war on the rocks

Bad as Baghdadi? Pakistan’s Most Dangerous Man

September 4, 2014

With the Pakistani press fixated on impending anti-government protests in Islamabad, a major terrorist attack launched in mid-August on the other side of the country went largely unreported.

Fourteen militants—heavily armed and laden with suicide vests—assaulted two airbases in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province. Fortunately, the damage was minimal. Pakistani security forces responded promptly, defusing bombs placed outside the bases and preventing the terrorists from breaching either facility. After a gunfight of several hours, all the militants were either dead or captured. There were no other fatalities (though several policemen were reportedly injured).

The Quetta attack was notable because of its timing. It was carried out during a relative lull in terror strikes in Pakistan, which had set in after the military began a countermilitancy operation in North Waziristan in June. Whoever orchestrated the attack clearly wanted to send a strong message of defiance—or revenge.

Several days later, the branch of the Pakistani Taliban based in the Mohmand tribal agency, led by Omar Khalid Khorasani, claimed responsibility for the attack. A letter posted on Twitter said it was carried out in retaliation for the North Waziristan operation.

If there is one militant who can be counted on to shatter a lull in Pakistan’s terrorist violence, it is Khorasani. A founding member of the Pakistani Taliban, he is an uncompromisingly brutal jihadist with a rapidly rising profile. Until recently, these qualities, coupled with a one-time reputation within the organization for uniting divided factions, suggested that he could one day replace supreme leader Mullah Fazlullah (like Fazlullah, Khorasani is rumored to be based in Afghanistan—and therefore out of range of the Pakistani military’s Waziristan offensive).

However, recent days have brought news that Khorasani has turned against the Pakistani Taliban to form a new militant spinoff group called Jamaat-ul-Ahrar.

A Series of Splits

Jamaat-ul-Ahrar is no small-time splinter group. Taliban leaders from across the tribal belt (not just Mohmand) have joined its cause, and even several Taliban officials from the settled areas of Swat and Peshwar have rallied to its side. Its future relationship with the parent Pakistani Taliban is unclear; initial statements from the new faction suggested it was splitting with the group altogether, though subsequent comments seemed to imply that it would still function within the broader Pakistani Taliban movement. Either way, it poses a considerable challenge to the leadership of Fazlullah.

The Pakistani Taliban has long been a fractured organization—and it has already suffered several splits. Earlier this year saw the arrival of Ahrar-ul-Hind, which identifies itself as a Pakistani Taliban splinter group opposed to the parent organization’s efforts to seek talks with Islamabad (Jamaat-ul-Ahrar also opposes talks). Such policy disagreements over talks account for many of the divisions within the Pakistani Taliban. Another policy-related internal spat revolves around enemy targets; some influential forces believe the group should be fighting only in Afghanistan, and not in Pakistan. However, there are also deeper organizational cleavages occurring along tribal lines. For years, members of the Mehsud tribe have dominated the Pakistani Taliban’s senior leadership. Fazlullah, in fact, represents the group’s first non-Mehsud supreme leader. Unsurprisingly, earlier this year a powerful Pakistani Taliban commander known as Sajna (a Mehsud) broke with the organization, citing unhappiness with Fazlullah (reports in recent days, however, indicate that a reconciliation of sorts may be underway).

Portrait of a Very Dangerous Man

No one makes Jamaat-ul-Ahrar a more formidable force than Khorasani. He does what many Pakistani militant leaders do—and more. He once led a parallel government in Mohmand that severely curtailed women’s rights—but he also takes credit for incorporating female suicide bombers into the Pakistani Taliban’s tactical repertoire. He heaps praise on al-Qaeda—and claims to have personally sheltered Ayman al-Zawahiri, the group’s leader. He also vows to impose “100%” Sharia law and to seize Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Several weeks ago, he penned a mocking letter to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders that justified attacks on Pakistan’s press, and lambasted the “cruel and satanic activities” of the country’s media. And in July, according to officials in Punjab province, he warned Pakistani security forces that he is planning attacks on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and opposition leader Imran Khan because of their support for the North Waziristan operation.

In an article for War on the Rocks earlier this year, I contended that Khorasani may be Pakistan’s most dangerous Taliban leader. I’d actually go so far as to argue that Khorasani is the closest thing Pakistan has to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the murderous Islamic State group butchering and beheading its way across Iraq and Syria.

Consider his unyielding brutality, which is extreme even for the savage organization that long employed him. The Pakistani Taliban, as vicious as it is, has pursued peace talks with the government, and some of its leaders offer occasional contrition (last year, a Taliban commander, Adnan Rasheed, wrote a personal letter to Malala Yousafzai that told her he wished a member of his organization had not shot her).

Khorasani, by contrast, is unrelenting and unrepentant. Earlier this year, while his Taliban colleagues were pursuing peace talks with Islamabad, he categorically rejected these efforts and instead staged several high-profile attacks—including the execution of 23 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers held in his captivity. Last year, again while attempts at negotiations with Islamabad were underway, Khorasani’s Mohmand faction released a letter that suggested it may have been involved in a deadly attack on a church in Peshawar several days earlier.

