Abstract: Even as Pakistan has made progress in reducing the threat from terrorist sanctuaries in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal areas, an increased crime-terror nexus in urban centers and a new terrorist recruitment drive by Islamic State Khorasan province, or ISK, in Baluchistan has raised alarms. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is trying to stage a comeback, and sectarianism is also rising, creating a congenial environment for terrorist and extremist organizations, including some Kashmir-focused groups that have evaded counterterrorism scrutiny. Pakistan’s poor investment in developing a much-needed countering violent extremism strategy makes it ill-equipped to respond to these challenges.

Terrorism in Pakistan is down, but by no means out. The number of terror attacks and the number of resulting fatalities have started to tick up again; sectarianism is growing and the causes feeding into radicalization of the population not only continue to exist but, in some instances, are aggravating the problem. The revival of the Afghan Taliban since its nadir in the fall of 2001 coupled with the striking emergence and resilient footprint of the Islamic State Khorasan province, or ISK, in adjacent Afghanistan, in parallel with the rise of Hindu nationalism in neighboring India, indicate worsening extremism trends in South Asia overall. The fact that various groups continue to enjoy immunity from state clampdowns adds a further layer of complexity to the challenge. South Asia has recorded more deaths from terrorism than any other region of the world for two consecutive years now—2018 and 2019.1 Granted, this is partly due to a noteworthy decline in fatalities in the Syria and Iraq conflict theaters, yet it shows that terrorism in South Asia remains a very serious challenge. In terms of measuring the impact of terrorism, the 2020 Global Terrorism Index prepared by Australia’s Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Pakistan seventh (for greatest impact), right after Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen (in that order) and followed by India, Congo, and the Philippines. To have Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan continue to hold a position in the top 10 in this category is not an encouraging sign for regional counterterrorism efforts.2 The complicated relationships between these three countries are also factors at play.

In comparative terms, according to data from the Global Terrorism Index, terrorism attacks have declined since 2018 in Pakistan, as the total number of terrorist incidents dropped from 369 (causing 543 deaths) in 2018 to 279 (causing 300 deaths) in 2019, bringing the number of deaths from terrorism in Pakistan to its lowest annual number since 2006.3 The Global Terrorism Index has not made data available yet for Pakistan in 2020. According to the South Asia Terrorism portal (SATP), there were 319 terrorism related incidents in Pakistan in 2020.4 According to Pakistan’s National Counterterrorism Authority (NACTA), terrorism attacks caused 357 deaths in Pakistan in 2020 (through December 21), a clear increase in the number of victims of terrorism from the previous year.5

While terrorism incident data reflects a generally positive counterterrorism trend, the underlying radicalization trends and lack of evidence that elements active in terrorist organizations (such as Kashmir-focused Jaish-e-Mohammad) have been brought to justice in some shape or form continue to raise legitimate concerns. Measuring extremism is harder as it requires a broader set of data ranging from hate crimes, health of minorities’ rights, youth radicalization trends, and sectarian tendencies. Local security analysts, independent Pakistan watchers, and those with access to relevant data are mostly worried about Pakistan’s direction. The survival of ISK in Afghanistan and Pakistan, despite enhanced counterterrorism operations, is one example of the persistence of the terrorism problem in the region. As Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines insightfully conclude, this is a result of ISK’s “wide network of operational alliances in directly enhancing its lethality and geographical reach” as well as “access to a steady supply of experienced militants on both sides of the border.”6 A new generation of extremist recruits today is enhancing this capacity.

This article looks specifically at terrorism and extremism trends in Pakistan with a focus on relatively new developments that are deemed worthy of deeper analysis and attention. This article examines five dimensions of the terrorism threat faced by Pakistan. It first look at TTP’s efforts to stage a comeback in Pakistan. It then looks at ISK’s new recruitment strategy. Then it examines the upsurge in targeted killings in Karachi. The next section focuses on the evolving threat posed by Kashmiri-focused militant groups. The final section outlines the challenges posed by rising violent sectarianism inside Pakistan. This study benefits from interviews and conversations the author conducted in October-December 2020 with many security and law enforcement officials in Karachi, Kabul, Lahore, and Peshawar.

Pakistani Taliban Regaining Foothold in the Pakistan-Afghanistan Border Areas
First, credit is due to Pakistan’s security forces for terminating the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) reign of terror (roughly 2007-2015) through its effective Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in June 2014. The U.S. drone campaign’s success in decapitating TTP leadership facilitated it in no small way.7 TTP splintered thereafter, and its surviving leaders escaped to Afghanistan.8 Some of its splinter factions either merged into ISK or pledged allegiance to it.9 The TTP’s most lethal splinter Jamaat ul Ahrar (JuA), in collaboration with TTP’s Tariq Gidar Group, was responsible for major terrorist attacks, including on Army Public School in Peshawar in December 2014.a It survived energized Pakistani counterterrorism operations and has continued its terror operations from its new base in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar area.10

Many of these splinter groups, including JuA and Hizb ul- Ahrar (HuA), decided to come together again in August 2020 and renewed their pledge of allegiance to current TTP leader Noor Wali Mehsud, alias Abu Mansour Asim.11 HuA, especially, has an agile terror network in and around the Peshawar region.12 The return of a Mehsud as the TTP leader also persuaded many disgruntled Mehsud tribesmen (such as members of the Hakimullah Mehsud group, led by Mukhlis Yar) to return to the TTP fold.13 Even Punjabi Taliban’s Amjad Farouqi group, closely aligned with al-Qa`ida, and the Usman Saifullah group, a Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) splinter, also returned to the TTP platform.14 The latest to rejoin this notorious gang of terrorists in late November 2020 was influential Ustad Aleem Khan (from the Gul Bahadur TTP faction) and Umar Azzam.15 TTP is proudly marketing the video of this allegiance through its media outlet Umar Media.16

