The Black-Turbaned Brigade: The Rise of TNSM in Pakistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 23

TNSM is active in Pakistan's NWFP

Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat- e-Mohammadi (TNSM, Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Laws) is emerging as one of the most dangerous religious militant groups in Pakistan. Its founder and leader, Sufi Mohammad, is behind bars and the organization was banned in early 2002. Still, its support base in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas (especially in Malakand district and Bajaur Agency) is solid. The organization witnessed its peak in 1994-95 when Pakistan experienced its first brush with this indigenous Taliban-style movement. At this time, the group took to the streets in large numbers in the Malakand region and demanded the enforcement of religious laws. The Pakistani government responded in a lackluster and weak manner, providing additional confidence to TNSM’s cadres. The failure of law enforcement, coupled with the chronic lack of imagination on the part of Islamabad, ensured a long life for the organization. Today, TNSM is a potent force of extremism in Pakistan.

The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan, beginning in late 2001, gave TNSM new energy and enthusiasm. The Pakistani army has faced tough resistance from many Taliban and al-Qaeda supporters in the Pashtun tribal belt since it began its military offensive in 2002, and TNSM is now at the forefront of these activities. The deadliest attack on the Pakistani military in the tribal zone on November 8 is widely believed to be a TNSM orchestrated operation (The Post, November 9). The group also has firmly developed into a satellite of al-Qaeda and its existence is a threat to Pakistani as well as U.S. interests in the region. Surprisingly, TNSM’s profile is not available even on many leading terrorism focused databases and websites. This analysis endeavors to understand the nature and capabilities of TNSM and to discuss effective methods to tackle the problem.

Brief History of TNSM

To fully comprehend the genesis of TNSM, the politics and economics of the Malakand region (which is TNSM’s primary base) deserve some attention. In northwest Pakistan, three semi-autonomous states—Dir, Swat and Chitral—were amalgamated to form the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) in 1970. The laws of Pakistan were extended to the area, sweeping aside old legal systems such as Sharia law in Swat. A legal battle erupted in 1975, however, when a dispute arose between the government and timber merchants about forest royalties in the area. A new judicial order was soon introduced to resolve the problems. This change, however, was incorporated after violent street protests were orchestrated by powerful landowners who had a monopoly on forestlands and wanted to pursue their vested interests. Getting the attention of the state through violence and armed conflict became an unhealthy precedent.

Failure of the Pakistani state to tackle these issues in a timely manner created political confusion and religious groups found an opening for their agendas. Sufi Mohammad, an activist of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), followed the situation closely. After returning from the successful Afghan jihad in the late 1980s, he was more convinced of his religious ideals. His exuberance, according to Pakistani journalist Amir Rana, led him to create TNSM on May 10, 1989. The very name of the organization framed its manifesto and agenda in unmistakable terms. His networking and experience in Afghanistan meant that on top of his battleground experience, he had no dearth of resources or religious motivation.

Formative Years

Besides geopolitical, economic and religious factors, Sufi Mohammad’s personality and orientation also played a crucial role in the formation of TNSM. He decided to quit JI in 1981, while issuing a decree declaring that religious political parties and “politics of votes” were unlawful and contrary to Islamic principles. As to his “educational” activities, he remained associated with a seminary in Lal Qila in Dir. In terms of sectarian linkages, he was an ardent believer in the Wahhabi school of thought and had remained associated with Saudi-sponsored groups from the Afghan theater of 1980-88.

TNSM’s first major action was its strident demand for the introduction of Sharia law in Malakand Division (which, before the implementation of the 2002 devolution plan, included the present day districts of Malakand, Swat and Chitral), expressed at a gathering in Timergara in Dir on May 9, 1994. It was not a mere slogan—much thinking and planning had gone into the project. The demand, in fact, was an ultimatum. Within a couple of weeks, TNSM took control of the area, including government offices and a local airport, through sheer force and announced the imposition of Sharia law. The group’s call to arms drew large numbers of experienced Afghan fighters from nearby Peshawar city and Bajaur Agency. The movement almost spun out of control (The Herald, February, 1999). Embarrassed by this turn of events, the Pakistani government acted belatedly and foolishly, leading to the deaths of around 40 people, including a member of the provincial assembly and more than a dozen paramilitary troops, before some semblance of normality was returned to the area.

Peace was only restored after a deal that served as a clear victory for TNSM—Sufi Mohammad handed himself over to the military and the federal government who had agreed to accept TNSM’s major demand, which was the enforcement of Sharia. Sufi Mohammad remained in government custody for only a short period of time, and by November 1994 senior government functionaries sent him official letters addressed to “Honorable Maulana Sufi Mohammad bin Hasan Mahmud,” updating him about government directives to enforce Sharia law and requesting his cooperation. Immediate official instructions were then issued to establish religious courts. TNSM’s supporters, meanwhile, happily started driving on the wrong side of the road claiming to defy the traffic rules introduced by Great Britain a century ago. Men were also told to grow beards. In short, Talibanization began to take place. The political leadership of the country did not see where all this might lead and missed a golden opportunity to end the problem at its outset.

