May 30, 2024


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Deciphering the TTP’s Strategy To Revive in Punjab

Published | May 07,2024

By | Iftikhar Firdous

Deciphering the TTP’s Strategy To Revive in Punjabimage

Pakistan has lately been witnessing a surge in militant attacks across the country, especially since November 2022 when the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) decided to break a fragile ceasefire agreement with the then government and threatened to escalate attacks countrywide.

On April 26, a police constable in Punjab’s capital of Lahore sustained injuries when unidentified militants attacked him. Subsequently, on April 28, another policeman was fatally shot in Lahore’s Chowk Misri Shah area while returning home after duty. On April 29 unidentified attackers killed a Dolphin personnel (special police squad that patrols on motorbikes) on Murree road in Rawalpindi when he asked the car to stop and in return the car passengers started firing at him.

Moving forward to May 1, unidentified militants targeted a Jhangi checkpoint in Dera Ghazi Khan, Punjab, causing injuries to seven policemen. Dera Ghazi Khan is a border area adjacent to the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

On May 2, a police personnel was killed in the walled city of Lahore, near the Tibbi police station. The responsibility for all the attacks except the Rawalpindi one was claimed by the TTP.

While historically, most attacks in Pakistan have been carried out in KP and Balochistan, primarily due to their proximity to the border with Afghanistan, the recent wave of terrorism in Punjab put the province’s counterterrorism department (CTD) on high alert. 

Moreover, a special operation was conducted to apprehend the shooter of policemen in Lahore. On May 2, the police and law enforcement agencies successfully nabbed the main shooter in Lahore’s Defense Housing Authority (DHA) area with the help of CCTV footage. 

Police records revealed that the shooter, identified as Faizan Butt, also known as Usman Khorasani, was a local resident who had been released from jail in January after being detained for a year. He was arrested by the CTD on charges related to the possession of explosives. [1] 

According to a police official, who was part of the investigation team, Khorasani was in his late twenties and had carried out the entire operation voluntarily. He got in contact with TTP through the messaging app, Telegram. Following the attacks, he sent videos to the militants as evidence.

Upon Khorasani’s identification, multiple raids were carried out. As a result, it was discovered that the shooter had connections with fourteen individuals involved in targeted killings. As part of the ongoing investigation, two men and two women have been apprehended thus far.

A few days before the attacks in Lahore, the chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Ali Amin Gandapur, in a press conference said that while tackling national security issues was not within the domain of the province, “negotiations were the only way forward.” He also added that Pakistan should not be a part of “someone else’s war.”

“Whatever we have done before has not yielded any results but rather we have suffered,” Gandapur said while speaking during a press conference. “All stakeholders of national security should sit together, debate the subject, and come up with an across-the-board solution.”

He added that all stakeholders acknowledge that the situation on the border and across the border is deteriorating, making it a matter of grave concern. 

“Since [the matter falls within the domain of national security, I have offered them [security establishment] to sit along with us so we begin talks with those who are in charge across the border [Afghanistan],” the chief minister said.

Due to the lack of dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan regarding the increasing issue of cross-border militancy, said Gandapur, militant groups had capitalized on the situation and intensified their attacks, including in urban areas of the Sindh province.

He further said that Punjab, the largest and the most powerful province in the country, was able to contain the wave of violence in the past due to the sacrifices of the police and security forces in KP. 

“Once this [terrorism] infiltrates our border, it will move towards the cities. We have witnessed an increased number of attacks in Tank and Dera Ismail Khan districts, so if the police do not combat and act as a protective shield, other areas of Punjab like Bhakkar, Dera Ghazi Khan, and Mianwali [will be next].”

Gandapur asserted that since terrorist elements had managed to infiltrate the districts of Mardan and Swabi in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the absence of action could potentially allow terrorism to advance towards Islamabad and Rawalpindi after Taxila and Wah Cantt. 

The Federal Government, he maintained, should carefully consider the implications, as the phenomenon of terrorism was not limited to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone. 

“So, when the people of KP question whether their blood is of a different hue or their lives are not important, they are right. It is because even when we asked for a larger police force in the province, our request was denied. Moreover, the 1% war on terror surcharge has not been given to the province yet,” Gandapur lamented.

