The severed head had been hung from a tree, its lifeless eyes staring out at the main lane of the Bachki market like the goat carcasses strung up in the local meat shops. Fear spawns its own tortured vocabulary. Like many condemned to live in crucibles of terror, the widow of Frontier Constabulary soldier Rehman Zaman called his killers na-mal’um afraad, unidentified individuals. The killers proudly filmed themselves: The savage execution was released on social media, a warning for those who served an infidel state fighting the army of God.
Earlier this week—following the suicide bombing of a mosque in Peshawar, which killed more than 100 people—uniformed police officers summoned the courage to march through the streets with a defiant slogan: Yeh jo na-mal’um hain, woh humko malum hain, “we know who these nameless people are.”
Like the killing of constable Rahman in December, as well as dozens of attacks on civilians, the bombing is believed to have been carried out by the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar—one of the dozens of loosely-allied jihadist groups that make up the Tehreek-e-Taliban, which is fighting to carve out a shari’a-governed state from Pakistan’s north-west.
The great historian AJP Taylor observed of the German revolutions of 1848-1849: “history reached its turning point, but failed to turn.” The Pakistan army has vowed to crush terrorism after the Peshawar bombing, but words like these have amounted to little. Local residents have long been demanding that the government act against the jihadists. Fearing civil war, though, the government has chosen to seek secret deals with them instead.
Ever since the Taliban took power in Kabul, jihadist violence across Pakistan has exploded. Facing an unprecedented financial crisis, Pakistan just doesn’t have the will—or resources—to fight back, raising the real prospect of a jihadist triumph.
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The lethal djinn
Led—so legend has it—by a legion of djinns impervious to bullets, the armies of the cleric Haji Fazal Wahid of Turangzai laid siege to Frontier Constabulary outposts across Mohmand in 1927. Even though imperial power prevailed, the rebellion exposed British power in the North-West as an illusion. “The authority of the mullahs has developed from a religious to an authoritarian one,” the colonial bureaucrat Khan Bahadur Kuli Khan glumly observed. “They can coerce any Mohmand [as if] a ruler.”
The suicide bomber who blew himself up at the police lines in Peshawar was the inheritor of that tradition.
Eight decades after the rebellion was extinguished by British bombs, a convoy of four-wheel drives packed with men cradling assault rifles pulled up at Haji Fazal’s shrine. Twenty-eight-year-old amateur poet Abdul Wali—later to figure on global terror watchlists as Omar Khalid Khorasani, with a price of $3 million on his head—declared himself the inheritor of the cleric’s jihad.
The massacre of 132 schoolchildren in Peshawar in 2014; the killing 74 patients in a suicide attack on a hospital in Quetta two years later; the massacre of 72 at Karachi’s Gulshan-i-Iqbal park on Easter Day in 2016: Even by the standards of the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Wali proved to have an exceptional talent for violence.
Educated at the village seminary Khandaro in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Mohmand, former police officer Farhan Zahid writes, Abdul Wali travelled to Karachi to serve in the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen. The organisation—in which a generation of South Asian jihadists was incubated—was set up under the patronage of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, with its cadre fighting in Kashmir and Afghanistan. Later, Abdul Wali served with the Taliban in Afghanistan and spent time in an al-Qaeda training camp before returning home after the collapse of the Islamic Emirate.
From an interview published in the Tehreek-e-Taliban magazine Ihya-e-Khilfat eight years ago, it appears Abdul Wali was driven by an acute sense of ideological heritage. The jihad commander claimed his grandfather had fought the British in the Third Afghan War 1919-1920, and his father the Soviet Union after 1979.
Like many Taliban volunteers from Pakistan’s north-west, Abdul Wali headed home after 9/11 equipped with weapons and military training—determined to sweep aside the traditional tribal élite and build a new Shari’a-governed political order. General Pervez Musharraf, scholars Muhammad Quraish and Fakhr-ul-Islam have shown, proved supportive of this project, hoping to recruit Islamism to strengthen his military regime’s legitimacy.
