Pakistan’s Khyber Agency has long been a stronghold for the militant group Lashkar-i-Islam (LI) and its leader, Mangal Bagh. Multiple operations launched by Pakistan’s military in Khyber failed to dislodge LI from its safe haven in the Bara area, which is located just 12 miles from Pakistan’s northern city of Peshawar.[1] Although Mangal Bagh and LI had to contend with a number of competing militia groups in Khyber, by 2007 his group had emerged as the most powerful in the agency, recruiting young men into its ranks, forcing civilians to grow their beards, barring women from markets, banning music and imposing taxes on wealthy locals and minorities.[2] LI’s consolidation of power came after a rival militia, Qazi Mahboob’s Ansar-ul-Islam (AI),[3] fled into the remote Tirah Valley after months of clashes with LI,[4] and after another rival leader, Haji Namdar Khan of the Taliban-style Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (AMNAM) group,[5] was reportedly assassinated by militants from Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Yet in April 2011, a group of locals from the Zakhakhel sub-tribe[6] in the Tirah Valley formed a militia and demanded that LI leave the area. Shortly after the demand, armed clashes occurred between Zakhakhel tribesmen and LI members, with both sides suffering casualties. The Zakhakhel tribesmen eventually named their militia Tawheedul Islam (TI), and they continued to attack LI throughout 2011. By November 2011, the Zakhakhel succeeded in pushing LI out of the Bara area of Khyber.

The situation in Khyber is a pertinent example of how quickly militant groups operating in the tribal areas can fall out of favor. This article discusses the emergence of TI and reviews how the group managed to defeat LI in Khyber Agency. It then assesses the current strength of LI in light of its recent losses.

The Emergence of Tawheedul Islam
One of LI’s key support bases in the strategic Tirah Valley was the Zakhakhel sub-tribe. Members of the Zakhakhel comprised a significant portion of LI’s ranks. Yet in April 2011, a group of the Zakhakhel revolted against LI chief Mangal Bagh. Key Zakhakhel commanders, such as Tayyab and Ghuncha Gul, deserted Mangal Bagh following a monetary dispute.[7] In addition to this disagreement, another incident further alienated the Zakhakhel from LI. In March 2011, LI kidnapped and killed Zakhakhel tribesman and religious leader Maulana Hasham on the belief that he was conspiring against the group.[8] Zakhakhel tribesmen demanded that Mangal Bagh punish Hasham’s killers, yet he reportedly refused. At the same time, Ghuncha Gul, who defected from LI, was captured by Mangal Bagh’s forces. As a result of these incidents, Zakhakhel youth took up arms against LI, which caused a number of LI’s Zakhakhel members to leave the organization and join their tribal compatriots in TI.

With the formation of the TI militia, the Zakhakhel tribesmen engaged in numerous clashes with LI in the Bazaar Zakhakhel area, located near the town of Landi Kotal and a key entry point to the Tirah Valley. By November 2011, TI, with the support of the local political administration, largely succeeded in expelling LI from the Zakhakhel tribal areas.[9] Today, TI maintains security in the Bazaar Zakhakhel area of Khyber, preventing the return of LI.

Although TI could be considered a lashkar (tribal militia), they prefer not to identify themselves as such.[10] Lashkars are generally considered anti-Taliban, and Taliban factions are known to target any newly-formed lashkar. The Zakhakhel who comprise TI have no enmity with the Taliban in general or with other militant groups active in the area. Their only aim is to prevent Mangal Bagh and LI from gaining access to Zakhakhel areas.[11] Therefore, they likely choose to downplay the fact that they are a tribal militia out of fear of reprisal attacks.

TI is estimated to have 300-350 members.[12] Under tribal traditions, each family among the Zakhakhel is required to send one person as a volunteer to the militia. TI also receives support from the political administration in the area, from which it has received weapons, ammunition, trucks and money. Nevertheless, in their fight against LI, TI did not receive any direct combat help from Pakistan’s military.[13]

TI also receives income from smuggling goods to and from Afghanistan, such as spare automobile parts, imported fabrics and food.[14] This same smuggling route through Khyber was previously used by LI, from which it earned thousands of dollars daily. Indeed, it was the issue of how to divide the profits that caused the original split between LI and the Zakhakhel in early 2011.