According to a May 2020 UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team report, the number of Pakistani militants of all stripes operating in Afghanistan may be as high as 6,000 to 6,500.17 A great majority of them will likely drift back into Pakistan if TTP regains control in parts of the Pashtun tribal belt sandwiched between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This area was known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (FATA), but has been legally incorporated into Khyber Pukhtunkhwa (KPK) province since 2018. A U.N. report published in February 2021 maintains that TTP was responsible for more than 100 cross-border attacks from Afghanistan into Pakistan between July and October 2020.18

A significant increase in targeted killings in the Pakistani tribal areas during 2020 carried out by terrorist groups indicates that something is amiss. Those targeted lately are tribal elders (senior leaders), reminiscent of times when TTP emerged in 2007 and eliminated hundreds of them.19 Analyst Daud Khattak maintains that increased targeted killings in Waziristan and Bajaur tribal districts are caused by TTP’s “involvement in resolving local disputes, forcing people to pay protection money, and targeting those believed to be their opponents.”20 This was how they gained space in the tribal belt more than a decade ago.21 Al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) did the same in Iraq over a decade and a half ago, showing how terrorist organizations may be learning from each other and why timely comparative analysis of such campaigns can help counterterrorism efforts. According to Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana, by mid-December 2020, about 11 splinter groups had joined this reconfigured TTP, and attacks on security forces in South and North Waziristan, and in Bajaur and Mohmand areas—an old stronghold of TTP—have increased.22 Pakistan’s speedy effort to complete fencing work on the border with Afghanistan, with a goal to discourage militant movement, smuggling, and illegal crossings, has possibly convinced some TTP elements to return to Pakistan from Afghanistan while they can.23 Rustam Shah Mohmand argues that prospects of a negotiated deal in Afghanistan between Kabul and the Afghan Taliban may mean restricted space for TTP types in Afghanistan, and hence, they have started returning to Pakistan.24

One of the major reasons behind TTP’s resurgence as a serious threat, however, is Islamabad’s lackluster effort toward bringing the FATA into the mainstream as envisioned by the 2018 FATA Reforms Bill, a major constitutional initiative.25 The FATA was merged into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province through this belated but commendable legal initiative, on paper abolishing the draconian colonial-era regulations governing the frontier area. The legal, administrative, and financial measures needed to facilitate this process, however, are absent, or seriously lacking, in turn provoking a rise in public frustrations.26 A pertinent example is the recent rise of the Pashtun Tahafuz (Protection) Movement (PTM) led by Manzoor Pashteen, a revolutionary but non-violent protest movement demanding an end to extrajudicial killings in the area by security forces and the elimination of military check posts that restrict the free movement of people. PTM pleads for Pashtun rights, maintaining that the lives of ordinary Pashtuns have been disrupted over the last two decades on a massive scale and that they are victims of both the Taliban and the security forces.27 TTP also used similar criticism of security forces to gain public sympathy, but PTM emphasizes a non-violent approach, distinguishing it from militant organizations.

PTM’s genuine but provocative slogans condemning the role of the Pakistan Army, however, resulted in Pakistani governing authorities publicly presenting it as a threat. To the contrary, it could be argued that PTM should have been welcomed by Islamabad as an ally against the extremist and radical ideologies propagated in the tribal areas, but short-sightedness served as an obstacle to such an understanding. PTM’s popularity across Pashtun communities from Peshawar to Karachi appears to be rising despite the military’s effort to contain the group’s reach.28 A few of the PTM’s leading lights made it into the parliament but that did not prevent them from being depicted as ‘Indian agents’ or ‘enemies of the state,’ charges that are unfortunate and unfounded.29 In fact, Pakistani security forces hired criminal elements and extremist elements to confront PTM on the ground, as explained by Ali Wazir, currently an elected member of Pakistan’s National Assembly and one of the co-founders of the movement:

It is ironic that the institutions responsible for protecting Pakistan’s territorial integrity and protecting it from dangerous threats are bankrolling thugs to launch a Pakistan Zindabad Movement (Urdu for Long Live Pakistan Movement) … It is telling that former Taliban commanders have addressed their gatherings. We also have indications that efforts are underway to mobilize sectarian terrorists and other fanatics to ‘counter’ our peaceful campaign.30

Popular Pakistani columnist Nadeem Paracha calls PTM “a contemporary version of classical Pashtun nationalism” that was “overshadowed by the rise of political Islam and then militancy among various Pashtun tribes.”31 There are indeed elements of nationalist fervor in PTM’s narrative, but its primary focus is on human rights and rule of law and their leaders insist: “We have created a golden opportunity for Islamabad to shun its past as a security state and function as a normal country concerned with the welfare of its citizens.”32 But arrests, kidnapping, and intimidation of PTM supporters and followers at the hands of state agencies continue.33 TTP and other extremists in tribal areas must be relieved to see intelligence services and their proxies getting embroiled into confrontation with PTM rather than confronting TTP ideology and activities.

