Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Discursive Shift From Global Jihadist Rhetoric to Pashtun-Centric Narratives; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 18

By: Abdul Basit

Following the U.S. withdrawal and the Afghan Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, various jihadist groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region are readjusting their ideological narratives and operational strategies to acclimatize to the rapidly evolving geopolitical environment. For instance, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has reunified by absorbing its splinter factions, such as the Hakimullah Mehsud Group, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, and Hizb-ul-Ahrar (Express Tribune, August 19; Express Tribune, February 7). Similarly, the Saifullah Kurd faction of the anti-Shia group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, under the leadership of Khushi Muhammad, combined with TTP on August 5 and the al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) factions of Amjad Farooqi and Ustad Ahmad Farooq, also announced their mergers with TTP in July 2020 (Terrorism Monitor, January 25). [1] Along with this trend toward unification, TTP has progressively shifted its discursive focus from the al-Qaeda-aligned global jihadist rhetoric to a Pakistan-focused and Pashtun-centric narrative (Khuram Iqbal, October-December 2010; Twitter.com/@Ibraheem Thurail Bahees, August 1, 2020; Umar Media, July 29, 2020).

TTP has also changed its indiscriminate targeting strategy against civilians to focus primarily on attacks against the Pakistani security forces and law enforcement agencies (Umar Media, September 16, 2018). TTP’s emir, Mufti Nur Wali Mehsud, has taken such steps to ideologically justify, operationally sustain and morally legalize the group’s violent struggle in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region in the post-US withdrawal scenario. [2] In an interview with CNN on July 26, 2020, Nur Wali Mehsud articulated his group’s newfound vision of separating the ex-FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) region, which is now merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, from Pakistan through a jihadist struggle and to transform it into a sharia-ruled state (CNN, July 26, 2020).

Against this backdrop, it is essential to situate the TTP’s new focus on Pashtun grievances and framing of its struggle in ethno-nationalist terms in the context of rapid geopolitical changes in Afghanistan. Only in this way can one understand the TTP’s future trajectories and the nature of the threat it poses to Pakistan. [3]

TTP: Jihadist Ethno-Separatism?

A careful examination of TTP’s statements of the last two years reveals constant references to two main themes: “Islamic principles and tribal customs” and the “Pashtun tribal nation.” These themes can also be found in the first chapter of Nur Wali Mehsud’s book Inqilab-i-Mehsud. [4] Further, TTP’s July 2020 statement, which reacted to a UN Sanctions Committee on Al-Qaeda and ISIL’s report, was an effort not only to distance TTP from al-Qaeda, but also to frame TTP’s jihadist struggle in ethno-nationalist terms. The UN report highlighted al-Qaeda’s mediation efforts in TTP’s reunification. However, in vehemently refuting this assertion, TTP’s spokesperson Muhammad Khurasani noted that TTP’s “reunification was purely an indigenous effort. No other organization [referencing al-Qaeda] played any part in this [reunification] process, nor would TTP allow anyone to interfere in its internal matters” (Umar Media, July 29, 2020; Independent Urdu, August 1, 2020). [5]

Similarly, reacting to the UN Sanctions Committee on Al-Qaeda and ISIL’s February 2021 report, Khurasani maintained that “The Pakistani state has suppressed the Baloch and Pashtun communities in the last ten years. The Pakistani state has denied the rights of Balochs and Pashtuns. We are fighting to win back their rights [autonomy] and our struggle will continue until we attain these goals” (Umar Media, February 8). TTP’s efforts to distance itself from al-Qaeda reveal TTP as a Pakistan-centric and Pashtun-focused organization and, therefore, as a nationalist and ethno-separatist group, which it might have learned from the Afghan Taliban’s own evolution. [6]

The most explicit expression of TTP’s re-incarnation as an ethno-separatist group came from Nur Wali Mehsud in March 2021. Reacting to the extrajudicial killing of four Pashtun youths from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province’s Jani Khel area, he asserted, “We will free our land [ex-FATA region] from the occupation of the Pakistani forces and we will never surrender to their atrocious rule. We want to live on our land according to Islamic laws and tribal traditions. We are Muslims and Pashtuns” (Dawn, March 23; Umar Media, March 23). Nur Wali Mehsud’s statement following the UN Sanctions Committee on Al-Qaeda and ISIL’s July 2020 report further noted, “The Pakistan Army has occupied our land [ex-FATA region] and usurped our inalienable right of living according to Islam and tribal culture. We are waging an armed struggle from our soil to free our occupied lands and live our lives according to Islam and Pashtun tribal culture. The independence of Pakhtunkhwa and the Pashtun tribal areas is national and religious for all Pashtuns” (Umar Media, July 29, 2020). [7]

What Does TTP’s Ethno-Nationalist Rhetoric Signify?

