that the clout of militancy in Pakistan is growing. The TTP is not the only actor; the Hafiz Gul Bahadur (HGB) faction, ISKP, and Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP, the Jihadi Movement of Pakistan) have joined the fray. More worryingly, they may be joining forces.
On January 5, two officers with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence were killed in Punjab. The TTP and Lashkar-e-Khorasan (also known as Ittehad Mujahideen and Khorasan or United Mujahideen of Khorasan), claimed responsibility for the attack.
TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud also seems to have struck a deal with Hafiz Gul Bahadur and a few Balochi groups. In a statement by the TTP, it claimed two attacks against the Pakistani military as a “collaboration between the TTP and Hafiz Gul Bahadur”on June 3 and 4. Evidence suggests that the HGB and TTP are working together operationally in the latter’s stronghold in North Waziristan and its surrounding regions.
In addition, Mehsud has been able to enforce his will on various splinter groups like JuA and HuA toward stricter adherence to the 2018 operational manual of the group, which forbids sectarian violence, attacks on religious places, and against civilian targets. The TTP chief has been able to sideline any opposition to his rule, and deaths of Omar Khalid Khorasan, Abdul Rashid, and now Sarbakuf Mohmand means that there is little opposition to Mehsud, which further secures the rise of TTP.
Role of Social Media
In addition to carrying out attacks on the ground, the TTP’s online presence has been growing lately. The group has been developing extensive content in Pashto, Dari, Urdu, and English. Umar Media, the official media channel of the TTP, is actively engaging on various social media platforms. These include several video series – “We Are Ready” and “Battles Are Accelerated” – a daily radio broadcast, the Pashto podcast series, a biweekly current affairs publication, an Urdu magazine, and statements on TTP-claimed attacks.
In particular, the TTP has been commenting on the political confrontation between former Prime Minister Imran Khan and the establishment. That appears to be part of an attempt to reach out to Khan’s supporters in a bid to gain greater legitimacy among his party’s support base in KPK.
There has been an improvement in the standard of content of the TTP, from infographics to political messaging. With the TTP’s structure more well-established and centralized, it can reach out to various journalists and social media handles to disseminate its well-crafted propaganda run by its Information and Broadcasting Ministry. Already, Umar Media sees 65 percent of its website traffic coming from Pakistan.
Can Relocating Fighters Work?
In the aftermath of Operation Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan’s all-out military offensive against the TTP from 2014 to 2017, nearly 1 million Pakistanis from KPK were displaced. Many of them went to Afghanistan to look for refuge against brutalities and crackdowns by the Pakistan Army. Since then, the Pakistan government has seen these refugee camps as bases for TTP fighters along the Durand Line.
Amid the TTP’s resurgence, then, the Pakistani government has pressured Kabul to crack down on these camps. The Taliban rulers are reluctant, as they fear relocation of these fighters may lead to significant scale defection to the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). The local IS affiliate is notorious for poaching TTP fighters, including ISKP’s first emir Hafiz Saeed Khan. Even if the Taliban shift some of these camps to the hinterland, it will likely have minimal effect on the TTP’s reach within Pakistan.
Moreover, it is more convenient for the Taliban to utilize these fighters in cracking down on potential resistance to its rule in the northern areas of Afghanistan. The option to move these fighters may not be sole because of geopolitical compulsions, but out of tactical calculus by the Taliban regime.
The entire exercise of relocation will have little bearing on the TTP’s reach and footprint in its administrative regions. The TTP’s investment in enhancing its footprint outside KPK, i.e., Punjab and Balochistan, ensures the ability to attack at will within Pakistan.
In this environment of insecurity, Pakistan finds itself in troubled waters. The emergence of the TTP puts more pressure on Pakistan to tackle militancy and radicalization in KPK and beyond. An undaunted TTP will provide inspiration to other sectarian groups, which may pose serious threats to political and economic stability in times to come.