In February 2017, Pakistan suffered the worst wave of terrorist violence since the tragic attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014. Three terrorist groups, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JUA), and the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK) carried out multiple attacks on Pakistan’s major cities. The spate of attacks shattered the brief lull in violence, indicating the fragility of peace, the realignment of Afghanistan-based anti-Pakistan militant groups, and an urgent need to revisit existing counter-terrorism policies.
Pakistan responded to the latest wave of terrorism by closing its border with Afghanistan; maintaining that these attacks originated from Afghanistan; bombarding terrorist hideouts in the Afghan border areas; launching a new military operation Rad-ul-Fasad (“elimination of discord”) to consolidate the gains of previous military operations; and extending the duration of the military courts for two more years.
Against this backdrop, it is instructive to reassess the nature and scale of the evolving terrorist threat in Pakistan as well as the efficacy of the proposed counter-measures. In addition, there is a need to take a broader and long-term view of the terrorist and extremist threat. Correspondingly, Pakistan’s responses have to be more holistic and comprehensive, moving beyond the standard securitized and militarized responses.
Given the reach and scale of violence, it is clear that the terrorist threat has become diffused, decentralized, and cell-structured, with no single Pakistani militant group dominating the current terrorist landscape. Moreover, it is externally managed and operated, which is quite consistent with the changing geopolitical trends in South and Central Asia. Arguably, the variable of proxy warfare seems to have replaced the ideological fervor of the terrorist groups in the region. External funding and the sanctuaries afforded to the Pakistani terrorist groups in Afghanistan have given them a new lease of life.
The terrorist threat in Pakistan has shifted from its north-western tribal areas to its south-western province of Balochistan. In 2016, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies’ annual security report, Balochistan was the most volatile region in Pakistan in terms of the number of terrorist attacks (110). More astonishingly, three Islamist militant groups —TTP, JUA, and Lashakre Jhangvi Al-Alami — carried out these attacks as opposed to the Baloch separatist groups.
Traditionally, Balochistan was known for its nationalist-separatist insurgency. It is now witnessing a new wave of Islamist militancy. Three factors account for this new wave of terrorist violence in Balochistan. First, because of the operation of Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan, some TTP militants were dislocated to Balochistan. These TTP remnants have now re-emerged after two years of hibernation and are making their presence felt. Second, some commanders and fighters of TTP, Jandullah, and Lashkare Jhangvi Al-Alami who defected to Daesh to become part of ISK kept a base of operations in Balochistan’s Wadh area along with Nangarhar, Kunar, and Helmand in Afghanistan. Since then, they have carried out a number of attacks in the province to mark their presence.
Third, Balochistan is at the center of changing regional geopolitics in South and Central Asia that now revolves around the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the emerging alliance between Russia, Pakistan, and China. Over the last three months, Russia has hosted two meetings on Afghanistan outside the ambit of US-led Western initiatives on Afghanistan. This has given birth to two rival military and diplomatic blocs: US (West)-India-Afghanistan and China-Russia-Pakistan. The new goals, strategies, and plans of the Pakistani militant groups are consistent with these changing geopolitical trends. Evidently, terrorism continues to be a subset of geopolitics in South Asia and not the other way around.
The terrorists are choosing Pakistani cities for their attacks. Unlike attacks in the peripheral border areas, the attacks in the major urban centers are high-impact, mass casualty, and attract immediate media attention. The Irish political scientist Louise Richardson, in her book What Terrorists Want: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat, notes that by carrying out attacks, terrorist groups seek three Rs: renown, revenge, and reaction. Arguably, the terrorist threat in Pakistan has become urban not only in terms of focus and targets, but also in respect of recruitment and new cells and strategies.
The ISK attacks that targeted Sufi shrines in Balochistan (Shah Noorani) and Sindh (Sehwan Sharif) point to the expansion of sectarian disputes in Pakistan from the traditional Sunni-Shia conflict to intra-Sunni discord between the Sufis and Takfiri-Jihadi-Salafists. Daesh not only apostatizes Shias but they also excommunicate other Sunni schools of thought which do not subscribe to their extremist worldview.
The current Pakistani quest for a state-centric solution to the terrorist threat, which is regional in nature, is self-defeating. Along with overhauling and improving the implementation of its local responses to counter extremism and terrorism, Pakistan will have to explore diplomatic ways and means to open a dialogue with neighboring countries on how to tackle terrorism. No doubt, this is easier said than done, but the hot pursuit of terrorists on foreign soil has its limitations and complications that will only benefit the terrorist outfits. A frank and candid dialogue is required at the regional level to deal with the terrorist threat. Alarmingly, in a span of less than two weeks, Daesh has killed an intelligence operative in Pakistan, hit a hospital in Kabul, and targeted a train in India. It is emerging as a new common threat to the region and the lack of regional dialogue and consensus will further strengthen and embolden it, as noted in the Moscow Meeting Declaration in December 2016.
At the same time, academic and policy discourse on terrorism in Pakistan needs to be broadened and expanded beyond its violent manifestations. It is high time that discussion on non-violent extremism, no matter how controversial, should be initiated on how it sustains violent-extremism in society, and how it keeps up with demand-and-supply through the construction and proselytization of the extremist worldview. Unlike violent extremist groups, which are violent in their goals and actions, non-violent extremists are violent in their goals but not in their actions. The former is action-based extremism while the latter is value-based extremism. However, both share the same value system and objectives: both are self-righteous, exclusivist, discriminating, and claim to know the absolute truth. Non-violent extremists do not renounce violence per se. They do not use it as a matter of tactics, but not as a matter of strategy. As long as Pakistani policy-makers, the strategic community, and intelligentsia continue to shy away from these tough and controversial issues, extremism and terrorism will survive in one shape or other and our fight will remain circular.
Finally, scholarship on extremism and terrorism in Pakistan will have to evolve in a full-fledged discipline along scientific lines with the aim of coming up with indigenous models and tailor-made frameworks that define and conceptualize extremism and terrorism in the Pakistani context, instead of relying on borrowed conceptual frameworks. The aim of scholarship is not to cater to policy-debates but to the broader field of knowledge. Terrorism Studies is a complete discipline, not just a course or a diploma, which will produce the future leaders who will help Pakistan emerge out of this morass.