The Revival of the Pakistani Taliban — Combating Terrorism Center at West Point

Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming

Abstract: A resurgent Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could soon again pose a major threat to Pakistan, as underlined by a bomb attack on a luxury hotel in Quetta in April 2021 claimed by the group that narrowly missed endangering China’s ambassador. Weakened from 2014 onward by infighting, defections, operations against it, and public disgust at its brutal violence directed at civilians, the group under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud has finally escaped the shadow of the Islamic State in Khorasan, which was founded in the last decade by disgruntled TTP figures and threatened to eclipse TTP. After reabsorbing a number of splinter groups, and addressing internal tensions, TTP has intensified its campaign of terrorism in Pakistan and is again growing in strength. It has made clear its commitment to a long-haul struggle against the Pakistani state and is attempting to grow and broaden its support base, including by trying to co-opt the grievances of Pashtun and Baluchi ethnic groups and curtailing its violence against civilians. TTP issued new restrictions on targeting in September 2018, which appear to have resulted in a more discriminate approach to violence. Since then, a smaller proportion of TTP’s attacks have targeted civilians and civilian fatalities in attacks targeting civilians have constituted a smaller share of overall fatalities inflicted by the group. The overall number of civilians killed per year in TTP attacks targeting civilians has also dropped.

A string of organizational mergers and intensified operational activity since the summer of 2020, including a claimed suicide bombing targeting a luxury hotel in Quetta in April 2021, suggests the Pakistani Taliban or Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) could soon again pose a major threat in Pakistan. 1TTP’s leadership appears at least for now to have consolidated its control of the primary networks that comprise, and form the basis of, the group. In so doing, it appears to have overcome the existential challenge posed by internal fragmentation and the Islamic State in Khorasan, the Islamic State’s wing in the region (ISK). aIn 2015, ISK was primarily formed by disgruntled TTP members and leaders dissatisfied with the leadership of their own group and the large number of defections in the years that followed put the TTP’s future in peril.

This article draws on open-source materials and interviews to examine the recent resurgence in TTP operations. The first section provides a historical overview of the rise, fall, and revival of the TTP. The second section examines how the group was able to eventually overcome the existential challenge posed by internal fragmentation and the Islamic State and how it has reduced its targeting of civilians to try to win back supporters who had been turned off by its indiscriminate violence. The third section outlines how TTP has reunified its ranks, which has allowed the group to again expand its operations, as documented in the fourth section of the article. The final section makes some observations about the threat outlook.

Rise and Fall and Revival
TTP was established by al-Qa`ida-allied tribal militants in Pakistan who before 9/11 had fought in Afghanistan to support the Taliban regime in Kabul. 2The Pakistani tribal militants were opposed to the Pakistani state due to what they deemed to be a change in the Pakistani government policies after 9/11 to support the U.S. war against al-Qa`ida and allied jihadis, including the Afghan Taliban. 3The Pakistani tribal militants hosted al-Qa`ida and other foreign militants on the Pakistani side of the border after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, which resulted in U.S. pressure for Pakistan to act and an increase in Pakistani military operations targeting the group and allied networks in Pakistan’s tribal areas. 4These operations further enraged the Pakistani tribal militants. Their anger against the state hit new heights after the July 2007 military operation against a mosque and seminary in the Pakistani capital closely connected to various militant groups, known as the Red Mosque operation. 5This incident galvanized many Pashtun tribal militants, including in South Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and the Swat district to unify their efforts. The result was the establishment of TTP at the end of 2007 as a jihadi entity to fight the Pakistani state. 6Anger over the Red Mosque operation led to hundreds of non-tribal and non-Pashtun militants from settled areas of Pakistan joining TTP and attending TTP and al-Qa`ida training camps in Waziristan. Many of these militants had been part of Kashmir-focused jihadi groups loyal to the Pakistani state. 7These non-Pashtun TTP cadres were later categorized “Punjabi Taliban” and in the years that followed would play a key role in sophisticated attacks in the country’s capital Islamabad and its Punjab and Sindh provinces. 8

Until around 2014, the group was seen by Pakistani officials as a potent threat. 12But the cumulative attrition of U.S. drone strikes and Pakistan’s major Zarb-e-Azb military operation launched in June 2014 13as well as Pakistani intelligence operations degraded the group’s presence in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal region and its operational network. 14These setbacks were further aggravated by the internal fracturing and disagreements within the group, addressed below, which threatened the group’s cohesion. As a result, the group was forced to take refuge in areas of eastern Afghanistan bordering Pakistan. 15bMost damaging to the group was the internal turmoil that followed the 2013 death of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud. 16Competing factions contested the leadership of the group, resulting in infighting and in the years that followed defections to the Islamic State. 17

Besides internal conflict, the indiscriminate targeting cof civilians was a major factor in the decline of TTP. 18This even led to criticism from al-Qa`ida leadership, including Usama bin Ladin, who issued multiple warnings to the TTP instructing the group to refrain from indiscriminate attacks targeting markets and schools, which risked resulting in Muslim casualties. 19In particular, the targeting of young school children in the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar in December 2014 led to a backlash in Pakistan and support for a full-fledged military operation against jihadi groups. 20The government pushback resulted in hundreds of jihadis and their supporters being killed in counterterrorism operations across the country in addition to the hanging of dozens of them in Pakistani jails. 21The APS attack also led to TTP being publicly condemned for having carried out the atrocity by the Afghan Taliban, 22AQIS, 23Jama’at ul-Ahrar (JuA), and the TTP Sajna faction. 24This jihadi criticism increased the group’s internal tensions, which were already severe after the contested appointment of Maulana Fazlullah as new emir the year prior.

