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Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Ingress Into Punjab: Prospects and Challenges

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Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Ingress Into Punjab: Prospects and Challenges

The TTP’s ingress into Punjab will help it gain more publicity and transform into an urban insurgency.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Ingress Into Punjab: Prospects and Challenges

Pakistani police officers carry the body of a colleague who was killed in a Wednesday night bombing attack claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, in Lahore, Pakistan, March 15, 2018.

Credit: AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Between April 24 and May 2, a spate of terrorist attacks targeting police and their installations in different areas of Punjab, especially Lahore, left some police personnel dead and injured. Barring one, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for these attacks through its propaganda arm, al-Umar Media. The lone perpetrator of the TTP attacks in Lahore, Faizan Butt, was neutralized along with his accomplices by the Counter Terrorism Department on May 13.

The TTP’s recent wave of violence was preceded by the killing of two Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officials in Punjab’s Khanewal district and a raid by the Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) on an airbase in Minawali district in January and November 2023, respectively. The TJP is a moniker that the TTP uses to evade Taliban pressure.

Although the frequency of the TTP’s attacks in Punjab pales into insignificance when compared to its activities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, they show the terror group’s intent and operational capabilities to expand its network into Pakistan’s largest province.

Since reviving and restructuring along the lines of the Taliban’s organizational and insurgency frameworks, the TTP has been trying to exert its influence beyond the Newly Merged Districts. The TTP’s efforts to grow into Balochistan have been somewhat successful, while those in Punjab remain in their incipiency.

Punjab is Pakistan’s most populous province and agrarian breadbasket, and the TTP’s ingress into Punjab will not only help it gain more publicity, but also transform into an urban insurgency.

After the TTP’s creation in December 2007, a network of militants known as the Punjabi Taliban, comprising rebel factions of Pakistan-backed Kashmiri militant and anti-Shia groups, developed a strong nexus with the TTP. The Punjabi Taliban facilitated the TTP’s attacks in Punjab during its first peak in the 2008-2014 period. In 2015, when the TTP disintegrated after the Peshawar school massacre, due to a plethora of reasons, some Punjabi Taliban factions were absorbed into al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), while others became dormant.

Under its new organizational framework, the TTP has announced two shadow wilayas (meaning provinces) in Punjab: North Punjab with Syed Hilal Gazi as its head, and South Punjab under Umar Muaviya. Reportedly, the combined strength of the TTP in Punjab is 250-300 militants. Of the 54 militant factions that have pledged allegiance to TTP chief Nur Wali Mehsud since July 2020, only two militant groups from Punjab, led by Arshad Bhatti and Khalid Bin Waleed have merged. Interestingly, both groups are from South Punjab, where the TTP’s ideological influence is more pronounced as compared to Northern Punjab due to greater traction of Deobandi ideology.

The TTP’s South Punjab faction claims to have 10 subgroups working under its banner. It bears mention that South Punjab was a fertile recruitment ground for Kashmiri and anti-Shia militant groups like Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The JeM’s rebel commander Asmatullah Moaviya was the head of the Punjabi Taliban. Hence, it is unsurprising that both the spread of the TTP’s ideological influence and its physical ingress are more extensive in South Punjab.

The backgrounds and past militant affiliations of the two TTP officials for North and South Punjab also provide important insights into the militant group’s game plan to grow into Punjab. For instance, Syed Hilal is an alumnus of the Lal Masjid in Islamabad and took to militancy in 2007 after the Pakistan Army’s operation. Hilal closely works with Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), an important TTP faction. Furthermore, Ghazi’s links with the LeJ’s Aslam Farooqi faction are well known. Between 2009 and 2012, the Ghazi Force, a militant group comprising students of the Lal Masjid, spearheaded several terrorist attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

In 2015, following Pakistan’s successful counterterrorism campaign, the Ghazi Force relocated to Afghanistan and following the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, it reemerged in North Waziristan. Likewise, Umar Moaviya, a former LeJ affiliate, has remained involved in several attacks against law enforcement agencies and members of the Shia community in Punjab.

In the context of the TTP’s efforts to create a formidable presence in Punjab, understanding the group’s recent rapprochement with the JuA is vital. The JuA has twice fallen out with the TTP: in 2015 over leadership disputes or organizational differences as well as in 2023 following the killing of its chief Omar Khalid Khorasani. The JuA allegedly held the TTP responsible for the assassination of its leader in August 2022. Vowing revenge for Khorasani’s killing, the JuA claimed responsibility for some attacks against police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which the TTP disowned. The JuA claimed these attacks through its propaganda arm, the Ghazi Media.

After the JuA’s reabsorption into the TTP, the former’s representation in the Rahbari Shura (Executive Council) has been increased from two to three. Dr. Haqyar has been appointed as the new member of Rahbari Shua alongside Mufti Abu Huraira and Omar Mukarram Khorasani, the JuA’s chief. The latter has been made chief of the North Zone Military Commission, as well. Likewise, the JuA’s Mufti Sarbakaf Mohmand has been given a key position in the TTP’s political commission. Overall, 20 JuA members have been given key responsibilities in the TTP.

Retrospectively, after splitting with the TTP in 2015, the JuA carried out several high-profile attacks in Punjab. The group has an operational network in Punjab along with working relationships with Punjab-based dormant militant factions like the Ghazi Force and the LeJ.

So, the TTP is following a two-pronged approach to grow into Punjab. On the one hand, it is using the JuA’s network and its ties with other militant groups to make deeper inroads into Punjab. The TTP’s strategy is to revive dormant militant factions in Punjab and unify them under its umbrella. On the other, the TTP’s political commission keeps issuing statements in favor of a Barelvi hardline radical group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), with a view to recruit its violence-prone fringe members.

Likewise, the TTP’s political commission has been trying to woo Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF) to join ranks for the implementation of Shariah in Pakistan. The poor performance of the JI and JUIF in the February 8 elections and the latter’s hints at quitting parliamentary politics have provided the TTP with an ideal opening to exploit their alienation to advance its ideological interests.

Ostensibly, the TTP’s presence in Punjab is more prominent in southern parts where Deobandi ideology has wider traction and anti-Shia and Kashmiri militant groups have a prominent presence. On the contrary, the TTP’s network in northern parts of Punjab is less pronounced due to the widespread following of Barelvi Islam. Irrespective of outcomes, the TTP will continue to leverage its nexuses with other militant factions and latch onto the political grievances of the JI and JUIF, and to an extent of the TLP, to win the loyalties of their extreme elements.