For the past decade, the presence of foreign militant groups and fighters in Pakistan’s border region with Afghanistan has been a key challenge to the security of the Pakistani state. These foreign fighters—primarily from Arab, Central Asian and European countries—established themselves in Pakistan after the ouster of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001.[1]

Although U.S. drone strikes have inflicted heavy losses on foreign fighters in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), they remained an active fighting force due to the support and protection of local militant groups such as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), as well due to the Pakistani military’s prior reluctance to launch an operation in North Waziristan.[2] Yet on May 22, 2014, the Pakistani military began taking punitive action against militants in North Waziristan,[3] killing 60 fighters in pre-dawn airstrikes and shelling by attack helicopters in Mir Ali and Land Mohammadkhel areas.[4] Five days later, on May 27, infighting among factions in the TTP caused the group to split,[5] with one faction rallying behind TTP South Waziristan chief Khalid Mehsud (also known as Khan Said Sajna) and the other behind TTP leader Maulana Fazlullah.[6] On June 15, Pakistan launched a full-scale military offensive in North Waziristan, titled Zarb-e-Azb,[7] and reportedly involving 25,000-30,000 troops.[8] Some analysts believe that these new developments—the split of the TTP and the ongoing Operation Zarb-e-Azb—will finally force the remaining foreign fighters out of Pakistan’s tribal areas.

This article examines foreign fighters in FATA, particularly in North and South Waziristan. It also discusses the options for foreign fighters going forward in the face of an increasingly constrained operating environment. It finds that the remaining foreign fighters in Pakistan, who are thought to number in the hundreds, will likely be forced either across the border to Afghanistan, or to other jihadist conflicts such as in Syria and Iraq.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001, a number of foreign Islamist groups fled to Pakistan. These groups included the Chinese East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the German-Turkish Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) and al-Qa`ida.[9] The presence of these foreign fighters may have contributed to the rise of the Pakistani Taliban movement, which later coalesced into Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).[10] According to Naila Aman Khan from the University of Peshawar, “the al-Qa`ida leadership in FATA provided isolated Pakistani Taliban groups the motivation, strategy, militant training and finances to organize and launch the TTP. The purpose of the TTP was to stage large-scale terrorist attacks in Pakistan and support Afghan Taliban and surrogates fighting NATO forces in Afghanistan and cultivate al-Qa`ida’s local support and acceptance.”[11]

In July 2008, the Pakistani government estimated the number of foreign fighters in FATA at 8,000.[12] Some of these foreign fighters proved instrumental in convincing Pakistani militants that the jihad was not confined to India or Afghanistan, but that the Pakistani government itself should be targeted.[13]

Since the formation of the TTP in 2007, Pakistan has suffered from constant domestic terrorist attacks, most of which were spearheaded by the TTP, its foreign affiliates such as the IMU, and sectarian jihadist outfits, such as Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. An estimated 50,000 Pakistanis have lost their lives due to jihadist attacks in Pakistan since 2001.[14] Although Pakistani Taliban militants executed the bulk of these attacks, foreign fighters have been responsible for some of the most significant attacks in the region. For example, following the attack by Jordanian al-Qa`ida operative Humam Khalil Abu Mulal al-Balawi on a Central Intelligence Agency post in Khost, Afghanistan, on December 31, 2009, a pre-recorded “martyrdom” video showed al-Balawi with the then head of the TTP, Hakimullah Mehsud. At one point, al-Balawi said in the video: “We will never forget the blood of our [TTP] amir Baitullah Mehsud, God’s mercy upon him.”[15]

