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January 1, 2020

Pakistan’s threat landscape in 2019


January 1, 2020

In 2019, the downward trajectory of terrorist incidents continued in Pakistan. Since the Army Public School attack in December 2014, Pakistan has come a long way in its fight against home-grown terrorism.

The return of international test cricket and the revival of tourism highlight the success of Pakistan’s counter-terrorism responses. Still, growing radicalisation and extremism underscore the need to enhance the scope of non-kinetic measures in existing counter-terrorism framework. In 2020, Pakistan’s immediate challenges would be to avoid the Financial Action Task Force’s blacklisting and eliminate the residual terrorist threat.

According to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, in the first ten months of 2019 around 185 terrorist attacks were recorded in Pakistan as opposed to 231 attacks for the same period in 2018. Similarly, killings in these attacks reduced from 512 in 2018 to 300 in 2019. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its associated groups carried out the bulk of these attacks in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The TTP, under Mufti Nur Wali Mehsud, seems to have stitched its internal rifts as the internecine fighting has stopped. Despite being organisationally weakened and operationally uprooted from its erstwhile strongholds, the TTP is still the most potent militant group in Pakistan. In the latter half of 2019, the TTP and its affiliated factions showed signs of revival in areas like South Waziristan, North Waziristan and Darra Adam Khel. The TTP distributed several threatening pamphlets in these areas, warning locals against polio vaccination and “un-Islamic” practices.

In 2019, the epicentre of militant violence in Pakistan shifted from the former Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) – now merged with KP – to Balochistan. Its geostrategic location and the ongoing projects of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) make Balochistan a prime target for anti-Pakistan militant groups. Moreover, targeting Chinese workers involved in CPEC projects in Balochistan earn anti-Pakistan militants both money and publicity.

The two most devastating attack of 2019 in Pakistan – the Pearl Continental Hotel attack in Gwadar and the assault on a passenger bus carrying labourers on the Makran coastal highway – were perpetrated by Baloch separatist groups. The Baloch separatists have enhanced their modus operandi from hitting government infrastructure and security forces through low intensity attacks to using suicide bombings and targeting diplomatic missions. This was demonstrated in the attack on the Chinese consulate attack in Karachi in November last year.

Another concerning trend in 2019 was the global militant group Islamic State’s declaration of a Wilayah (chapter) in Pakistan. Daud Mehsud, a former TTP militant from Karachi, was appointed as the first emir of the so-called Islamic State of Pakistan (ISP). This shows the continued interest of the Islamic State in Pakistan. The ISP has a minimal footprint in Balochistan and enjoys operational and ideological alliances with like-minded anti-Shia extremist groups such as Jundullah and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Almi (LJA). The ISP can potentially benefit from the ongoing crackdown against the Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) which might push the JUD’s Salafist militants towards ISP.

Notwithstanding the ISP’s low-grade capabilities and minimal footprint in Pakistan, its caliphate narrative resonates with the younger generation of militants in the country. This narrative provides a sense of purpose and identity to the youth suffering from an identity crisis. This narrative is equally alluring for young female radicals in Pakistan who have assumed more primary roles from being nurturers of future jihadist generations, propagandists, recruiters and fund collectors to combat and leadership roles. Naureen Laghari, a would-be-suicide bomber from Hyderabad’s Liaquat Medical College (LMC), is a case in point.

Another concerning trend in 2019 has been socially driven incidents of radicalisation which various extremist and terrorist groups spearheaded in the past. Socially driven radicalism is qualitatively different from other trends of radicalisation in Pakistan as it involves mainstream groups and individuals. This is not to suggest that extremist and terrorist groups are not radicalising society, but self-radicalisation through social media has added another layer of complexity to radicalisation in Pakistan.

In the absence of a comprehensive counter-extremism response, the hard-earned gains against terrorism remain fragile and reversible. At present, Pakistan is witnessing absence of violence rather than return of peace. The main aim of counterterror operations was to eliminate the residual terrorist threat across Pakistan. The fact that the threat is gradually reconstituting requires revising the current counter-terrorism framework and include counter-extremism component.

In 2020, the downward trajectory of terrorist incidents in Pakistan is likely to continue. Pakistan will have to improve its performance in countering terrorist finances to avoid being blacklisted by the FATF. Though, under the United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1373, Pakistan has proscribed 66 organisations and 7,600 individuals, this tally is not commensurate with the country’s overall level of terrorist finance risk.

Developments in Afghanistan will also have far-reaching implications for Pakistan’s internal security. A US-Taliban peace deal resulting in a phased and responsible American withdrawal ensuring a Kabul-Taliban power-sharing agreement will further improve Pakistan’s internal security. On the contrary, a rushed withdrawal without a deal and without power-sharing will hasten the Afghan civil war, negatively affecting Pakistan (particularly KP and Balochistan).

Likewise, since the revocation of Article 370 that ended Indian-held Kashmir’s autonomous status, and subsequent Indian repression have multiplied Pakistan’s internal and external security challenges. While exerting maximum diplomatic and political pressure on India, ensuring that no non-state entity violently responds to Indian aggression will remain a challenge. At the same time, if the bellicose statements of top Indian political and military leadership are seen with ceasefire violations (950 since August) along the Line of Control (LOC) and placement of the BrahMos missile, the possibility of a limited confrontation cannot be ruled out. To divert attention from ongoing anti-CAA protests and the situation in Kashmir, India might resort to a false flag operation.

This new year, 2020, simultaneously presents a challenge and opportunity to consolidate existing security gains to continue Pakistan’s recovery to normalcy. Another year of sustained security improvement will allow Pakistan to focus on human development and efficient utilisation of existing resources to tackle non-traditional security challenges emanating from environmental challenges.

The writer is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore.

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