Pakistan has hailed progress in peace talks with the country’s main Taliban faction, but attacks claimed by mysterious splinter factions are threatening to undermine the process.
The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) declared a month-long ceasefire last weekend, but that was swiftly followed by a major attack in Islamabad and a bloody roadside bombing targeting security forces—both claimed by dissident groups.
Less than 48 hours after the TTP announced its ceasefire, a gun and suicide bomb assault on an Islamabad court complex on Monday left 12 dead, the first attack in the heavily guarded capital since 2011. It was disowned by the TTP central command but claimed by a group calling itself Ahrar-ul-Hind, while Wednesday’s roadside bombing in the northwest that killed six paramilitary troops was claimed by another renegade faction, the Ansar-ul-Mujahideen.
Talks aimed at ending the TTP’s seven-year insurgency resumed on Wednesday despite those blows, and on Thursday the government announced it was setting up a new committee to accelerate the process. But the attacks have raised fears that the militant movement is splintering dangerously—though several analysts said they suspected the “new” factions were simply the TTP operating under another guise.
According to militant and government sources, Ahrar-ul-Hind—“freedom fighters of India”, referring to the subcontinent as a whole—was formed early last month by TTP fighters opposed to peace talks.
A written statement from the group sent to Pakistani media on Feb. 9 said it will not take part in peace talks and will carry on attacking Pakistani cities, even if the government and TTP reach a peace deal. “It is our resolve that we will continue our suicide attacks and armed struggle in Pakistan until enforcement of shariah,” Asad Mansoor, the group’s spokesman, said in the statement. “As we belong to Pakistan’s cities so we will directly hit and carry (out) attacks inside cities.” The statement described the TTP as “brothers” but said the group was going its own way and would not be bound by the umbrella faction’s orders.
Mansoor said Ahrar-ul-Hind was led by Maulana Omar Qasmi, though several sources in militant groups said they had not heard this name before. Few details have emerged about the group, though one militant source said many of its members were based in eastern Afghanistan.
A militant source in North Waziristan tribal district said Ahrar-ul-Hind was largely composed of Punjabi Taliban. Several eyewitnesses to Monday’s attack in Islamabad reported hearing the militants speaking Punjabi to one another.
It is not yet clear how much traction Ahrar-ul-Hind is getting among Pakistan’s myriad militant factions, but one commander in the northwest claimed the group had been in touch with four or five outfits. The commander said the group had also contacted the remnants of a faction formerly led by Badar Mansoor, the head of the Pakistan chapter of Al Qaeda who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in February 2012.
More than 110 people have been killed in militant attacks since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced talks with the TTP in late January. As a result, some observers have suggested that the TTP is either unable to control the various militant groups carrying out attacks in Pakistan or insincere—using talks as cover to regroup and rearm.
Saifullah Mehsud, who runs the independent FATA think tank researching Pakistan’s restive tribal areas, said he was doubtful about the new “splinter” groups. “To me they are all the same. I don’t see any difference between Ansar-ul Mujahideen, between Ahrar-ul-Hind and between TTP. They are the same residing in the same places, sharing the same premises,” he said.
Defense analyst Saad Muhammad agreed, saying an attack of the complexity of Monday’s strike on the courts, involving several assailants armed with guns, grenades and suicide vests, suggested an experienced, well-resourced outfit.
“All the suicide factories are located in North Waziristan and these suicide factories are run jointly by TTP and the Haqqani network,” he said. “How can the TTP deny these suicide bombers came from North Waziristan? They are the same. TTP is the umbrella organization.”
Security analyst Mehmood Shah, a retired brigadier and former chief of security for the tribal areas, shared the skepticism. “This is a typical Taliban style, that they launch an attack but issue a denial,” he said.
Mehsud said the hardline stance against talks could be fueled by foreign fighters including Al Qaeda and Uzbek militants in the tribal districts worried a peace deal might close down their bolt-holes. “They are the ones who have an interest in spoiling the peace in this region, because a peaceful FATA might not be very convenient to stay here,” Mehsud said.
The militant commander in the northwest said that aside from strategic or ideological considerations, for many militants a peace accord would also have a financial impact. “Some of the militant groups are involved in kidnapping for ransom and they are earning millions of rupees. How can they afford a peace accord?” he said.