The Current Status of Lashkar-i-Islam
Once the strongest militant group in Khyber Agency’s Bara area as well as in the Tirah region, LI’s operating space has been reduced dramatically in the past two years. Although there are several causes for this weakness, the key factor has been the desertion of the Zakhakhel from its ranks and the formation of the rival TI. Two other sub-tribes in Khyber, the Kookikhel and Akakhel, have also organized lashkars to keep their areas secured from LI and other militant outfits.

As a result, LI has been largely restricted to the Naray Baba, Sandapal and a few other areas of the Tirah Valley.[15] LI mainly draws support from the Sipah (Mangal Bagh’s own tribe), Malak Dinkhel, Kamarkhel and Shlobar sub-tribes, which are providing its volunteers a safe route to move back and forth between the Tirah Valley and the Bara region. As a result of the recent phase of Pakistani military operations, the increasing attacks on LI from the TTP’s Geedar Group[16] (also known as TTP Darra Adamkhel chapter) and the strength of the Zakhakhel sub-tribe, many of Mangal Bagh’s members reportedly trimmed their beards and fled to cities to start a civilian life.[17] Today, the number of core volunteers of Mangal Bagh’s LI likely does not exceed 300, yet he could probably call upon a few thousand more from allied tribes if necessary.[18]

LI’s primary revenue sources were previously the control of smuggling routes to and from Afghanistan, kidnap-for-ransom operations, and the forceful collection of taxes from wealthy tribesmen, including Khyber-based parliamentarians, as well as locals. Since the rise of TI, however, the smuggling routes have been closed to LI, denting its revenue stream dramatically.[19]

The kidnap-for-ransom business has also been squeezed with the shrinking of LI’s sphere of influence and closure of roads. When LI used Bara as its base camp, it was easy for the group to kidnap people in Peshawar and then shift them to the safety of Bara or Tirah. This is no longer possible due to the success of TI. Moreover, the presence of army troops in Bara has forced Bagh’s members to take refuge in the Sipah and Shlobar areas of the Tirah Valley where movement to and from Peshawar is difficult if not impossible.[20] As for extortion, this revenue stream has also been constrained. The majority of locals in the region have vacated their homes as a result of the Pakistani military’s ongoing operations, and they have moved to Peshawar or the Jalozai internally displaced persons camp.[21]

Mangal Bagh’s current whereabouts are unknown. In March 2012, there was speculation that he may have been killed while fighting rival militias in the Tirah Valley.[22] Yet officials from KP have been unable to confirm the report, and a spokesman from LI said that Mangal Bagh is still alive. Other reports suggest that Mangal Bagh and his key commanders fled to Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province.[23] Yet the provincial government of KP, as well as Pakistani military officials, has no information about these reports.[24]

The recent developments in Khyber Agency, particularly the stiff resistance from the Zakhakhel, Akakhel and Kookikhel sub-tribes, have marked at least the temporary end of Mangal Bagh’s reign. The actions of the sub-tribes have allowed Pakistan’s security forces to more vigorously pursue LI in the Tirah Valley, where the presence of government-friendly militias such as Tawheedul Islam and Ansar-ul-Islam are providing support to the security forces.

While the weakness in LI is encouraging, the emergence of TI as another powerful armed group is beginning to concern locals. TI members, with their long hair, beards and heavy weapons, are regularly visiting the Lwargi and Landi Kotal towns in their pick-up trucks. Civilians are starting to see TI as a harbinger of trouble to come.[25]

Similarly, the formation of lashkars by different sub-tribes such as the Akakhel, Kookikhel and Zakhakhel can easily spark a tribal war, particularly when the sub-tribes often quarrel on issues such as ownership of forests, mountains, roadways, and water channels.

It is the Pakistani government’s responsibility to restore the people’s trust in the state. This outcome is only possible when the state security forces take measures to eliminate all armed militias, not just those that are against the government. Selective measures on the part of the security forces may create short-term peace, but the history of the tribal areas shows that a friendly militia one day becomes a hostile one in the future.