The group’s current leader Noor Wali Mehsud, who took over after Fazlullah was killed in a drone strike in Afghanistan in June 2018, 25has worked to rebuild the group, improve internal discipline, increase cohesion, and make the group’s violence less indiscriminate. 26More recently, he has worked to reintegrate jihadi factions that had left the TTP fold. Between July and November 2020, eight jihadi entities pledged alliance to TTP. 27According to a U.N. report published in February 2021, “[t]his increased the strength of TTP and resulted in a sharp increase in attacks in the region,” with one member state reporting that “TTP was responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks between July and October 2020.” The report stated that “Member State assessments of TTP fighting strength range between 2,500 and 6,000.” 28

A key reason the TTP has been able to revive its operations is that its regional competitor ISK is suffering. As noted by Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, “[s]ince 2015, a variety of state-led operations against ISK have inflicted substantial manpower and leadership losses upon the group across Afghanistan and Pakistan.” 32In 2020, ISK’s Wilayat Pakistan claimed a total of 13 attacks, resulting in 77 casualties (killed and wounded) according to the Islamic State’s own reporting, down from 22 attacks in 2019, according to data from its Al Naba newsletter. 33dIn Afghanistan, ISK has been largely routed from its former strongholds of northern Afghanistan and the country’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. 34While ISK is still capable of launching occasional large-scale and devastating attacks, its general standing has deteriorated, leaving it as a much weaker alternative for the region’s jihadis. 35The story of how TTP escaped from the shadow of the Islamic State is outlined in the next section.

Overcoming the Islamic State Challenge
As essentially a conglomerate of various groups and factions, TTP was from the start a rather fragmented entity. This was especially the case in the aftermath of Hakimullah Mehsud’s death and the election of Mullah Fazlullah to the position of emir in 2013 instead of a candidate from the Mehsud tribe. 36

Hence, TTP found itself in a vulnerable position in 2014 when the Islamic State announced its caliphate and prepared its expansion to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Even before the caliphate declaration, there were reports of fighters from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. 37Yet, it was only in October 2014 that Hafiz Saeed Khan, a TTP commander from Orakzai agency who had previously belonged to the Afghan Taliban, decided to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State, thus laying the groundwork for the establishment of the group’s Khorasan Province. 38When the province was officially announced in January 2015 as part of the Islamic State’s second wave of global expansion, it was with Saeed Khan as its emir. 39A testament to his standing within TTP before leaving, Saeed Khan had been a serious candidate to become the group’s emir after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud. 40Whether the disappointment of not being selected as the TTP leader 41played a part in his decision remains unknown. e

Over the next years, several hundred rank-and-file TTP members and a noteworthy collection of senior commanders defected to ISK, exacerbating an already difficult situation for TTP. With regard to senior figures, this included TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, ISK’s future third emir Abdul Rahman Ghaleb, and several district-level commanders and officials such as Mufti Hassan Swati (leader in Peshawar,) Hafiz Quran Dolat (leader in Kurram Agency), and Gul Zaman (leader in Khyber Agency). 42Senior Afghan Taliban such as Abdul Rauf Khadim, Mansour Dadullah, Saad Emirati, and the prominent ideologue Muslim Dost 43also joined or aligned with ISK. 44While some may have joined ISK out of ideological conviction-in this regard, the caliphate declaration was a powerful mobilizing force-others arguably saw it as a personal opportunity to increase their rank and standing, obtain access to resources and be part of the new ‘winning team.’ In an attempt to stop the defections, the Afghan Taliban’s shura council reportedly issued a fatwa making it haram to pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, but the order did not have the desired effect. 45

Three factors help to explain why TTP became the primary recruitment pool for the Islamic State in the region. First, up until the emergence of ISK, the TTP was always considered ideologically the most radical armed group in the region, with a strong sectarian focus 46emerging over time. At the time of the establishment of ISK, it even seemed possible that the bulk of the TTP could retract its loyalty to the less hardline Afghan Taliban and instead join the Islamic State.

Second, TTP’s internal fragmentation made it difficult for the group to counter the gravitational pull of the Islamic State. TTP is best understood as a conglomerate of militant factions that regularly compete for internal power. This was certainly the case in 2014–2015 after the death of its powerful emir Hakimullah Mehsud. His successor, Mullah Fazlullah, was not a popular choice. Disparate interests among TTP factions and the general dissatisfaction with the election of Fazlullah left the group vulnerable. 47With its emphasis on the caliphate narrative and the potential of upward mobility for TTP members, ISK proved particularly effective at taking advantage of this vulnerability in attracting TTP members that questioned the new TTP leadership or were attracted by the platform offered by ISK, including the fact that like TTP, it was focused on targeting the Pakistani state.

The anti-Pakistan focus of the ISK leadership is the third factor that explains the recruitment of TTP fighters last decade by ISK. The ISK leadership included several former senior TTP commanders like Hafiz Saeed Khan and Shaikh Maqbool Orakzai who were strong advocates of the war against the Pakistani state. In a recent interview with the authors, 48a senior TTP leader confirmed this as a central motivational factor that had made ISK an attractive platform for TTP commanders and rank-and-file who hoped that ISK would strengthen the war against the Pakistani state.

It thus came as no surprise that large numbers of TTP commanders and fighters, especially from the Orakzai and Bajaur agencies, joined ISK, and in many cases were appointed to very senior positions.

