Pakistan’s Never-ending Battle Against Terrorism

Terrorist attacks will continue to plague the country unless the state takes action against their common denominator: religious extremism.

by Qurat-ul-Ain and Moneeb Mir
In a single day last week, Pakistan’s faced two deadly terrorist attacks, one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the other in Balochistan province. Together, the bombings claimed the lives of around 60 people and injured dozens of others. It provided a tragic bookend to a bloody month: The first week of September also saw the Chitral incursion, in which a contingent of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters crossed into Lower Chitral and attacked two military checkposts, resulting in casualties on both sides. Before that, the month of August was hailed as the deadliest in Pakistan since November 2014. By 2015, Pakistan was able to bring a halt to years of terrorism after conducting full-fledged military operations. The recent reinvigoration of terrorism in Pakistan has often been blamed on the return to power of the Afghan Taliban across the border. However, terrorism in Pakistan also reflects a deep-rooted ideological problem, which needs to be understood if the country is to fully curtail the violence. Pakistan’s very inception was linked to communal thinking, as a result of which some factions of the post-colonial religious structures developed a strong exclusionary mindset. This was exploited during the Cold War times when, at the behest of the United States, groups of Mujahideen were groomed to fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the name of religion. This phenomenon morphed some factions of religious fundamentalist groups into militarized units, beginning a trend that was to be followed by other groups in the years to come. Ironically, the United States itself became a target for these military groups. During the U.S. War on Terror, and the accompanying invasion of Afghanistan, groups like the TTP – the main architects of past and present waves of terrorism in Pakistan – constructed their narrative by appealing to religious sentiments. The TTP positioned themselves as valiant opponents of the United States, a global superpower, and its allies, championing an Islamic system as the solution to all problems. They unleashed gruesome acts of violence against the Pakistani state and society for years, culminating in the 2014 massacre of over 130 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
That horrific attack galvanized the state response. The Pakistani military aggressively attacked the TTP in its strongholds in the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and the group was thought to be neutralized  for a time. Yet in 2020, as the Afghan Taliban were gaining ground in Afghanistan, the TTP began to show signs of resurgence. In response, the Pakistani state went into talks with the TTP, which proved to be futile due to the two sides’ irreconcilable interests. The TTP should be perceived as a part and parcel of a broader extremist mindset that has plagued the country for decades. Unless that root cause is addressed, the TTP will always possess ample potential to reemerge from seeming defeat, even if it takes different possible forms. Pakistan: A Battleground for Militant Groups  The late Rahimullah Yusufzai, a distinguished Pakistani political and security analyst, posited that the TTP was, upon its inception in 2007, essentially “an amalgamation of various like-minded militias.” Over the years, the TTP has on multiple occasions splintered for various reasons, with its offshoots frequently operating autonomously. The resurgence witnessed in 2020 was not primarily a result of the group’s reemergence as a unified and cohesive entity. Instead, it represented a regrouping of disparate “like-minded” splinter factions, bolstered by the inclusion of established sectarian terrorist organizations that exert influence within Pakistan’s heartland. This resurgence was orchestrated under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, the new head of the TTP, who is widely regarded as the principal architect behind its revival. Notably, Mehsud has publicly expressed support for the Afghan Taliban. The resurgence of groups like the TTP compels us to scrutinize the enduring sway of their ideological underpinnings. Extremism in Pakistan exhibits a diverse array of dynamics, and it is imperative to recognize that the concern isn’t solely rooted in Deobandi or Salafi extremism. Barelvi extremism deserves equal attention. A prominent illustration of this is the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a unique religious-political party in the country. What sets the TLP apart is its remarkable ability to mobilize supporters, functioning more like a pressure group with considerable influence on the nation’s political landscape.
The TLP holds distinct interpretations and understandings of Shariah, or Islamic law, setting it apart from the ideologies of groups like the TTP or Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan. Indeed, they often target each other for criticisms or attacks. However, the common thread linking these three entities is their capacity to attract adherents to their extremist ideologies, often leading to large-scale violence. Together, they form a formidable trio with substantial ideological support along religious and sectarian lines within Pakistani society. Extremist narratives in Pakistan offer a rich diversity that facilitates their widespread dissemination, making them particularly appealing to a broad youth audience. The absence of effective counterextremism measures in Pakistan poses a significant threat, plunging the nation into a dangerous cycle of extremist-driven terrorism. This situation could have dire consequences for Pakistan’s internal security. The attacks on September 29 took place in districts that have witnessed sectarian bloodshed in the past. Experts believe that cadres of former sectarian outfits have joined the ranks of the ISKP, the group that is believed to be behind the recent attacks. Currently, Pakistan confronts a dual security challenge marked by the reemergence of the TTP and a surge in attacks orchestrated by the ISKP. These simultaneous upticks in activity by both groups are posing a significant threat to Pakistan’s national security.
What has now become evident is that fighters from these groups have shifted allegiances between them – even though the TTP and ISKP have distinct religious and political ideologies. This indicates that the specific group names and emblems might matter less than the underlying extremist ideologies that drive these militants.

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In other words, even if Pakistan were to decisively defeat one of these groups, it’s likely that its fighters and funders would simply shift to another group, in an endless game of whack-a-mole. Time for Decisive Counterextremism Measures With that in mind, there is an urgent need for Pakistan to tackle the root cause of these groups’ attractiveness. One of the primary challenges for the state lies in countering these ideological narratives and their appeal to the masses. Unfortunately, there is a notable absence of widespread alternative discourse, especially one that might influence the youth. The state has been unsuccessful in promoting religious harmony and tolerance among sects, religions, and even differing ideologies. A constructive and inclusive approach toward diverse beliefs and perspectives has never been established. The lack of emphasis on counterextremism, coupled with the failure to promote religious harmony and tolerance, creates a fertile ground for the clash of extremist sentiments, potentially leading to an upsurge in terrorist activities within the country. The state has to realize that the groups like the TTP, TLP, and ISKP all provide platforms to people with extremist tendencies. This ideological magnetism serves to provide people with a framework for interpreting the world around them. Military operations are necessary to fight the menace of terrorism; however, concrete counterextremism measures also need to be taken to foster societal harmony among distinct religious thoughts, sects and varying ideologies.
Otherwise, the TTP, which is really an umbrella organization for various armed extremist groups, has the potential to continue to manifest in different ways – by rebranding under different names and symbols in the future – even if the current organization is defeated or dissolved.

Qurat-ul-Ain Shabbir and Moneeb Mir

Qurat-ul-Ain Shabbir and Moneeb Mir are researchers at Centre for International Strategic Studies, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Pakistan (CISS-AJK). Both authors are interested in comprehensive security, with a special focus on climate change and internal security of Pakistan.

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