Following a notable lull in militant activity, Pakistan is now facing a unique militant escalation targeted against its security forces in the North Waziristan area and bordering regions. Despite the Taliban force largely being subdued following the concerted counter-terrorism efforts by Pakistan’s military, such as Operation Zarb-e-Azb and Radd-ul-Fasaad, a resurgent faction Hizb-ul-Ahrar (HuA) has been carrying out targeted attacks in regular intervals. Although these incidents are downplayed by the Pakistani military as being sporadic and low-scale violence, several Pakistani soldiers and police officers have been killed by HuA in daring targeted assaults in the past year.
HuA, a violent offshoot of Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), claimed responsibility for at least four attacks in November 2019. On November 29, at least fourteen people were injured when a bomb planted in a stationary rickshaw detonated near Chauburji on Multan Road in Lahore (Dawn, November 30). On November 12, three Pakistan Army soldiers were killed in North Waziristan’s Miranshah. On November 14, a senior police official, Ghani Khan, was killed in the Mian Gujjar area of Peshawar city (Dawn, November 15). In early November, HuA also claimed responsibility for killing four Pakistani soldiers in North Waziristan’s Razmak area (Gandhara, November 4).
Taliban Legacy/ Offshoot
Two years ago, on November 11, 2017, a disgruntled Taliban commander Mukarram Khan formed HuA in the bordering Nangarhar province of Afghanistan after breaking away from the violent sectarian faction of TTP and JuA led by Abdul Wali Raghib. Abdul Wali, also known as Umar Khalid Khorasani, died in a U.S. drone strike in the eastern Afghan province of Paktia in October 2017 (Express Tribune, October 20, 2017). Most of the senior commanders of JuA were also killed in that strike. With Wali’s death, JuA virtually ceased to exist and paved the way for dissenting commander Mukarram Khan to form the Hizb-ul-Ahrar. Mukarram Khan, a Taliban commander from Mohmand Agency (in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), had served under the Jamaat-ul Ahrar banner as a Shura member and head of its intelligence wing. However, the HuA leadership at the time moved away from the parent group due to JuA’s rabid sectarian ideals, mostly targeted against minority Christians and attacks on civilians. HuA also took umbrage of the JuA’s un-Islamic practices such as extortions and kidnappings for ransom. Instead, HuA vowed to target only Pakistan’s security forces, including the army and police (The Nation, November 12, 2017).
Besides Mukarram Khan, several senior Taliban commanders are involved in spreading violence in different capacities. Jihadaar Mehsud, Muslim Yaar, Haji Rashid, and Qari Ismael Afridi are some prominent HuA commanders. Imran Khurasani of Mohmand Agency became a deputy of Mukarram Khan. The spokesperson of the group since its inception has been Aziz Yousafzai (Pakistan Today, November 13, 2017; Dawn, September 18, 2018).
HuA was banned in August 2019 under Section 11-B of Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (Dawn, August 23). Much before the government imposed the ban, however, HuA stormed into Pakistan’s extremely dynamic jihadist landscape with some of its deadliest attacks. For example, the Lahore suicide blast outside the Data Darbar, one of the historical Sufi shrines in the country. The suicide attack at Data Darbar killed 11 people on May 8, including several policemen and civilians. But Yousafzai had claimed that ‘the suicide attack was carried out at a time when there were no civilians near the police (Express Tribune, May 9).
Operation Bin Qasim to Shamzai
The investigations into the Data Darbar blast revealed how HuA scouted young boys from the border regions of Afghanistan and recruited them as suicide bombers. The bomber at Data Darbar Shrine was identified as Sadiqullah Mohmand, an Afghan under 17 years of age who targeted a stationary police van near the Sufi Shrine, detonating approximately seven kilograms of explosives. According to HuA, the ongoing attacks are part of its ‘Operation Shamzai’ (named after influential Deobandi Islamic cleric Mufti Nizamuddin Shamzai) launched in February 2019 targeting security forces (Daily Pakistan, May 8; Express Tribune, May 21). It has also urged other militant groups to collaborate and carry out similar campaigns targeting security forces in Pakistan.
The Data Darbar attack was a major suicide operation claimed by HuA outside of its usual sphere of influence in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. HuA militants were particularly violent in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in early 2019. In February, HuA militants killed four police officers on the Indus Highway in Dera Ismail Khan (Dawn, February 13). In addition to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, HuA claimed responsibility for several attacks in Baluchistan, Sindh (Karachi) and Punjab provinces since its emergence in late 2017. In August, HuA carried out its first attack in the capital, Islamabad, killing two policemen (The Nation, August 22).
Similar to Operation Shamzai, HuA launched operation ‘Mohammad bin Qasim’ in April 2018 as part of its so-called nation-wide campaign of violence against the Pakistani army. The group began this anti-military offensive with coordinated attacks in Quetta city in April 2018, killing 6 policemen (Samaa TV News, April 24, 2018).
Inciting Jihad for Sharia
Though similar attacks against security forces in the region are often attributed to HuA, the group usually prefers not to claim immediate responsibility. The group, however, does release statements and audio-visuals through its official media arm ‘al-Ahrar Media’ to claim attacks, and subsequently shares its work through affiliated Telegram channels. HuA also occasionally uses the Urdu language periodical Ghazwa-e-Hind (military conquest of India by Muslim warriors) as its political, military, and ideological mouthpiece. Through Urdu language publications, HuA encourages students to take up jihad to establish an Islamic state in Pakistan in accordance with Sharia law. Declaring the Pakistani military and the government as ‘Apostate’, HuA’s propaganda materials are targeted at inciting madrasa students to take up arms.
The Pakistani security establishment realized the specter of this Taliban faction in May 2018 when HuA suicide attacks targeted security infrastructure in Attock, Punjab and Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. On May 3, a suspected HuA militant carried out a suicide attack on a bus carrying NDC (National Defense Complex) engineers in Attock. The attack killed four people and left several injured. Again on May 17, HuA carried out another suicide attack on a Frontier Corps convoy in Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that injured several people (Dawn, September 18, 2018, Express Tribune, May 17, 2018).
Following several military operations against the group’s strongholds in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in August, the counter-terrorism department of the provinces’ police forces claimed to have demolished HuA’s support structures and foiled several plans by arresting members of the group. However, a dramatic spike in HuA’s attacks in November 2019 rendered a completely different picture on the ground, demonstrating the remarkable resilience of this Taliban offshoot. One of the core strengths of HuA remains its cross-border presence and ability to launch attacks on Pakistani forces from Afghan soil by employing suicide bombers and hit and run tactics. Evidently, the situation in North Waziristan and larger Khyber Pakhtunkhwa remains critical, despite Pakistan’s claim to have reined in Taliban militants in the northwestern tribal areas bordering Afghanistan.