In the end, the TTP did not join the Islamic State on a group level, but it continued to see members defect and pledge allegiance to al-Baghdadi, which left TTP critically weakened. In order to try to re-establish its footing, the group’s leadership in September 2018 issued a 13-page manual titled “Operation Manual for Mujahideen of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan.” 57The document had a dual purpose: to bolster the position of the Noor Wali Mehsud, who was elected leader of TTP in June 2018, 58and to establish internal regulations within the group as part of a reform process to distance the group and its members from the Islamic State. In an attempt to draw a contrast with the behavior of the Islamic State and improve the group’s standing among the Pakistani population after the backlash against it because of the massacres of civilians, the TTP manual emphasized the necessity of reducing the group’s number of enemies and defined what it considered to be a range of legitimate targets.

The new targeting guidelines were significant because TTP has historically had a reputation of indiscriminate targeting similar to the practices of the Islamic State. TTP leaders had previously advised members to minimize the risk of causing harm to civilians during attacks, gbut this rarely translated into a change in operational practices, with the group continuing to carry out large-scale massacres of civilians often through the use of suicide bombers. Since the December 2014 attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar, those attacks in which many civilians have died have included the January 2016 Bacha Khan University attack in Charsadda, the February 2016 targeting of a Shi`a mosque in Peshawar, the December 2017 Agricultural Training Institute attack, and a July 2018 attack targeting an election campaign gathering in Peshawar. 59

The new targeting guidelines issued under Noor Wali Mehsud’s leadership in September 2018 have curtailed the group’s violence against civilians. Since then, the overall number of civilians killed per year in TTP attacks targeting civilians has dropped. Furthermore, since the targeting restrictions were issued, a smaller proportion of TTP’s attacks have targeted civilians and civilian fatalities in attacks targeting civilians have constituted a smaller share of overall fatalities inflicted by the group. (See Figure 1.)

According to a dataset maintained by the authors, hin 2020, TTP claimed 16 attacks that targeted civilians, with 14 deaths. At the time of writing (late April 2021), there has not been a double-digit fatality suicide bombing claimed and carried out by the group since the July 10, 2018, attack on the election campaign gathering in Peshawar that killed 23 people, including a provincial assembly candidate, Haroon Bilour, belonging to the Awami National Party (ANP). 65

This change of modus operandi is explicitly in line with the TTP September 2018 guidelines, which provide a clear list of targets restricted to only the security forces (including the armed forces, intelligence agencies, paramilitary forces and police), government-allied militias, ruling elites, and judiciary, and outlines a stringent procedure for suicide attacks.

Also noteworthy in TTP’s rebuilding efforts were a set of stipulations that seem to have been designed to reduce internal tensions. According to the manual, fighters must follow the instructions of their emir both in military and theological affairs. It stipulated how internal reconciliation mechanisms were to be put in place at the local, regional (regulatory shura), and national (supreme shura) levels to manage any incidents of internal conflict. With the aim of protecting the group and its cohesion, it stated that TTP fighters henceforth would be prohibited from having any contact with people or groups that differ in ideology. The new manual also allowed for the return of former members of the group, by stipulating that fighters who had already defected from the group but intended to rejoin were subject to an appeal to TTP’s supreme shura. These changes were intended to stem further defections while opening a door for defectors to rejoin the group at a time when the global Islamic State narrative was under severe pressure.

Mergers and Leadership Consolidation
The ascension of Noor Wali Mehsud saw the group again led by a figure from the influential Mehsud tribe, bolstering its position in the border regions with Afghanistan. As Hassan Abbas recently noted in this publication, “the return of a Mehsud as the TTP leader … persuaded many disgruntled Mehsud tribesmen … to return to the TTP fold.” 66Mehsud has worked to restore the fortunes of the group. In November 2017, he published a book of more than 700 pages entitled Inqilab-e-Mehsud (Mehsud’s Revolution) dealing with TTP’s internal problems and the importance of unity. In the book, he appears as a reformer, not only criticizing what he saw as mistakes by the group’s previous leadership but also wholeheartedly condemning many of the practices that threatened its survival, particularly the infightings and indiscriminate killings. 67

Beginning in early July 2020, TTP surprised observers by announcing a string of mergers with influential commanders and rival groups. According to the United Nations, the unification “took place in Afghanistan and was moderated by Al-Qaida.” 68iSince then, eight different jihadi groups have joined TTP, signaling a rebuilding and consolidation process that may continue. 69These groups include three major TTP splinters, two important Pakistani al-Qa`ida affiliates, a faction of the sectarian group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), and two prominent militant groups from North Waziristan. 70The splinter groups rejoining TTP are the Hakimullah Mehsud faction, jJama’at ul-Ahrar (JuA), and its sub-splinter Hizb ul-Ahrar (HuA). 71The al-Qa`ida affiliates are the Amjad Farooqi and Ustad Ahmad Farooq groups. 72The LeJ faction in question is known as Usman Saifullah Kurd and is now under the command of Khushi Mohammad, an ex-emir of Harkatul Jihad Islami (HuJI) Sindh province. 73

These mergers have strengthened TTP. They have brought TTP breakaway factions back under the command of TTP, which boosts its manpower and may minimize future internal conflict. These factions were co-founders of the TTP and as such played a central role in the group’s rise and expansion. The downfall of the TTP started in 2014 when several of the very same groups defected in the aftermath of the election of Mullah Fazlullah. 74The decision of the Hakimullah Mehsud faction to rejoin the TTP is of particular importance since this group has been engaged in infighting with its rival Mehsud faction, the Mufti Wali ur-Rehman group, which is now led by the current TTP emir, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. 75Their infighting started after Hakimullah Mehsud’s assassination in November 2013 with both factions struggling to lead the Mehsuds within TTP. 76Mullah Fazlullah’s failure to prevent intra-TTP bloodshed and the ensuing defections of various Mehsud factions shattered other commanders’ trust in Fazlullah’s leadership and resulted in further splintering. 77

