The Pakistani Taliban Is Reinventing Itself — South Asian Voices
While terrorism in Pakistan has generally followed a downward trajectory in recent years, the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) Pakistan continues to pose a significant threat to the Pakistani state and its civilians. How much of a threat the group poses now or in the future remains uncertain. What has become clearer in the past few years is that the group remains adamant in continuing its jihad within Pakistan, ultimately seeking territorial control and the implementation of Sharia law.
The TTP, formed in 2007, emerged as one of Pakistan’s deadliest militant organizations with close ties to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, amongst others. After years of suffering losses in terms of operational capacity, primarily due to counterterrorism operations such as Zarb-e-Azb, leadership decapitation and internecine fighting, several recent developments have signaled the group’s concerted efforts to reconstitute and reinvent itself and signal its commitment to its goals. In particular, the return of the group’s leadership to the Mehsuds in 2018, an uptick in its attacks and attempts to intimidate civilians in previous strongholds in Pakistan, increased public statements and perhaps most importantly, ongoing mergers with deadly militant factions are all warning signs of a TTP not only positioning itself for a comeback but also reinventing itself.
Moreover, the group has undoubtedly been emboldened by the Afghan Taliban’s take over in neighboring Afghanistan, with whom the TTP have long enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship. In this context, how the Pakistani state chooses to respond to the re-emergence of the TTP in the near term will be of critical importance in determining the future trajectory of the group.
Changing the Narrative
In a recent video released via its official website and Telegram on 5 August 2021, the TTP’s leader Noor Wali Mehsud reinforced the religious basis of their fight against Pakistani authorities and claimed to have established a “central military training center” open to all TTP members. In a CNN interview just a month before releasing the video, Mehsud denied links to al-Qaeda, praised the Afghan Taliban’s victory and insisted that their fight was limited to the Pakistani state. In a similar vein, TTP’s spokesman, Muhammad Khurasani, also denied the TTP’s involvement in the suicide attack on Chinese workers in July 2021. Interestingly, Mehsud also appeared to emphasize that the TTP only sought autonomy in the tribal regions of Pakistan, perhaps in an attempt to follow in the footsteps of the Afghan Taliban who have denied links to transnational groups such as al-Qaeda and limited their jihad to Afghanistan.
The recurrent theme in the TTP’s reinvention is its desire to publicly disassociate itself from any transnational movements. This is likely an effort by the TTP to deflect international scrutiny towards the group and/or reshape its image at home.
The group also seems to be emulating the Afghan Taliban by releasing public statements against UN reports and other assessments of the group. The UNSC reported in February 2021 that al-Qaeda had facilitated the TTP mergers, implying that TTP’s links with other groups — primarily al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban — remain strong. Again, this was refuted by the TTP in a statement that didn’t specifically name al-Qaeda but emphasized that none of the transnational jihadist groups had had any role in its recent mergers. The recurrent theme in the TTP’s reinvention is its desire to publicly disassociate itself from any transnational movements. This is likely an effort by the TTP to deflect international scrutiny towards the group and/or reshape its image at home.
For the first time in July 2020, the TTP condemned the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) in reaction to a UNSC report, which claimed that the TTP may collaborate with IS-K in the future. Instead, the TTP declared ISK to be a conspiracy of regional intelligence agencies, particularly Pakistan, against jihadist movements. Notably, such criticism of the ISK comes after years of silence on the group, even though the group has poached numerous TTP members and engaged in a brutal war with the Afghan Taliban in areas that remain TTP strongholds in Afghanistan. Taken together, the TTP’s recent public outreach seems geared towards a broader audience, to tie its fight to the Pakistani state and control the narrative surrounding the group.
