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Gilgit Baltistan: Terror Thrives



By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty

August 12, 2013

On August 6, 2013, terrorists killed Diamer District Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Muhammad Hilal Khan, and two Army officers, Colonel Ghulam Mustafa and Captain Ashfaq Aziz, in an ambush at Rohni in the Chilas District of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). The officials were involved in the investigation of the June 23, 2013, massacre of foreign climbers at Nanga Parbat and were returning after a meeting in Diamer.

Significantly, 10 foreign mountaineers were among 11 persons killed, when terrorists wearing uniforms of the GB Scouts (a Paramilitary Force) attacked the Nanga Parbat base camp in the Bonar area of Diamer District and shot the climbers and a Pakistani guide at point-blank range. The victims included an American with dual Chinese citizenship, three Ukrainians, two Slovakians, two others from China, a Lithuanian and a climber from Nepal. One Chinese climber reportedly survived by fleeing the scene.

Claiming responsibility of the August 6, 2013, attack, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had declared that its affiliate, Janood-e-Hafsa [JeH, Army of the Lioness (Hafsa: also the name of one of the Prophet Mohammad's wives)], was behind the attack. JeH was also behind the June 23, 2013, Nanga Parbat attack. TTP's then spokesperson, Ehsanullah Ehsan, had stated that this new faction of the TTP had carried out the attack to avenge the killing of Wali ur Rehman Mehsud, the TTP 'second-in-command', who was killed in a US drone strike in the Chashma area of Miranshah, the main town of the North Waziristan Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), on May 29, 2013.

On June 25, 2013, the Chief Minister of GB, Syed Mehdi Shah, had disclosed that 37 suspects detained after the gruesome attack on the climbers were being interrogated and significant progress was expected over the following 'two days'. Gilgit Inspector General of Police Usman Zakria then claimed, on June 26, 2013, that 15 terrorists involved in the attack had been identified. However, no further action has been taken and, with the killing of the investigating officials, the probe appears to have hit a wall.

Local analysts observe that TTP has extended its influence deep into GB and its local networks have been involved in several terrorist activities. Sher Ali, a Hunza valley-based political activist thus notes, "Like in the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the TTP has opened a new front in GB and their terrorists have been found in the region, among banned sectarian and Jihadi groups." Wazir Baig, the speaker of the GB Assembly, confirmed, separately, "The TTP's claim of responsibility indicates that they have entered the region," and added that stern action should be taken against any terrorist taking refuge in Diamer.

The Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), the front organisation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a banned sectarian formation, has a strong presence in the region. It has made a pledge to ensure that "Gilgit-Baltistan remains a Sunni province" [GB is, in fact, Pakistan's only Shia majority region, under tremendous pressure of an Islamabad-backed effort of demographic re-engineering].

As SAIR has noted, Islamabad has turned Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) - including both Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and GB - into a hub of Islamist extremism and terrorism since the 1990s. Terrorist groups including Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and many others, have been facilitated in creating bases and training camps in the region. These terror camps are 'global in nature' - including terrorist formations that have an international agenda. India maintains that "42 terror training camps were very much alive and kicking in PoK". On April 6, 2012, China - Pakistan's 'all weather ally' - indirectly - confirmed the existence of these terrorist camps, alleging that insurgents of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) had been trained at camps in PoK.

All the terrorist groups operating in GB have primarily been engaged in state sponsored sectarian violence. According to partial data compiled by SATP, GB has recorded at least 115 fatalities, including 89 civilians, 14 SF personnel and 12 terrorists since 2000. Most of these killings have been sectarian in nature. The year 2013 has, thus far, registered 16 killings (11 civilians and five SF personnel).

Indeed, attempts by the political and administrative class to deepen the sectarian divide in GB have vitiated the security environment in the region and have provided ample opportunity for the terrorists to thrive. According to a March 12, 2012, media report, for instance, large amounts of illegal arms and ammunition had reached GB, traversing three-hundred kilometres of heavily securitized territory, passing through numerous check posts and pickets set up by the law enforcement agencies. The report also highlighted that a large number of locals from various areas of GB had been trained for terrorist activities in camps at Diamer and Mansehra. Past reports had also indicated that terrorist training camps had been established, or had been run at different points of time, in various locations within GB, including Tangir and Darel, Astore, Darul-Uloom, Juglote, Gilgit, Madrasa Nusrat ul-Islam, Konodas, Skardu city, and Ghowadi village near Skardu.

The spaces created by the ISI for state-backed terrorist formations are now being exploited vigorously by the anti-state TTP as well. This was, in fact, confirmed by former Federal Minister of the Interior Rehman Malik, who, on August 28, 2012, claimed that 'criminals' had been running towards Gilgit Baltistan as they feared military operation in Waziristan in FATA. The statement was in conformity with the widely perceived notion that GB had emerged as a safe haven for terrorist outfits. On August 2, 2013, Gilgit Town SSP Ali Zia disclosed that law enforcement agencies had launched an operation to arrest suspects believed to have entered Gilgit Baltistan after being trained in Miranshah to carry out terrorist attacks. These fitful and selective efforts, however, have done little to alter the broad trends towards radicalization and state-backed sectarian extremism in the region.

In an apparent effort to deal with the 'alarming situation', Chief Minister Shah, on June 6, 2012, handed over 2,000 weapons and 200,000 rounds to the Police. The weapons included a total of 700 G3-rifles with 70,000 rounds, 300 7.62mm sub-machine guns with 30,000 rounds, and 1,000 9mm MP5 sub-machine guns with 100,000 rounds. GB presently has a total of 5,500 police personnel, including support staff, such as drivers and cooks, yielding just 7.37 Policemen per 100 square kilometres in this volatile region and its harsh terrain.

Earlier, on May 28, 2012, the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) had enacted a Code of Conduct (CoC) in order to curb the 'sectarian menace', becoming the first provincial legislature to have enacted a law dealing with sectarianism. GB Chief Secretary Saifullah Chatha, while addressing lawmakers, observed, "I'm hopeful that the rest of (the) Assemblies would also emulate GBLA in order to root out religious extremism from their respective regions." Indeed, sectarian violence has engulfed the region in the aftermath of the August 16, 2012, targeted attack, in which 25 Shias from GB were killed at Babusar Top, which connects GB to the rest of the country, in the Naran Valley of Mansehra District of neighbouring KP.

Such initiatives, however, remain cosmetic and, in continuing attempts to deepen the sectarian divide, the GB Government suspended 60 Shia Government officers [48 on July 25, 2012 and another 12 on August 2, 2012], to 'punish' them for allegedly attending a function of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM), a Shia Muslim religio-political party in Pakistan. Chief Allama Nasir Abbas Jaffri. Allama Aijaz Behishti, head of MWM Youth Affairs, claimed that the Government was trying to intimidate Shia officials and warned that the community was aware of this 'conspiracy'. This order evoked instant reaction from all parts of Pakistan, with thousands of people thronging Gilgit Baltistan's streets in protest. According to an unconfirmed August 12, 2012, report, the Government has reinstated 59 of these officers.

Islamabad's intentions to radicalise and demographically re-engineer the GB region remain unchanged, though its Forces have suffered some losses as a result of the 'blowback' of renegade terrorist formations targeting them as well. There is, nevertheless, no evidence of any change in the devious strategy to push this Shia majority region into Sunni domination, both through demographic transformations and terrorist action.

Tushar Ranjan Mohanty is a Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management

Source: South Asia Intelligence Review