TTP, AQ, ISIS Nexus and Its Impact on Regional Security

TTP, AQ, ISIS Nexus and Its Impact on Regional Security

Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is an umbrella organization of various religious militant groups located along the Pak-Afghan border area with a strong presence in the former tribal areas of Pakistan. It was founded in 2007 in North Waziristan of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud, in response to Pakistan’s military operation against Al-Qaeda (AQ) militants in tribal areas. It draws its ideological guidance from AQ and maintains ties with Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and AQ, sharing money, explosives, and bomb squad personnel.  John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism adviser, said: “It’s a group that is closely allied with al-Qaeda. They train together, they plan together, they plot together. They are almost indistinguishable.” This article explores the nexus of TTP, AQ, and ISIS and its impact on regional security.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

The main objective of the TTP is resistance to the Pakistani state. It aims to overthrow the government by waging a terrorist campaign against its armed forces and the state. It has conducted the highest number of suicide attacks in Pakistan and claimed responsibility for terrorist incidents in Pakistan, including terrorist attacks on armed forces installations, an attack on Karachi’s international airport, and the massacre at the Army Public School in Peshawar that killed more than a hundred children. Its activities are financed through extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and financial aid from hostile intelligence agencies.

As per media reports, during the year 2008, TTP Ameer Baitullah Mehsud met with Ayman al-Zawahiri (AQ) in South Waziristan and initiated close ties of TTP with AQ. Before this, the Pakistani Taliban had close ties with Tehreek Taliban Afghanistan (TTA).  Daniel Benjamin, the ambassador at large for counterterrorism, said at a US State Department briefing on 1st September 2010, “The T.T.P and Al Qaeda have a symbiotic relationship: T.T.P draws ideological guidance from Al Qaeda, while Al Qaeda relies on the T.T.P for safe havens in the Pashtun areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border. This cooperation gives T.T.P access to Al Qaeda’s global terrorist network and the operational experience of its members. Given the proximity of the two groups and the nature of their relationship, T.T.P is a force multiplier for Al Qaeda”.

After years of military operations by the Pakistani military and leadership crises amongst its different factions, TTP was forced to leave Pakistan’s tribal areas and started operating from the Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, Paktika, Gardaiz, Nangarhar, and Paktia to launch cross-border attacks in Pakistan.

The TTP lacks a central command and is a loose coalition of various militant groups, united by hostility towards the Pakistan Government. After the death of Baitullah Mehsud, it faced a leadership tussle on numerous occasions and, as a result, was divided into different factions. In 2013, the TTP’s leadership shifted outside the Mehsud tribe to Mullah Fazlullah from the Swat District. Fazlullah, who led the Swat and Malakand chapters of TTP, was considered an outsider by many of the tribal TTP leaders, thus augmenting divisions amongst different factions of the TTP. Consequently, a major split in the TTP occurred in 2014 and led to a splinter group under Omar Khalid Khorosani, who supported hardline elements of the TTP from four of the seven tribal districts.

Mullah Fazlullah died in June 2018 in Kunar, Afghanistan, and was replaced by Mufti Noor Wali, a member of the Mehsud tribe and a native of South Waziristan. Mufti Noor Wali was heavily involved in the TTP’s operations in Karachi. Thus, after years of factionalism and infighting, TTP, under the leadership of Noor Wali Mehsud, underwent reorganization and reunification.

Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda (AQ) is an Arabic word that means: “The Base.” It is a Sunni-based multi-national terrorist organization founded in 1988 by Osama Bin Laden, operating as a network of Islamist extremists. It has mounted attacks on non-military and military targets in various countries, including the US Embassy Bombing of Kenya and Tanzania, the September 11 attacks, and the Bali bombing.