Then there is Khorasani’s aggressive exploitation of social media. His atrocities—like those of Islamic State—are frequently captured on video (images quickly surfaced of the 23 Pakistani soldiers’ beheaded corpses). Additionally, the intensity with which his advisers use social media as a vehicle for intimidation and publicity is striking (one of his aides taunted Hamid Mir on Twitter on the very day the prominent journalist was shot). Khorasani has also assembled an impressive media team. Members of his “media wing,” along with a “personal assistant,” regularly post assorted musings, statements, and threats on Twitter. The Pakistani Taliban’s former chief spokesman, Ehsanullah Ehsan (who is from Mohmand) now serves as Khorasani’s personal spokesman. Other Pakistani militants—particularly the sectarian ones—may rival Khorasani in his brutality, but few boast such an aggressive and high-powered media machine.

All this said, the similarities between Khorasani and Baghdadi should not be overstated. Khorasani is a former journalist who became a fundamentalist fighter; Baghdadi earned a doctorate and became a preacher. Khorasani, until very recently, ran a local branch of the Pakistani Taliban, while Baghdadi controls a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda (Khorasani’s decision to break with the Pakistani Taliban, however, means that both leaders are now heading up splitist entities). Neither Khorasani’s new outfit nor the organization from which it split is rapidly seizing territory. And as cruel as he is, the scale of Khorasani’s atrocities is not nearly as large as that of Baghdadi’s.

Pakistan and the Islamic State

Still, there are noteworthy parallels—and particularly between Baghdadi’s organization and the one that Khorasani belonged to for years. If there is one militant organization capable of approaching the sheer savagery of Islamic State—and of approaching the extent to which social media is used to showcase such savagery—it is the Pakistani Taliban. The group routinely releases video of headless corpses and severed body parts, including sadistic footage of its members kicking around severed heads like soccer balls.

Not surprisingly, the Pakistani Taliban lavishes praise on Islamic State (on August 23, Ehsanullah Ehsan tweeted that the group represents “real Muslims…Our Salam2u.”) In July, a branch of the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehreek-e-Khilafat, pledged its allegiance to Islamic State—reportedly the first group outside of the Middle East to do so.

It also bears mentioning that there are likely links between Islamic State and Pakistan. In an email to the family of James Foley sent shortly before the American journalist was beheaded, Islamic State said it had wanted to exchange Foley for Aafia Siddiqui, an MIT-educated Pakistani neuroscientist currently serving a long prison sentence in Texas for attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.

Siddiqui is a cause celebre in Pakistan, with common citizens and militants alike demanding her release. Yet outside of Pakistan she is considerably less known; even Islamist extremists (with the occasional exception) say relatively little about her. This suggests that Islamic State may have some Pakistanis within its ranks.

Indeed, according to Muhammad Amir Rana, a respected Pakistani security analyst, members of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a fearsome Pakistani sectarian extremist group, are fighting with Islamic State in Iraq. He also believes Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which like Islamic State is virulently anti-Shia, helped Islamic State set up a training camp in Iraq. Additionally, a top Islamic State commander alleged killed in an Iraqi airstrike in Mosul in early August was reportedly from (and recently based in) Pakistan. Furthermore, some media reports suggest that Foley’s executioner was a British-Pakistani (the latest disclosures from British officials, however, have said nothing about a Pakistani connection).

Implications for Post-2014

Fortunately, there is little reason to believe (at least now) that the Pakistani Taliban—or any militant group in Pakistan or Afghanistan—could one day, even after the departure of international combat forces from Afghanistan, replicate Islamic State’s terrifying achievements. As I wrote in my previous piece for War on the Rocks, the Islamic State has no equal in the region. Its closest analog—the Pakistani Taliban—is too degraded (thanks to U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani firepower) and divided (thanks to intra-organizational disputes) to storm across the region and seize large swaths of territory. It is also worth noting that most top Pakistani Taliban leaders have pledged their allegiance not to Baghdadi, but to Mullah Omar of the Afghan Taliban—an organization aligned with al-Qaeda, the group from which Islamic State split (Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has stated quite clearly that its formation was not inspired by Islamic State).

Still, there is good reason to worry—not because Pakistan will become home to a new Islamic State-like movement, but because Pakistan (through its deep reservoir of jihadists) could help strengthen the existing Islamic State abroad.

Recall that four years ago, Fareed Zakaria famously wrote that “for a wannabe terrorist shopping for help,” Pakistan—with its large selection of indigenous militant organizations—is a veritable “supermarket.” Today, amid expert analysis and militants’ boasts that Pakistani jihadists are travelling to extremist battlefields far from home, the nation could soon serve as an additional type of supermarket: One that offers a large selection of indigenous militant fighters to terrorist organization shoppers abroad—including the consumer that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently described as the biggest threat the United States has faced in years.

 

Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelkugelman.