Yesterday, Friday November 1st, Hakimullah Mehsud, the leader of the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-e-Taliban, or TTP) was killed by an American drone strike. Though Mehsud’s death has been inaccurately reported in the past, in this instance the TTP has confirmed he was killed and has been buried. Pakistani officials have reacted furiously to the strike, as they were on the verge of beginning peace talks with the TTP in the hope of ending the insurgency. A particularly high degree of security awareness should be maintained in Pakistan, as the TTP has responded ferociously to the targeted killings of leaders with revenge attacks in the past, including against foreigners. Mehsud, reportedly in his mid-30s, was on his way home from a TTP meeting at a local mosque when the car he was travelling was hit, killing him along with 4 others in the vehicle. The attack took place in North Waziristan, part of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a series of provinces dominated by militant groups. Mehsud had loose control over the more than 30 groups that comprise the TTP. He took over from the group’s founder, Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a drone strike in 2009. The United States had placed a $5 million bounty on his head if captured alive. Hakimullah Mehsud’s leadership saw a noticeable expansion of TTP activities in Pakistan, and intensified the insurgency that has claimed tens of thousands of lives across the country. This has increased further in recent months, with regular and major attacks in Pakistan, including those targeting non-traditional victims, such as Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority. The TTP under his leadership was also responsible for the attempted bombing in Times Square in 2010, and the attack that killed 7 CIA employees in Afghanistan in 2009. Pakistani officials are furious about Mehsud’s death, with the killing threatening to further damage already strained US-Pakistan relations. The new government of Nawaz Sharif has been pursuing peace talks with the TTP in a bid to end the country’s security situation, already extremely problematic and spiralling out of control in recent years. Reportedly, a three man negotiation team was travelling to meet Mehsud and begin peace talks today. Pakistani officials have accused the United States of attempting to sabotage the nascent peace process, and the two nation’s already troubled relationship will likely deteriorate further as a result. Some local leaders in the FATA have also pledged to cut crucial supply lines to ISAF forces in Afghanistan. However, the peace talks may actually benefit from Mehsud’s death. Though he was in favour of opening negotiations, his conditions and views were seen as relatively harsh and conservative. His successor, Khan Said Sajna, was appointed today and is the leader of a strong TTP faction that is notably more open to discussions with the government in Islamabad. In the long term, the ascendance of more peaceable TTP factions may play in Pakistan’s favour. In the short term however, serious challenges remain. Some TTP factions are reportedly already unhappy with the new leadership, claiming not enough time was taken over the decision. Factionalism in the group may intensify, as it is already a very factional and decentralised organisation facing serious questions surrounding its future and talks with the government. Immediate effects to TTP operations are also unlikely, as the group operates largely without a centralised leadership and has an amorphous organisational structure. The TTP has pledged to carry out revenge attacks for the death of Mehsud, and it is very likely to carry this out. The group possesses a formidable capability for targeted and indiscriminate attacks throughout the country, and security has been stepped up across Pakistan as a result. Particularly concerning, the TTP has reportedly formed a new sub-group designed to target foreigners in revenge for the deaths of leaders in drone strikes – the killing of senior leader Wali-ur Rehman in June prompted the execution of 10 foreigner climbers at the base of Nanga Parbat. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained in Pakistan, as the likelihood of revenge attacks for Mehsud’s death is very high.
In the early hours of this morning, Tuesday, 30th July, the Pakistani Taliban (the TTP) launched an assault on a prison in north-west Pakistan, freeing nearly 250 militants. This incident comes on the day the Pakistani parliament is electing a new president and on top of severe violence throughout the country in the past month following the election of new Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. An extremely high level of caution and security awareness should be maintained at all times throughout the country.
Today’s attack occurred in the town of Dera Ismail Kahn, in the Khyber Paktunkhwa province which borders the notorious Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA), a haven for militant activity. Up to 100 militants, some dressed in police uniforms, bombarded the prison with mortars and RPGs before launching an assault that lasted for 3 or 4 hours and left at least 13 dead, including 6 police officers. The attackers reportedly used a loudhailer to call the names of specific inmates, set ambushes for the authority’s reinforcements, and then booby trapped the prison – all of which suggests a complex attack planned in advance.
The town’s prison is a century old, and was not designed to hold high security prisoners. Nevertheless, at the time of the attack it contained hundreds of militants from the TTP and other banned groups. Among the fugitives there are reportedly around 30 “hardened militants” who had been jailed for their involvement in major attacks and suicide bombings. As of writing, 14 of the escapees have been recaptured, while the rest are almost certainly fleeing into the FATA – something that will almost certainly make any future apprehension by the state authorities extremely difficult.
The attack is a major embarrassment for the Pakistani state authorities, particularly in light of reports that suggest intelligence was received over a fortnight ago about a planned assault on the jail. The attack is also remarkably similar to an incident in April, 2012 in nearby Bannu, which freed over 400 inmates – questions will likely be asked about how militants successfully executed an almost identical raid over a year later. The TTP also said one of its key leaders freed in the 2012 raid was behind the planning of this most recent incident.
Today’s incident comes in the wake of numerous violent attacks across Pakistan in recent weeks. On Saturday, July 27th, 57 people were killed in an attack on a market in Parachinar, Kurram province, which borders Afghanistan to the west. On the same day, nine people were killed in attacks on security force check points, including in the western city of Gwador on the border with Iran. On Wednesday, July 24th, militants stormed the regional headquarters in Sukkur of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), killing 9, including police and intelligence officials. On the 30th June, 56 were killed in bomb attacks in Quetta and Peshawar, while another attack earlier that month killed 11 foreign mountaineers.