Malakand suffered in the process greatly. Already a conservative area, the roots of extremism became entrenched. For instance, in the case of women—already bound tight by traditions and coerced to stay within their homes or behind their veils—their space became even more restricted. During electoral campaigns, the female candidates (to fill the special seats reserved for women) were compelled to affix their husband’s photograph onto registration papers instead of their own. Subsequently, husbands of elected women even began attending official activities.

Beginning of the End?

After this episode, Islamabad hoped that the movement would fizzle out on its own. For the time being, however, other emerging religious militant groups took center stage in the media and TNSM was no longer in the national news. For Pakistan’s military and intelligence agencies, supporting the insurgency in Indian-controlled Kashmir and logistic upkeep of Taliban forces in Afghanistan were their primary objectives and they looked the other way when it came to the local agendas of extremist outfits that they were supporting. TNSM sustained its support base during this period, while strengthening its intimate relationship with the Taliban in Afghanistan. In an August 1998 speech in Peshawar, Sufi Mohammed declared that those opposing the imposition of Sharia in Pakistan were wajib-ul-qatl (worthy of death), and he threatened to attack Americans in Pakistan unless the United States apologized for missile strikes in Afghanistan (Jane’s Intelligence Review, January, 1999). Some supporters of Sufi Mohammad became disgruntled, however, since little development work had been done in the area since 1994. To curb such trends, TNSM again raised its profile in April 2001, but the governor of the NWFP at the time snubbed them by arguing: “The real issue in Malakand is not the implementation of Sharia, but of non-custom paid vehicles, unlawful deforestation and avoidance of taxes” (Daily Mashriq, May 3, 2001). Indeed, religion was not the only defining factor in this power matrix since many criminals benefited financially by supporting TNSM.

It was only after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States and the subsequent American campaign in Afghanistan that the government of Pakistan began to focus on TNSM. Sufi Mohammad by then was openly recruiting people to go to Afghanistan to fight U.S.-led forces. Soon he managed to cross into Afghanistan with approximately 7,000-8,000 volunteers to support the bewildered Taliban (Dawn, July 29, 2004; Daily Times, November 1). When a majority of his soldiers had been either killed or captured, he returned home only to be arrested by government forces. He was ultimately convicted on April 24, 2002, along with his 30 companions, to seven years of imprisonment for inciting people to go to Afghanistan and for violating state restrictions. The organization was no longer a legitimate entity and was banned by President General Pervez Musharraf in January 2002. Some of its members drifted toward another extremist outfit—Tehrik-e-Taliban (Movement of the Taliban)—which had operated from Orakzai Agency since 1998.

TNSM: Alive and Kicking

In the absence of Sufi Mohammad, his son-in-law Maulana Fazalullah became the leader of the organization. He is also known as “Maulana Radio” due to his expertise in launching illegal FM radio stations for propaganda purposes. Maulana Liaqatullah, who was killed during the October 30 Bajaur seminary strike, and Maulana Faqir Mohammad have been the other important players in TNSM during the last couple of years. Both were based in Bajaur Agency and commanded training camps for the Taliban. The organization remained dormant for a few years in the aftermath of the Taliban’s downfall (Terrorism Focus, May 17). Yet, after the October 8, 2005 deadly earthquake in the northern parts of Pakistan, TNSM re-energized itself and effectively propagated that the natural calamity was visited upon them because they were becoming irreligious. The recommended remedy in their view was simple—living by the strict Sharia code. Striking when the iron was hot, they successfully campaigned for the destruction of television sets and video players. Due to the lack of education in the region, the message resonated with the locals and TNSM received a new lease of life.

JI, according to most estimates, is still ahead in terms of public support in the area, but that may not continue for long. TNSM is fast transforming itself from a fringe group to a mainstream organization, at least in the Bajaur area. This black turbaned brigade has even attracted some former military servicemen to its cadres as well. It is noteworthy that even while negotiating with government officials in recent weeks, TNSM leaders continue to emphasize that “Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden are their heroes” (Daily Times, October 29).


TNSM’s extremist ideological roots, violent behavior since the mid-1990s, collaboration with criminal elements and terrorist tactics were sufficient warning signals for Pakistan’s government to curb its activities effectively and pursue criminal cases against its top leaders (The News, October 18, 2004; Daily Times, May 15, 2005). This did not occur, however, and the pursuant mayhem was predictable. The recent targeted killings of TNSM leaders are unlikely to resolve the crisis. The religious seminaries that put a premium on bigotry and propagate hatred should be closed down. Equally important is the establishment of modern schools as an alternative to their more radical ideology. The “Enlightened Moderation” of Musharraf is failing because he is using it merely as a slogan and little is being done on the ground. Sufi Mohammad, who will be a free man again in December 2008, must be nodding with approval from his prison cell.