The mergers have brought rival and independent groups into the fold of the TTP. Both Hakimullah Mehsud and his predecessor, Baitullah Mehsud, were accused of eliminating smaller independent jihadi groups that objected to waging jihad under the TTP leadership in Pakistan. 78Hakimullah Mehsud even tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to force Pakistani jihadi groups, including al-Qa`ida loyalists, to pledge allegiance to him, but in response he received strong criticism from al-Qa`ida’s central leadership. 79 The absorption of rival and independent groups under Noor Wali indicate he is succeeding where Baitullah and Hakimullah failed. kOne example is the North Waziristan-based group of Ustad Aleem Khan. Khan was the deputy of Hafiz Gul Bahadar, the leading jihadi in North Waziristan 80and the host of al-Qa`ida’s leadership in the region. He even sheltered the TTP for a period from 2009 when the group lost its strongholds after the Pakistani military’s operations in Mehsud-controlled areas. 81Khan later split from Bahadar and announced his support for the Pakistani army in 2015. 82Khan’s merger with TTP therefore represents a major blow to the Pakistani army’s efforts to pacify militants and reconcile them to the state. Another example is the LeJ Usman Saifullah Kurd faction that merged into TTP as a group. l

All of this means that the mergers have again presented TTP an opportunity to be the dominant perpetrator of anti-state jihadi violence in Pakistan similar to the position of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. This remains a longstanding objective of the TTP and something its leadership has struggled for since 2010, which Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud reminded TTP commanders about in a November 27, 2020, speech celebrating the last round of mergers. 83Mehsud explained that the jihad in Pakistan would not succeed until all jihadis in Pakistan unite under one flag in fighting against the state, just as the Afghan Taliban has remained united in fighting the United States and its allies over the last two decades.

Section 4: Operational Escalation
The merger process has been followed by a steep increase in attacks carried out by TTP. As already noted, the United Nations stated that the mergers led to a “sharp increase in attacks in the region,” with one member state reporting that “TTP was responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks between July and October 2020.” 84TTP’s higher attack tempo is reflected in its own claims.

The authors have collected a complete database of validly claimed TTP attacks in Pakistan mfrom the start to the end of 2020 based on claims of responsibility issued on the group’s website and through Telegram detailing the location of each attack, the modus operandi, specification of the target, and casualty numbers. To validate the claims, the authors relied on local sources and media reports to confirm that claimed attacks actually took place and were executed by the TTP. Many cross-border attacks are not reported in the media because they usually occur in remote border areas where only security forces are present. In working to verify claims, the authors’ examined TTP propaganda video footage for details about the specific attack, such as location, date, and casualties. A noteworthy challenge is the validation of casualty numbers as the TTP reported casualty numbers usually differ from the figures confirmed by the Pakistani security forces to the media. The casualty count figures in the author’s database are those provided by TTP. Given jihadi terror groups may see it as in their interests to inflate casualty counts, it is possible TTP may have inflated the casualty counts for certain attacks. In coding for the type of target, the authors made their own determination based on the description of the attack by TTP. For the location of the attack, the authors entered into their database the location provided by TTP in its attack claim. The authors are not aware of any instances of other sources contradicting the TTP’s location descriptions.

In total, according to the authors’ dataset, the TTP conducted 149 attacks throughout 2020. (See Figure 1.) But while TTP carried out only 48 attacks from January 1 to July 5, 2020, when the merger process began, they executed 101 attacks from July 6 until December 31, 2020. According to TTP’s own metrics for 2020, the group inflicted appreciably more fatalities after the beginning of the mergers. (See Figure 2.) n

A counterargument to explain the increase in attacks in the post-merger period could be that the pre-merger period covers a large part of the winter season, lasting from November until March in which a downtick in attacks could be expected. Yet this argument is not particularly convincing when data from the winter period 2020 is compared to data from the same period in 2021. For example, TTP carried out 11 attacks in the first three months of 2020 (five attacks in January, two in February, and four in March 2020), while since the beginning of 2021, the group has claimed to have undertaken 61 attacks (17 in January, 15 in February, and 29 attacks in March 2021).

According to the TTP’s claims, the main target of the attacks is the Pakistani army, with 73% (110 attacks) of the attacks in 2020 targeting the army. Other targeted actors include the police, civilians, and security forces. According to the TTP claims, attacks against the army resulted in 179 killings to the army, while the group reported 16 attacks against civilians resulting in 14 fatalities. The list of TTP attacks in 2020 recorded in the authors’ database includes the claimed killing of a provincial political leader of the ruling party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KpK) Haripur district. 85

Another important dimension of the TTP attacks in 2020 is their locations. (See Figure 5.) The TTP attacks were concentrated mainly in five KpK districts (Lower Dir, Swat, and the three newly established tribal districts: Bajaur, South Waziristan, and North Waziristan) rwhere 86% (128 attacks) of all the attacks took place. These areas remain traditional TTP strongholds and share a border with Afghanistan, where the group maintained important safe havens in the past. Almost half of the attacks took place in Bajaur, bordering Afghanistan’s Kunar province.

Over the last decade, Kunar has been a shelter location for TTP and its former splinters, JuA and HuA. 86With North and South Waziristan no longer a safe haven from 2014, Kunar has emerged as the TTP’s command center. The TTP’s long presence in Kunar explains why the adjacent district of Bajaur has been particularly vulnerable to attacks from the group. And with the recent absorption back into the TTP of JuA and HuA, which both have a strong presence in the neighboring Mohmand district, it is possible attacks in Mohmand will increase. Both Bajaur and Mohmand border Kunar and the latter borders the KpK Peshawar district, which previously remained the center of TTP’s brutal attacks. JuA and HuA, then known as TTP Mohmand chapter, has had strong operational networks in Peshawar and claimed several high-profile attacks there before splintering from TTP in 2014. It is possible, the Bajaur-Mohmand axis will in the future be the epicenter of TTP activity.