The United States government responded to the September 11 attacks by launching the War on Terror, which sought to destroy Al-Qaeda and its allies. However, the deaths of key leaders of AQ, including Osama Bin Laden, have led to its operations shifting from a top-down organization and planning of attacks to the planning of attacks carried out by a loose network of associated groups of lone-wolf operators. Al-Qaeda characteristically organizes suicide attacks and the simultaneous bombing of several targets. Following the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, the group has been led by Egyptian Ayman Al-Zawahiri. As of 2021, it has suffered from the deterioration of central command in its regional operations.

Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), originated in 1999. Its Arabic acronym is Daesh. It is a militant terrorist group that follows a Salafi Jihadist doctrine. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi founded ISIL. It gained global prominence in 2014 after its victory over Iraqi security forces, followed by its capture of Mosul and the Sinjar massacre.

ISIL pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda and participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the 2003 invasion of Iraq by US and western forces. In June 2014, the group proclaimed itself a worldwide Caliphate and began referring to itself as the Islamic State. It claimed religious, political, and military authority over Muslims worldwide. In Syria, ISIS conducted ground attacks on both government forces and opposition forces. ISIL is believed to be operational in 18 countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.

According to a United Nations report, after losing territory and power in Syria and Iraq, ISIS is outsourcing its deadly attacks on the U.S.-backed government in Afghanistan to local splinter groups, including the Pakistani Taliban, because it lacks manpower. In addition, ISIS’s core leadership continues to send funds to TTP in Afghanistan, despite its depleted resources in Iraq and Syria. The report claims that without those funds, ISIS will cease to exist in Afghanistan.

According to Borhan Osman, a senior analyst at International Crisis Group (ICG), the Islamic State (IS) fighters that started the ISIS Khorasan branch were TTP militants settled in Afghanistan. Several TTP members fled Pakistan to seek refuge in Afghanistan due to military operations conducted by Pakistan security forces. In Afghanistan, the National Directorate of Security (NDS) tried to persuade them to fight against Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban. However, after a series of events, ISIS-K turned hostile towards the Afghan government and locals.

Difference between TTA and TTP

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA) share a common appellation “Taliban,” but TTP is not a subsidiary of TTA as commonly misinterpreted. Although predominantly Pashtun, the TTA and TTP differ greatly in their history, leadership, and goals. In 2009, the Pakistani Taliban leaders set aside their differences to counter foreign forces in Afghanistan and pledged their allegiance to Mullah Omar. However, this unity was short-lived. An Afghan Taliban spokesman told The New York Times: “We don’t like to be involved with them, as we have rejected all affiliation with Pakistani Taliban fighters … We have sympathy for them as Muslims, but besides that, there is nothing else between us.”

The TTP has almost exclusively targeted elements of the Pakistani state, whereas TTA historically has relied on support from Pakistan and has not targeted the Pakistani state. TTA Ameer Mullah Omar requested TTP to stop attacks inside Pakistan. Many Afghan Taliban officials resent TTP’s violent campaign against Pakistan.

Indian and Afghanistan Intelligence Involvement

Pakistani military and civilian leadership have repeatedly alleged that the Indian intelligence agency RAW funded and trained TTP members using a network of Indian consulates in Afghanistan along the Pakistani border.  Indian consulates and TTP terrorists, and the Pak-Afghan border point towards a close nexus of RAW operatives and TTP. Moreover, such a large militant network cannot survive without the financial support of external actors.

Afghanistan has always been a safe ‘sanctuary’ for TTP. Mullah Fazlullah and his followers lived thereafter in 2009. In 2012, United States military and intelligence officials admitted that Mullah Fazlullah and his followers lived in Kunar and Nuristan province of Afghanistan. In 2013, the United States military captured senior TTP leader Latif Mehsud from an Afghan Army and intelligence convoy. The Afghan convoy guarded Latif Mehsud and took him to the National Directorate of Security (NDS) headquarters. They were intercepted by the U.S. military in Logar Province of Afghanistan. The head of NDS, Asadullah Khalid, posted a tweet claiming responsibility for the TTP attack on Pakistan Air Force Badaber camp in 2015.  His claim further highlights NDS’s support of TTP. In 2016, Latif Mehsud posted a public video confession in which he claimed that Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies were responsible for supporting the TTP and other militant groups against Pakistan.