TTP’s efforts to move away from the global jihadist narrative of al-Qaeda and frame its propaganda in Pashtun nationalist rhetoric—just like the Afghan Taliban—and to switch from an indiscriminate to discriminate targeting strategy is an effort to evolve from a “terrorist” group to an “insurgent” group. However, TTP neither has the territorial control in the ex-FATA region nor the public support—some pockets of public sympathy notwithstanding—to qualify as a full-fledged “insurgency.” [8] Such terrorist groups like TTP that behave as insurgencies without actually being one can be categorized as “proto-insurgencies” or “hybridized terrorist groups.” [9]

TTP is also making these rhetorical and operational changes to circumvent being lumped with global jihadist groups such as the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) or al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. They also seek to avoid US-led Over the Horizon (OTH) counter-terrorism strikes. These changes were also necessary for TTP to continue to benefit from sanctuaries in Afghanistan under the Afghan Taliban’s umbrella without creating international legal challenges for the former. [10]

In addition, TTP’s new rhetoric is consistent with the Afghan Taliban’s position of not recognizing the Durand Line as a legal border and opposing its fencing by Pakistan because it has divided the Pashtun tribes. For example, while talking to a Pakistani Pashto-language channel, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated, “The Afghans oppose the fence erected by Pakistan along the Durand Line. The fencing has separated people and divided families. We want to create a secure and peaceful environment on the border, so there is no need to create barriers” (Indian Express, September 9). Nur Wali Mehsud’s framing of TTP’s struggle as an ethno-separatist struggle will not only ensure his group’s continued sanctuary in Afghanistan, but also sustain a low-intensity, long-term insurgency in the ex-FATA region like the Afghan Taliban’s in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban conversely managed its own insurgency in Afghanistan when the top leadership guided their movement from the safety of their hideouts in Quetta, Pakistan (Dawn, August 29).

Conclusion

By carefully reframing its militant struggle from al-Qaeda-aligned global jihadist rhetoric to a more local ethno-nationalist Pashtun struggle, Nur Wali Mehsud has created a lifeline for TTP. On the one hand, it will be spared from the U.S.-led OTH campaign, allowing it to plan and execute its attacks in the ex-FATA region with more freedom. On the other hand, it will allow the Afghan Taliban to resist Pakistani pressure to act against TTP. In fact, the Afghan Taliban will likely use TTP as bargain leverage in its dealings with Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban may even facilitate talks between TTP and Pakistani state institutions to settle their differences, but the Afghan Taliban may also ignore Pakistani demands to expel TTP from Afghanistan or to act against TTP. [11]

From a long-term perspective, Pakistan will have to address the grievances of the Pashtun tribes in the ex-FATA region and the root causes of the conflict. Counter-terrorism operations in the ex-FATA area will only address the symptoms, and not the causes, of more profound structural inequalities and socio-economic problems. The persistence of these issues, coupled with the use of force, will further legitimize and embolden TTP’s violent campaign.

Notes

[1] TTP splintered into various factions following the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which was launched in the ex-FATA region after the massacre of 153 school children by TTP in Peshawar in December 2014. Specifically, TTP split into Shehryar Mehsud, Khan Said Sajna, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, Hizb-ul-Ahrar factions. In early 2015, some TTP factions pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and launched its regional branch ISKP in Afghanistan.

[2] When TTP was established in December 2007, the Islamization of Pakistan through militant jihadism and violently opposing ‘counter-terrorism cooperation with the United States were two of the seven objectives of the group. For details see, Hassan Abbas, “A Profile of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan,” CTC Sentinel, Vol 1, Issue 2 (January 2008).

[3] See Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, Inqilab-i-Mehsud, (Mehsuds Revolution) [In Urdu], (Al-Shahab Publishers: Paktika, 2017).

[4] Author interview with Farhan Zahid, Pakistan-based terrorism researcher, conducted on September 5, 2021. Zahid suggests that TTP’s refusal to acknowledge al-Qaeda’s role in its reunification is akin to ongoing efforts by the Afghan Taliban to downplay its ties with the former. This is part of a broader understanding between these groups to continue their local struggles without creating problems or challenges for each other.

[5] After reunification, TTP’s operational strength has increased from a few thousand to 6,000 to 7,000 fighters. In recent months, not only TTP’s attacks in the ex-FATA region and Balochistan have increased, but its operational strength has also improved. For instance, on September 5, a TTP suicide bomber targeted Pakistani security personnel in Quetta, killing four and injuring 20 others (Terrorism Monitor, August 13).

[6] Author interview with Farhan Zahid.

[7] TTP opposes the Durand Line, a 2,670-kilometer boundary that divides Afghanistan and Pakistan and was signed through an agreement between British India and Afghanistan’s then ruler Emir Abdul Rehman in 1893. After the partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, Afghanistan maintained that the agreement had become defunct as British India had ceased to exist. Ever since then, the Durand Line has been a significant bone of contention between successive Afghan and Pakistani governments and has given birth to the issue of “Pashtunistan.” Pashtun nationalists, to which TTP is a new entrant, believe that Pakistani areas up to the Attock district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are part of Afghanistan.

[8] Author interview with Farhan Zahid.

[9] Assaf Moghadam, Ronit Berger, and Polina Beliakova, “Say Terrorist, Think Insurgent: Labeling and Analyzing Contemporary Terrorist Actors,” Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 8, No. 5, (2014), pp. 2-17.

[10] Armed struggle needs territorial control, among other characteristics, and public support to qualify as an “insurgency.”

[11] During an interview with Pakistan’s Geo Tv, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid noted, “The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani ulema and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response (Geo.tv, August 28).”