Revived Alliances With Expansionist Agendas

In March 2024, the TTP announced that it had ended differences with one of its most lethal factions, the Jamat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), primarily due to the group’s linkages with other militant groups outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, as well as its operational capacity to strike in Punjab.

The JuA had been at loggerheads with the TTP over two main issues. Firstly, the group accused the TTP of being responsible for the assassination of their leader, Omar Khalid Khurasani, who died in an alleged IED explosion in Afghanistan on August 7, 2022. Secondly, the TTP did not acknowledge or accept the claims made by the JuA regarding attacks that were publicized through their media outlet, Ghazi Media. It is worth noting that Ghazi Media has been unavailable since March.

The JuA claimed responsibility for one of the biggest attacks against the police conducted by any militant group. The incident occurred on January 30, 2023, when a suicide bomber detonated his explosive vest at a mosque located in the Malik Sa'ad Police Lines in Peshawar, killing at least 84 people. However, the central leadership of the TTP denied any involvement or connection to the attack.

This wasn’t the first time the JuA had severed ties with its parent organization, the TTP. The initial breach occurred in 2014, following the death of Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the TTP, who was killed in a drone strike in North Waziristan. The group experienced internal difficulties and underwent a period of crisis during this time.

Omar Khalid Khurasani announced the formation of JuA, building on his older jihadist linkages primarily with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Ahrarul Hind,  and the Ghazi Force. From 2015 to 2019, the JuA carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan, many sectarian in nature, and primarily in Balochistan and Punjab. 

Attacks in these provinces increased after Hizbul Ahrar (HuA) split from JuA; led by Omar Mukarram Khorasani, HuA also expanded its areas of operations into Karachi, Sindh. Today, Omar Mukarram is the leader of JuA and serves as head of the TTP Military Commission of the Northern Zone.

While the JuA did not officially declare allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), it did maintain strong connections with the organization. However, the group currently denies these ties, which has led to criticism from the Afghan Taliban, whose rise to power in Afghanistan has infused a new life into the JuA and its activities. In 2020, the JuA once again joined the TTP until the killing of its leader who was opposed to the peace talks with Pakistan. This led to the JuA once again carrying out individual attacks which the TTP denied.

What’s different about JuA joining the TTP in 2024?

The JuA re-joined the TTP conglomerate in 2020 without any pre-defined conditions. After negotiations related to its revised structure, the TTP upgraded JuA affiliates as commission heads or raees. 

The representation of JuA in the Rahbari Shura (Executive Council) of TTP was increased from two to three. The process took four meetings – or Jirgas – for the breakthrough to happen. The members of the Jirga included Dr. Hamood of the TTP-Swat chapter, Gul Muhammad of the TTP Bajaur chapter, Abu Huraira from JuA’s Mohmand chapter, and Sheikh Hammad of the TTP-Swat chapter. Dr. Haqyar was appointed as a member of Rahbari Shura (Executive Council) for the first time. [2] 

The defence ministry of the group was dissolved, with all war-related matters now delegated to two zonal military commissions: the North and South Zone Military Commissions. Omar Muharram Khorasani has been named the head of the North Zone Military Commission. Other than all of this, the JuA has been given two wilayas – shadow provinces of Quetta and Kohat. 

The Hafiz Gul Bahadur Group (HGB) and Lashkar-e-Islam were also part of the negotiations. However, the JuA agreed in the first place because the TTP Chief, Noor Wali Mehsud, and TTP’s central command agreed to terms related to the expansion of the group’s operations beyond its traditional stronghold. 

The Hafiz Gul Bahadar Group, which has increased its attack base beyond the North Waziristan axis, has now claimed attacks as far as Bannu Division’s low-lying areas which were previously out of its fold. The TTP and HGB have jointly claimed at least eleven attacks [3] but a formal alliance has been impossible yet, much because of the tribal differences and how both groups observe themselves. Moreover, surrendering authority to each other's leadership seems out of the question. 

