Rising terrorism in Pakistan may destabilize regional security

January 2023 was Pakistan’s deadliest month for terrorism in five years, and experts believe that the situation could continue to deteriorate.

 People stand amid the rubble, following a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan February 1, 2023.  (photo credit: REUTERS/FAYAZ AZIZ)
People stand amid the rubble, following a suicide blast in a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan February 1, 2023.
(photo credit: REUTERS/FAYAZ AZIZ)

An uptick in terror attacks in Pakistan, especially near the Afghan border, is causing alarm and fears of increased regional instability.

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The Peshawar mosque suicide bombing in late January was just one of the recent lethal terror attacks in Pakistan. Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, a splinter group that broke away from the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Deadly attacks

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has said that the attack, which killed 101 and injured at least 225, was in response to the killing of Omar Khalid Khorasani, one of the founders of both the TTP and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

Less than a year earlier, in March 2022, a suicide bomber targeted a Shiite mosque in Peshawar, killing 63 people and injuring more than 200. The attack was one of the worst that Peshawar had seen since December 2014, when TTP terrorists stormed the city’s Army Public School and killed more than 150 people, most of them children, in the world’s fifth-deadliest school massacre.

Peshawar, located in Pakistan’s northwest and close to the border with Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s sixth most populous city.

 Police officers carry the coffin of Zeeshan, who along with others was killed in a suicide blast at a mosque, during his funeral in Peshawar, Pakistan February 2, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/FAYAZ AZIZ) Police officers carry the coffin of Zeeshan, who along with others was killed in a suicide blast at a mosque, during his funeral in Peshawar, Pakistan February 2, 2023. (credit: REUTERS/FAYAZ AZIZ)

According to statistics released by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies (PICSS), an independent Islamabad-based think tank, terrorists killed 134 people and injured at least 254 across 44 separate terror attacks in the month of January. This made January 2023 the deadliest month for terror in Pakistan since July 2018.

In 2022, Pakistan faced at least 376 terror attacks in which 533 people were killed and 832 were injured, according to PICSS. The last time the country experienced more than 300 terror attacks in one year was in 2017.

Top civil and military officials convened several meetings in response to the Peshawar mosque attack last month, ultimately deciding to carry out a coordinated intelligence-based campaign against the terrorist organizations.

“A full-scale operation is not required yet. Pakistan has battle-hardened, motivated troops, who fought a successful war against the TTP and other outfits for a decade and are now actively carrying on intelligence-based operations against anti-state elements,” an Islamabad-based source told The Media Line.

The TTP is banned in Pakistan and is considered a global terrorist organization by the US. The organization has waged a 15-year uprising in response to the Pakistani government’s operations against al-Qaida and armed insurgents from Afghanistan.

Until 2022, a temporary cease-fire existed between Pakistan and the TTP. The TTP ended the cease-fire in November 2022 and declared that it would resume its attacks. It has claimed responsibility for several recent terror attacks in the country.

Among the TTP’s demands are stricter implementation of Islamic law in Pakistan, the release of its fighters, and the reversal of the incorporation of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The Pakistani government has rejected the demands.

The TTP is a separate entity from the Afghan Taliban, but the groups share an ideology and have collectively been responsible for hundreds of attacks and thousands of deaths in Pakistan. Pakistan believes that TTP leadership have close ties and relations with the Afghan Taliban.

The Punjab Counter Terrorism Department said in a statement on Wednesday that “law enforcement agencies have arrested two suicide bombers who have confessed to planning to target police headquarters, St. Paul’s Church and other sensitive places in Rawalpindi, a garrison city adjacent to the federal capital.” The department also said that it had recovered a large amount of explosive material from the terrorists.

According to the statement, the arrested terrorists, Hayat Ullah and Wakeel Khan, disclosed sending pictures of the locations to their leadership in Afghanistan.

Both terrorists belong to the Haji Faqir group of the TTP. The group, which is based in Afghanistan, is Pakistan’s most-wanted terrorist organization.

