In the line of fire

September 24, 2023

JUI-F leaders find themselves in the crosshairs of terrorists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan

In the line of fire


he latest series of terrorist attacks against the Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) started in 2019, when the party became increasingly vocal against the proscribed global militant outfit, the Islamic State of Khorasan Province.

On July 30 this year, more than 60 people were killed when a suicide bomber attacked JUI-F’s political rally in Khar city in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Bajaur district.

The ISKP claimed responsibility for the attack. It also released a photo of the suicide bomber in a statement published by its official media outlet.

The next week, a party member and local government office bearer of the JUI-F, Mufti Khair Zaman, was shot dead in Lakki Marwat district on August 6.

The most recent incident occurred on September 14. It involved an attack on the convoy of Hafiz Hamdullah, a senior leader of the JUI-F and a spokesperson for the Pakistan Democratic Movement, in the Joto area in Mustung district of Balochistan. The attack resulted in severe injuries to Hamdullah who was taken first to Quetta and subsequently to Karachi for medical treatment.

“We do not use the word ‘fear’ too frequently. Yes we have to die, but we are not afraid of such cowardly attacks,” Hamdullah told The News International over the phone.

Sounding cheerful, he said that the party’s chief, Maulana Fazl-ur Rehman, had been targeted five times and some other party workers were also on the militants’ hit-list. “But we support the constitution and democracy. We will not step away from our ideology,” he stated.

In May 2017, an attack in Quetta, Balochistan, had targeted Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri. This attack, later claimed by the ISKP, was executed by their militant operative, Abu Hanzalah Khorasani, and resulted in the tragic loss of two dozen lives.

In May 2018, the ISKP assassinated another prominent JUI-F leader in Quetta, Mullah Habibullah. These incidents underscore the persistent security challenges faced by JUI-F members.

The animosity between the JUI-F and the ISKP is rooted in their divergent ideological positions. The hostility is deep-seated and has not emerged suddenly. Its origins date back to a time when the ISKP had not even been founded.

The early anti-JUI-F sentiment had developed in a sub-group of another local militant organisation, the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. The organisation, led by Hakimullah Mehsud, endorsed the idea of targeting JUI-F’s leader, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, due to the party’s place in the governance system.

Although the deputy chief of the TTP at that time, Wali-ur Rehman, was opposed to the idea of targeting the JUI-F and announced strict action against militants for their involvement in attacks against the group, several attacks were made against Fazl-ur Rehman. Fazl survived a suicide attack in March 2011, It was carried out by a sub-group of the TTP.

After Hakimullah was killed in a US drone strike in 2013 his anti-Fazl sentiment was inherited by his close aide Hafiz Saeed Orakzai.

Saeed, a former TTP militant, was responsible for heading the organisation’s Orakzai district branch.

The ISKP has framed a complex narrative based on core Islamic State ideology – which is intrinsically against democracy and democratic parties – and local hostility towards the JUI-F and Afghan Taliban.

Since JUI-F supports democracy, believes in a republican setup and is in favour of nation-states instead of a global caliphate, the ISKP sees it as an ideological adversary.

Since the JUI-F supports democracy, believes in a republican setup and is in favour of nation-states instead of a global caliphate, the ISKP sees it as an ideological adversary.

The ISKP also links the JUI-F with its regional archenemy, the Afghan Taliban and has described it as the political representative of the latter in Pakistan.

The ISKP has elaborated its criticism of the JUI-F by releasing a series of articles in its flagship Pashto language magazine, Khorasan Ghag, and the Arabic language magazine, Sawt Khorasan. The ISKP has expanded its narrative to other political parties and religious movements in Pakistan, publishing several books and statements declaring that members of the JUI-F, Tablighi Jamaat, Jamaat-ud Dawa, and Jamaat-i-Islami are to be considered enemies of the Islamic State.

The ISKP has recently published a book (in September) and through it issued warnings of attacks during the upcoming general elections in Pakistan.

The book is an elaboration of religious rulings published by the ISKP throughout 2022 and 2023 that repeatedly justified and endorsed such attacks against political parties, politicians and public rallies.

General elections were originally set to take place by November after former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif dissolved the National Assembly on August 9. However, the Election Commission of Pakistan, decided to redraw the electoral constituencies based on the results of a digital census conducted in April this year.

On September 19, the ECP published the updated province-wise voter statistics and indicated that the number of voters had risen to 126.9 million from 105.95 million in 2018.

Analysts believe that political parties, especially religious political parties, remain on the hit-list of militant organisations and that attacks on them could disrupt the election campaigns.

Aslam Ghouri, a spokesperson for the JUI-F told TNS that some “anti-democracy elements” fighting with Taliban earlier, had come to Pakistan and started launching attacks here.

“I have lost more than 20 companions in the last 7-8 months who had been taking part in political activities,” he said. “We cannot freely carry out our campaigns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The party leaders cannot appear in public as the government has been informing us about threats to the party. How are we supposed to contest elections?”

Asked about Afghan Taliban’s leadership, Ghouri said, “They issued condemnation statements on the attacks happening against us. But at the end [of the day], it is the responsibility of our security agencies to provide us a safe environment.”

The threat of terrorist attacks is not limited to the JUI-F. The ISKP has targeted other political and religious entities in the past, too, both in its propaganda releases as well as operationally.

In 2022 and 2023, the ISKP has mounted attacks that have resulted in the assassinations of JUI-F and Jamaat Ishaat-ut Tawheed members in Bajaur, as well as the near-assassination of Jamaat-i-Islami leader Siraj-ul Haq in Balochistan.

Furthermore, in its propaganda, the ISKP has vehemently criticised the Jamiat-i-Ahle Hadees and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, echoing the threats that other jihadist organisations in the region have made against Pakistani political parties. For instance, the TTP has made both direct and indirect threats to individuals belonging to the PPP and the PML-N.

The enhanced political activity in Pakistan has allowed people not aligned with any militant organisation to carry out assassinations and other violent activities against politicians. Such attacks are motivated by personal enmity, rivalry, grudges or conflicting interests. The assassination of Awami National Party’s senior leader Arbab Ghulam Muhammad Kasi Advocate on September 19 in Quetta, Balochistan, seems to have been an outcome of the uncertain situation the country is facing with regard to the upcoming elections.

Elections in such circumstances are set to increase the looming threat posed by militant organisations in the country, both jihadist and nationalist ones. Regardless of the turnout, the progress of the electoral process might be jeopardised by the violent actions of such actors.

The writer is the editor of The Khorasan Diary. He can be reached on Twitter @iftikharfirdous

In the line of fire