Sectarianism in Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 6

A Pakistani soldier killed in Kurram Tribal Agency, 2007

A U.S. drone missile attack on a Taliban training camp on March 12 highlighted the growing importance of Pakistan’s Kurram Tribal Agency in the war along the frontier with Afghanistan. Unlike Pakistan’s other six tribal agencies, the conflict in Kurram is complicated by sectarian divisions that have flared into violent encounters between the region’s Sunni and Shi’a Muslim communities.

Communities in Conflict

Sectarian violence is not a new phenomenon in Kurram, which is the only tribal agency with a significant Shi’a population. Around 40 percent of the region’s 500,000 inhabitants are Shi’a. Upper Kurram is inhabited largely by the Turi (the only Pashtun tribe which is wholly Shi’a) while Lower Kurram is inhabited by Sunnis.

Historically the Turis were under Bangash domination until the 18th century when they attacked the Bangash, turned them into hamsaya (dependants) and pushed them into Lower Kurram. The Bangash clans living in Lower Kurram are all Sunnis, while other Bangash clans are Shi’a, Sunni, or a mix of both. The Afghans renounced their claim over Kurram as a result of the Treaty of Gandamak in 1879 and the Turis requested the British take over the administration of the area. This occurred with the establishment of the Kurram Agency in 1892. The agency headquarters at Parachinar is less than 100 km from Kabul.  

There are disputes over land and water resources between Sunni and Shi’a tribes and sporadic incidents of communal violence have taken place since the 1930s, particularly during Muharram or Nowruz (the Iranian New year as celebrated by the Shi’a). The massive influx of Afghan refugees in the 1980s caused a distortion in the demographic balance of the area. Afghan refugees introduced a militant brand of Sunni ideology at a time when the Shi’a of Parachinar under the leadership of cleric Allama Arif Hussain al-Hussaini (trained in the Shi’a theological centers of Najaf and Qom) were being radicalized by the Iranian revolution. As modern weapons became available, clashes grew in frequency and intensity, while the local administration was viewed as indifferent or seen as taking sides (Dawn [Karachi], November 19, 2007). The first large-scale attack took place in 1986 when the Turis prevented Sunni mujahideen from passing through to Afghanistan. General Zia ul-Haq allowed a “purge” of the Turi Shi’a at the hands of the Afghan mujahideen in conjunction with the local Sunni population (Daily Times [Lahore], November 11, 2007). Allama Hussaini was killed in 1988 and the Turis held General Zia responsible. There were major clashes again in 1996, in which over 200 Sunnis and Shi’a were killed after a college principal was murdered by Shi’a activists (Gulf Times, September 7, 2005).

Impact of the Collapse of the Taliban State

The Shi’a did not offer shelter to al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban fleeing Tora Bora in 2001. One tribe agreed to shelter the Arabs but another betrayed them to the authorities, who took them to the jail in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) city of Kohat. A gunfight on the way to Kohat left ten Arabs dead.  

The nature and the dimension of the sectarian conflict have changed since 2001. Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) have become a sanctuary for Punjabi members of Sunni extremist groups banned in 2002 who took shelter in the tribal areas, particularly in Lower Kurram and Orakzai Agency. These groups included the Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the Lashkar-e Jhangvi (LJ) and the Jaish-e Mohammad (JeM).  After the earthquake of October 2005, militants belonging to Lashkar-e Taiba and other groups active in Kashmir relocated in FATA and the Kohat area.  

Kurram is now in the grip sectarian of violence—in the last two years, more than 1,500 persons have been killed and 5,000 others injured (The News [Islamabad], September 19, 2008). The violence started in April 2007 after a procession in Parachinar was fired on (Dawn, April 9, 2007). In the clashes that followed, mortars and RPGs were used, resulting in heavy casualties that left 215 people dead and over 600 injured (The News, April 6, 2008). The Sunnis accused Iran of providing weapons to Shi’a fighters. Mast Gul of the Harakat-ul-Mujahideen (HuM) alleged in an April 9 press conference in Peshawar that Iran was providing money and weapons to the Shi’a and that if the Pakistan army did not take action, Sunnis would come from other parts of the country to help the local Sunnis.  

The storming of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) in July 2007 was a turning point. The militants entrenched in the mosque were made to believe that the soldiers who led the assault were all Shi’a. From the summer of 2007, sectarian killings in FATA and the beheading of captured Shi’a members of the Army and the Frontier Corps were revenge for the assault on Lal Masjid.  

JeM reorganized under Mufti Abdul Rauf, who established a training camp in Kohat, long a hotbed of sectarian violence and a stronghold of the SSP.  Javed Ibrahim Paracha, a former Member of the National Assembly, has declared openly that he is at war with the Shi’a. After JeM and SSP militants regrouped in Kohat and in Lower Kurram (traditionally a SSP stronghold), there was an upsurge in sectarian attacks both in FATA and in the settled areas, notably Dera Ismaïl Khan and Hangu.   

