(The Critical Threats Project is developing a site focused specifically on the threat from al-Qaeda and Associated Movements (AQAM); until that site reaches production, related pieces will be posted on the IranTracker site.)
A group called Tehrik-e Taliban Punjab (TT Punjab) released a message on May 27 claiming credit for the suicide car-bomb attack in Lahore that killed at least 40 people and injured nearly 150, according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intel Group. The message said that the attackers struck to retaliate for the operations the Pakistani Army has been conducting against the Tehrik-e Nafaz-e Shariat-e Mohammadi (TNSM) in the Swat River Valley and elsewhere in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. The attack’s implication is that Punjabi extremists are moving closer to their Pashtun brethren and becoming more eager to fight the Pakistani government in its own Punjabi heartland.
The attack did not come without warning. On May 12, a Pakistani newspaper reported that the Pakistani Interior Ministry had distributed a report cautioning of precisely such militant threats. The report described the formation of a new extremist group under the aegis of the Tehrik-e Taliban-e Pakistan (TTP—the South Waziristan-based group headed by Beitullah Mehsud) called the Muslim United Army. The Interior Ministry apparently warned that the groups forming this coalition intended to target “foreign embassies, the prime minister, the GHQ [General Headquarters] in Rawalpindi, and important government offices,” especially in Lahore “because terrorist incidents there receive a great deal of media coverage.” In early April, moreover, the Tehrik-e Taliban Punjab claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing of a Shi’i mosque in Chakwal, Punjab (south of Islamabad) that killed 23 people. The TT Punjab spokesman said that the new organization was operating under Beitullah Mehsud’s leadership and that it would conduct more attacks in Punjab in the future.
The potential spread of “Punjabi Taliban” (as opposed to the Pashtun Taliban groups fighting American, Afghan, and Pakistani forces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Border) is ominous. Punjab accounts for almost 50 percent of Pakistan’s 172 million population. Experts have long known of the links that bind both al Qaeda and the Pashtun Taliban groups to extremists in the core Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Sindh, but much of the fighting within Pakistan has remained a struggle between the Pakistani government and Pashtuns. The mobilization of Punjabi militants—many of whom have been actively or passively supported by elements of the Pakistani government over decades for their utility in the struggle against India—could signal that President Asif Zardari and Army Chief Ashfaq Keyani stumbled into a larger conflict than they bargained for when they responded forcefully to the expansion of TNSM control south from Swat into Buner earlier this year.
This development is not necessarily bad, if it leads to an engagement in which the Pakistani government undertakes to destroy or get control of the militants in its heartland. It could also provide an opportunity for the U.S. to help the Pakistani government, police, and military develop the capabilities to combat militant extremists in a fight they see as threatening them directly, rather than in the context of a border war branded as “America’s war” in much of Pakistan. It is not clear, however, that Pakistani leaders see things in this manner. Although Zardari has called a cabinet-level meeting of his security team to discuss the situation, his spokesman also said that incidents like the Lahore attack were the “dying kicks of the militants who were on the run.” Zardari’s archrival, Nawaz Sharif, has called for unity against Pakistan’s challenges, and, although he listed the security situation in the FATA and Swat among those challenges, he also listed American drone strikes.
Nor is it clear that the Pakistani authorities intend to recognize the scale of the Punjabi threat itself. Beitullah Mehsud’s TTP claimed credit for this attack, as it had done for the Chakwal suicide attack in April. This claim is natural, since the TT Punjab is explicitly subordinated to Beitullah Mehsud’s umbrella organization. Yet senior Pakistani officials have seized the opportunity to blame everything on the Pashtun groups, with Dawn reporting that investigators believe that the TT Punjab does not exist: “‘It is merely a deception. It is an extension of Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) of Waziristan,’” said one official. The terrorist attacks in Peshawar on May 28 are likely to muddy the waters further and provide senior Pakistani leaders the excuse to ignore their Punjabi problem.
Nevertheless, there are indications that Zardari takes the challenge seriously. He has announced the formation of a new national security committee comprised of the heads of all security and secret agencies. He also ordered provincial governments to recruit an additional 25,000 police each, in addition to the 10,000 new recruits he had already approved for the Sindh Constabulary. The new recruits will all receive commando training, according to Zardari’s spokesman, who added that Zardari intends to raise the salaries of police and security officials throughout the country. In an even more promising recognition of the scale of the problem, the spokesman said that “the ongoing military operation [in the NWFP] will be extended to other areas if required because terrorist[s] are operating not only from tribal belt but also in other parts of the country” and that “the operation will continue till the elimination of militants from the area.”
Waging any such broader struggle against militants through Pakistan will be very difficult, however. Punjabi militants, for one thing, are not now conducting an organized insurgency in Punjab itself. Their groups, leaders, and training areas are more scattered than those of the enemy in the Pashtun belt. Army and police units could raid known compounds and try to arrest known leaders and cells, but without careful organization and the element of surprise—which is unthinkable in the circumstance—they are unlikely to get far. Any such operation would be more likely to require the efforts of the Punjabi police, but they are not trained or equipped for counter-terrorism operations, as their dismal performance during the March attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team and their inability to prevent the recent Lahore attack despite clear warnings revealed. The movement of large numbers of refugees around Pakistan following the operations in the NWFP also facilitates the movement of terrorists, moreover, as Pakistani leaders recognize. Continuing tensions between Zardari and Sharif may also weaken the ability of local security forces to act decisively at the president’s command. Some commentators also speculate that the Punjabi-dominated army and police will be unwilling to fight their Punjabi brethren, although the specific connections between Punjabi militant groups and elements of the ISI are likely to be a more serious problem.
It is much too soon to tell, however. There have been “Punjabi Taliban” on and off for many years, and their networks have historically been loosely-knit and not well coordinated. The composition of the Muslim United Army, however, is troubling. In addition to the TTP, TNSM, and the TT Punjab, it also includes Lashkar-e Jhangvi and Jaish-e Mohammed, among others. Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LeJ) is a militant splinter group of the Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) that was formed to wage sectarian war against Pakistan’s Shi’i population and impose its interpretation of Sunni Islam on the country. LeJ sent fighters to Afghanistan during the Taliban period, and now reportedly serves as the “lynchpin of the alignment between al Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and sectarian groups.” Following the Taliban’s collapse in 2001, the Pakistani government allowed LeJ fighters to return to Pakistan, where the group ultimately established a major training base co-located with the headquarters of the Lashkar-e Taiba in Muridke, Punjab.
A variety of factors appear to be driving formerly sectarian groups like the LeJ to see Islamabad as the real enemy, but a key element seems to be a by-product of the recent struggle between Zardari and former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Zardari’s use of questionably constitutional measures during that struggle, including the imposition of martial law in Punjab, together with the military operations against TNSM and TTP in the NWFP, may be driving this loose coalition into a tighter alliance. If so, then the Lahore suicide bombing—aimed at a local office of the ISI—could mark an important turning point in Pakistan’s relationship with its own extremists. It could also provide an important opportunity for the US to help Pakistan develop the capabilities it needs to defeat and control its own extremists.