Another interesting point to highlight is that in 2020, the TTP for the first time since ISK’s emergence in 2014 claimed an attack in the KpK Orakzai tribal district. 87Orakzai was one of TTP’s original strongholds in the years after its establishment and Hakimullah Mehsud was based there for years. 88It was the local leadership of TTP in Orakzai that founded ISKP in late 2014 with almost all of the leading TTP figures from the area joining al-Baghdadi’s group. 89According to local Afghan sources, the TTP attack claim in Orakzai makes it plausible that segments among ISK’s Pakistani fighters are rejoining TTP. 90

Outlook
Unless counterterrorism operations by security forces or other initiatives to prevent recruitment can reverse its momentum, the TTP may once again establish itself as a major threat in Pakistan. Weakened from 2014 onward by infighting, defections, and operations against it, the group under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud appears to have finally seen off the existential challenge posed by ISK. After reabsorbing a number of splinter groups, and addressing internal tensions, the TTP has intensified its campaign of terrorism in Pakistan and is again growing in strength. It has reaffirmed its commitment to a long-haul struggle against the Pakistani state and is attempting to grow and broaden its support base. This has led the TTP to adopt (at least for the time being) a less indiscriminate approach to violence to grow its support. To broaden its support base, it has also attempted to co-opt the grievances of Pashtun and Baluchi ethnic groups. Although most Baloch militants are not motivated by jihadi ideology, the TTP has on multiple occasions endorsed their fight against the state. 91Similarly, the TTP emir has also openly supported the recent Pashtun rights movement known as Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM). 92The TTP’s support for the PTM and Baloch insurgents shows a willingness by the group to co-opt issues to try to grow its support base in Pakistan.

The fact that TTP’s recent consolidation and expansion comes despite continued pressure from the security forces of Afghanistan and Pakistan underlines the significant counterterrorism challenges ahead.

With the mergers into TTP of the JuA, HuA, al-Qa`ida affiliates, and an LeJ faction, it is possible that the TTP will intensify its activities in the urban centers of the country, particularly in Punjab and the provincial capitals of Baluchistan and Sindh-Quetta and Karachi, respectively-where these groups have had strong networks in the past. There is a danger therefore that violence could spread from the traditional strongholds of TTP in the country’s tribal districts to more populated areas, as it did in the past. A case in point appears to be the group’s claimed vehicle-born suicide bombing attack in the parking lot of a luxury hotel in Quetta on April 21, 2021, which it claimed targeted senior security and government officials. The attack killed at least four people and narrowly missed endangering China’s ambassador to Pakistan. According to The Wall Street Journal, “The Chinese ambassador, Nong Rong, was staying at the hotel, which is in a heavily guarded part of the city. He was due to return there from a dinner meeting outside the hotel when the blast occurred, Pakistani officials said.” 93

In the wider region, President Biden’s decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, has deep implications for the threat landscape. 94How events play out in Afghanistan will have an impact on the TTP. If the Afghan Taliban succeeds in obtaining formal power in Kabul after the U.S. withdrawal, TTP stands to benefit, sand the group could help consolidate the Afghan Taliban position in Afghanistan by sending fighters to Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan. In the short term, it is possible that the Afghan Taliban will distance themselves from the TTP in order to improve their international standing and therefore secure and solidify their return to power. In the longer term, and especially if the Taliban are able to once again entrench themselves in power, mutual assistance is likely between the Afghan and Pakistani Talibans.

TTP militants generally represent the segment of Pakistani jihadis who have fought for the rise, expansion, and defense of the Taliban in Afghanistan since the early 1990s and are seen by their Afghan counterparts as legitimate participants in the Afghan conflict. This bond only strengthened after 9/11 when both waged a war against their respective states to punish it for its role in the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, resulting in the collapse of Taliban regime. The majority of TTP leadership and members originate from the Pashtun belt of Pakistan neighboring Afghanistan who share common history, culture, and tribal roots.

With the group launching attacks in Pakistan and with the possibility that it might in the years ahead receive assistance from a government in Kabul controlled by the Taliban, TTP appears to be on the course to reestablishing itself as a serious threat not only to Pakistan but also the security of the region. CTC

Abdul Sayed is an independent researcher on jihadism and 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 organizations and transnational jihadism in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. Twitter: @abdsayedd Tore Hamming holds a PhD in Jihadism from the European University Institute and is a non-resident fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King’s College. Hamming is currently working on several larger projects related to jihadism and prison radicalization. He is the founder of Refslund Analytics. Twitter: @ToreRHamming © 2021 Abdul Sayed, Tore Hamming

Substantive Notes
[a] In May 2019, the Islamic State split its Khorasan province into three with separate provinces established for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

[b] The TTP and its splinters shifted to the Afghan side of the border, escaping the Pakistani military operations in the North Waziristan and Khyber tribal agencies, starting in June and October 2014, respectively. Both areas had been strongholds for TTP on the Pakistani side of the border. The TTP established hideouts in areas of southeastern and eastern Afghanistan bordering these two tribal agencies. Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud in his book, Inqilab-e-Mehsud, provided details about the TTP Waziristan-based groups sheltering in southeastern Afghanistan in the remote areas of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika provinces. In an interview with the authors in March 2021, Pakistani journalist Faizullah Khan, who visited TTP bases in Nangarhar in April 2014 and interviewed its senior leadership in the province, stated that the TTP Swat, Mohmand and Bajaur groups had already established bases in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces’ remote districts before the 2014 military operations in Khyber and Waziristan, which helped them shelter fleeing TTP members from Khyber and North Waziristan. Khan later authored a book about his time spent in TTP bases in Afghanistan, how he and TTP members were arrested by Afghan security forces, and his imprisonment with TTP and al-Qa`ida members in the Nangarhar central prison in Afghanistan. Faizullah Khan, The Durand Line’s Prisoner (Karachi: Zak Books, 2016).

