Pakistan has witnessed 18 suicide bombings this year, surpassing 15 in 2022 as militant outfits exploit the country’s vulnerabilities.
On Sunday, 30 July, a suicide bomber killed at least 54 people and wounded nearly 200 others at a political rally in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Malakand Division, bordering Afghanistan. The event was for Muslim cleric Fazlur Rehman of the hard-line Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), a religio-political party, a member of the government’s ruling coalition and a longtime supporter of the Taliban. Rehman was not present, but the party’s Khar Ameer Maulana Ziaullah and his 22-year-old son were among those killed.
The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP), a regional affiliate of the main Islamic State organisation, claimed responsibility for the assault, through its Amaq News Agency channel. The attack was part of the group’s ongoing war against the democratic system, which it believes contradicts Sharia law. Although it may seem odd for an Islamist extremist group to target a party that shares similar ideologies, the reality is that the ISKP is more fanatical in its outlook than the Afghan Taliban and their allies. It has a history of political assassinations for not instilling “a strict enough interpretation” of Islamic rules.
Pakistan’s then Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned those responsible as terrorists who “targeted those who speak for Islam, the Quran and Pakistan.” “The terrorists are enemies of Pakistan, we will eliminate them from the face of existence,” he added.
Exactly a month later, a “motorcycle-borne suicide bomber exploded himself on a military convoy” in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bannu. Nine soldiers including Naib Subedar Sanobar Ali were killed and five others injured. This was the biggest single-day terror death toll that the military has seen. Prior to this, ten soldiers died in a “fire raid” in Balochistan’s Kech area last February.
PM Anwaarul Haq Kakar condemned the attack and called such acts “utterly reprehensible” and said, “Pakistan stands resolute against such terror”.
The latest incident, on 6 September, was a large-scale cross-border incursion where a large band of Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP) militants reportedly crossed over and attacked Pakistani positions in Torkham, Chitral before being pushed back into Afghanistan. Chitral lies in a strategically sensitive area—bordering Afghanistan and separated from Tajikistan by the Wakhan Corridor. China’s Xinjiang is also in the vicinity.
The JUI-F is a leading Islamist political party in Pakistan with a strong presence across the Pashtun belt and border regions. Much of the party’s support comes from connections to Pakistan’s network of Deobandi madrassas.
Analysts say the local leadership often echoes the Taliban’s views, irrespective of the party’s central policy.
In Bajaur, leaders have established strong connections with the Afghan Taliban in Kunar and Nangarhar, consequently becoming targets of the ISKP.
JUI-F leadership has become the focus of targeted killings by militant outfits critical of their focus on electoral politics instead of supporting Jihadist groups.
Last April, the ISKP issued a series of fatwas allowing the assassinations of JUI-F religious scholars and activists. In July, JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman in a press briefing in Peshawar disclosed that eighteen party workers were killed in Bajaur in recent years. He refrained from identifying the perpetrators responsible.
JUI-F & Taliban
The ISKP regards the JUI-F as the Taliban’s political wing in Pakistan, believing them to be closely aligned. For decades, Pashtun scholars and leaders in border districts have maintained strong connections with the Taliban movement.
Many students from Afghan provinces who studied in Bajaur’s madrassas now reportedly hold significant positions in the Taliban administration. A considerable number of individuals from Bajaur have been active in Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion, further influencing regional dynamics.
Among those appointed to key positions was Haji Usman Turabi, from Bajaur’s Mamond area. He was appointed the Governor of Kunar in August 2021. While he was replaced a month later, under him, the Taliban initiated several operations to eliminate ISKP militants in Kunar. In retaliation, the ISKP targeted Taliban sympathisers, resulting in the killings of JUI-F religious scholars. In April this year, he was reportedly targeted in a gun attack that killed a guard and injured another aide.
Islamic State-Khorasan Province
ISKP’s overarching strategy includes local and global objectives. In a 2015 video series, its media office declared “There is no doubt that Allah the Almighty blessed us with jihad in the land of Khorasan since a long time ago, and it is from the grace of Allah that we fought any disbeliever who entered the land of Khorasan. All of this is for the sake of establishing the Sharia.” “Know that the Islamic Caliphate is not limited to a particular country. These young men will fight against every disbeliever, whether in the West, East, South, Or North.”