TTP nexus with Sunni Sectarian Organizations

Sunni sectarian terrorist organizations mainly comprise Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and Jayesh-e-Muhammad (JeM) and their splinter groups. LeJ is understood to have close ties with the TTP and be a part of the Punjabi Taliban network. Its principal objective is to fight Shia influence in Pakistan. They are involved in various terrorist activities against Shias in Pakistan. TTP and LeJ nexus enabled TTP to conduct terrorist attacks in different urban cities of Pakistan with the administrative and logistic support of the LeJ network spread across Pakistan.

Military Operations

Operation Zarb-e-Azb & Operation Radd-Ul-Fasaad

Operation Zarb-e-Azb was launched on 15 June 2014 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the FATA. The purpose of the operation was to target the TTP militants in North Waziristan. As a result, most of the North Waziristan agency was cleared of militants, except a few pockets and sleeper cells. Subsequently, the operation was extended to all of Pakistan. After the launching of Zarb-e-Azb, 2015 was the first year with a reduced level of violence in Pakistan.

Operation Radd-Ul-Fasaad was launched on 22 February 2017, after a series of attacks conducted by Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) in the country at the beginning of 2017. This operation is not confined to one area but is spread across the country.  The operation is aimed at eliminating the threat of terrorism and at consolidating the gains of Operation Zarb-e-Azb. It is further aimed at ensuring the security of Pakistan’s borders with fencing of the Pak-Afghan border. Radd-Ul-Fasaad is focusing on “intelligence-based operations with coordinated raids,” mostly conducted by Rangers and Police.

Impact on Pakistan’s Security

Afghanistan

During the first quarter of 2021, United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) documented 1,783 civilian casualties (573 killed and 1,210 injured). The number of civilians killed and injured increased by 29 percent compared with the first quarter of 2020. UNAMA also documented a 38 percent increase in civilian casualties six months after the start of the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in September 2020.

The main factor contributing to Afghanistan’s security situation will be a fight between the Afghan Government and the Taliban to get hold of territory after President Biden’s planned withdrawal of U.S. troops by September 2021. It may also lead to the Afghan state’s quick collapse and a new phase in its civil war. Furthermore, ISIS and AQ may increase their terrorist activities in Afghanistan after US troop withdrawal even though the main force of ISIS comes from TTP, supported by the Afghan Government and NDS for years. It is also evident from US state department Spokesperson Ned Price remarks in Washington on 10 May 2021: “The United States has urged the Taliban and the Afghan government to engage seriously in the ongoing peace process to prevent Islamic State militants from further aggravating an already tense situation in the war-ravaged country.” This signifies that ISIS will become a major threat to Afghanistan security, and it needs to be neutralized immediately by the Afghan Government with the support of the Afghan Taliban.

Pakistan

Reunification of Splinter Groups of TTP

In July 2020, the TTP announced that the Hakimullah Mehsud Group under Mukhlis Yar and Amjad Farouqi group (affiliated with al-Qaeda) had joined the TTP. Subsequently, the Usman Saifullah Kurd group of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, under Maulvi Khush Muhammad Sindhi, also pledged allegiance to TTP Ameer, Noor Wali Mehsud. In August 2020, TTP announced that Jamaat-ul-Ahrar and Hizbul Ahrar had formally rejoined the TTP to consolidate their efforts against Pakistani security personnel, with Noor Wali Mehsud retaining leadership TTP.

According to the UN report, TTP oversaw a reunification of splinter groups in Afghanistan due to mediation by Al-Qaeda- a development that is expected to increase the threat in the region, especially against Pakistan.

TTP Violence Potential in Pakistan

In the aftermath of the reunification of different splinter groups and due to TTP –AQ nexus in Afghanistan, TTP will make an all-out effort to launch multiple suicidal attacks in metropolitan cities of Pakistan with the support of Sunni Sectarian organization Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). They will also target the Shia community across the country and especially Hazaras in Quetta.

