In recent years Baloch separatists have launched several suicide attacks worrying US officials as Pakistan draws closer to the US on the Afghan issue.
The US decision last week to designate a Pakistani separatist group as a terrorist organisation was an acknowledgement of Islamabad’s cooperation in finding a political settlement to Afghanistan’s 18-year-long war with the Taliban – one of the Trump administration’s top priorities, according to analysts.
On July 2, the US State Department announced that it had added the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) to the US government’s list of specially designated global terrorists.
“BLA is an armed separatist group that targets security forces and civilians, mainly in ethnic Baloch areas of Pakistan,” US officials said.
Welcoming the move, Pakistan hopes that the designation will restrict the BLA’s space to operate abroad.
“It is important that the perpetrators, organisers, financiers and external sponsors including those glorifying these acts of terror against Pakistan are held accountable and brought to justice,” said Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
Formed in 2004, the BLA is considered the most potent of several Baloch militant groups fighting the Pakistani state in Balochistan – a resource-rich province that suffers from lack of development.
After the killing of its founder Balach Marri in a missile strike in Afghanistan in 2007, the group’s leadership was taken over by his brother Hyrbyair Marri, who lives in the United Kingdom in self-imposed exile.
However, militants in Balochistan did not accept him as the BLA’s head, and Aslam Baloch Achu headed the group until his death in a suicide attack in December in Afghanistan’s Kandahar region. After Achu’s death, a former student leader, Bashir Zaib, effectively became the head of the BLA.
Source of instability
Pakistani security officials consider the BLA a major source of instability in Balochistan and the country as a whole.
Militants loyal to the group have carried out attacks on government installations, security forces, and labourers from non-Baloch ethnicities.
The group carried out 25 terrorist attacks in 2018, killing 36 people and injuring 78, according to an annual security report the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based independent think tank.
Since the arrival of Chinese investment worth billions into the Balochistan region, militant groups, particularly the BLA, have focused their attacks on Chinese individuals and interests in Pakistan.
Beijing has established infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and linked projects, such as the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – that seeks to link its western province of Xinjiang with Pakistani port city of Gwadar.
Militant groups say China is a colonising force operating under the pretext of investment.
Three high-impact attacks by the BLA showed a shifting trend in the outfit’s modus operandi.
They included direct attacks on diplomatic missions and the use of suicide bombing. The attacks conveyed a warning to those participating in Chinese projects but also pushed the US government towards branding the insurgent group a terror outfit.
In May, the BLA carried out an attack on Gwadar’s only five-star hotel, where foreign businessmen, including Chinese workers overseeing the CPEC projects, frequently stay.
In November, the BLA launched a brazen attack on the Chinese Consulate in Karachi; only a swift response by the security personnel present managed to avert multiple casualties. In August 2018, the BLA had attempted to hit a passenger bus full of Chinese engineers in the Dalbandin area.
In the two attacks, the BLA militants wearing suicide bomb vests were not able to blow themselves up, but in Dalbandin attack, the BLA used Achu’s teenage son to carry out a suicide attack on the bus carrying Chinese engineers to boost the morale of the militants.
Last year, Achu formed a ‘suicide bombers brigade’ to train its militants in carrying out suicide attacks primarily targeting Chinese interests in the country.
Pakistan has long suffered from suicide bombings but only at the hands of religious extremist groups, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. But the BLA introduced the use of suicide attack among the Baloch separatists - who ostensibly possess liberal views.
'Weakened and factionalised'
Muhammad Amir Rana, PIPS Director, said that the use suicide bombings is an attempt to revive the weakened and factionalised Balochistan insurgency that was not able to achieve substantial progress in materialising their objectives after fighting with the state for more than a decade.
In Pakistan, 71 militant groups are banned, and, among them, at least 13 outfits are linked with the ethnic insurgency in Balochistan. But, the US only listed the BLA, which was banned in Pakistan in 2006, among them. “The reason behind it is that the BLA had claimed responsibility for most of the high-impact attacks using suicide-bombing methods,” Rana told TRT World.
Experts also said that the recent ban will not affect the BLA within Pakistan nor in US, but it will provide Pakistan legitimacy in cracking down the Baloch separatist groups. The US move will also make the BLA’s fundraising and the movement of their leaders in the region more difficult.
Malik Siraj Akbar, a Washington-based analyst and author of ‘The Redefined Dimensions of Baloch Nationalist Movement’, said that most of the Baloch insurgent leaders live in Europe and no one lives in the US.
“Seen from the past, it does not seem that this decision will significantly reduce the BLA’s operational capabilities because the United Kingdom had also declared the BLA as a terrorist organization in 2006 but the latter continued its operations without any interruptions,” Akbar told TRT World.
'Rename and reemerge'
However, analysts believe that said it would not affect the militant outfit’s subversive activities within the country because non-state actors tend to respond to situations like these differently. “They are not like universities or NGOs that you revoke their accreditation and they shut down their offices the next day. They regroup, rename and reemerge as soon as the dust settles down,” said Akbar.
Terming the ban “beyond comprehension and unjustified,” the BLA said in a statement that the US and the European Union should “analyse Pakistani brutalities against Baloch civilians and the expansionist and militaristic designs of China to find out who is the real terrorist in the region.”
For the US to designate a separatist ethnic group like the BLA under the presidential executive order 13224 is significan because the State Department rarely designates groups of a similar profile.
“The US has around 125 groups designated under this order, which came into effect post 9/11,” said Asfandyar Mir, a fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
“Of the 125 groups currently designated, only 28 are purely separatist/ethnic/nationalist, with no overt Sunni or Shia militant political claim. Since 2010, the State Department has designated around four such groups.”
This suggests that the designation is not just due to the terrorist activities of the BLA. There is more to this.
Analysts believe that the US administration wanted to acknowledge Pakistan’s important and positive role in facilitating the Afghan peace process ahead of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Washington visit.
The meeting between meet U.S President Trump and Prime Minister Khan will be on July 22.
Under Trump, the US policy on Pakistan started out with aid suspension, threatening strikes against the Afghan Taliban inside Pakistan, targeted sanctions, and blocking Pakistan's access to international financial institutions.
Mir told TRT World: “Around 18 months ago, the US stopped airstrikes inside Pakistan and instead started targeting militants Pakistan wanted dead in Afghanistan.
“The US also started working with Pakistani officials on the Afghan peace process while keeping quiet on the Pakistani military's meddling in domestic politics. More recently, the US didn’t try to block aid to Pakistan from Arab states and the IMF.”
He explained further that in return, Pakistan has pressured the Afghan Taliban on peace talks. Pakistan has also curtailed the activities of some India-focused Jihadi groups, such as Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) and Jammat-ud-Dawa.
The designation comes two months after China dropped its objections to a Security Council resolution against JeM’s head Masood Azhar, naming him a global terrorist. “The US needs better relations with China on counterterrorism. The terrorist challenge from Afghanistan is likely to increase for the US, especially in case of a military drawdown from there. China will have an influence in a post-U.S Afghanistan and on Pakistan,” Mir said.