[c] TTP’s attacks have inflicted heavy human and material harm to civilians. This was notwithstanding the fact that TTP stated in its first manifesto and guidelines prepared in October 2010 that attacks should prioritize government, military, security/intelligence agencies and their members, and avoid targeting Muslim brothers and sisters. This manifesto was produced under Hakimullah Mehsud’s instructions and reviewed by al-Qa`ida central leadership, Atiyyatullah al-Libi, and Abu Yahya al-Libi, in December 2010. For details, see “Letter to Hakimullah Mahsud, Leader of the Taliban Movement,” dated December 4, 2010, available at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence website, and Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud [Mehsuds Revolution] (Paktika, Afghanistan: Al-Shahab Publishers, 2017), p. 523. Notwithstanding these first guidelines and other subsequent ‘efforts’ to stem civilian bloodshed, late into the 2010s TTP continued to kill and wound many civilians both in attacks directly targeting them and in attacks on other targets. As outlined later in this article, the group curtailed its violence against civilians only after Noor Wali Mehsud became the TTP emir and published detailed, well-defined attack guidelines for the group members in September 2018. Details of TTP’s previous failed ‘efforts’ to stem civilian bloodshed can be found in Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud.

[d] Some caution is required in interpreting this attack claim data because it is possible COVID-19 had an impact on the number of attacks in 2020.

[e] Pakistani journalist Rifat Ullah Orakzai (who hails from Hafiz Saeed Khan’s home district, Orakzai, and interviewed Khan when he was TTP commander there) told the authors in March 2021 that Khan had been a candidate for succeeding Hakimullah. According to Orakzai, Khan’s failure in becoming a TTP emir was one of the main factors in his defection from TTP into ISK.

[f] Notwithstanding the fact that around mid-2015 TTP issued a religious verdict declaring ISK’s claims to be part of a caliphate to be religiously illegitimate, until the summer of 2020, TTP was generally respectful in its rhetoric toward ISK, which it regarded as a fellow jihadi group despite their disagreements. “The Tihrek Taliban Pakistan religious stance on the caliphate announced by Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, May Allah Protect him,” Umar Media, circa mid-2015.

[g] See footnote C.

[h] The authors’ methodology in collecting and verifying TTP attack claims since January 2020 is outlined in the next section.

[i] According to another account, the unification talks were facilitated by the Haqqani network with al-Qa`ida members being present during the talks. Franz J. Marty, “Spike in Violence Follows Failed Negotiations Between the Pakistani Taliban and Islamabad,” Diplomat, April 3, 2021.

[j] This group is also known as the Shehryar Mehsud group.

[k] It is possible Noor Wali’s success is the result of a more diplomatic approach, but there is insufficient information to make a firm conclusion on this.

[l] The LeJ group as a whole has been considered a natural ally of the Islamic State in Pakistan due to its sectarian focus. Farhan Zahid, “The Islamic State in Pakistan: Growing the Network,” Washington Institute, Policy Analysis, January 30, 2017.

[m] Before locating to Afghanistan, the TTP occasionally claimed attacks inside Afghanistan, most often jointly with the Afghan Taliban. Since the group lost its sanctuaries in Pakistan six years ago, neither the TTP nor any of its splinter groups have claimed an attack inside Afghanistan.

[n] On January 3, 2021, the TTP issued an infographic on all of its operations in 2020. Compared to the authors’ data based on collection of claims of responsibility, the group claimed a total of 177 attacks (contrasting to the authors’ figure of 149 attacks) resulting in 200 fatalities (218 in the authors’ data).

[o] This tally includes attacks attributed in the GTD database exclusively to the TTP. See endnote 60 for further details.

[p] The authors and the GTD take different approaches to data collection. The GTD relies on open-source media reporting while the authors only include attacks claimed by the TTP that they then cross-check against news reports.

[q] The authors’ tally of TTP attacks in 2021 is based solely on TTP infographics. The authors have not verified TTP’s attack claims in 2021.

[r] These were previously part of the tribal areas known as Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).

[s] One caveat, which has been noted by others, is that the terms of a peace settlement in Afghanistan may result in restrictions on TTP’s ability to operate in Afghanistan. Hassan Abbas, “Extremism and Terrorism Trends in Pakistan: Changing Dynamics and New Challenges,” CTC Sentinel 14:2 (2021); Rustam Shah Mohmand, “Why attacks surge in northwest Pakistan,” Arab News, September 24, 2020.

Citations
[1] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, February 2, 2021, p. 16.

[2] Syed Salim Shahzad, Inside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (London: Pluto Press, 2011), pp. 57–60.

[3] Ibid., pp. 3–10.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., pp. 41–47.

[6] Maulana Qasim Khurasani, “From the independence movement to the movement of Taliban in Pakistan,” Ihaye Khelafat, April 2017, pp. 13–14; “History of Tihreak Taliban Pakistan by Umar Khalid Khurasani,” Umar Media, 2012. For an assessment of the TTP soon after its founding, see Hassan Abbas, “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel 1:2 (2008).