The surge in terrorist incidents observed in 2020 has not only continued, but it has increased significantly during the year 2021, at least in terms of attacks claimed by TTP. In the first two months of 2021 alone, TTP claimed at least thirty-two attacks, most of which occurred in tribal areas, while a few occurred in urban areas. This surge in TTP terrorist activities suggests that it is eager to consolidate its base and reinvigorate its violent campaign. Furthermore, in April 2021, the TTP claimed a suicide attack on Serena Hotel, Quetta, indicating close cooperation and support to TTP by the Baloch militant organization, thus expanding TTP terrorist activities beyond KPK and tribal areas. It may be remembered here that close nexus existed between Baloch militant organizations and TTP for more than a decade now due to the presence of Baloch and TTP terrorists along the Pak-Afghan border under the support of RAW and NDS.  Furthermore, present TTP Ameer Noor Wali Mehsud remained involved in Karachi terrorist activities, so TTP will also endeavor to support Baloch separatist organizations to target Karachi. Moreover, as Operation Radd-Ul-Fasaad focused on “Intelligence-Based operations with coordinated raids” mostly conducted by Police, TTP  appeared to make the police its main target. Thus more terrorist attacks on the Police force may continue during the year 2021.

Although the Successes of Operation Zarb-e Azb and Operation Rad ul Fasad have ensured the prevention of the safe heaven of TTP and its affiliate’s religious terrorist organizations from tribal regions, and TTP threat remains limited at present. However, TTP efforts to regain its bases in North Waziristan indicate early signs of an attempted comeback which warrant a more serious response by the Pakistan Security establishment.

Moreover, US troop withdrawal from Afghanistan may increase instability in Afghanistan, which will produce spillover effects – increases in refugee flows and the heightened risk of cross-border terrorism. However, after completing the Pak-Afghan border, TTP capabilities to launch cross-border attacks will be adversely affected.

Response

US and NATO

After the withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan, TTP nexus with AQ and ISIS will emerge stronger. Therefore, it will pose a serious security threat to the region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. US state office remarked that TTA and the Afghan Government should combine efforts against ISIS to point towards this emerging threat. US and NATO should also exert pressure on the Afghan Government and NDS to stop supporting and providing safe havens to TTP as it is the main force of ISIS and thus harming the security situation of the whole region.

Pakistan

Operations against TTP and its Alliance Organizations

Operations against TTP should gain momentum to avoid the implications of reunifying its splinter groups and avert their safe-heavens in tribal areas. Moreover, intelligence-based operations (IBOs) should be conducted against Jehadi and Sectarian organizations to break their nexus across Pakistan and dismantle their support network in different cities. Furthermore, operations against Baloch militant organizations should also continue to break their nexus with TTP and capabilities to attack more terrorist attacks with coordinated efforts.

Completion of Fencing along Pak-Afghan Border

In the aftermath of US and NATO troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, fencing along the Pak-Aghan border has become important. It should be expedited and completed immediately to stop cross-border terrorism from the militant organizations operating from Afghanistan. In addition, fencing at Pak-Afghan borders will decrease TTP capability to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistani territory.

Diplomatic Relations with Afghanistan and India

Pakistan must continue its diplomatic efforts to improve relations with Afghanistan and India by supporting countries like China, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Improved relations with neighboring countries will have a positive impact on Pakistan’s security situation. Pakistan should continue to play its role in Afghanistan’s peace process.

Conclusion

After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, TTP, AQ, and ISIS will emerge stronger in Afghanistan due to likely civil war and instability in Afghanistan. After TTP emerges as a stronger organization, Pakistan may witness a surge of terrorist incidents in 2021. Furthermore, if military operations against TTP are not intensified in tribal regions and IBOs against Sectarian and Baloch militants in urban cities, the surging trend of terrorist incidents may continue, and the security situation may further deteriorate in Pakistan.

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