In the past two decades, two such attempts were made to bring HGB and TTP together. The efforts at that time were pushed by the Haqqanis and Al Qaeda, but the union, referred to as the Shura Itehad ul Mujahideen, failed to last for more than twenty days. 

The defunct Lashkar-e-Islam had also been resurrected after the group split into two in 2015, when nearly half of its fighting force joined ISKP in Nangarhar, mostly out of the need for its survival after being battered and displaced by the large-scale military operation by the Pakistan military [4].  However, after the death of its historical leader, Mangal Bagh in Afghanistan in January 2021, its militants have been progressively drawn towards the TTP, which injected new life into the organization, particularly from 2022.

The JuA utilized its operational capabilities as leverage during negotiations with the TTP. It reminded the TTP that when they had previously separated or parted ways in 2014, the JuA had conducted attacks throughout Pakistan owing to its presence in Balochistan, Sindh, and also in Punjab apart from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Such influence was not enjoyed by the HGB which had its operations limited to the south of KP, specifically in North Waziristan, much like Lashkar-e-Islam, which had its activities confined to the Khyber tribal district.

One of the preconditions for the merger of the group was to carry out an independent investigation into the circumstances that led to the death of Omar Khalid Khorasani. Even the last time when negotiations were held between the Pakistani state and the TTP, the HGB group refused to be part of the talks along with the rest of the militant faction. 

In addition, the TTP announced a political commission on the lines of the Afghan Taliban’s insurgency-based model to fight and negotiate at the same time. The political commission, led by a former imprisoned leader of the TTP's Bajaur chapter, who was released during a jailbreak after August 15, 2021, has gained prominence. Another member of the commission is Sarbakaf Mohmand, who was previously removed from the TTP due to his statements that went beyond the mandate set by the central leadership. Sarbakaf Mohmand was reportedly poisoned and declared dead, but he miraculously recovered and now serves as a member of the group's political office.

With the political office of the TTP, the group plans to revive dormant militant outfits across the country, particularly in Punjab. It also aims to hold talks with the religio-political parties, including the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP). [5]

TTP in past has expressed their solidarity with TLP. They released a message in support of TLP on April 14, 2021 when authorities arrested TLP’s Chief Saad Rizvi for protesting against the government for not complying with their demand to expel France’s ambassador from the country.

This insurgency-based model of the TTP resonates directly in line with the Afghan Taliban, which worked with 16 commissions for different purposes.

TTP’s Operation in Punjab

The TTP announced two wilayas in Punjab on June 15, 2023: North Punjab and South Punjab. The group claimed that a total of 200-300-foot soldiers combined had been deployed in the two wilayas. 

The Northern part is under the leadership of Syed Hilal Ghazi, who hails from the Malakand Division. He has been working closely with JuA and shares a surname with his deceased teacher, Abdul Rasheed Ghazi, who was associated with the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque). Hilal is said to have trained with the group of Kashmiri Jihadists in the pre-9/11 era and joined the TTP circles after the Lal Masjid Operation, in 2007. 

Between 2009-2012, his Ghazi Force was responsible for several high-profile attacks in Rawalpindi and Islamabad. His linkages with the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s (LeJ) Aslam Farooqi faction had been well known and resulted in intermittent attacks against the Shia population, particularly the explosion at a Muharram procession in 2012. However, the group also made several incursions in Hangu and Kurram tribal districts, predominantly in Shia-populated areas, conducting several attacks, too.  

In the wake of Pakistan’s successful counterterrorism efforts, most of the Ghazi force moved to Afghanistan. However, in the post-U.S. withdrawal era, it remerged in North Waziristan, along with the Aryana Group, led by Wazir tribesmen affiliated with the TTP and headed by Minhasullah alias Maidani. 

In 2022, both groups combined targeted and killed a total of 63 policemen, excluding several other attacks. However, a police investigation, which was expanded to cover the former Tribal Agencies, revealed that only 25 of these killings were directly linked to the militants. There are other TTP affiliates in Rawalpindi, such as the Haji Faqir Group, who have not claimed any attacks thus far, and their exact strength is unknown.

The lesser-known head of the Southern Punjab province, Umar Muavia, is also believed to be a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi affiliate involved in several targeted attacks against law enforcement agencies and sectarian target killings. 