[7] Sabrina Tavernise and Waqar Gillani, “Frustrated Strivers in Pakistan Turn to Jihad,” New York Times, February 27, 2010.

[8] For details on Punjabi Taliban, see Mujahid Hussain, Punjabi Taliban: Driving Extremism in Pakistan (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2011) and Hassan Abbas, “Defining the Punjabi Taliban network,” CTC Sentinel 2:4 (2009).

[9] “Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, last modified July 2018.

[10] Daud Khattak, “Whither the Pakistani Taliban: An Assessment of Recent Trends,” New America Foundation, August 31, 2020.

[11] “Country Reports on Terrorism 2019,” U.S. Department of State, 2019.

[13] Ibid.; Chris Woods, Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars (London: Hurst, 2015).

[14] Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Zarb-i-Azb: The ‘War of Survival,’” Dawn, April 10, 2015.

[16] Declan Walsh, Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, and Ismail Khan, “Drone Strikes Are Said to Kill Taliban Chief,” New York Times, November 1, 2013.

[17] “Reasons behind Conflict between Two Taliban Clans in Pakistan,” Alwaght, April 24, 2014.

[18] Sailab Mehsud, “Key group breaks away from TTP,” Dawn, May 29, 2014.

[19] “Letter of Atiyatullah al-Libi to Osama Bin Laden,” dated July 17, 2010, available at the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence website.

[20] Ben Doherty and Matthew Weaver, “Pakistan school attack: political rivals agree anti-terrorism plan,” Guardian, December 23, 2014.

[21] Ahmed Rashid, “How Peshawar massacre changed Pakistan,” BBC, December 13, 2015.

[22] “Afghan Taliban condemn Peshawar school attack,” Dawn, December 17, 2014.

[23] “Al Qaeda-Indian Subcontinent condemns attack on Peshawar school,” Nation, December 21, 2014.

[24] “Jibran Ahmad and Katharine Houreld, Some Pakistan militants denounce school attack, amid national outrage,” Reuters, December 18, 2014.

[25] William Branigin and Sayed Salahuddin, “Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Fazlullah killed in U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, June 15, 2018.

[26] Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud [Mehsuds Revolution] (Paktika, Afghanistan: Al-Shahab Publishers, 2017).

[27] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 16.

[29] “Top Taliban Commander killed in Afghanistan,” Times of Islamabad, December 18, 2020.

[30] Azizullah Khan, “What could be connection between the killing of TTP commanders in Afghanistan and of the rising violence in the Pakistani tribal areas?” BBC Urdu, June 28, 2020.

[31] “Pakistan Taliban confirm killing of two top commanders,” BBC Monitoring, January 20, 2021.

[32] For information on the pressure on ISK, see Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, “Taking Aim: Islamic State Khorasan’s Leadership Losses,” CTC Sentinel 12:8 (2019) and Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, Broken, but Not Defeated: An Examination of State-led Operations against Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015–2018) (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2020).

[33] Tore Refslund Hamming, “The Islamic State 2020: The Year in Review,” Jihadica, December 31, 2020.

[34] Jeff Seldin, “Islamic State Poised for Possible Resurgence in Afghanistan, US Officials Warn,” VOA News, February 9, 2021.

[35] Abdul Sayed and Colin P. Clarke, “The Islamic State in Afghanistan Is Down, but Not Out,” RAND, September 14, 2020.

[36] Bill Roggio, “Pakistani Taliban name Mullah Fazlullah as new emir,” Long War Journal, November 7, 2013.

[37] Tore Refslund Hamming, “Jihadi Politics: Fitna within the Sunni Jihadi movement 2014–2019,” PhD dissertation, European University Institute, October 28, 2020.

[38] Adnan Aamir, “The uncertain fate of Islamic State in Pakistan,” Interpreter, November 7, 2019.

[39] “Bay’ah from the leaders of the mujahideen in Khorasan to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” Wilayat Khorasan, January 10, 2015. Video is available at jihadology.net.

[40] M Ilyas Khan, “Clandestine maneuverings to select new Taliban head,” BBC, November 6, 2013.

[41] Zia ur Rehman, “Leaderless Taliban bicker over new chief,” Friday Times, November 8, 2013.

[42] Farhan Zahid, “The ‘new’ militants,” Dawn, March 4, 2015.

[43] Abdul Sayed, “The Mysterious Case of Shaikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost — The Founder of IS-K,” Militant Leadership Monitor XII:1 (2021).

[44] Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Intra- Jihadist Conflict and Cooperation: Islamic State-Khorasan Province and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 43:12 (2019): pp. 1–22.

[45] Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan: Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad (London: Hurst & Company, 2018), p. 176.

[46] For details on the TTP’s sectarianism, see C. Christian Fair, “Who’s Killing Pakistan’s Shia and Why?” War on the Rocks, May 20, 2014, and also Hussain.

[47] Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud.

[48] Authors’ interview, senior TTP commander, March 2021.

[49] Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud, p. 519.

[50] Authors’ interview, Afghan journalist from Kunar, February 2020.

[51] Umar Khalid Khurasani, “Seekers of the Islamic Caliphate,” Ihaye Khelafat, November 2014, pp. 12–14.

[52] Ehsanullah Ehsan, “The story of the rise and fall of ISIS in Khurasan,” Jihadology, July 2, 2020.

[53] For details, see Salim Safi’s interview on Geo News Jirga program with the former JuA spokesperson Ehsanullah Ehsan (between 9:20–10:00) May 12, 2017. A senior TTP official also confirmed it to the authors in an interview dated March 2021. See also Daniel Milton and Muhammad al-`Ubaydi, “Pledging Bay`a: A Benefit or Burden to the Islamic State?” CTC Sentinel 8:3 (2015).