The Counter Terrorism Department claimed that “564 intelligence-based operations were conducted during the last month,” leading to the arrest of more than 100 terrorists.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif held former Prime Minister Imran Khan responsible for the current rise in terror.

“We are suffering because of the weak policies of Imran’s regime. Khan failed to articulate a clear-cut policy for handling security matters,” Asif said in a recent talk show appearance. He also alleged that India is providing financial support and training facilities to the TTP.

In the context of the escalating terror attacks in Pakistan, The Media Line spoke to various experts.

Expert voices

Retired Brigadier General Muhammad Zeeshan, who serves as the director general of the Center for Peace, Security and Development Studies, Islamabad, told The Media Line that the rise in terror in Pakistan must be understood within the context of the country’s history.

“It took over a decade of bleeding struggle for Pakistan to defeat terrorism in its tribal region. Successful operations of the Pakistan Army forced TTP and other terror outfits to flee across the border,” Zeeshan said. Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security provided safe havens for terrorists while India’s foreign intelligence agency provided funding.

When the US withdrew from Afghanistan in 2020, international support for TTP in Afghanistan began to dry up, Zeeshan said, forcing the TTP to return to Pakistan.

Waleed Parwez, director general of Open Source Intelligence and Strategic Communications Directorate at the Pakistan Strategic Forum (PSF), an Islamabad-based think tank focused on defense and security, also highlighted the importance of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in understanding the rise of terrorism in Pakistan.

“While leaving Kabul, the US military left behind over $7 billion worth of high-tech weapons, ammunition and night vision equipment. Many of these have found their way into the hands of TTP terrorists. These weapons provide the TTP with the ability to target Pakistani forces at night over long ranges,” Parwez said. American weapons left behind in Afghanistan have been identified both in TTP training videos and among the remains of TTP terrorists.

According to Parwez, the Afghan Taliban tacitly supports the TTP, and the US is not interested in directly intervening in the situation. That being said, the US does intend to provide “intelligence, surveillance and tactical support for any potential airstrike into Afghanistan targeting TTP assets,” Parwez said.

European Union Special Envoy for Afghanistan Tomas Niklasson also publicly shared his concerns about the presence of terror outfits on Afghan soil.

During a televised interview in Brussels on Feb. 9, Niklasson commented on the many terrorist groups currently residing in Afghanistan, including TTP. “The Taliban must provide assurances to Afghanistan’s neighbors that terrorist groups will not threaten or attack them, as this is a legitimate concern. If this issue is not addressed, it could harm Afghanistan’s future security and stability,” Niklasson said.

Michael Kugelman, South Asia Institute director at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, told The Media Line that the rise of terrorism in Pakistan comes at an unfortunate time, while the country is also dealing with an economic and political crisis.

Kugelman also said that Pakistan was naive to expect that the Afghan Taliban would rein in the TTP. “The Afghan Taliban’s track record has been consistent: the group never leaves its militant allies alone. Despite the intense global pressure, they are still linked with al-Qaida. Why would they curb TTP, with whom the Taliban have been ideologically linked for years,” Kugelman said.

Safi Gul, a Peshawar-based independent analyst specializing in militancy and counter-terrorism, also commented on the connection between Pakistan’s economic and political crisis and the current rise in terrorism, noting that terrorist forces took advantage of the distraction provided by crisis.

“Due to the financial crisis, the government is unable to purchase the latest counter-terrorism equipment” to resist the TTP and other terrorist groups, he added.

Gul expects that the US may once again begin a limited military presence in the region in response to the recent instability in Pakistan. “The US policy and decision-makers are very much concerned about the rising Chinese and Russian influence in the most strategic region of the world,” Gul said.

Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based expert in South Asia and national security, told The Media Line that “the Pakistani government has taken no action to put an end to the rise of ideological extremism in the tribal region.” She anticipates that the region will see rising instability and far-reaching violence.