Early in 2006, Abdul Wali was appointed to lead the newly-formed Tehreek-e-Taliban in Mohmand. Eight years later, after a falling out with the organisation’s emir, Fazal Hayat, Abdul Wali formed the Jama’at-ul-Ahrar. “The infidel’s world order stands upon the foundation of terrorism”, Ihya-e-Khilafat proclaimed. “Terrorism, i.e. to spread terror, is actually an essential element of warfare.” The Jama’at-ul-Ahrar manifesto, released in 2014, promised to wage jihad until a caliphate was established “in every nook and corner of the world.”
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An Islamic State
Language like this was not unfamiliar in Pakistan’s north-west—a weapon for anti-colonial resistance. “The kaffirs have taken possession of all Muslim countries,” wrote the mullah Najmuddin in 1897, exhorting the Afridi and Orakzai tribes to jihad against the British. “Fix the time and day of fighting, so that by the grace of God, the work may be accomplished.” The religious polemic incited rebellion in 1897, and again in 1907. The rebels were mowed down —but the rage continued to glow.
Even as imperial authorities granted generous subsidies to tribal maliks, or chieftains, seeking to weaken the mullahs, the clerics hit back with insurgent attacks on pro-British villages. Tribal insurgents continued to fight even after the creation of Pakistan—at one stage leading its government to order the Air Force to prepare for “destructive action against the villages.”
The communal mobilisation of the pre-Partition period, campaigns against the Ahmadi minority after independence, and the anti-Soviet jihad each contributed to clerical influence in Pakistan’s north-west, historian Sana Haroon has observed. These would lay the foundations for the rise of new jihadist movements like the Tehreek-e-Nifaz-Shariat-Muhammadi, or Movement for the Enforcement of Islamic Law, eventually flowering into the Tehreek-e-Taliban.
Efforts to secure live-and-let-live deals with these new jihadist movements after 9/11, Daud Khattak has recorded, had few results. An agreement between General Musharraf and commander Nek Muhammad Wazir disintegrated within days. Another agreement with Baitullah Mehsud—Abdul Wali’s first patron—also fell apart. A third deal went the same way, with jihadists resiling on their promises end violence.
Even public expressions of support for Islamism from former prime minister Imran Khan—who “preached for understanding for the arsonist”, scholar Ahsan Butt has wryly observed—failed to bring about peace with the jihadists.
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Losing the war
Finally evicted from their strongholds after the army launched large-scale operations across Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa in 2014, following the massacre of children at the Army Public School, the Tehreek-e-Taliban retreated back into Afghanistan. There, historian Antonio Giustozzi has recorded, leaders like Abdul Wali entered into a complex weave of relationships with other jihadist organisations—among them, the newly formed Islamic State. Even though violence in Pakistan declined, the threat remained—and its military hoped the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan would fix its problems.
Last year, top jihadist commander Muslim Khan was secretly flown out of death row at a military prison in Pakistan, into the custody of the Afghan Taliban. Imran pushed plans for the rehabilitation of jihadists in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, as part of deal which would cede some political power to jihadist commanders in return for their giving up arms
Former Inter-Services Intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed succeeded in negotiating a ceasefire—but terrorists began beheadings, public executions and ambushes against police. The country’s National Counter-Terrorism Authority has said the ceasefire allowed the Tehreek-e-Taliban to resume recruitment. Last year, Tehreek-e-Taliban units demonstrated they could stage lethal attacks outside Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, staging a suicide bombing in Islamabad.
Last week, the organisation attacked a police station in Punjab’s Mianwali, and killing two intelligence officers in the town of Dera Ghazi Khan.
Abdul Wali was killed last year, in an assassination carried out by the United States. The Peshawar bombing, though, shows the war he unleashed is escalating. A jihadist victory in Pakistan’s north-west could have far-reaching consequences, including the destabilisation of the country and empowerment of jihadist movements across the region.
Praveen Swami is ThePrint’s National Security Editor. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)