[54] Hafiz Saeed Khan, “Message to our people in Wilaya Khurasan,” Wilayat Khurasan Media, 2015, available at jihadology.net; Animesh Roul, “Islamic State’s Khorasan Province: A Potent Force in Afghan Jihad,” European Eye on Radicalization, December 14, 2020.

[55] Said Ahmad, “Muslim Dost exposed Daesh group crimes in Afghanistan,” Nunn Asia, October 21, 2015. For details, see Abdul Sayed, “The Mysterious Case of Shaikh Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost — The Founder of IS-K.”

[56] “The TTP statement against the unjust UN report about the TTP,” Umar Media, July 29, 2020.

[57] Tore Refslund Hamming, “Jihadists’ Code of Conduct in the Era of ISIS,” Middle East Institute, Policy Paper, April 2019; Amira Jadoon and Sara Mahmood, “Fixing the Cracks in the Pakistani Taliban’s Foundation: TTP’s Leadership Returns to the Mehsud Tribe,” CTC Sentinel 11:11 (2018).

[58] “Guidelines for the Tehrek Taliban Pakistan Mujahideen,” Umar Media, September 2018.

[59] Arif Hayat and Sirajuddin, “TTP claims responsibility for Peshawar blast; ANP’s Haroon Bilour laid to rest,” Dawn, July 10, 2018.

[60] The authors have only included the attacks attributed in the GTD database exclusively to the TTP and excluded all attacks jointly attributed to TTP and another group/other groups or where the TTP is only suspected of being the perpetrator. A suspected attack is one for which the GTD researchers cannot find any confirmation but see in a source that the TTP is suspected of carrying out the attack.

[61] For the years 2017 to 2019, the authors’ inclusion criteria for attacks targeting civilians were those coded in the GTD database as targeted against any of the following categories: “Private Citizens & Property,” “Educational Institution,” “Journalists and Media,” “Business,” “Religious Figures/Institutions,” and “NGO.” The GTD also includes other categories that can be categorized as civilian, but these were not relevant in the context of the TTP attacks recorded in Pakistan. The authors excluded attacks categorized by GTD as targeting non-civilian targets.

[62] The civilian fatalities catalogued by the authors in this column only include fatalities associated with attacks that targeted the various civilian targets defined in the citation above. The deaths of civilians killed during attacks against non-civilian targets (e.g., military outposts) were not included.

[63] The TTP attacks guidelines was released in September 2018. For this reason, the authors have divided the year 2018 into two periods.

[64] The GTD does not have data listed for 2020. Therefore, for 2020, the metrics are from the authors’ database of TTP attacks.

[65] Hayat and Sirajuddin.

[66] Abbas.

[67] Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud.

[68] For the U.N. report, see “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 16.

[69] “JuA, HuA and other groups allegiance videos and the TTP emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud speech to the allegiance gathering,” Umar Media, August 2020.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid.

[74] For details, see Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud, p. 525.

[75] Ibid., pp. 518–521.

[76] Ibid.

[77] “Leadership statements on the establishment of JuA,” Ihyae Khilafat, November 2014, pp. 22–25.

[78] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “The Significance of Qari Zain’s Assassination in Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel 2:7 (2009).

[79] “Letter of Atiyatullah Al-libi and Abu Yahya Al-libi to the head of Tihreak Taliban Pakistan, Hakimullah Mehsud,” dated December 3, 2010, Combating Terrorism Center website.

[80] Abdul Sayed, “Waziristan Militant Leader Aleem Khan Ustad Joins Tehreek-e-Taliban,” Militant Leadership Monitor XI:11 (2020).

[82] “A North Waziristan militant group announced ending its war, supporting the army for facilitating the return of internally displaced people,” Daily Pakistan (Urdu), March 16, 2015.

[83] For details, see “Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud speech to the allegiance ceremony of Mulawi Aleem Khan Ustad and Commander Umar Azzam,” Umar Media.

[84] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team,” p. 16.

[85] “Senior PTI leader shot dead in Haripur,” Daily Dawn, September 14, 2020.

[86] Zia Khan, “Pakistani spies trace Fazlullah to Kunar province,” Express Tribune, July 25, 2010.

[87] For details, see Abdul Sayed, “For the first time since 2015, TTP claims an attack in Mamozay, Orakzay agency …,” Twitter, December 21, 2020.

[88] “A meeting with Hafidh Saeed Khan,” Umar Media, September 2011.

[89] “Bay’ah from the leaders of the mujahideen in Khorasan to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”

[90] Authors’ interview, senior Afghan journalist based in Kabul, December 2020.

[91] “Shaikh Khalid Haqqani message to the oppressed Baloch people,” Umar Media, February 2014.

[92] Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud, pp. 7–9; “TTP Emir Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud message to the Pakistani people,” Umar Media, February 2019.

[93] Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, “Deadly Blast Hits Pakistan Hotel, Missing China’s Envoy by Perhaps Just Minutes,” New York Times, April 21, 2021 (and updated April 23, 2021); TTP Spokesman Muhammad Khurasani, statement on Umar Media, April 22, 2021; Saeed Shah, “Pakistan Investigates Whether Attack Targeted China’s Ambassador,” Wall Street Journal, April 22, 2021.

[94] “‘It’s Time To End This Forever War.’ Biden Says Forces To Leave Afghanistan By 9/11,” NPR, April 15, 2021.

Originally published at https://ctc.usma.edu on April 27, 2021.

Researcher: Af-Pak and South Asia´s Security and Politics; (Sunni Jihad: AQ, AQIS, ISKP, Taliban/Jihadi groups) (MSc: Pol.Sci) (BSc: Peace & Development; IR)