ISK Expanded Recruitment Drive Targeting Baluchistan’s Brahui Ethnic Group
ISK, which had emerged around 2015 in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region as an extension of the Iraq- and Syria-based Islamic State, in its early days had greatly benefitted from a stream of defections from many regional militant organizations.34 That process has run its course, it appears. Today, ISK is under stress due to regular elimination of its top leadership at the hands of Afghan and U.S. forces, and it is now experimenting with a model that includes a broader recruitment focus as well as the appointment of a foreigner, Shahab al-Muhajir, as its top leader.35 b Some changes in this direction were visible in early 2020, as evident by the recruitment of militants from the Indian state of Kerala who were then used to target a Sikh place of worship in Kabul.36 The more terrorist groups are able to recruit from a particular area, the easier it becomes for them to recruit there because of their deepening local ties, but expanding recruitment to different ethnicities requires wider network and training needs (given linguistic and cultural factors).

As part of its broader recruitment focus, ISK is now likely looking to expand its recruitment efforts in the Brahui (or Brohi) ethnic community in the Pakistan’s Baluchistan province.37 While only a small fraction of Brahuis have any sympathy for ISK, a number have been recruited into its terror campaign. For instance, the masterminds of terrorist attacks targeting a popular Sufi Shrine in Sehwan, Sindh province (2017), a police training center in Quetta, Baluchistan, and many Islamic centers associated with Shi`a communities in the Sindh province turned out to be Brahui militants by the name of Hafeez Pandrani Brohi and Abdullah Brohi, both killed in police encounters in 2019.38 In the case of the Sehwan attack, one of the two suicide bombers was also from Brahui background, namely Barar Brohi.39

Pakistani officials believe that ISK cells are “predominantly present in the border areas of Baluchistan,” and the group keeps the size of these cells small as a strategy for securing their communications and target planning.40

The primary local partner of ISK in Pakistan remains Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJA), an offshoot of the terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) known widely for its targeting of Shi`a communities across the country.41 While LeJ terrorist operations have been focused internally in Pakistan, the LeJA has aspired to operate regionally as its extended title al-Alami, meaning ‘international,’ suggests. More specifically, LeJA has attracted the most notorious of the LeJ cadre who were also more aggressive in their approach. Their parent ideological organization, defunct Sipah-e-Sahaba—now operating as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jammat (ASWJ)—is also operating in Baluchistan, and there are strong allegations of its involvement in terrorist attacks targeting the Shi`a Hazara community in Quetta. Ramzan Mengal (ethnically Brahui), the top leader of ASWJ in Baluchistan, openly campaigned for the killing of Shi`a in the past but remains free and was even permitted to contest national elections in 2018.42

The Brahui factor needs further explanation to get across some important nuances.c The Brahui are distinct from Baluch in the anthropological sense, but they mutually share Baluch political identity and also support the cause of Baluch nationalism.43 Brahui tribes, however, are more conservative and tribal in terms of their network and outlook as compared to other ethnicities and are generally lagging behind in the economic and educational domains.44 They are in the majority in Khuzdar, Kalat, and Mastung districts but also have a significant presence in the Quetta, Noshki, and Kharan districts of Baluchistan as well as in some Sindh districts including Shikarpur, Jacobabad, and Qambar Shahdatkot. An important distinguishing feature of Brahui identity is their religious inclinations. Brahui areas host most of the madrassas (Islamic seminaries), and most prayer leaders in the province consequently are from Brahui background. That in itself is not worthy of security concern, but the fact remains that extremist groups have had opportunities to recruit through madrassas in this area.

Since its inception in 2010,45 LeJA has made strategic inroads into Brahui-dominant areas in Baluchistan as well as Sindh province. One leading indicator of this was the trajectory of the terrorist leader Hafeez Pandrani Brohi (mentioned above), hailing originally from Baluchistan’s Mastung district and trained initially by LeJ.46 Pakistani intelligence services, or some sectarian elements within it, possibly facilitated LeJ’s move to Baluchistan to confront the Baluch nationalists, especially Baluch Liberation Army (BLA), around the 2007-2010 timeframe. Scholar Stephen Tankel in his 2013 paper on militant infrastructure in Pakistan maintained that, “Rumors persist about Pakistani military support for LeJ militants in Balochistan to degrade the separatist insurgency in that province. There is no evidence of an institutionalized policy, however, and the military has denied these charges vociferously. It is possible some officers overlook or abet LeJ activities because they are seen as targeting enemies of the state.”47

Rahimullah Yusufzai, a Pakistani journalist known for his in-depth stories about the Taliban and other extremist groups, aptly argues, “Call it infiltration, or what you will, but the LeJ has succeeded in recruiting Baloch, once considered quite secular.”48 According to reliable media accounts in Pakistan, LeJ training camps were run in the second half of the 2000s from Mastung and Khuzdar in Pakistan.49

The fact that many LeJ (and LeJA) militants have been able to escape from police and even military custody in Baluchistan has reinforced the view that there is an ongoing LeJ-security forces linkage.50 The recurrence of such escapes (and from high security zone detention facilities) has further entrenched the view that official support was involved.

Shafiq Mengal (ethnically Brahui), an LeJ militant known as a “pawn set by the intelligence agencies to counter Baloch militants in the province,” is an example of a religious extremist turned national asset of Pakistani intelligence.51 Tariq Khosa, former Inspector General of Police of Baluchistan and a brave writer, laments state backing for private militias and aptly argues that “the decision to use Shafiq as a proxy against certain Baloch separatist organizations allowed proscribed sectarian groups to regroup in and around Quetta.”52 Rafique Mengal, another LeJ terrorist who was found involved in many killings of Hazara Shi`a in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, received state protection, at least in the early 2010s, for his political work against Baluch nationalists.53 Such state blunders continue to empower groups that widen sectarian rifts and open the doors for groups such as ISK to expand their terror networks in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies are very concerned about the recruitment drive of ISK-LeJA targeting the Brahui-dominated areas, and as discussed, this trend is also visible from publicly available data.54 This indicates at the least that the ISK-LeJA tandem is looking for opportunities to exploit. LeJ used to get most of its recruits from south Punjab—a critical hub for many extremist organizations in Pakistan—so its move via its LeJA offshoot to Baluchistan (in alliance with ISK) is a development worth taking note of and probing further.