Yet the fate of foreign fighters is in the balance due to persistent U.S. drone strikes, Pakistan’s large offensive in North Waziristan, and the May 2014 split in the TTP. The split in the TTP seems to have affected the relationship between the Fazlullah-led faction and the influential Haqqani network.[16] According to Dr. Ashraf Ali, president of the FATA Research Centre in Islamabad, “we have not heard of any significant attacks inside Afghanistan jointly made by the Haqqanis and the Fazlullah-led TTP.”[17] Yet when Hakimullah led the TTP, the group launched a number of joint operations with the Haqqani network. Moreover, some suspect that Fazlullah is now operating with some level of support from Afghan intelligence, which, if true, would put him at odds with the Haqqani network.[18] Regardless of the veracity of these allegations, Fazlullah does appear to be operating out of Afghanistan and seems to focus all of his attacks on Pakistan, which could complicate his relationship with more Afghan-focused Taliban factions.[19] These tensions might escalate now that the Pakistani military has sent ground forces into North Waziristan. On the other hand, if Pakistan drives the Haqqani network into Afghanistan, and tries to prevent their return to the tribal areas, there is the possibility that the Haqqanis could turn against Pakistan.

According to journalist Mushtaq Yusufzai, who has covered the region since 2011, “Already the U.S. drones, financial problems, Pakistani military operations and precision air strikes caused serious problems for the foreign militants. Due to these compulsions, a large but unknown number of foreign fighters have abandoned the region. The TTP split and Operation Zarb-e-Azb will inflict irreparable loss on the foreign fighters in Waziristan.”[20]

By early August 2014, Pakistani military authorities claimed to have killed more than 500 militants, mostly foreign fighters in North Waziristan, as part of the ongoing military operation.[21]

Exodus of Foreign Fighters in Pakistan
Options are limited for the remaining foreign fighters, who are thought to only number in the hundreds.[22] They must either relocate to other parts of FATA, scatter across Pakistan, shift to Afghanistan, return to their countries of origin, or fight to the death. “They cannot stay in their places because the local support they have had from the TTP, Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led group and the Afghan Haqqani network is no longer there,” said one political and security analyst based in Dera Ismail Khan.[23] Many of the foreign fighters had fled even before the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.[24] As the TTP network is not as elaborate or strong in the rest of the five agencies of FATA, and while Pakistani security forces have gradually restored a government presence there, it would be dangerous for foreign fighters to relocate to other parts of FATA.[25]

Scattering across the length and breadth of Pakistan is a viable, but risky option.[26] In comparison to the remote and largely inaccessible tribal areas, the Pakistani state has a strong presence in the rest of Pakistan. Militants could, however, try to establish sanctuaries in the sparsely populated province of Baluchistan[27] or could conceal themselves in major cities.[28]

Fleeing to Afghanistan is the most practical option, considering that the United States is planning to withdraw its troops from the country this year. Moreover, TTP chief Fazlullah is reportedly operating from Afghan territory, and foreign fighters could seek refuge under him. Even cadre from the Haqqani network is thought to have moved operations across the border into Afghanistan in early June, shortly before the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb on June 15.[29]

According to Ijaz Khan, a professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, “The fleeing foreign militants could take advantage of the loopholes and lack of capacity of Afghanistan National Security Forces. In this scenario, the foreign militants could strengthen the Afghan Taliban.”[30] The June 2014 security report of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) disclosed the significant presence of Chechen and Uzbek fighters in Afghanistan.[31] According to Khan, “Once the foreign militants place themselves in a strategically located area, there could be more attacks on the U.S. and allied troops.”[32]

Indeed, after the planned U.S. withdrawal, both the Afghan Taliban and foreign fighters might escalate attacks to create an impression that they won the war.[33] According to the UNSC, al-Qa`ida affiliates, “therefore, present a worrying, long-term security threat emanating from Afghanistan into the region and beyond.”[34] Large-scale Afghan Taliban attacks after the launch of Operation Zarb-e-Azb might indicate that fighters from Pakistan have augmented the ranks of Afghan insurgents.[35]

