The estranged Pakistani Taliban leaders shunned their differences in light of Daesh's growing foothold and joint anti-terror operations by the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Several disgruntled factions of the 'Pakistani Taliban' have decided to shun their differences and reunite to "fight the Pakistani state and its system of governance."

The group labels itself the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and has been waging war against Islamabad for over a decade as it seeks to establish Sharia law in Pakistan, while they consider the founder of the original Taliban in Afghanistan, Mullah Muhammad Omar, their spiritual leader and also recognise Daesh as an existential threat just like the Afghan Taliban does.

Ever since the US invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan's security establishment has been on its toes, since the war generated a far-reaching security crisis not only for Kabul but also for Islamabad.

On August 17, the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and the Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) - the two militant groups that splintered from the TTP - announced they would merge back into one fearsome terror outfit, pledging their allegiance to its chief Mufti Noor Wali.

Wali took charge of the terrorist group in 2018 after the killing of his predecessor Maulana Fazlullah in a drone attack in Afghanistan. 

After developing differences with Fazlullah, Abdul Wali - alias Omar Khalid Khorasani - founded the JuA in Pakistan's Mohmand tribal district in 2014.

The JuA also splintered in 2017 as its commander Mukarram Khan created his own outfit, HuA.

Reports coming from TTP's inner circles suggest that the outfit had generated too many leaders with their own sets of followers. Now, the reunification has brought them back together under Wali's command. Even militants associated with the 'Punjabi Taliban' led by Asmatullah Muawiya have also rejoined the Taliban mothership. 

In September 2014, Muawiya had reportedly surrendered to the Pakistani government after announcing an end to terror activities.

Overcoming factionalism

According to regional security experts and the Taliban sources, intra-party rifts and factionalism had weakened the terror outfit, claiming the lives of several militants who were killed after being labelled spies by opposing factions in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

A Taliban militant who assisted Wali when the latter headed the organisation's office in Karachi told TRT World that another devastating factor was Pakistan's military crackdown on the outfit, which pushed it to relocate from Pakistan's North Waziristan to Afghanistan’s neighbouring provinces of Kunar, Nangarhar and Loya Paktika.

In a book, ‘Inqilab Mehsud’, authored by Wali, the Taliban chief acknowledged that in the past few years the group lost its key leaders to Pakistan's joint security operations in Afghanistan’s provinces bordering the country.

The killings of the TTP leaders reveals close coordination between Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States in countering terrorism. 

“To revive the organisation mainly by overcoming factionalism, Wali had worked hard for more than a year and successfully convinced the splinter groups to unite,” a TTP militant based in Afghanistan said, requesting anonymity because the organisation has strictly banned their members from speaking to the media.

To counter factionalism and avoid bloodshed within the insurgent ranks, the outfit's new manual strictly instructs that a “person, if involved in espionage, can only be killed by an ameer (the leader of the outfit) or naib ameer (deputy head).” 

Daesh-K factor

Daesh’s Khorasan chapter, also known as ISIS-K, also poses a new challenge to the TPP. It has caused further splintering in the group because Daesh's extremely radical ideology and substantial financial resources have attracted a number of disgruntled leaders from the TTP, including senior commanders like Hafiz Saeed Khan and Haji Daud, the former chief of the Taliban in Karachi. 

Khan, who operated in a tribal district called Orakzai, joined Daesh in October 2014 and he was killed in 2016 in a US drone attack. 

The JuA had also briefly joined Daesh for a few months in late 2014.

The TTP is wary of Daesh and its supporters in the region mainly because of the latter's past associations with the Afghan Taliban. Their aim is to avoid defections and keep Daesh at bay.

A section of security analysts believes that the TTP reunited in light of a UN report published in July, stating that at least 6,000 Pakistani Taliban militants who were hiding in Afghanistan, have “linked up with the local affiliate of ISIS in Afghanistan.” 

In July, the UN Security Council also put Wali on the Daesh and Al Qaeda sanctions list, designating him as a global terrorist for "participating in the financing, planning, facilitating, or perpetrating of acts or activities.”

“The recent UN report was a trigger factor behind this unification alongside long-term future development under Wali,” says Abdul Basit, a researcher at Singapore-based the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR). 

“After the UN report, the Pakistani Taliban not only emphatically rejected that UN report, but it also denounced ISIS-K (regional Daesh) chapter.” 

Analysts suggest that the report and the fear of the TTP being linked with Daesh will prove detrimental for the outfit, which has pushed them to come together and avoid any overlap with Daesh.

Not only did the TTP end factionalism and localise its ideological narrative by aligning with local ethnic issues, but it also repudiated Daesh’s claim as a franchise of the so-called Caliphate, said Basit. 

Afghan peace talks

The militant outfit's future is subservient to the ongoing peace process in Afghanistan, where the Afghan Taliban, the TTP’s long time patron has to fulfill its commitment to not allow foreign militants to operate from their territory. 

“Wali’s emphasis on alliance building and unification of dissident factions is paying off at a critical juncture i.e ahead of the intra-Afghan talks and expected US exit from Afghanistan,” said Basit. 

Tahir Khan, an Islamabad-based journalist who has covered peace talks extensively said that the Afghan Taliban will not expel the TTP militants from the country but perhaps ask the group not to operate from there. 

“Afghan Taliban and the TTP are interconnected and they helped each other in the past,” Khan told TRT World. “In Afghanistan, the TTP militants are treated as the displaced people who are driven out by the military from their hometowns.”

Security implications

Security analysts believe that the reunification of the terror outfit would be a huge setback for Pakistan's counter-terrorism campaign.

“Terrorism can be weakened, failed and its negative consequences can be mitigated but terrorism cannot be defeated. It always morphs and metastasises into news forms and shapes,” Basit said. 

Khan, the journalist, said that the reunification would also attract dejected and disillusioned militants to return to the outfit. 

“In the past few months, a surge has been seen in terror attacks by the Taliban in various regions of Pakistan,” he added.

On August 10, the JuA claimed responsibility for an improvised explosive device (IED) planted on a motorcycle in Chaman, Balochistan, that killed six civilians. Police said that the target of the attack was a vehicle carrying personnel from the country's anti-narcotics force. 

The group has also claimed credit for an assault targeting Pakistani security forces in North Waziristan in July and the bombing of Pakistani soldiers in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in August. 

An annual security report of the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based think tank, shows that the TTP has remained one of the major forces of instability in 2019. It was involved in 82 terrorist attacks, out of which 69 were reported from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and 13 from Balochistan. 

Source: TRT World