A likely motivating factor for ISK’s enhanced recruitment drive in Baluchistan is the high number of clashes between the Afghan Taliban (mostly Pashtun) and ISK occurring in Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangahar provinces bordering Pakistan. This area is important for ISK as it hosts its central operational base. Given Pakistan’s past practice and presumed support for the Afghan Taliban in these campaigns, ISK’s retaliation through terror acts in Pakistan is highly probable. To pull off such a terror campaign, it is possible ISK will seek to step up the deployment of Brahui violent extremists as one way to both leverage and aggravate Baluch-Brahui versus Pashtun rivalries in the area.

The evolving nature of the Afghan Taliban-ISK war is evident from the October 27, 2020, ISK terror attack in Peshawar targeting a seminary led by Shaikh Rahim ullah Haqqani, a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, who had publicly declared followers of ISK as enemies of Islam.55 Haqqani’s lecture was being livestreamed when the attack occurred, leading to the death of eight students while 136 were wounded.56 Another Afghan Taliban commander, Abdul Samad Mullah Toor, was assassinated by unknown assailants in the outskirts of Peshawar, on January 24, 2021.57

Pakistani rescue workers examine the site of a bomb explosion in an Islamic seminary, in Peshawar, Pakistan, on October 27, 2020. (Muhammad Sajjad/AP Photo)

Targeted Killings in Karachi
Pakistani security experts believe that a new generation of religious militants is coming of age in Pakistan, and these tech-savvy individuals are mostly based in urban centers such as Karachi and Lahore.58 In ideological terms, this pool of individuals harbors salafi-takfiri leanings, ever ready to excommunicate Muslims who are different from them, and they have relatively little baggage in terms of inter-group rivalries as was the case with those who participated in the ‘Afghan Jihad’ of the 1980s.59 These individuals are more global in their outlook and ambitions, and are largely radicalized through online sources.60 d

A rise in targeted killings by extremists in Karachi during 2020 raised serious concerns within Pakistani security agencies about the increased activities of some local extremist groups, some with transnational connections, that they were not tracking closely.61 A senior counterterrorism department officer in Islamabad shared with the author that based on data from Karachi police, they have concluded that four terrorist groups allied with local criminal gangs are quite active in Karachi and Sindh province lately: ‘Lyari gang,’ a Karachi-based criminal network;62 elements of Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), a designated terrorist outfit with its base in Baluchistan province;63 Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army, a relatively new, shadowy group;64 and criminal elements from the Altaf-led faction Muttihada Qaumi Movement (MQM-A), a political party that has splintered into many factions since its London-based leadership were declared personae non gratae by many leaders of the party as well as Pakistani security agencies for their involvement in criminal activities and alleged ties with Indian intelligence.65 Many criminal elements from MQM-A escaped Pakistan and now reportedly hide in South Africa.66 It is important to clarify that some of the four Karachi groups specified above have been in existence for many years, but lately they have been more active than usual according to local police assessments. The author’s conversations with police officials in Karachi indicate that many of the underground jihadis are found involved in narcotics smuggling activity and Sindh and Punjab police forces are closely monitoring this trend.67

Cracking down on these Karachi groups will in some cases need to be an international endeavor. The United Arab Emirates remains a destination for many criminals from the Karachi area and other parts of Pakistan.68 For instance, the prime suspect in the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi in November 2018, named Rashid Brohi and belonging to BLA, was arrested in July 2019 in UAE by Interpol.69

The Evolving Threat Posed by Kashmiri-focused Groups
The activities of Kashmir-focused militant groups and other organizations that aspire to be active in Indian-controlled Kashmir remain a concern. There are no indications that groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM) led by the notorious Masood Azhar have been decommissioned.70

In early 2020, a Urdu-language magazine managed by al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), titled Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind (roughly Voice of the Battlefield of India), started campaigning for focus on Kashmir, raising alarm bells in India.71 The latest edition (January 2021) of this magazine not only carries articles on Kashmir but its language and content clearly indicates that it is published by ‘battle hardened’ militants with experience in Kashmir and Afghanistan.e

While Kashmir-focused militant groups are generally keeping a low profile within Pakistan (likely due to the hanging sword of ‘Financial Action Task Force’ on Islamabad’s head),f there is a real danger that some elements that differ with this quietism strategy may join AQIS. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan warned his countrymen against any effort to “wage Jihad in Kashmir” and cautioned them by saying: “Anyone, who thinks that he will cross the border to join the Kashmiris, is a big enemy of them and Pakistan.”72 This indicates resolve on the part of political leadership at least. There is no credible evidence that AQIS is operating in Kashmir at this time, but its publications clearly show intent and motivation to do so.

Many of these Kashmir-focused Pakistani militants, as is known from their track record, jump between groups depending on geopolitics and security vulnerabilities. The mood of intelligence agencies is also kept in view.