Returning to their home countries would be nearly impossible for the remaining foreign fighters. According to Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Those who could have done so, already have.”[36] Most of these include Arab al-Qa`ida fighters who went to Yemen and Egypt as well as other battlefronts in the Middle East or North Africa.[37] The Arab fighters were able to return when pressure mounted in Pakistan because of the relatively open routes to their countries. The lack of viable return routes and repressive governments back home prevent Uzbek, Chinese and Chechen militants from returning.[38] It is possible that more foreign fighters may go to the Syrian war theater where Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. “Syria is a natural destination for fleeing al-Qa`ida and associated group militants, as Operation Zarb-e-Azb has made conditions worse, which were already extremely difficult due to US drone attacks,” said Imran Wazir.[39] Indeed, U.S. intelligence indicated a flow of fighters from Pakistan to the Syrian war theater in March 2014.[40]

The reluctance and inability of foreign militants and terrorists in Pakistan to return to their home countries is a serious concern for Pakistani and Afghan security forces, as it suggests they might fight to the death. The IMU claimed the attack on Karachi Airport in the second week of June 2014, and the attack could be interpreted as an attempt by foreign fighters to warn the Pakistani government that offensives in the tribal areas will be met by terrorist attacks on vulnerable targets in Pakistan.[41] Nevertheless, there has not yet been an increase in attacks in Pakistan since the start of Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Due to the TTP split, as well as the massive offensive undertaken by the Pakistani military in North Waziristan, foreign fighters in Pakistan are under severe pressure. It is possible that a large number of foreign fighters have found new sanctuaries in Afghanistan, which could result in either aggressive cross-border attacks against vulnerable targets in Pakistan, or more spectacular attacks in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from the country.

Nevertheless, the number of foreign fighters has greatly diminished over the years. U.S. drone strikes have whittled away their ranks, and the changing nature of the global landscape appears to have caused many of these fighters to join jihadist conflicts elsewhere, such as in North Africa,[42] or in Syria and Iraq.

Dr. Raza Khan is a political analyst and independent researcher, who holds a doctorate degree in International Relations. The topic of his doctoral dissertation was “Extremism-Terrorism in the Name of Islam in Pakistan: Causes & Counterstrategy.” He specializes in the areas of radicalization, terrorism, governance and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

[1] Syed Arfeen, “Who are the Uzbeks Launching Terrorist Strikes in Pakistan?” The News International, June 15, 2014.

[2] Pakistan’s military previously claimed that an operation against militants in North Waziristan would be dangerous, as troops felt overstretched fighting militants along the 2,400-kilometer Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Independent analysts, however, long suspected that Pakistan’s reluctance to conduct an offensive in North Waziristan stemmed from its alleged protection of the Haqqani network and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur-led Taliban faction. These groups have been dubbed the “Good Taliban” because they conduct attacks in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan. This stands in contrast to Pakistani Taliban groups responsible for terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

[3] Chinese Uighur separatists seemed to be the apparent target of the Pakistani offensive after China’s President Xi Jinping reportedly pressed Islamabad to take action against the separatists. See “Pakistan Pounds Insurgent Hideouts for Third Day,” Agence France-Presse, May 24, 2014.

[4] Mushtaq Yusufzai, “Military Launches Ground Operation in North Waziristan,” The News International, May 23, 2014.

[5]Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Key Pakistani Taliban Faction Breaks Away,” Dawn, May 28, 2014.

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Pakistan Launches ‘Zarb-e-Azb’ Military Operation in N Waziristan,” Dawn, June 15, 2014. The offensive has resulted in the displacement of basically the entire population of North Waziristan, numbering more than 900,000 people.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Hamid Mir, “8,000 Foreign Fighters in Fata Ring Alarm Bells in Islamabad,” The News International, July 21, 2008.

[10] Ahmed Rashid, Descent into Chaos: The United States and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia (New York: Viking Press, 2008).

[11] Personal interview, Naila Aman Khan, a political sociologist working at the Department of Sociology, University of Peshawar, Pakistan, August 6, 2014.

[12] Mir.

[13] See, for example, Erich Marquardt and Abdul Hameed Bakier, “An Ideological and Operational Threat: Abu `Amr Shaykh `Isa,” CTC Sentinel 1:8 (2008).