Rebuilding Strength Through Mergers
Notable developments concerning the TTP’s revival have not been limited to the propaganda sphere, as the group has sought to reconsolidate its base and build internal cohesion. Significant developments for the TTP started in July 2020 when it announced a merger with an important splinter group, the Hakeem Ullah Mehsud Group. This was followed by a series of additional mergers with another ten anti-state Pakistani militant groups including four major TTP splinters, which had separated from it due to various reasons in 2014. The mergers also included three local affiliates of al-Qaeda, which played a central role in the latter’s survival and expansion in Pakistan after 9/11.
Unsurprisingly, these mergers appear to have contributed to the recent rise in attacks in Pakistan. The TTP claimed 149 attacks in 2020, which were three times greater than its claimed attacks in the previous year. Attacks by the TTP further increased after Kabul fell to the Afghan Taliban in August 2021. The TTP claimed 32 attacks in August and 37 in September 2021 alone, marking the highest number of monthly attacks claimed by the group in the last five to six years. In addition, the TTP carried out two suicide attacks in September, compared to only three suicide attacks in total in the previous year.
The TTP leadership views the Afghan Taliban victory as a win for jihadists in general and has been emboldened by it. This is reflected in its messages directed to its members, who are encouraged to fight against Pakistan for a similar victory there.
These attacks suggest that the TTP has improved internal cohesion, especially since it issued a new code of conduct and leadership guidelines, which it lacked earlier. Guidelines issued by the TTP’s current emir, Noor Wali Mehsud, prohibit attacks on civilians and instead call for members to focus on the Pakistani security forces. TTP fighters appear to be following these guidelines so far; about 90 percent of its attacks in 2020 targeted Pakistani security forces, with civilian casualties comprising only a small percentage. Intentionally avoiding targeting civilians seems to be a conscious effort on the TTP’s part to improve its image; past use of indiscriminate violence such as its attacks on an army public school and the Bacha Khan University contributed to its subsequent splintering post-2014 and a public outcry within Pakistan.
No Room for Compromise
The TTP continues to maintain a strong relationship with the Afghan Taliban and draws inspiration from its victory in Kabul. In August 2021, the TTP publicly renewed its oath of allegiance to the Afghan Taliban, emphasizing that it will take any action to support the Taliban. The TTP claimed that around 800 of its members escaped the former Afghan government prisons after the Taliban takeover, including its founding deputy emir Mulawi Faqir Muhammad. The TTP leadership views the Afghan Taliban victory as a win for jihadists in general and has been emboldened by it. This is reflected in its messages directed to its members, who are encouraged to continue their fight against Pakistan for a similar victory there.
Understandably, the TTP’s mergers with other deadly groups intensified attacks, and its recent public statements have generated concern amongst Pakistani officials. In separate TV interviews, the Pakistani President Dr. Arif Alvi and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi offered amnesty to the TTP fighters on the condition of laying down arms and accepting the Pakistani constitution. Initially, the TTP rejected these offers on the basis that it considers its war against the Pakistani state to be a sacred duty with no room for compromise. Yet, in November 2021, the Pakistani government announced that a month-long ceasefire had been reached with the TTP, conditional upon the release of TTP’s imprisoned members. If history is an accurate indicator, such negotiations are likely to be unproductive and may even give the TTP additional time to reconsolidate further, and gain legitimacy in the public eye. A sounder approach by the state would be to reinforce law enforcement and governance in areas where the TTP has traditionally maintained strongholds and use targeted intelligence and operations to keep the outfit’s growth constrained.
Amira Jadoon, PhD, is an assistant professor at the Combating Terrorism Center and the Department of Social Sciences at the US Military Academy at West Point. She tweets Abdul Sayed is a researcher on jihadism and on the politics and security of the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Sayed has a master’s degree in political science from Lund University, Sweden. He is currently working on projects related to violent extremist organisations and transnational jihadism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He tweets . Editor’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared on 9DashLine and has been republished with permission from the editors. @AmiraJadoon. (The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the official policy or position of the Combating Terrorism Center, US Military Academy, Department of Defense, or US Government).
Image 2: AFP via Getty Images