Deepening Sectarianism
Sunni-Shi`a sectarianism, mostly anti-Shi`a platforms, has long been exploited by violent extremist groups in Pakistan, and as outlined below, it is once again on the rise. Lately, Pakistan’s Ahmadi community has also been on the receiving end as there has been a recent spike in targeted killing against them.73 The intra-Sunni Barelvi-Deobandi rivalry also continues to simmer hazardously in the background, as Tehrike-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a radical Barelvi group, has energized its base by insisting on the strict implementation of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. In the process, it is regaining the political ground it had lost to the Deobandis “since the rise of jihadism in the 1980s.”74

Disturbingly, recent months have seen heightened anti-Shi`a rhetoric expressed through major street protests, involving ultra conservative political forces, in Karachi and Islamabad.75 Sectarian and extremist ASWJ played an active role in this campaign.76 These street protests could lead to even more sectarianism, which has proved in the past to have empowered terrorists of all stripes in Pakistan besides widening the door for Saudi-versus-Iran games to be played in the country.77 Islamic State-like organizations also thrive where sectarian tensions are high. An editorial of Pakistan’s leading newspaper Dawn captured the gist of this development well:

The embers of hate are once again being stoked. To prevent history from being repeated and innocent blood spilled in the name of religion, the government must act urgently and decisively. The state’s silence is indeed inexplicable. It appears to have willfully chosen to close its eyes to this sinister development.78

Pakistan’s Shi`a Hazara, located mostly in Quetta, continue to pay a heavy price. 2021 began for them with the brutal murder of 11 Hazara coal miners who were kidnapped and their throats slit. Gruesome images of the victims were distributed through the Islamic State’s Amaq news service.79 The Pakistani security analyst Amir Rana, in making security projections for Pakistan for 2021, aptly observes that “incidents of communal violence and religious and sectarian hatred have become a regular feature of Pakistan’s security and political landscape” and “sectarian discord and the groups promoting it continue to persist.”80

As this article has outlined, Pakistan’s counterterrorism challenges are evolving. While there is relative stability in the Pakistan-Afghanistan tribal belt and the overall violence levels have dropped since 2018, the TTP in particular are assertively trying to regroup and stage a comeback. While their infrastructure has been degraded earlier, nothing tangible was done to challenge the extremists’ ideology of hate. Countering violent extremism efforts have remained limited in focus and poorly resourced.81 Economic failings and disparities in Pakistan have also offered opportunities for ISK terrorists to target vulnerable communities for recruitment, such as the Brahui in Baluchistan. ISK is a serious danger for South Asia, and its potential to grow further should not be underestimated. ISK’s creation of two subdivisions, namely Islamic State-Hind and Islamic State-Pakistan, in 2019 reflect its ambitions in the region.82 Islamabad’s policy of looking for proxies to fight insurgents and extremists has backfired.83 And the Kashmir-focused militants, though quieter and keeping a low profile since 2017, could also come out of their hibernation—on the state’s behalf or possibly on their own out of frustration—redirecting their energies toward India, which could lead to India-Pakistan military conflict. Heightened sectarianism also complicates Pakistan’s security scene. As Tariq Parvez, a seasoned Pakistani counterterrorism expert and former head of NACTA, argues:

The current resurgence of violent sectarianism in Pakistan is much more dangerous than the sectarianism in earlier decades, due to 3 factors, i.e. Barelvis joining them, Shia/Sunni returnees from Syria, and TTP/ISK/LeJ combo to attack each other. Government must react promptly and firmly.84

The economic burden of dealing with COVID-19 is only going to make Pakistan’s counterterrorism challenges harder. While threats of suicide bombings in urban centers and terrorist attacks targeting progressive political leaders have receded relatively speaking, religious intolerance and threats to minority groups continue as serious problems. In the author’s assessment based on his field research, Pakistan’s criminal justice system, and especially its police, lacks the capacity and resources to serve as the first line of defense against terrorism.85 The present government of Pakistan under Prime Minister Imran Khan, despite its promises,86 has failed to introduce police reforms. Afzal Shigri, a former inspector general of the police and an advocate for rule of law, warns that this will have “horrendous impact on the future governance and politics of Pakistan.”87 The five dimensions to the terrorist threat discussed in this article will only grow in magnitude and lethality if they remain untreated.

Pakistani officials appear to be more prone to dismissing these challenges as externally induced effortsg to disrupt the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).h While regional rivalries and tensions are a reality, the hard truth is that the state of Pakistan has invested very little in its countering violent extremism campaigns and deradicalization programs. One potentially beneficial initiative recently introduced pertains to intelligence coordination, bringing all civilian and military intelligence agencies under one umbrella.88 However, equally crucial is coordination—and in some cases, mutual trust—between the country’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and that remains a weak link in Pakistan’s counterterrorism efforts.89

Terrorists with a regional and global mission are constantly looking for opportunities to exploit, and Pakistan, having paid dearly in the past for its mistakes, needs to take these challenges very seriously. The infrastructure development projects under CPEC, as well as economic growth prospects, are at stake. Pakistan simply cannot afford to return to the old days when terrorism bogged it down almost completely, arresting its potential and progress.     CTC

Hassan Abbas is Distinguished Professor of International Relations at Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies (NESA) at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the forthcoming The Prophet’s Heir: The Life of Ali ibn Abi Talib (Yale University Press, March 2021). Twitter: @watandost

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Defense University or the Department of Defense.

® 2021 Hassan Abbas

Substantive Notes
[a] According to the ISIL and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee of the United Nations Security Council, the attack was conducted by Tariq Gidar Group (TGG) in association with al-Qa`ida and in conjunction with or on behalf of JuA, TTP, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). See “Tariq Gidar Group (TGG),” United Nations Security Council.

