Over 100 people were killed and 221 severely wounded in the recent suicide bomb attack in a mosque in the Police Lines of Peshawar (the capital of the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), making it one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in recent history. Ninety-seven of the dead were police officers.
In a tweet, Sarbakaf Mohmand, a commander of the terrorist group TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan, aka Pakistani Taliban) claimed responsibility for the attack.
According to a local police officer, some 300 namazis were present and those who survived the blast were injured when the roof and a wall came crashing down. Capital City Police Officer (CCPO), Peshawar Mohammad Aijaz Khan told Geo TV that the head of the suspect suicide bomber had been recovered from the debris.
Sarbakaf is an interesting name for a terrorist. The Persian composite word Sar-ba-Kaf means one who carries his head in his hands, that is, he is ever ready to die for a cause. The name, most probably assumed by him, tells a lot about the organization he belongs to. He is believed to be the brother of the slain TTP commander Umar Khalid Khurasani who was killed last August in Afghanistan. Sarbakaf said that the attack was a part of the revenge attacks they had planned. However, about ten hours later, saying that the TTP did not attack places of worship, the TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani sought to distance the TTP from the attack even as he remained silent on the claim of Sarbakaf. Most analysts maintain the TTP to be the most likely suspect.
Security Lapse or ‘Inside Hand’?
It is not yet clear how the suicide bomber managed to slip into the walled campus, which houses Peshawar’s police headquarters and is itself located in a high-security zone with other government buildings.
Hamid Mir, a journalist with Geo TV, tweeted that the defense minister Khawaja M. Asif had claimed that someone from inside the Police Lines had facilitated the suicide bomber. I am inclined to agree with this. Otherwise, gaining access to the secured area with a suicide vest is not possible—even simple frisking could have detected it. Mohammad Aijaz Khan said that it was possible that the attacker was already present in the Police Lines before the blast and that he may have used an official vehicle to enter with the explosive. This also supports the ‘inside hand’ theory.
What is the TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan)?
In the wake of the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, many Pakistani militants who had earlier fought in Afghanistan in the Mujahideen war turned against the Pakistani state for its support of the United States’ so-called global war on terror—this was just one of their many grievances. They began sheltering the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other militants who were fleeing from the US forces in Afghanistan.
The US put pressure on Pakistan for taking action against them. However, as K. Alan Kronstadt et al pointed out in their 2008 study for the Congressional Review Service, there were serious doubts about Pakistan’s real commitment to it and the operations were largely ineffectual. The militant groups actually grew stronger and more aggressive. This eventually led to the establishment of the TTP in 2007. To appease the USA, Pakistan banned it on paper in August 2008.
The TTP was set up as an umbrella organization of several militant groups in Pakistan in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight against the USA. [The word Tehreek in Arabic means a movement. Taliban is bad Arabic for the plural of Talib meaning student. The correct plural of Talib is Tullab or Tulaba. However, some ignorant person, on the pattern of say, Sahiban being the plural of Sahib, made Taliban the plural of Talib. By Talib, the reference was to the training schools for Mujahideen, which were run in Pakistan under the cover of madaris (plural of madrisa), that is, religious schools.]
The TTP claims that its armed struggle is intended to establish an Islamic political system in Pakistan based on the group’s interpretation of Sharia, a task it says was the main goal for establishing Pakistan in 1947. According to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, they have several thousand cadres with strongholds on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The TTP has been experiencing a strong resurgence since the Afghan Taliban and the US government signed a peace deal in February 2020. Since July 2020, ten militant groups opposed to Pakistan have merged with the TTP, including, among others, three Pakistani affiliates of al-Qaeda and four major factions that had separated from the TTP in 2014. These groups include the Amjad Farouqi group, one faction of the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the Musa Shaheed Karwan group, Mehsud factions of the TTP, Mohmand Taliban, Bajaur Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Hizb-ul-Ahrar. The Taliban victory in Afghanistan in August 2021 was a shot in the arm for them. On their part, the Afghan Taliban released TTP leaders and fighters who had been arrested by the previous administrations in Kabul.
According to Abdullah Khan, a senior defense analyst with the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, the TTP has expressed its allegiance to the head of the Afghan Taliban but have its own agenda and strategy, which includes stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody, and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in those parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, that it has long used as a base.
Hitherto the TTP has been mainly targeting Pakistani forces, in a manner similar to and reminiscent of the Afghan Taliban’s war against the Americans. They are believed to have been responsible for the 2009 attack on the army headquarters, Rawalpindi, and the dastardly 2014 attack on the Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, killing at least 150 people, including 131 students.