[14]Shaun Waterman, “Heavy Price: Pakistan Says War on Terror has Cost Nearly 50,000 Lives There Since 9/11,” Washington Times, March 27, 2013.

[15] Paul Harris, “CIA Bomber’s ‘Martyrdom’ Video Urges More US Attacks,” Observer, January 9, 2010.

[16] Fazlullah has been aggressively anti-Pakistan since his expulsion from the country in 2009. The Haqqani network does not share that position, at least not to that extent. With Fazlullah assuming the mantle of the TTP leadership, there are likely to be increased disagreements between the TTP and the Haqqani network.

[17] Personal interview, Dr. Ashraf Ali, president FATA Research Centre, Islamabad, Pakistan, August 14, 2014.

[18] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Mullah Fazlullah’s Rise Complicates Ties Between Kabul, Islamabad,” Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Personal interview, Mushtaq Yusufzai, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 9, 2014. Yusufzai has had face-to-face interviews with a large number of Pakistani and foreign militant organizations including with Siraj Haqqani, the head of the Afghan Haqqani network.

[21] “Zarb-e-Azb: 30 More Terrorists Killed in Fresh Air Strikes,” The Nation, August 5, 2014.

[22] Rahimullah Yusufzai, “Uzbek Fighters Remain an ‘Unknown Quantity’ in Pakistan,” Central Asia Online, February 2, 2010.

[23] Personal interview, Imran Wazir, a political and security analyst based in Dera Ismail Khan, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 17, 2014.

[24] Ismail Khan, “80 pc of Miramshah Cleared: Military,” Dawn, July 10, 2014.

[25] Personal interview, Syed Shakeel Ahmed, lecturer of Political Science at Islamia College University, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 8, 2014. Ahmed is carrying out research on Arab fighters in Pakistan.

[26] Ibid.


[28] Personal interview, Ijaz Khan, professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan, June 13, 2014.

[29] Haqqani network cadre also reportedly moved further north in Pakistan. See Saeed Shah, Safdar Dawar and Adam Entous, “Militants Slip Away Before Pakistan Offensive,” Wall Street Journal, July 17, 2014.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Al Qaeda Affiliates a Long-Term Threat in Afghanistan: UNSC,” The News International, June 14, 2014.

[32] Personal interview, Ijaz Khan, professor of International Relations at the University of Peshawar, Pakistan, June 13, 2014.

[33] Personal interview, Syed Shakeel Ahmed, lecturer of Political Science at Islamia College University, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 8, 2014.

[34] “Al Qaeda Affiliates a Long-Term Threat in Afghanistan: UNSC.”

[35] Sami Yousafzai, “Kabul Airport Attack Comes as Pakistani Fighters Join Afghan Taliban,” Daily Beast, July 17, 2014.

[36] Personal interview, Mushtaq Yusufzai, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 9, 2014.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Uzbekistan borders Afghanistan and not Pakistan, and the militants would have to travel across Afghanistan, mostly through Northern Alliance areas, to reach Uzbekistan, which would be risky. Also, the draconian regimes of Uzbek President Islam Karimov, the Communist Party of China and iron-fisted administration of Russian leader Vladimir Putin have little tolerance for foreign trained jihadists.

[39] Personal interview, Imran Wazir, a political and security analyst based in Dera Ismail Khan, Peshawar, Pakistan, June 17, 2014.

[40] Eric Schmitt, “Qaeda Militants Seek Syria Base, U.S. Officials Say,” New York Times, March 25, 2014; Zia Ur Rehman, “Pakistani Fighters Joining the War in Syria,” CTC Sentinel 6:9 (2013).

[41] “Uzbek Militant Group IMU Claims Involvement in Karachi Airport Assault,” Associated Press, June 11, 2014.

[42] Jason Burke, “Al-Qaida Leadership Almost Wiped Out in Pakistan, British Officials Believe,” Guardian, December 25, 2011.

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