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Time to Rethink Terrorism in Pakistan


By Khuram Iqbal

May 28, 2012

The recovery and publication of the letters from Abbottabad call for an urgent review of Pakistan’s post-2014 counter-terrorism policies

For more than three decades into its formation, al Qaeda still remains a mystery. Through skillful manipulation of secrecy and deception, the global terrorist outfit managed to create an everlasting impact on global history, notwithstanding minimum resources at hand.

Even before going into hiding following the international intervention in Afghanistan, the group’s leadership rarely interacted with the mass media, making it difficult for researchers, journalists and analysts to rationalise the group’s ideology, objectives, tactics and behaviour. The academic community read too much into al Qaeda without having access to its leadership, operational command and ideologues. The organisation was deemed as static, unwilling and unprepared to adapt to ever-changing geo-political realities of the world during the last decade. We failed to notice an evolving worldview of al Qaeda specifically after the Arab Spring that took the world by surprise in late 2010.

In the absence of credible information, we assumed that al Qaeda was least concerned about popular support and sought to prevail in chaos and social disorder. Presumably, the group was striving to achieve this goal by carrying out indiscriminate violence in the targeted countries. The group was also thought to be exercising effective control over the post-9/11 breed of regional jihadis such as Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Islamic State of Iraq (AQI/ISI), al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) Harkat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (Somalia) and many more. But the recent recovery and publication of letters from Abbottabad debunked these myths about al Qaeda and prompted a reassessment of the outfit on a global level. According to the report published by Combating Terrorism Centre, the think-tank through which the letters were made public, Osama bin Laden exercised little or no control over the so-called al-Qaeda affiliates. He was burdened by their incompetence, lack of political acumen to win public support, their media campaigns and poorly planned operations, which resulted in the unnecessary deaths of thousands of Muslims.

Three out of the 17 letters specifically addressed or discussed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the group responsible for killing thousands of Pakistanis including non-combatants. Credible evidence suggests that the close proximity to al Qaeda’s fighters in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) did influence Pakistani groups to abandon their basic strategy of targeted violence and resort to global jihad. The Takfiri school of thought introduced in FATA by al Qaeda-linked Arab ideologues justified killings of non-combatants and the use of gruesome tactics such as beheadings and suicide bombings.

However, the letters from Abbottabad show a shift in al Qaeda’s view towards the TTP. In one of the letters, Adam Gadhan, al Qaeda’s spokesperson of American origin, incisively criticises the tactics and targeting calculus of the AQI/ISI and the TTP; he goes to the extent of advocating for al Qaeda to dissociate itself publicly from both groups.

Which factors caused this shift? Timing of the specific letter written by Adam Gadhan is crucial in understanding the group’s fresh stance over the TTP’s policies and tactics. The letter written in January 2011 came on the heels of popular uprisings in the Arab world. At the time when Islamist forces were successfully penetrating into popular movements to unseat ‘American puppets’ in the Arab world, al Qaeda’s top leadership must have realised the critical importance of maintaining popular support to achieve similar goals in Pakistan. The proposals to rename al Qaeda with Islamic theological themes also appear to be a move intended to win back sympathies and support in Muslim countries.

The content of the documents made public so far also carry serious implications for Pakistan. The TTP and its constituent terrorist cells were thought to be operating hand-in-glove with al Qaeda. The phenomenal rise of this umbrella group was also attributed to uninterrupted financial, ideological, technical and logistical support provided by the bin Laden-led global organisation. But if the content of the letters from Abbottabad is to be trusted, the TTP appears to be operating in isolation of late, sans al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban. Long before Operation Neptune Spear, Mullah Omar publicly condemned and disowned the TTP for damaging the Afghan Taliban’s ‘cause’.

Having lost key regional and international partners, how did the TTP manage to survive and give a tough fight to Pakistan? What explains the incessant supplies of fresh recruits willing to die in the process of killing their country fellows? Is it Takfiri ideology, the presence of the US forces in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s own strategic blunders, which keep the threat of extremism and terrorism alive? How is the threat likely to evolve once the foreign forces disengage from Afghanistan? These questions deserve the urgent attention of Pakistani academia, policy makers and military strategists.

Following the withdrawal of the US-led international troops, Afghanistan is most likely to be plunged into another civil war, which will be more intense and prolonged than what the world witnessed after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. Under such circumstances, a dominant, rather powerful segment of the Pakistani establishment expects the TTP to unite with the Afghan Taliban to capture Kabul. They believe this will shift the focus of groups such as the TTP, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Punjabi Taliban to Afghanistan and the frequency and intensity of terrorist attacks in Pakistan will dramatically decline.

But the trajectory of terrorism in Pakistan and the letters from Abbottabad suggest otherwise. Hedging all our bets on the likely rapprochement between the TTP, Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda will be suicidal. The groups responsible for unleashing waves of terror in Pakistan during the last decade are most likely to continue with their agenda of establishing Shariah in Pakistan with global ambitions. In the absence of a capable and credible force, these groups will consolidate their sanctuaries inside Afghanistan and continue to launch terrorist attacks in Pakistan and beyond. The recovery and publication of the letters from Abbottabad call for an urgent review of Pakistan’s post-2014 counter-terrorism policies.

The writer is the co-author of Pakistan: Terrorism Ground Zero. He is also a researcher and PhD student at the Centre for Transnational Crimes Prevention at the University of Wollongong, Australia

Source: The Daily Times, Lahore