The TTP’s South Punjab faction claims to have at least 10 sub-groups working under the shadow province, whose numbers remain unknown [6].  On August 2, 2023, another unknown group, led by “Muhammad Arshad Bhatti,” joined the TTP. These groups are mostly functional on the tri-border between Dera Ghazi Khan, Dera Ismail Khan, and Mianwali.

Another TTP-affiliated sub-group is headed by Nawaz Ustarana (until 2023 he was in Afghanistan). He is the second in command is Ijaz Ustarana. The Seraiki-speaking Ustaranas are located on the border between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and South Punjab and have had a history of association with the LeJ and TTP. However; their strength is said to be no more than 35 people but has several recruits in Afghanistan and linkages with jihadists networked in Punjab. 

Other TTP-affiliated groups include DG Khan-based Adil Buzdar group and Ali Muavia Group, the latter also part of LeJ. These groups are estimated to have a strength of approximately 30-40 individuals. However, as of now, they have not claimed responsibility for any attacks.

One of the biggest attacks in Mian Wali, Punjab, was carried out November 4, 2023, at the MM Alam Airbase, claimed by the Tehrik-e-Jihad Pakistan (TJP) a nomenclature the TTP used while being under pressure from the Interim Afghan Government.

The ideological influence of the TTP is more prevalent in the Southern regions of Punjab than in the northern parts. However; the TTP’s outreach depends on the group's outreach effort on how much traction it gathers for dormant militant entities and how long the dark clouds of distrust loom over Kabul and Islamabad.

The TTP's infiltration is more prominent from the border areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa into Punjab. There are pockets in the Southern region of Punjab that show a stronger inclination towards the TTP. 

However, certain areas in Punjab, particularly those with a larger population of Sunni Barelvi followers, are less likely to align with the TTP due to their opposition to the group's anti-state narrative. The current mode of the TTP’s operational strategy bookmarks the TLP as a group of interest because of its massive following and public support. 

This has been identified in the agenda of the political office of the TTP apart from two other political parties, the Jamat-e-Islamic whose leadership is now in Sindh, and the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam which holds sway within the urban and rural population of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh.

However, during an episode of a Pashto-Urdu Podcast, prominent cleric Mufti Ghufran carried out a detailed discussion on the Ahmadiyya community and the Supreme Court of Pakistan's decision on religious freedom. 

The discussion seemed to be an attempt to engage or garner the attention of the highly charged supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. Due to limited local support during the summer season, many foot soldiers returned to Waziristan. Later on, an Ahmadi man named Tahir Iqbal was killed in Hasilpur a district of Bahawalpur Punjab. Many pro-TTP accounts on social media applications were seen appreciating the act. 

TTP’s latest strategy is to obtain more local support building on the mistakes of the current setup, therefore the group like any insurgency has been publishing statements beyond the common counter-terrorism domain, seeking legitimacy while playing on the shifting narratives against the state and its auxiliaries. 

For any largescale uptake in violence and unfolding of TTP's strategy in focusing on the northern side of Punjab and gaining acceptance and praise from the locals will largely depend on the receptiveness of the targeted communities, particularly concerning their ant-minority stance and the outfall of the larger politics of discontent and confrontation surrounding the policy decisions of Pakistan for which Punjab is seen as a central stakeholder, which for now does not seem to be a viable reality. However, attempts will be made by the group to create the perception that it does exist in these areas.

“There seems to be no indication of any drastic uptake in terrorism-related violence in Punjab at the moment”, the Inspector General of Police, Punjab told The Khorasan Diary, “In case any such scenario emerges, we are ready for it” Dr. Usman Anwar concluded.

[1] Kiran Butt, Interview with Source, May 2, 2024 and May 3, 2024 

[2] Iftikhar Firdous, Interview with sources, April May 2024

[3] The Khorasan Diary Archives

[4] Iftikhar Firdous, Interview conducted with Lashkar e Islam spokesperson, 2016-17

[5]  Iftikhar Firdous, Interview with sources, April 26, 2024

[6]  Kiran Butt, Interview with Source, April 2024