[b] There is still some speculation that Shahab al-Muhajir is a Pakistani, Afghan, or even a Tajik per some sources and that the name (with the addition of al-Muhajir, meaning immigrant/refugee) is an attempt to hide his local roots. See “Andrabi claims new Daesh leader is a Haqqani member,” Ariana News, August 4, 2020.

[c] The author is grateful to Baluch-American journalist Siraj Akbar for helping him understand these nuances. The framing, however, is the author’s. Author interview, Siraj Akbar, December 2020.

[d] It is important to note, however, that many established and older extremist groups continue to recruit and expand their network through physical contact and through extremist religious gatherings and printed publications.

[e] The magazine Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind was earlier titled Nawai Afghan Jihad (The Voice of Afghan Jihad) and has been printed continuously for the last 14 years, as claimed on its contents page.

[f] The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog. FATF added Pakistan to its grey list in June 2018, indicating “strategic weaknesses” in Pakistan’s countering money laundering and terror financing efforts. To avoid moving onto the FATF black list, Pakistan was asked to take a series of measures (27 actions to be specific). By October 2020, Pakistan was deemed to have taken action on 21 out of 27 specified areas, and its progress is still being reviewed by FATF. For details, see “Explained: FATF, Pakistan and the ‘Grey List,’” WIRE, October 24, 2020. For Pakistan’s progress, see “Mutual Evaluation of Pakistan,” Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering, September 2020.

[g] In November 2020, Pakistan claimed it had “irrefutable evidence” that India was behind some terrorist activity in Pakistan. India has refuted this claim. Naveed Siddiqui, “Irrefutable evidence: Dossier on India’s sponsorship of state terrorism in Pakistan presented,” Dawn, November 14, 2020; Avinash Paliwal, “The strategic value of a dead dossier,” Observer Research Foundation, November 27, 2020.

[h] The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, benefiting from a multi-billion dollar Chinese investment, extends the land and maritime routes that connect the two countries through Gwadar port and a network of approximately 2,000 miles of railways, roads, and pipelines. For original plan details, see Khurram Husain, “Exclusive: CPEC master plan revealed,” Dawn, June 21, 2017; Andrew Small, “Returning to the Shadows: China. Pakistan and the Fate of CPEC,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, September 23, 2020.

[1] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, Sydney, November 2020, p. 2.

[2] Ibid., p. 8.

[3] Ibid., p. 50.

[4] “Number of Terrorism Related Incidents Year Wise, Datasheet – Pakistan,” South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), accessed February 11, 2021.

[5] Amir Wasim, “Fazl among 20 politicians facing ‘serious threats to life’: minister,” Dawn, December 22, 2020.

[6] Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, Broken but Not defeated: An Examination of State-led Operations against Islamic State Khorasan in Afghanistan and Pakistan (2015-2018) (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2020), p. VI.

[7] For a discussion about the broader impact of the U.S. drone campaign, see Hassan Abbas, “Are Drone Strikes Killing Terrorists or Creating Them?” Atlantic, March 31, 2013.

[8] Asad Hashim “Exclusive: Pakistani Taliban down but not out, says ex-spokesman,” Al Jazeera, April 3, 2020. See also Umair Jamal, “Are US Forces Striking Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Members in Afghanistan for Islamabad?” Diplomat, February 14, 2020.

[9] For details, see Amira Jadoon, Allied and Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s Network and Organizational Capacity in Afghanistan and Pakistan (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2018), pp. 35-36, 54-58.

[10] See “Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA),” United Nations Security Council.

[11] Daud Khattak, “Whither the Pakistani Taliban: An Assessment of Recent Trends,” New America, August 31, 2020.

[12] Author interview, senior police officer in Peshawar, October 2020.

[13] Khattak.

[14] “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations, January 20, 2020.

[15] “Shamali Waziristan se Taaluk rakhne wale do Taliban groupon ka TTP se Ittehad Ka Elaan,” Tribal News, November 28, 2020.

[16] “Allegiance of two popular North Waziristan’s Jihadi organizations’ leaders, Maulvi Aleem Khan and Commander Ghazi Omar Azzam, to TTP leader Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud,” Umar Media video, November 27, 2020. For a detailed assessment of this development, see Abdul Sayed, “Waziristan Militant Leader Aleem Khan Ustad Joins Tehreek-e-Taliban,” Militant Leadership Monitor 11:12 (2021).

[17] “Eleventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2501 (2019) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 19, 2020, p. 20.

[18] “Twenty-fifth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring.”

[19] “Four tribal elders shot dead in North Waziristan,” The News, December 1, 2020. See also “Two More Tribal Elders Shot Dead In Northwestern Pakistan; Six Total Killed This Week,” Gandhara, December 2, 2020.

[20] Khattak.

[21] For background, see Hassan Abbas, “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel 1:2 (2008) and Hassan Abbas, “From FATA to the NWFP,” CTC Sentinel 1:10 (2008).

[22] “Kya Qabaeli Azlaa main dahshatgard phir saar Utha rahee hain [Are terrorists again raising their heads in Tribal districts],” Urdu interview with Amir Rana, Rifatullah Orakzai YouTube Channel, December 15, 2020.

[23] For details about border fencing, see Ayaz Gul, “Pakistan says Afghan Border Fence Nearly Complete,” Voice of America, December 4, 2020.

[24] Rustam Shah Mohmand, “Why attacks surge in northwest Pakistan,” Arab News, September 24, 2020.

[25] For details, see “Shaping a New Peace in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas,” ICG Report No. 150, August 20, 2018.

