Situation, Facts and Events

The ideological modernization, organizational strengthening, and stepping up of the activities of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

According to experts fr om the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group has recently arranged several high-profile attacks in Pakistan.

These attacks indicate that the TPP is preparing for a new serious ideological battle, which may lead to the emergence of a new component in South Asia.

More than 100 people died when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb in the mosque in the north-western Pakistani city of Peshawar on January 30, 2023. The TTP paramilitary movement is suspected of being behind this attack, which took place in a heavily fortified compound housing police and counterterrorism units.

Since the ceasefire agreement was unilaterally terminated in November 2021, the TTP has launched several attacks on police and military facilities. It seeks to weaken the state structures in parts of north-western Pakistan and create “independent territories" to exercise its interpretation of Islamic rule there.

Such attempts are not a new phenomenon. The TTP has long been trying to set up alternative governments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). However, the attack on a mosque in Peshawar happened in the context of a concerted effort by the TTP leadership to update its organizational structure and develop a clear ideological position.

The TTP emerged in 2007 as an umbrella organization comprising several militant groups within FATA semi-autonomous region that had a clear legal and political framework. A significant amount of autonomy was placed in the hands of tribal leaders, and the rights to participate in political life were severely restricted.

Thus, the Pakistani military's campaign against al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters (banned in Russia) who took refuge in FATA following the US invasion of Afghanistan was seen by many as a violation of their autonomy.

Some of these groups united under the name TTP to oppose what they perceived as central state encroachments on their autonomy. The movement was characterized by a combination of ethnic nationalism and religious symbolism. Although the groups that made up the TPP used Islam to justify their militancy and, in some cases, sought to establish their interpretation of Sharia in the areas they controlled, the movement did not have a specific religious ideology.   

It should be noted that while the TTP promises to support the Taliban in Afghanistan, it is a separate movement with different aims and structures.

The start of the TTP's offensive is inspired by the Taliban's takeover in Afghanistan in 2021. It also intends to update its organizational structure in order to transform the movement into an integrated organization. Over the past two years, the TTP has built a centralized military training system with a focus on developing a command and control structure that brings together fragmented militant groups.

In addition, the TPP leaders have developed a governance structure and organizational chart for the areas it controls in Khyber Pakthunkhwa and Balochistan. These include establishment of a number of ministries, including those for information, economics, intelligence, and the issuance of fatwas (legal opinions). This is accompanied by attempts to define and disseminate his ideology.

The TTP has sought to reach this goal this through publications, social media, and the issuance of fatwas. Such attempts became more frequent after the appointment of its current leader, Nur Wali Mehsud, at the head of the TTP. Unlike previous TTP leaders, Mehsud positions himself as a religious scholar and mufti. He has written several works and remains in charge of TTP's publishing activities. Under Nur Wali Mehsud, the TTP took steps to define its political ideology and agenda.   

First, it stated that its political objectives were limited to the territorial boundaries of Pakistan. At the same time, the TPP, probably for the sake of expediency, distances itself from transnational Islamic movements and views. The TPP is also increasingly commenting on the ongoing economic crisis in Pakistan and the various social and political problems facing the country. It blames the “Western” and “infidel”" parliamentary system for Pakistan's economic woes and calls for a sharia-ruled caliphate. While the movement is still defining the details of its system of Islamic governance, it has proposed the political structure above as the provincial structure of its caliphate.

When developing its ideology, the TTP is undoubtedly seeking to formulate a cohesive political agenda that can unite its factions. However, it is equally important to mention that this brings a new ideological dimension to the combat landscape. Both the TTP and the Afghan Taliban adhere to the Islamic school of Deobandi. Despite the simplistic claims of many observers, the Deobandi school does not believe that Islam has a fixed political structure. Figures and movements associated with the Deobandi school have justified work in various political structures.

Thus, the TTP's continued attempt to define the outline and nature of the caliphate marks an important intrusion into old ideological theses. This became even more clear when the TTP released a video of Mehsud addressing Pakistan's Muslim scholars in which he justifies the movement's military campaign in Islamic terms.

