THE Peshawar school massacre points to the surfacing of a new generation of Islamist militants in Pakistan. The country, in the last 13 years, has suffered more than 13,721 terrorist incidents (as per the National Counter Terrorism Authority) which left 56,156 dead and more than 200,000 critically wounded. Yet by far, the Peshawar school bloodbath left the deepest scar on the hearts of Pakistanis. The gloves are now off.
Pakistan’s plethora of Islamist terrorist groups can broadly be classified under two broad categories: the ‘old’ groups; and the new and nascent outfits.
The old groups were established during the Afghan war (1979-89). Almost all of them are the products of Operation Cyclone — the biggest-ever covert operation in the history of the American CIA — and remained involved against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.
The Punjab-based Afghan Mujahideen-turned-Kashmiri Islamist groups such as Harkatul Mujahideen (HuM), and Harkatul Jihad-i-Islami (HuJI), as well as sectarian outfits such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ), known for its anti-Shia activities, can be placed under this category. Other groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Harkatul Mujahideen al-Alami broke off from HuM, the 313 Brigade came out of HuJI, and Al Qanun and Al Mansur came out of the largely anti-India and hitherto ‘peaceful’ Lashkar-e-Taiba after the commencement of the ‘global war on terror’.
The splintering has continued within these breakaway groups also; for example, numerous splinter groups have split from LJ during the last 10 years, making the law-enforcement agencies’ job even more difficult.
The younger generation of jihadis is more ruthless.
The case of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is unique. Unlike its predecessor urban-based jihadi organisations (HuM, HuJI, JeM and LJ), the TTP was formed in the tribal areas of Pakistan and provided safe havens to Al Qaeda operatives on the run. Apart from these principal violent non-state actors (both insurgents and terrorists) there are more than 50 proscribed Islamist groups actively engaged in terrorism in all four provinces of Pakistan, as well as the Islamabad Capital Territory, the tribal areas and Gilgit-Baltistan, according to the Ministry of Interior’s list of banned organisations.
During the last 13 years of Islamist insurgency most of these ‘old’ terrorist groups have jumped on the bandwagon of Al Qaeda Central (aka AQ Core) based in the tribal belt where challenging the writ of the state is concerned.
But the changing face of the Islamist insurgency is now represented by a range of new and emerging groups. Most TTP leaders have either been killed during operations, in drone attacks by the CIA, or have been arrested by the Afghan security forces during the last five years. The US government, under the cover of the Authorised Use of Military Force (AUMF since Sept 14, 2001) in the last five years has managed to kill two TTP emirs (Baitullah Mehsud in 2009 and Hakeemullah Mehsud in 2013). Pakistani and Afghan forces have captured Faqir Mohammad and Latif Mehsud.
The vacuum thus created is being filled by a younger, more brutal and ruthless generation of jihadis. They are more lethal as they are equipped with newer approaches for planning and executing terrorist attacks.
The new leadership positions are filled by commanders like Umar Mansur (the man responsible for the APS carnage). Young and ruthless commanders such as Said Mehsud alias Sajna, Shahryar Mehsud, Adnan Rashid, and Mangal Bagh also fall into this category of ‘new’ militants.
The looming danger for Pakistan becomes more worrisome when this new generation is found heading straight into the willing embrace of the self-styled Islamic State. Recently, TTP (Fazlullah) spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid pledged allegiance to IS ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. He was followed by Hafiz Quran Dolat, the TTP chief in Kurram Agency; Gul Zaman, the TTP chief in Khyber Agency; Mufti Hassan, the TTP chief in Peshawar; and Khalid Mansoor, the TTP head in Hangu. The emir of IS’s Pakistan chapter, Hafiz Saeed Khan (formerly TTP commander for Orakzai Agency) also belongs to this newer generation of militants. Saeed is known for his hard-line views in the jihadi circles of Pakistan.
The icing on the cake came when Al Qaeda’s emir Ayman Al Zawahiri appointed Asim Umar as emir of Al Qaeda in the Indian subcontinent. An accomplished jihadi known for his eccentric messianic beliefs, Umar has authored four books about the coming of the messiah and Dajjal.
Considering the already dilapidated state of affairs, the surfacing of this younger generation of terrorists in Pakistan is a matter of serious concern. This merciless group of fighters is capable of creating such havoc that it will make the acts of violence committed by their ‘seniors’ pale by comparison. The Peshawar attack was only a bitter foretaste of things to come.
Security policymakers in Pakistan must wake up to this danger and devise a concrete counterterrorism strategy to combat this new generation of Islamist fighters.
Published in Dawn March 4th , 2015