Pakistan has been in the grip of a domestic insurgency led by the TTP since 2007, which has killed thousands of civilians and members of the security forces, and terrorism is endemic to the country as a whole. The TTP in particular has strong connections with other Sunni jihadist organisations such as Al Qaeda, but tends to focus its attacks normally on organs of the Pakistani state and government.
However, the Pakistani state’s response to the TTP and other militant organisations has been extremely flawed, with few notable successes. There are also seemingly justified accusations that elements of the security forces, particularly within the ISI, provide major support to militants. Aside from attacks against state institutions, civilian members of Pakistan’s Shia minority tend to be the most frequent targets of attacks by the Sunni militant groups.
The continuing violence throughout the country in the past months is already becoming a particular problem for the new government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in power since May this year. He is under extreme pressure to outline how he plans to bring the security situation under control, but many observers believe he currently lacks a coherent strategy, choosing instead to prioritise economic development. The BBC recently obtained a leaked copy of a ‘Draft National Counter-terrorism and Extremism Policy’ which lambasted the political leadership of Pakistan for allowing the security situation to deteriorate to its current level, and argued the activities of militants where “the most serious crisis face by the country since independence”. While it is unclear whether the authors of the document were referring to the new government or the previous, new Prime Minister Sharif is certainly yet to take major steps to counter militant activity.
While the death of foreigners in terrorist attacks still remains relatively rare, visitors to Pakistan should be aware of the extremely high risk of terrorist activity throughout the entire country. Common targets include government buildings, markets, holy sites and ‘Western’ areas. An extremely high degree of security awareness should be maintained at all times. In addition, all travel to the remote tribal regions in the North and West should be avoided.
The murder of 11 individuals at the base camp of Nanga Parbat late last week suggests new dangers may be emerging for foreign climbers and tourists in the remote but previously peaceful regions of northern Pakistan. Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world at 8126 metres and a popular destination for Himalayan mountaineers.
On the evening of Saturday, 22nd June, 16 individuals dressed in the uniform of the Gilget Scouts (a police paramilitary unit based in northern Pakistan) arrived at the base camp of Nanga Parbat. After stealing personal belongings and destroying mobile phones, they killed 11 of the people staying at the camp. 10 of these were foreigners – 3 Ukrainians, 2 Slovakians, 2 Chinese, a dual US-Chinese citizen, a Lithuanian, and a Nepalese. Also among the dead was a local guide, reportedly killed because of his Shia religion, while Sunnis at the camp were spared.
While initially the perpetrators of the attack were unknown, it now appears that the Pakistani Taliban (or TTP) were responsible, claiming responsibility in a press release late on Sunday, 23rd June. Despite the common name, the TTP share no direct affiliation (and indeed have an at times problematic relationship with) the Afghan Taliban.
Based largely in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas (FATA) of northwest Pakistan, the TTP targets mainly the organs of the Pakistani state. It has been extremely active in terrorist incidents throughout the country – including being implicated in the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Moreover the group has been implicated by US Government officials as being behind the 2010 attempted car bomb in Times Square, New York, and been connected with the 2009 attack on CIA facilities at Camp Chapman in Afghanistan.
The TTP is extremely closely affiliated with Al-Qaeda, with current DCI John Brennan saying in 2010 “They train together, they plan together, they plot together. They are almost indistinguishable.” Nevertheless, for the most part the TTP acts mainly within Pakistan itself, and past attacks on foreigners have been rare. Indeed, despite the terrorism at times endemic to parts of the country, terrorist attacks on foreigners as a whole have remained unusual, with this incident reportedly the worst in over a decade.
However, in this instance foreigners were deliberately targeted. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the death of Wali-ur Rehman, a senior TTP commander and spokesman killed with six associates by a US drone strike on 29th May. It appears that the TTP has recently established a subsidiary organisation, reportedly named Junood-ul Hifsa, with the goal of targeting foreigners in Pakistan in response to drone strikes. The attack at Nanga Parbat was explicitly connected with this new faction.
Reaching the base camp requires at least an 18 hour trek by foot or mule, suggesting this attack required a level of premeditation and planning as opposed to being an opportunistic or random incident. Despite mass detentions of porters and guides, and the apparent identification of the individuals responsible (local militants reportedly trained in the FATA), the perpetrators of this attack remain at large in the wilderness of northern Pakistan.
The region in which this occurred, Gilget-Baltistan, is a very remote self-governing province under the administrative control of Pakistan since the First Kashmir War in 1947 – 1948. Despite its connections with the on-going Kashmir dispute, and the activities of some militant nationalist groups, Gilget-Baltistan has remained broadly peaceful.
Nanga Parbat is an extremely popular destination for climbers, with upwards of 50 foreign mountaineers either preparing to ascend or on the mountain itself at the time of the attack, who have all now been evacuated. Multiple foreign tour operators have reportedly cancelled expeditions, with some commentators believing this incident could cripple Pakistan’s already weak tourism industry.
If, as claimed, this incident represents the beginning of a new strategy of targeting foreign citizens in Pakistan in response to drone strikes and other military action, it is extremely concerning indeed. With many foreign mountaineers and similar flocking to remote parts of the Himalayas in the summer months, they remain particularly exposed and vulnerable to any militant activity. In light of this incident, the British Foreign and Commonwealth office currently advises against all but essential travel to Gilget-Baltistan.