What is the Pakistani Taliban?

Backgrounder

What is the Pakistani Taliban?

Milo Comerford

04 Nov 2014

A look at the origins and ideology of the militant group, whose stated objectives include the establishment of spheres of Sharia rule and resistance to the Pakistani state.

The Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, Taliban Movement of Pakistan), was established in 2007 as an umbrella organisation loosely uniting a number of Pashtun militant groups operating along the tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. Its stated objectives include the establishment and enforcement of spheres of Sharia rule, and resistance against the Pakistani state. Most consider the TTP to have replaced al-Qaeda as the most dangerous of Pakistan's insurgent groups.

The Red Mosque siege in 2007 was a major catalyst in the group's development, in which Pakistani forces stormed an Islamabad mosque metres from the headquarters of the Inter-Services Intelligence, where militants were stockpiling weapons. It had the effect of uniting militant organisations and turning what had been largely localised conflicts into a de facto insurgency, in which the TTP is the most prominent actor.

Formerly headquartered in the jihadi safe haven of the North and South Waziristan tribal agencies, the group now operates largely from the Afghan side of the border, displaced by ongoing Pakistani counter-insurgency operations in the border areas between the two countries, under the banner of 'Operation Zarb-e-Azb'. These operations, which have resulted in the death of 3,500 militants, including senior members, and have prompted a number of vicious retaliatory attacks against Pakistani state targets. The offensive has been framed in religious terms by the government, with Pakistan's two largest Islamic clerical groups (the Pakistan Ulema Council and the Council of Islamic Ideology) issuing fatwas declaring the operation a jihad against terrorism.

The group has strong ties to a number of Baloch separatist movements, where radicalisation led by the madrassa (religious school) network is on the rise and sectarian groups have stepped up their activities. Many have established links with the TTP, amid a state of near anarchy in the province.

The actions of the TTP since its establishment have made clear a number of objectives and ideological principles which correspond with its strict interpretation and enforcement of Sharia. In particular, these include a vow to undertake "defensive jihad against the Pakistan army" as well as NATO forces in Afghanistan, and to refuse any future peace deals with the government of Pakistan. Despite this, short-lived negotiations between the group's intermediaries and the government ended after two days in 2014, following deadly attacks in Peshawar. Although the TTP was arguing for security in tribal regions to be localised away from the army, the negotiations triggered parts of the group, who rejected the talks, to split into factions. 

Girls schools are seen as soft targets to further the militants' ideological agenda.

The group's opposition to education, and in particular female education, stems from this ideology, and girls schools in particular are seen as soft targets for furthering the militants' ideological agenda. In the Swat Valley district in 2007, Tehreek-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, the Swat faction of the TTP, threatened to bomb schools if the region's 120,000 female students attended class. It followed up on threats by destroying 400 of the regions 1,600 schools, around 70 percent of which were girls' schools. In early 2016, a senior TTP commander warned that more schools would be targeted, following an attack on a university campus that left 20 people dead. 

The attack on schoolgirl and education activist Malala Yousafzai in October 2012 made headlines around the world. However, little has been done by to curb extremist narratives in the classroom, with many pro-Taliban schools still attempting to cultivate the next generation of jihadis.

The group is organisationally and tactically distinct from the Afghan Taliban, with the TTP strongly opposed to the Pakistani state, in contrast to its counterpart across the border. The group's alliances in general are hard to decipher, however, and General Petraeus has described the relationship between groups including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban and the Afghan Taliban as "clearly symbiotic," saying that they alternately "support each other, coordinate with each other, compete with each other, [and] sometimes even fight each other."

Whilst the focus of the group's attacks have been predominantly targeted at the Pakistani state, the TTP has also attempted a car bombing in Times Square in retaliation for US involvement in drone strikes against senior commanders. It also threatened attacks on Myanmar for the state's alleged persecution of the country's Muslim Rohingya minority. A recent deadly attack on a police border post was led by a TTP trained militant, according to Myanmar's president.

The TTP has threatened attacks on Myanmar for its persecution of the Muslim Rohingya.

Concerns have been raised about potential blowback from the US Senate's release of a report on CIA interrogation techniques on militants in Pakistan, with fears that ordinary Pakistanis may rally behind groups like the TTP, rather than a government seen to be complicit in US torture.

Recent news about the Pakistani Taliban has focused on the increasing factionalism currently engulfing the movement amid increased pressure from Pakistani military forces, as well as the divisive declaration of a caliphate by ISIS, which demands allegiance from all jihadi groups. There has been suggestion that this splintering has been catalysed by the killing of TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike in 2013, to be replaced by the "radio mullah" Maulana Fazlullah who is said to have ordered the shooting of Malala Yousafzai..

In an audio statement released in October 2014, former TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid announced that he and five other commanders from the group had pledged allegiance to "caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a move seen by many as a defection. In fact, a majority of ISIS in Afghanistan militants are former TTP fighters, according to General John Nicholson who revealed that former TTP fighters made up 70 per cent of its forces. With the group in flux in an already turbulent situation for the global jihadi community, violence is bound only to intensify as groups increasingly compete for regional influence.

This article was first published on 16 December 2014. It was updated on 4 November 2016.

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