Daud Khattak is Senior Editor with RFE/RL’s Mashaal Radio in Prague, Czech Republic. Besides working in Afghanistan as Editor at Pajhwok Afghan News from 2005-2008, Mr. Khattak worked with Pakistani English daily newspapers covering the situation in KP and FATA. He also worked for Sunday Times London and contributed articles to the Christian Science Monitor. In 2010, his paper on the situation in Swat, “The Battle for Pakistan: Swat Valley,” was published by the New America Foundation.

[1] Khyber Agency has three sub-districts: Bara, located southeast of Peshawar; Jamrud, located east of Peshawar; and Landi Kotal, located further east of Jamrud and sharing the border with Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province at the Torkham border crossing.

[2] Hundreds of Sikh families are living in the Bara and Tirah areas of Khyber and parts of neighboring Orakzai Agency. The Sikh families were living in peace with the tribesmen until the emergence of Taliban-affiliated militants in those areas.

[3] Ansar-ul-Islam follows the Barelvi sect, which places emphasis on mystical Islam and supports listening to music and visiting the shrines of saints. LI, on the other hand, is Deobandi and opposes music and the worship of saints or visits to shrines.

[4] Ghafar Ali, “Mufti and Pir’s Supporters Fight it Out: Five Dead,” Daily Times, March 28, 2006.

[5] “Pakistan Militant Leader Killed,” BBC, August 13, 2008.

[6] The Zakhakhel are one of the eight sub-tribes of the Afridi tribe living in Khyber Agency. The other seven sub-tribes are: Adamkhel, Kamarkhel, Qambarkhel, Kookikhel, Malak Dinkhel, Akakhel and Sipah.

[7] Personal interview, Sajid Ali, journalist based in Jamrud, April 12, 2012.

[8] Manzoor Ali, “Militancy: Mangal Bagh Loosens Grip over Khyber Agency,” Express Tribune, April 4, 2011.

[9] Personal interview, Sudhir Afridi, journalist based in Landi Kotal, April 13, 2012.

[10] Local journalist Farhad Shinwari was threatened for calling Tawheedul Islam a lashkar in his radio report.

[11] Personal interview, Shirin, Tawheedul Islam commander, March 12, 2012.

[12] Personal interview, Sudhir Afridi, journalist based in Landi Kotal, April 13, 2012; personal interview, Sajid Ali, journalist based in Jamrud, April 12, 2012.

[13] Personal interview, Major Fazal, spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps, April 13, 2012.

[14] This information was acquired from an interview with a local elder in the Landi Kotal area who wished to remain anonymous.

[15] Personal interview, Brigadier (retired) Mahmood Shah, former secretary of security for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, April 13, 2012.

[16] The Geedar Group is led by Taliban commander Tariq Afridi. Tariq Afridi belongs to the Geedar village in the semi-tribal Darra Adamkhel town, which borders Bara of Khyber Agency in the east, Peshawar in the north and Kohat city in the south. The exact reason for the differences between Mangal Bagh and the Geedar Group is not known, but Tariq Afridi wants bases for his group in the Bara region of Khyber, while Mangal Bagh opposes their presence. It has become a war of survival. If Tariq Afridi establishes himself in Bara, it would mean the loosening of Mangal Bagh’s grip on the area.

[17] Personal interview, Ibrahim Shinwari, local journalist, March 30, 2012.

[18] Personal interview, Brigadier (retired) Mahmood Shah, former secretary of security for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, April 13, 2012.

[19] Personal interview, Shirin, Zakhakhel commander, April 12, 2012.

[20] The road from Peshawar to the Sipah and Shlobar areas in Tirah passes through Bara. The Bara area now has a number of army checkpoints, making movement difficult for LI.

[21] Personal interview, Sajid Ali, journalist based in Jamrud, April 13, 2012.

[22] “Mangal Bagh Killed?” The Nation, March 20, 2012.

[23] Personal interview, Aqeel  Yousufzai, expert based in Peshawar, March 31, 2012.

[24] Personal interview, Major Fazal, spokesman for the paramilitary Frontier Corps, April 13, 2012.

[25] Personal interview, Farhad Shinwari, journalist based in Landi Kotal,  April 13, 2012; personal interviews, local civilians in Landi Kotal, April 13, 2012.

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