What Was The Bomb Like?
Usually, suicide bomb vests and belts, because of the obvious limitation of keeping a profile that is as flat as possible and does not bulge out conspicuously, are designed as anti-personnel weapons. The explosive is not much (generally a few hundred grams) but the emphasis is on shrapnel. However, in this case, given the fact that the roof (that is, the floor of the first floor) and a wall collapsed, it means that the amount of explosive was in the range of several kilograms—maybe 10 kg of plastic explosive or more. For illustration, the C-4 plastic explosive comes in blocks of 1.25 pounds (US Army’s standard M112 demolition charge block) which are 1.5x2x11 inches in size. For 10 kg, 18 blocks will be needed. It is difficult to believe that this much quantity could have remained inconspicuous on his person in spite of the winter clothing. We are told that the bomber was in the front row—this was probably with the assistance of those who helped him go inside first.
Provocation for the Present Attack and Its Background
In late November 2022, the TTP called off a ceasefire that it had entered into with the Pak federal government in June. Later, calling upon their cadres, they said that as military operations had been continuing against them in different areas, it was imperative for them to carry out attacks wherever they could in the entire country.
They made a special reference to the spectacular army operation in December 2022, when the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group (SSG) stormed the CTD (Counter Terrorism Department) police station in the Bannu district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the detained TTP cadres had snatched weapons from the police and then had taken hostages—the SSG killed all 33 of the TTP at the cost of the martyrdom of two of their commandos.
Talks between government officials and the TTP, hosted by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in Kabul, had first started in October 2021 but broke down in December 2021. They were resumed in May 2022. However, it again ran into a deadlock on the question of the revocation of the merger of FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They also resented the continued detention of TTP cadres while a truce was still being negotiated. Subsequently, they started attacking military targets in and around Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, South Waziristan, and North Waziristan districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. They had warned the police not to associate with the operations against them.
In October 2022, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior warned that more than year-long peace negotiations between the TTP and the government “had come to a standstill”, which had led to unease within the TTP’s ranks. The government had also warned that the risk of TTP sub-groups defecting to the ISKP (Islamic State Khorasan Province) or joining hands with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group to resume terrorist activities. Hafiz was one of the founders of the TTP but developed a rivalry with Baitullah Mehsud. The TTP is also reportedly upset with the rookie foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto calling for the government to revisit its strategy to deal with the militant outfit.
Any alliance between the TTP and the ISKP could strengthen the ISKP and worsen the threat it poses beyond the region. According to a US intelligence assessment, the ISKP could be capable of mounting an attack in the West, including in the United States.
The TTP Wants To Remain In the Time Warp of FATA
FATA was a semi-autonomous tribal region in north-western Pakistan consisting of seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions. It was an area of some 10,507 square miles, outside of Pakistan’s four provinces. The FATA is bordered by Afghanistan to the west with the border marked by the Durand Line, the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab to the east, and Baluchistan to the south. With a population of just about half a million, this is the source of all trouble.
Keeping the area under constant military control to maintain order there was not cost-effective for the British. They were therefore happy to trade the disorder there with the fact that it served as a buffer from unrest in Afghanistan. The British introduced the device of the so-called Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) 1901 to control the people there. This arrangement of ‘indirect rule’ granted the power to local leaders—all civil and criminal cases was decided by a ‘jirga’ (council of elders). Government interference in local matters was kept to a minimum through local-level tribal intermediaries, the maliks (representatives of the tribes), and lungi holders (representatives of sub-tribes or clans), who were influential members of their respective clans or tribe. The tribes regulated their own affairs in accordance with customary rules and unwritten codes.
This system, a classic example of a time warp, survived even after the creation of Pakistan until 2018 when FATA was merged with the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan.
Basically, the TTP simply wants to go back in time to an age when they could live in their primitive, unruly, independent way—most importantly, without any control—with the gun being the only rule. Modern administration and governance are anathemas to them. The tribal areas are as backward as one could imagine in terms of modern amenities—the only thing modern there is weaponry!
How Pakistan’s hobnobbing with terrorists started?
It started in the wake of the Mujahideen war against the Soviets. The US-driven Mujahideen war against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s was one of the most brilliant covert operations ever designed in the history of warfare and intelligence. The CIA’s covert operation was called ‘Operation Cyclone’, in which they recruited, armed, and trained fighters on a massive scale—according to some estimates, the Mujahideen casualties were in the range of 150,000 to 180,000. It cost the US about $20 billion in that era.