The ISKP seeks to establish a Caliphate in South and Central Asia, governed by Sharia law, which will expand as Muslims from across the world join. It disregards international borders and envisions transcending nation-states like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Its primary objective is to thwart the Taliban’s efforts to fulfil its promises to Islamist supporters and the Afghan people. The group has been targeting Taliban fighters and international entities including China, Russia, and Pakistan within Afghanistan. These attacks aim to create tensions and complicate the Taliban’s relations with neighbouring countries.
The sustained attacks and the latest bombings indicate that the conflict has entered Pakistan with greater intensity.
There have been 18 suicide bombings this year, surpassing 15 in 2022. In addition to the ISKP, other groups including the TTP are also active here. Violence escalated after a cease-fire between the TTP and the government broke down in November 2022. In January, 74 people were killed in a suicide bombing at a Peshawar mosque. A similar incident occurred less than a month later, when 101 individuals were killed in another bombing inside a high-security compound.
The TTP is exploiting Pakistan’s vulnerabilities with regard to territory, resources, and support base. Recent attacks in Balochistan’s Zhob and Sherani districts, along with the large scale intrusion into Chitral, are components of a broader strategy. Al-Qaeda apparently had an eye on the region to establish a new base for supporting terrorist movements in the region, China included.
The fourteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the UN Security Council’s 1988 Taliban Sanctions Committee—released in June—noted that the “range of terrorist groups has greater freedom of manoeuvre under the Taliban de facto authorities”. “There are indications that Al-Qaeda is rebuilding operational capability, that TTP is launching attacks into Pakistan with support from the Taliban, that groups of foreign terrorist fighters are projecting threat across Afghanistan’s borders and that the operations of ISIL-K are becoming more sophisticated and lethal (if not more numerous)”.
Distinctions between Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, including TTP and ISKP, are sometimes fuzzy and there is a tendency for people to gravitate towards the most dominant. Terrorist outfits use attacks and bombings to “burnish their credentials” and attract recruits.
According to social media reports, a little-known group called Lashkar-i-Sufyan Karvan has claimed responsibility for the Bannu attack. Though this group may be unknown, it has been linked to the Hafiz Gul Bahadur outfit, which has a reputation for militant violence and is part of the TTP conglomerate. It is not unusual for fighters to adopt new names for their groups. Success lies in going after key individuals and dismantling terrorist infrastructure. There is no doubt that militants have reportedly had access to sophisticated US equipment abandoned in Afghanistan
A report released in July by the think tank Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies said the first half of this year witnessed a steady and alarming rise in terror and suicide attacks, claiming the lives of 389 people across the country.
Analysis reveals that terrorists have a wide footprint across KP and Northern Balochistan, demonstrating freedom to act across extensive geographic spaces.
Historically, the frontier lands in Afghanistan and Pakistan have witnessed centuries of violence. Today, another generation risks life and limb as the region remains in the spotlight.
The fact is that these groups, whether the ISKP, TTP, Al Qaeda or the Taliban, have thrived in a jihadist ecosystem created and sustained by Pakistan’s Army. There can be no distinction between terrorists and unless there’s a serious attempt to eliminate all manifestations of terrorism, there can’t be a solution to such attacks. With Pakistan’s economy in dire straits, institutional cracks are visible both politically and in the Army, and the challenges are immense. Eager to see the Taliban take control in Afghanistan, Pakistan now grapples with unmet expectations. Two years on, issues like cross-border terrorism remain unresolved and pose significant risks.
General Asim Munir expressed concern over terrorist presence in Afghanistan and said that Pakistan expected the Afghan interim government to keep terrorism off its soil. Ironically, Pakistan does not apply the same rules when it harbours terrorists against India.
What is of grave concern is reports emanating from the UN regarding the large number of weapons left behind by the US in Afghanistan in the aftermath of their chaotic withdrawal. These pose a “serious threat in conflict zones and neighbouring countries.”
Pakistan is an unstable nuclear-armed state next to a country under the control of a terrorist organisation with deep linkages to various Pakistani elements. The ensuing instability can have an adverse effect on India in case of a spillover. It is imperative to guard against attempts of subversion by jihadist organisations.
The surge in attacks points to the reality as far as bilateral ties are concerned; there is no doubt that relations are highly dysfunctional.