In this video, Mehsud, in fact, initiated the munazar, a theological discussion among religious scholars. Following this, several prominent Islamic scholars in Pakistan issued statements and fatwas rejecting Mehsud's arguments and the TTP's campaign of violence. In turn, Mehsud promised to answer.

Looking ahead, it is clear that in addition to escalating attacks on the police and military, the TTP is preparing for a polemical and ideological battle. This indicates a significant evolution of the movement and the emergence of a new element in the militant landscape in South Asia.

This ideological renewal (or rather, attempts to give their movement some kind of ideological platform) is accompanied by an increase in military activity, primarily in the Swat District.

Since late 2022, the TTP, also known as the “Pakistan Taliban,” an alliance of jihadist networks that have been at war with the Pakistani state since 2007, has been regrouping. This is especially noticeable in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa bordering with Afghanistan.

For example, an attack took place on October 10, the day after the tenth anniversary of the assassination attempt on Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai. In this case, unidentified gunmen opened fire on a school van in the Swat District, killing the driver and injuring students. The attack came after a resurgence of TTP militants in Swat, indicating that the TTP was trying to make itself visible in Swat and other parts of the province.

Shortly after this attack, the TTP stepped up its attacks on Pakistani law enforcement, killing two Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officers. One of the deadliest TTP attacks took place in Bannu, a city in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, wh ere TTP militants captured several Counter Terrorism Directorate (CTD) officers. By the end of the subsequent operation to free them, 25 TTP operatives were killed as well as the two Pakistani army commandos.

The history of TTP activity in Swat has its own history. The siege of the Lal Masjid in central Islamabad in July 2007 marked the beginning of several years of bloodshed in Pakistan. However, the subsequent Zarb-e-Azb military operation weakened the TTP network in FATA and made the militants retreat into Afghanistan. This weakened the movement and reduced the number of attacks.

After the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, their Pakistani counterparts from the TTP started regrouping. This was contrary to the expectations of Pakistani politicians, who mistakenly assumed that the Afghan Taliban would cooperate with the Pakistani government as an ally.  

Of the major districts in the region, Swat has the longest history of confrontation with TTP militants. Under the leadership of Mullah Fazlulah, the TTP initially contested state control of the Swat valley as early as in 2007. The Pakistani military then were seriously concerned that the TTP might try to capture the capital, Islamabad, and launched Operation Rah-e-Rast to push the TTP militants out of Swat. The military eventually succeeded in ridding Swat of TTP militants for some time by May 2009.

Experts note that TTP fighters are now reappearing in the highlands of Swat District. Like before, they carry out IED attacks and targeted killings in Swat. However, this causes a negative reaction from the civilian population, and hundreds of people took to the streets in September-October last year to protest against the increase in terrorist attacks throughout the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Among other controversial incidents, in one attack by TTP militants, a member of the Peace Committee and his police guards were killed in a remote-controlled bomb explosion, for which the TTP claimed responsibility.  

At the same time, the Pakistani state is putting pressure on the Afghan Taliban to bring TTP fighters to the negotiating table. Although the Afghan Taliban did so and attempts were made to negotiate, they were unsuccessful. The TTP did not agree with the demand of the Pakistani civilian and military leadership to abandon their stance on jihad, whereas the Pakistani delegation did not agree with some of the demands of the TTP.

The TTP is now actively using Afghan territory to carry out attacks inside Pakistan and against Pakistani security forces on the Pakistani-Afghan border. Not surprisingly, this has become a source of tension between Afghanistan and Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistani security forces carried out attacks on a TTP hideout in Afghanistan, prompting protests from Kabul.

Over the years, the TPP has become a great threat to the Pakistan state, succeeding in challenging its control of the border with Afghanistan and the country as a whole. However, the TTP is now acting more boldly and more actively than in the past, due to the help it has received from its Afghan counterparts. Pakistan does not seem to be able to confidently manage the threat; a good example is the revival of TTP fighters in the Swat region, which, in particular, does not share a common border with Afghanistan.

It is possible that the TPP will continue to spread its presence throughout the country, all the way to Islamabad. In this regard, the Pakistani state should act quickly to thwart this threat before TTP numbers grow to serious proportions.

Source: Институт Ближнего Востока