Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan: Is China in its Crosshairs?; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 9

By: Sudha Ramachandran

On April 21, a car packed with explosives detonated in the parking lot of the Serena Hotel in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan province. Five people were killed and another twelve were injured in the attack (Dawn, April 21). Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the deadly explosion (The News, April 23). An umbrella grouping of Pashtun militias that operate in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas, the TTP wreaked havoc in Pakistan between 2007 and 2014. It carried out countless attacks on military installations, convoys, police stations, schools, and places of worship for minority religious sects. The violence it unleashed claimed the lives of over 80,000 soldiers and civilians in this period (Terrorism Monitor, March 26). However, the TTP’s capacity began to weaken in 2014, relegating it to “near-irrelevance” in subsequent years (TRT World, August 21, 2020). It is in this context that the TTP’s attack at the Serena Hotel is significant as it indicates that the grouping is ascending again. The TTP could also increasingly target Chinese projects and nationals in Pakistan.

The TTP’s Rise and Fall

The TTP was established in December 2007 in response to the Pakistani military’s crackdown on militant clerics holed up in Islamabad’s Lal Masjid. Its main objective is to topple the Pakistani state and establish Islamic law in the country. Within a year of its formation, the TTP was in control of much of the seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and wielded influence over a large expanse of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. After taking control over much of Swat, it advanced to Buner and seemed within striking distance of Islamabad (Dawn, July 13, 2017).

However, the TTP’s audacious attacks on American and Pakistani military targets proved to be its undoing. Its leaders came under American drone strikes while the Pakistan military unleashed a string of robust offensives on the TTP in the tribal areas. These shattered the TTP’s command and control structure and scattered its fighters. Factional fighting, splits, and defections of TTP commanders and fighters to Islamic State Khorasan also took a heavy toll (TRT World, August 21, 2020). By 2014, it was a much-weakened force, reduced to attacking soft targets.

TTP Revival Under Noor Wali Mehsud

Noor Wali Mehsud’s assumption of TTP leadership in 2018 set in motion the group’s revival. Splinter groups like Jamat-ul-Ahrar and Hizb-ul-Ahrar that had broken away from the TTP, for example, began returning to the fold (Express Tribune, August 19, 2020). Over the past year, factional fighting is said to have almost ended and TTP-aligned militias are now coordinating their operations. This has augmented the TTP’s operational capabilities. According to a recent United Nations report, the TTP carried out over 100 cross-border attacks between July and October 2020 (Dawn, February 7). In fact, in 2020, the TTP and its affiliates carried out 67 terrorist attacks, accounting for about 46 percent of all reported attacks that year (Dawn, January 4).

The TTP’s rising operational capabilities have also been visible in the growing geographic expanse of its operations. Its attacks have moved beyond its traditional strongholds in the tribal areas to Pakistani cities like Quetta. The attack at Serena Hotel reaffirms this enhanced capacity. The hotel is among the most tightly guarded in Baluchistan as it often hosts government functionaries, diplomats, and international aid workers. Besides, the hotel is located between the Iranian consulate and the Baluchistan Provincial Assembly building (Gandhara, April 21). That the suicide bomber drove a car with explosives through checkpoints en route to the hotel and was able to breach its outer security to enter the hotel premises unobstructed indicates that the TTP has cultivated support in the security apparatus in Baluchistan or otherwise it obtained high-level intelligence to breach the hotel barriers.

TTP: Target China?

The TTP claimed that the suicide attack at the Serena Hotel was aimed at “high officials, including police officers” (Arab News, April 23). However, it is widely believed that China was the target of the attack. The Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, and other officials, including the Consul-General in Karachi, were staying at the Serena hotel on the day of the explosion, although they were not present there at the time of the attack (Dawn, April 23). According to Pakistan’s embassy in Beijing, the attack took place minutes before Chinese officials returned to the hotel (Global Times, April 22). This is also why it is likely that the attack at the Serena Hotel was aimed at the Chinese ambassador and his delegation.

The recent TTP targeting of China has several explanations. One is China’s oppression of Uighur Muslims, which the TTP has condemned in the past. In 2012, for instance, it claimed responsibility for the killing of a Chinese tourist in Peshawar, describing it as “revenge” for the treatment the Chinese government metes out to Muslims in Xinjiang province (Express Tribune, March 2, 2012). Besides this, the TTP is possibly targeting China’s vast interests in Pakistan. China has invested billions of dollars in a string of infrastructure projects that are part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Projects in Baluchistan are central to CPEC’s success and attacking these and Chinese nationals would “delay or slow down” CPEC projects (The Nation, May 1). This would deal a blow to the Pakistani economy and thus weaken the state.

It is possible, too, that the TTP, which is said to have stepped up operations in Baluchistan’s Pashtun areas, is working with Baluch separatist and nationalist groups. Like the TTP, Baluch groups are strongly opposed to the Pakistani state. They have carried out several attacks on Pakistani and Chinese nationals and projects in Baluchistan (Terrorism Monitor, February 12). If the TTP has indeed established ties with Baluch militants there is reason for Beijing and Islamabad to be concerned.

Conclusion

The TTP’s recent suicide attack at Quetta’s Serena Hotel signals not only its revival, enhanced operational capabilities, and also capacity to carry out attacks on tightly guarded buildings, but also its ability to carry out attacks in regions outside its traditional stronghold in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The attack may also signal the TTP’s willingness to target Chinese interests and nationals in Pakistan. This should set off alarm bells in Beijing and Islamabad, especially if the TTP has joined hands with Baluch militants.

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