Since the US was extremely particular about ‘plausible deniability’ for the entire operation, they had no option but to involve the ISI in recruiting, arming, and training the Mujahideen. As the training had to be imparted secretly, they invented the device of the madrisa. The CIA and ISI opened a large number of such ‘Islamic schools’ in remote, border areas. Instead of religious education, they were given military training there. Arms for the Mujahideen were arranged from the illicit arms bazaar across the world. Weapons were shipped to Pakistan and from there they were sent overland to the fighters in Afghanistan. Brig. Mohammad Yousaf of the ISI has described the operation in detail in his books, ‘Afghanistan: The Bear Trap: The Defeat of a Superpower’ and ‘Silent soldier: The man behind the Afghan Jehad General Akhtar Abdur Rahman Shaheed’.
The whole operation was brilliant in theory. However, there was an undesirable side effect. And the world is paying the price of that side-effect even now. ISI, being closely involved in the whole process, pilfered a great number of arms and money. Citing arms-trades specialist James Adams in his book, ‘Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and International Terrorism’, John K. Cooley writes that between the delivery point at Karachi to the border checkpoints of the Pakistani army from where they were meant to be distributed to the Mujahideen, the ISI pilfered about 50% of the arms, which ended up either in their warehouses or sold off in the international black market.
Why the Isi Continued To Play With Fire?
Having acquired that valuable experience of raising, training, and equipping the victorious force of the Mujahideen/Taliban fighters as a potent weapon, it was difficult for the ISI to eschew the temptation of not using them for exporting terror. However, at least for the sake of argument, the ISI had one strategic reason for helping the Taliban come back to power in Afghanistan in their war with the USA. By helping the Taliban come back to power, Pakistan sought to ensure that its eastern frontier was rendered safe from two of its old fears: Afghan alignment with India; and a massive influx of refugees that could cause destabilization among Pakistan’s Pashtuns.
In the 20 years from 2001 to 2021, the ISI pulled the wool over the American eyes with such panache that, despite a constant uncomfortable feeling all along about what they had been doing, the Americans could never pin any clear blame on Pakistan. The ISI, while pretending to be an ally of the US in their two-decade-long war in Afghanistan, pulled the rug from under their feet. To appease the USA, Gen. Musharraf made them believe that they had undertaken 20-month-long counterterrorism operations against the militants hiding in FATA in 2003, whereas they cleverly avoided putting all their might behind it. They continued to equip the Taliban with weapons from the Mujahideen War. The TTP could well be using some of these.
Also Read: Pakistan on the verge of self-destruction?
The ISI cleverly ‘made’ the Taliban ‘survive’ the military operations! As Stephen Tankel discloses in his US Institute of Peace study, they established a pattern of military incursions into FATA followed by peace deals that empowered the pro-Taliban Pashtun militants. These included a February 2005 peace agreement with Baitullah Mehsud in South Waziristan and the September 2006 Waziristan Accord in North Waziristan.
Presently, politically, Pakistan has been in turmoil for several months, with the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) and PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) gunning for each other in a battle of nerves. In fact, people are yet to be convinced of the administrative credentials and capabilities of the government. This situation provides an excellent opportunity for terrorist strikes to add to the general chaos and the ‘climate of collapse’.
The Chickens Come Home to Roost
What Pakistan is facing today is its karma—you cannot keep on exporting terror and hope to be immune to it. If the ‘inside hand’ theory in the present attack is confirmed after investigations, it would also show how deep the penetration of the jihadis is in Pakistani society and administration. Moreover, their helplessness in the matter of the Taliban government in Afghanistan continuing to aid and shelter the TTP has made them pitiable. After this attack also, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan could only lament that Afghan Taliban must stand by their commitment to the international community to not allow anyone to use their soil for attacks against another country. According to the Voice of America, violence claimed by or blamed on the TTP and other militant groups have killed almost 1,000 Pakistanis, including nearly 300 men of the security forces, in some 376 terrorist attacks in 2022. This represents an approximately 50 percent increase since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan.
No one in history has ever been able to keep a poisonous snake as a harmless pet, the way one keeps a dog or cat. Nature has never created them for that purpose. Sooner or later, the snake would bite you. This is precisely what has happened to Pakistan and the terrorists fostered by them.