FIVE Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) commanders including the militant group’s spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid have announced their oath of allegiance to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the militant group Islamic State. The development may encourage other militant groups and commanders to do the same — particularly those who are now critically reviewing their oath of allegiance to Mullah Omar and association with Al Qaeda after the emergence of the Islamic State in the Middle East.
It appears as if the militant landscape of Pakistan is going to become more complex and threatening. As militant groups prepare to enter into another phase of ideologically and operationally transformed jihadi discourse, the implications for Pakistan’s internal security are severe.
The TTP commanders’ allegiance to the IS reflects internal rifts in the group mainly concerning leadership issues, and increasing differences among commanders in their political, ideological, tactical and operational perspectives. These internal differences have pushed these commanders towards what they perceive as an ideologically clearer and purified Islamist movement.
Surprisingly, the announcement of allegiance to the IS came from the Taliban commanders who constituted the operational core of the TTP. Many were expecting the newly established Jamaatul Ahrar, a breakaway faction of the TTP and strongly influenced by the IS, to be the first to declare an oath of allegiance to the latter. But it seems that the group is wavering between the Afghan Taliban-Al Qaeda alliance and the IS for future association.
It appears as if the militant landscape of Pakistan is going to become more complex.
By declaring allegiance to the IS, the Taliban commanders not only took the lead but also captured the title of Khorasan. Previously, leaders of Jamaatul Ahrar tried to tag themselves as Khorasani claiming they were the first troops of the prophesied Islamic state of Khorasan. They believe the time has come for the establishment of an Islamic state in this region comprising some parts of Central Asia, and Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
However it would be very difficult for Jamaatul Ahrar to maintain relations with Al Qaeda and IS at the same time, while remaining loyal to Mullah Omar. The defecting five commanders have strong sectarian credentials and seem inspired by the IS’s sectarian designs. Their future behaviour is unclear as the IS has asked its followers to channelise their resources to Syria and Iraq, where the group first wants to consolidate its position.
On the other hand, the influence of the IS on militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan is a huge challenge for Al Qaeda. Analysts believe that the groups which were not happy with Al Qaeda’s operational strategies are more attracted to the IS. It was perhaps the main reason behind the establishment of Al Qaeda in South Asia. Growing realisation that operating through affiliates may not work in the future forced Al Qaeda to set up a separate branch in South Asia, which may help the terrorist group recruit people directly instead of relying on local associates.
Also, the IS factor will have an impact on the Afghan Taliban. The IS militants reject nationalism and consider the Afghan Taliban as part of the religious-nationalist movement. Those among the Afghan Taliban who have weak nationalist tendencies and are more inclined towards a ‘purified’ ideological goal can initiate such debate among their ranks. While defections cannot be ruled out, it is unclear how the IS will impact the Afghan Taliban movement, particularly when Mullah Omar wants to establish an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan while al-Baghdadi wants to extend his Islamic state to the whole world.
So far, pro-IS commanders, Al Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban and even the TTP leadership are trying to avoid confrontation and are just watching the situation. They realise that internal confrontations can trigger direct inter-militant clashes, such as those in Syria, and that these in turn can widen the existing ideological and political rift. For how long can they maintain this restraint, is an important question.
As far as the security implications of the IS are concerned, it has created a major survival challenge for the main militant actors who could now act to prove their operational credentials. Specifically Al Qaeda and TTP led by Fazlullah are facing immense pressure. They can launch attacks to prove that they are still strong and relevant, and have the ability to lead entire militant movements in the region.
At the same time, IS-inspired groups can launch movements in the IS style and try to capture towns and cities in the border regions of Afghanistan. But such attempts within Pakistan have fewer chances of success as the Pakistan military has gained control of most ungoverned territories in the tribal region.
In the short term, IS-inspired small groups and commanders can launch sectarian attacks. The TTP commanders who have declared allegiance to the IS have strong sectarian credentials and some of them come from the sectarian flashpoints of Hangu and Orakzai and Kurram agencies. Perpetrating sectarian violence will be an easier way for them to prove their loyalties to the IS. In this context, the coming weeks, especially the month of Muharram, will be sensitive. The security institutions have to be extra vigilant to prevent the threat of sectarian unrest in the country.
The most important question relates to the future of the TTP. No doubt IS inspiration has worsened the TTP’s internal crisis. While the group was already passing through an internal crisis over the issue of leadership, the military operation Zarb-i-Azb in North Waziristan has further weakened its organisational structure.
But we cannot predict the collapse of the TTP. The IS factor has provided new life to the group. The movement is undergoing an extensive transformation, but it has the potential to re-emerge as a stronger ideological militant movement, maybe under a different name.
However, at critical stages, names, tags and affiliations do not matter in militant movements. It is the four-pronged strength that matters,including ideological and political vision, operational capacity, effective propaganda and support base in society. It seems the TTP has not yet lost much.
By Muhammad Amir Rana, The writer is a security analyst.