The Latest Round of Violence

A new spell of sectarian violence started in November 2007. Sunnis accused the Shi’a of hurling a hand grenade at the central mosque in Parachinar during Friday prayers, while the Shi’a accused Sunnis of firing rockets at homes and mosques. The army used helicopter gunships to control Parachinar and Sadda (headquarters of Lower Kurram), but the fighting continued in the rural areas. Local Sunnis were joined by al-Qaeda fighters and Taliban from Waziristan who targeted the paramilitary forces (Frontier Post, December 27, 2007). According to the UNHCR, 6,000 Sunnis, mostly women and children, fled to Afghanistan in January 2008 (Daily Times, January 2, 2008). In the following month a suicide attack in front of the election office of the Pakistan Peoples Party candidate (a Shi’a)  killed 47 people and wounded roughly 100 (Daily Times, February 18, 2008).  The clashes intensified during the summer and the government was blamed for doing nothing to stop the influx of militant outsiders from North Waziristan. In June 2008, people from Kurram staged a demonstration in front of Parliament House in Islamabad seeking the intervention of the federal government, but to no avail. Instead of intervening to stop the violence, the government kept claiming that there was no sectarian problem in Kurram, blaming a foreign hand for pitting the tribes against each other (Dawn, September 26, 2008).  

As the violence continued, the road from Parachinar to Peshawar was blocked, resulting in a shortage of food and medicines. Shi’a truck drivers were abducted and beheaded. Shi’a communities were besieged as Sunnis controlled the road from Parachinar to Thal. People going to Peshawar were forced to travel via Paktia and Kabul.  Those who took the risk of traveling through Kohat and Dara Adam Khel –where the Taliban have been active since early 2007 – were often abducted: “They stop every vehicle, ask the passengers to remove their shirts [to identify Shi’a by the marks left on their back by Muharram flagellations] and also check their ID cards” (Dawn, September 6, 2008).  Paramilitary troops were frequently abducted – while Sunnis were generally released, Shi’a soldiers were often beheaded.  

A unilateral ceasefire was declared by the Turis ahead of Ramadan, but the bloodshed continued (Dawn, September 2, 2008). A peace jirga was later convened in Islamabad under the supervision of the Political Agent of Kurram. An agreement was reached, the road reopened, power restored and dozens of people who had been abducted by rival clans released (The News, December 7, 2008; December 17, 2008). A general perception that the Shi’a had emerged as the winners in the struggle led to retaliatory violence in other parts of Pakistan. A December 5 bomb blast in the Kucha Risaldar district of Peshawar that killed as many as 34 people and wounded over 120 others targeted a local Shi’a community that mostly hailed from Parachinar. There were also clashes in Hangu (NWFP) during Muharram.   

Sectarianism Spreads to the Orakzai Agency

The sectarian clashes spilled over to the Orakzai Agency where 10 to 15% of the Orakzai tribe is Shi’a. The agency does not share a border with Afghanistan and was at relative peace until October 2008 (Herald Monthly [Pakistan], October 2008). The conflict in Orakzai is mainly over the ownership of Mir Anwar Shah Shrine at Kalaya. This shrine, which originally belonged to the Shi’a, was given to the Sunnis during British rule. Later the Shi’a were allowed to visit and ensure its maintenance. In 2000 the Taliban declared this agreement un-Islamic and warned the Shi’a not to return. The militants occupied a hilltop and fired RPGs and mortars on neighboring villages (Afghan News Center, January 18, 2001). The Taliban also expelled the Shi’a from fertile land and forced them to pay jiziya (poll tax on non-Muslims). In October 2006, the shrine was reduced to rubble after a seven day battle over its ownership. People from both sects were banned from entering the disputed area.  The trouble in Kalaya continued, with a suicide car-bomb killing six people at a jirga called by the Shi’a to settle a dispute with the Sunnis in December, 2008.
The Taliban based in Lower Orakzai have also been stirring sectarian violence in Kohat and Hangu. (Reuters, December 5, 2008). Moreover, access for Kurram is through Orakzai and by blocking the road, the Taliban are effectively putting the Kurram Shi’a under siege.


Both sects accuse each other of drawing support from outside; the Sunnis are alleged to be backed by the Taliban and the Shi’a by Iran and the Afghan Hazaras. Traditional leaders from both sects have lost control over the situation as very young fighters fill the ranks on both sides of the conflict (The News, September 2, 2008). Jirgas are no longer effective in resolving issues, particularly in the rural areas of Kurram. Even as American drones target sites within the Kurram tribal agency, the continuing struggle between Sunnis and Shi’a shows few signs of abating.