[26] Author interview, Imtiaz Ali, December 2020. For detail about change in FATA legal status in merger into KPK province, see Imtiaz Ali, “Mainstreaming Pakistan’s Federally Administrative Tribal Areas: Reform Initiatives and Roadblocks,” USIP Special Report 421, March 2018, and Wajeeha Malik and Shakeeb Asrar, “Post-Merger Inaction in FATA: Expectations Vs. Reality,” South Asian Voices, July 10, 2019.

[27] For instance, see Abubakar Siddiqui, “Leader’s Arrest Galvanizes Pashtun Rights Movement in Pakistan,” Gandhara, January 30, 2020.

[28] See Madiha Afzal, “Why is Pakistan’s military repressing a huge, non-violent Pashtun protest movement?” Brookings, February 7, 2020.

[29] “Radio Pak claims MNAs Dawar, Wazir ‘fulfilling vested Indian agenda through Afghanistan,’” Dawn, March 10, 2020. See also Hasib Danish Alikozai, “Pakistani Activist Rejects Charges Foreign Spying Agencies Funding His Group,” Voice of America, May 7, 2019.

[30] Quoted in Ali Wazir, “What Does the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement Want?” Diplomat, April 27, 2018.

[31] Nadeem F. Paracha, “Smoker’s Corner: How Should the State Deal with PTM?” Dawn, February 3, 2020.

[32] Ibid. See also Mohsin Dawar, “Opinion: We are peacefully demanding change in Pakistan. The military says we’re ‘traitors,’” Washington Post, February 14, 2020.

[33] For instance, see “Peshawar police arrest MNA Ali Wazir,” The News, December 16, 2020. See also Mohsin Dawar, “Pashtuns’ struggle for rights cannot be silenced through violence,” Al Jazeera, June 20, 2020.

[34] For details, see Amira Jadoon, Nakissa Jahanbani, and Charmaine Willis, “Challenging the ISK Brand in Afghanistan-Pakistan: Rivalries and Divided Loyalties,” CTC Sentinel 11:4 (2018).

[35] Abdul Sayed, “Who is the New Leader of Islamic State – Khorasan Province?” Lawfare, September 2, 2020.

[36] For details, see Animesh Roul, “Islamic State-Khorasan Remains Potent Force in Afghan Jihad,” Terrorism Monitor 8:11 (2020).

[37] Assessment based on multiple author interviews with security (counterterrorism) officials serving in Quetta and Karachi, October 2020.

[38] “Mastermind of several major terror attacks killed in encounter,” Dawn, March 1, 2019. See also Hafeez Tunio, “Two high-profile Daesh terrorists killed in encounter,” Express Tribune, March 1, 2019.

[39] Naeem Sahoutara, “Two ‘IS militants’ get death on 70 counts in Qalandar shrine suicide blast case,” Dawn, May 19, 2020.

[40] Kunwar Khuldune Shahid, “ISIS schemes with jihadist groups in Pakistan,” Asia Times, November 27, 2019.

[41] For background, see Farhan Zahid, “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi al-Alami: A Pakistani partner for Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor 15:2 (2017). See also Jadoon, Allied and Lethal, pp. 40-41, 50-51.

[42] Gul Yousafzai, “Minority Hazaras in Pakistan protest for third day after Quetta attack,” Reuters, April 14, 2019; See also Asad Hashim, “Quetta Hazaras despair as religious supremacists contest elections,” Al Jazeera, July 15, 2018.

[43] See Haris Gazdar, Sobia Ahmad Kaker, and Irfan Khan, “Buffer Zone, Colonial Enclave or Urban Hub? Quetta: Between Four Regions and Two Wars,” Working Paper no. 69, Development Studies Institute, London School of Economics, February 2010.

[44] Author interview, Malik Siraj Akbar, December 2020.

[45] See “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al Alami,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University. For a detailed profile of LeJ, see “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University.

[46] See Syed Arfeen, “The Hunt for Hafeez Brohi,” Friday Times, February 24, 2017. See also Zia Ur Rehman, “Militant North of the Country’s South,” News on Sunday, December 9, 2018.

[47] Stephen Tankel, “Domestic Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan,” United States Institute of Peace, September 2013.

[48] Zofeen T. Ebrahim, “Hazara Killers – supported from Punjab to the Middle East,” Dawn, February 13, 2013.

[49] Ibid.

[50] For instance, see “Usman Kurd, the man who caused fall of Raisani govt,” The News, January 15, 2013.

[51] Saher Baloch, “Herald Exclusive: Mangled Facts,” Herald, March 20, 2014.

[52] Quoted in Maqbool Ahmed, “How death stalks policemen in Quetta,” Herald, April 25, 2018.

[53] Author interview, police officer in Quetta, January 2021. For Rafique Men­gal’s LeJ connection, see Arif Rafiq, “How Pakistan Protects Itself from Regional Sectarian War,” National Interest, September 15, 2015. See also Mohammad Taqi, “Murder and Mayhem in Balochistan,” Daily Times, June 10, 2015.

[54] Author interviews, police officers in Karachi and Quetta, November 2020.

[55] See Shaikh Rahimullah Haqqani declaring ISIS/ISK followers as khawarij, meaning rejectionists, who left the fold of Islam, in “Who are Khawarij here: Full Details,” YouTube video, February 4, 2020. See also “IS ‘prime suspect’ for Peshawar seminary bombing,” Dawn, October 30, 2020.

[56] For details, see Riaz Khan, “Bomb at seminary in Pakistan kills 8 students, wounds 136,” Associated Press, October 27, 2020.

[57] See Tahir Khan, “Senior Afghan Taliban commander shot dead near Peshawar,” Daily Times, January 25, 2021.

[58] Abdul Basit, “Threat of Urban Jihadism in South Asia,” Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses 10:3 (2018): pp. 3-4. See also Huma Yusuf, “University Radicalization: Pakistan’s Next Counterterrorism Challenge,” CTC Sentinel 9:2 (2016).

[59] On a new generation of salafi-thinking radicals in Pakistan, see Jasmin Lorch, “Trajectories of Political Salafism: Insights from the Ahle Hadith Movement in Pakistan and Bangladesh,” Middle East Institute, October 30, 2018.

[60] Author interview, police officers in Karachi and Lahore, December 2019.

[61] For instance, see Zia Ur Rahman, “Recent attacks show resurgence of Sindhi separatists and TTP in Karachi: CRSS report,” The News, October 8, 2020.

[62] See Imtiaz Ali, “Police see new underground group behind recent targeted killings in Karachi,” Dawn, January 31, 2019.

[63] See Animesh Roul, “Pakistan Confronts Resurgent Baluch Ethno-Separatist Militancy,” Terrorism Monitor 18:15 (2020).

[64] See Syed Raza Hassan, “Coordinated blasts kill four in Pakistan, including soldiers,” Reuters, June 19, 2020.

[65] For background, see Owen Bennet-Jones, “Altaf Hussain, the notorious MQM leader who swapped Pakistan for London,” Guardian, July 29, 2013. See also S. Akbar Zaidi, “The rise and fall of Altaf Hussain,” The Hindu, September 8, 2016.

[66] See “Rangers arrest MQM-South Africa activists, recover ‘biggest ever cache of weapons,” The News, December 12, 2018. See also “Shehla Raza, Saeed Ghani receive life threats from MQM-South Africa,” ARY News, May 4, 2019.

[67] Author interviews, police officers in Lahore and Karachi, November 2020.

[68] Author interview, police officer in Karachi, November 2020. See also “Pakistanis pose a threat to Gulf communities, says Dubai security chief,” Dawn, January 2, 2020. UAE is also used as a transit point for human trafficking from Pakistan. For details, see “Recent trends of human trafficking and migrant smuggling to and from Pakistan,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, July 2013. For sex trafficking in and through UAE, see “Trafficking in Persons Report 2019,” U.S. Department of State, June 2019.

[69] Aamir Latif, “Pakistan: ‘Mastermind’ of Chinese consulate attack held,” AA Agency News, July 3, 2019.

[70] For a profile of Masood Azhar, see Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, “The Terrorist Who Got Away,” New York Times, March 19, 2020.

[71] See Rezaul H Laskar and Aadil Mir, “Al-Qaeda’s India affiliate hints at shifting focus to Kashmir,” Hindustan Times, March 22, 2020.

[72] Shahid Hamid, “PM Imran warns against crossing LoC for Kashmir Jihad,” Express Tribune, September 19, 2019.

[73] “Pakistan: Surge in Targeted Killings of Ahmedis,” Human Rights Watch, November 26, 2020.

[74] For background, see Mohammad Taqi, “What Does the Death of Barelvi Firebrand Khadim Rizvi Mean for Sectarian Politics,” WIRE, November 28, 2020.

[75] For details, see Shah Meer Baloch and Hannah Ellis-Petersen, “Pakistani Shias live in terror as sectarian violence increases,” Guardian, October 21, 2020.

[76] Jaffer A. Mirza, “The Changing Landscape of Anti-Shia Politics in Pakistan,” Diplomat, September 28, 2020.

[77] For background and details, see Hassan Abbas, Shiism and Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan: Identity Politics, Iranian Influence and Tit-for-Tat Violence, Occasional Paper Series (West Point, NY: Combating Terrorism Center, 2010).

[78] “Sectarian Tensions,” Dawn Editorial, September 21, 2020.

[79] See Asad Hashim and Saadullah Akhter, “Pakistani Hazara families refuse to bury dead after attack,” Al Jazeera, January 4, 2021.

[80] Muhammad Amir Rana, “Security projections for 2021,” Dawn, January 24, 2021.

[81] For details, see Rashad Bukhari and Qamar-ul Huda, “A Critique of Countering Violent Extremism Programs in Pakistan,” Center for Global Policy, July 2020.

[82] For details, see Ayaz Gul, “Islamic State Announces ‘Pakistan Province,’” Voice of America, May 15, 2019.

[83] For comparable examples, see Hassan Abbas and Nadia Gerspacher, “The Irregulars,” Foreign Policy, March 30, 2015.

[84] See Tariq Parvez, “TTP militancy was by one sunni sub sect ie deobandies and was anti state as …,” Twitter, September 19, 2020. Parvez reiterated what he stated in his tweet in a phone communication with the author in December 2020.

[85] For details, see Hassan Abbas ed., Stabilizing Pakistan Through Police Reforms (New York: Asia Society, 2012). See also Robert Perito and Tariq Pervez, “A Counterterrorism Role for Pakistan’s Police Stations,” USIP Special Report 351, August 2014.

[86] See Ansar Abbasi, “Police reforms – the govt’s forgotten agenda,” The News, July 17, 2019.

[87] Afzal Shigri, “Politics of Police Reform,” Dawn, December 19, 2020.

[88] Baqir Sajjad Syed, “PM okays creation of liaison body for spy agencies,” Dawn, November 24, 2020.

[89] Author interview, Tariq Khosa, former Inspector General of Police in Baluchistan, Dubai, UAE, December 2019.

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up