Recent terrorist attacks have alarmed residents of merged tribal districts and Swat
ugust 7 was an eventful day in terms of violence on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Omar Khalid Khorasani, a founding member of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan and head of the team negotiating terms of a permanent peace with the government of Pakistan was killed in Afghanistan. On the other hand, there was a clash between the Pakistani Taliban and the police in Swat. The Taliban kidnapped some security personnel including a DSP. The action was allegedly taken at the behest of Saifal alias Mullah Burjan.
The conflict in Swat is complex in terms of its structure and goals. For some, it is a backlash against the local elite. Others see it as a product of an outdated judicial system. For a long time, Swat was under the rule of a wali. The wali had a great reputation both as an able administrator and an innovative leader. This showed in the lead the state enjoyed over neighbouring areas in terms of rule of law as well as education and development.
Why did Swat then descend into violence and lawlessness? It is important to be aware of the background of the Malakand militancy.
Jamaat-i-Islami has historically held sway in Dir, Swat and Buner districts as well as the merged tribal district of Bajaur in the northern Malakand Division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The late Maulana Sufi Muhammad was a disciple of the Panj Piri school. He was particularly close to the Salafi Afghan jihadi commander Sheikh Jamilur Rahman.
Sheikh Jameelur Rehman eventually distanced himself from Hizb-i-Islami in Afghanistan, considered the Afghan version of Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, and founded a new organisation called Jamaat-ul Dawat-ul-Quran. After the assassination of Rehman in Bajaur in 1991, Sufi Mohammad founded the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi (TNSM) in 1992.
It was a Malakand-based movement that demanded the implementation of the Sharia law in the area. Within a few years, it started taking the form of a militant organisation. Attempts by the local police to suppress the organisation failed. After 9/11, Sufi Muhammad joined the Afghan resistance with thousands of his followers. These fighters became more violent when they returned from Kunar, Kunduz and Balkh. One of them was Mullah Fazlullah, the son-in-law of Maulana Sufi Muhammad. Mullah Fazlullah was arrested on his return from the Afghan campaign. After his release from prison, he established a centre at Maam Dheri in Swat.
Fazlullah also set up an FM radio station and came to be called Mullah Radio. This radio soon started asking for donations for ‘jihad’. Many, including some women, in the area were known to have donated generously for the cause.
After the 2007 Lal Masjid operation, Fazlullah declared jihad against the government. By 2008, he had established a parallel government in Swat. The government entered into negotiations with him and a tentative agreement was reached in April 2009. However, the peace did not last as the treaty was violated.
Later, a successful operation was launched in Swat and Malakand. Fazlullah and his close companions fled to Afghanistan. They took refuge there and orchestrated many terrorist attacks in Pakistan. During this time, Fazlullah also headed the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan. He was killed in a drone attack. Given his Salafist ideology, the Pakistani Taliban in southern districts, including Waziristan, did not have a good opinion of Fazlullah and his team.
This was the reason that many Pakistani Taliban commanders formed separate groups and the organisation splintered. Fazlullah was the only leader of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan from a settled district. After his death, the leadership of Tehreek-i-Taliban returned to the south, and Mufti Waliur Rehman Mehsud was made the head. When he started negotiations with Pakistan at the behest of Afghan Interior Minister Siraj Haqqani, the Salafi commanders of the north opposed him. Foremost among them was Abdul Wali alias Omar Khalid Khorasani from Mohmand.
To address his reservations, Khorasani was appointed head of the negotiating team that met with Pakistani delegates. There were reports that serious differences and misunderstandings arose between two factions of the North and the South over conditions and demands during the negotiations.
After August 15, when the Taliban government came to power in Afghanistan, the barbed wire fences along the border were removed. Crossing the border is no longer difficult. The recent wave of militancy has also alarmed the residents of Bajaur and Dir. These districts are directly facing the spillover of events in the Afghan province of Kunar.
Meanwhile, Khorasani was killed and there was an impression that his assassination was an insider job. Some among the Pakistani Taliban of Mohmand, Bajaur, Dir, Swat, Buner and Malakand believed that the fighting should resume. However, the central leadership ignored their proposal.
Next, Taliban commander Saifal alias Mullah Burjan of Swat, started his activities in the district. His group started calling PTI members of the provincial assembly from Swat and demanding protection money. The group apparently wanted to claim a triumphant return like the Afghan Taliban’s return to power in Kabul.
To this end they had started mobilising in Bajaur, Dir and Swat. There were reports that many politicians and some wealthy contractors had paid ransom money. The Taliban finally signalled their presence by abducting some security personnel. After their release, Idris Khan and Shireen Khan, members of the Swat Peace Committee, were assassinated in quick succession.
Besides, seven people working on a communication tower of a cellular phone company were abducted. This alarmed everyone.
Analysts were unclear initially about how the Taliban were able to enter Swat even though the district is not on the border.
The Swati fighters are mostly based in Afghanistan’s Kunar province, where Salafi jihadi organisations have always received support. Sheikh Jamilur Rahman had belonged to Kunar province. Fazlullah, too, had spent much of his self-imposed exile in Kunar.
The Kunar province shares a border with several districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa including Mohmand, Bajaur, Dir Lower, Dir Upper and Chitral. Among these, Chitral, Dir Upper and Dir Lower share borders with Swat.
Kunar and Swat are therefore only a district apart. For the fighters from Kunar, the nearest route is via Dir Upper or Dir Lower.
After the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, the barbed wire fence on the border was removed in many places. Therefore, crossing the border is no longer difficult.
The recent wave of militancy has alarmed the residents of Bajaur and Dir as these districts are directly facing the spillover of events in Kunar.
Eighteen local leaders of the Deoband school have been killed in Bajaur so far. Apart from this, targeted killing of the members of Peace Committees is becoming frequent. Calls for extortion are on the rise in Bajaur, too.
Jamaat-i-Islami MPA and former health minister Inayatullah Khan recently expressed his concerns about his hometown, Dir.
It was in this context that the Peshawar corps commander visited Swat and reassured the elders of Swat and Malakand that no form of terrorism would be tolerated in the region. A press release issued by the ISPR later said: “During the past few days, a misperception about alleged presence of large number of proscribed organisation TTP’s armed members in Swat Valley has been created on social media. After confirmation on ground, these reports have been found as grossly exaggerated and misleading. Presence of a small number of armed men on a few mountain tops between Swat and Dir has been observed, located far away from population. Apparently, these individuals sneaked in from Afghanistan to resettle in their native areas. A close watch is being maintained on their limited presence and movement in the mountains. Required measures are in place by all LEAs for the safety and security of people of adjoining areas. Presence of militants anywhere will not be tolerated and they will be dealt with full use of force if required.”
Rallies were then taken out in support of peace in Swat and adjacent areas. Many residents of Malakand, especially Swat, are panicking. Alarm has also been raised in Bajaur. The targets of militancy seem to be moving from the south to the north. There are fears that the militancy can spread to Gilgit-Baltistan and Hazara division. This is not to say that the southern districts – North and South Waziristan, Tank, Dera Ismail Khan and Lakki Marwat – have calmed down. The peace apparently can be restored if the negotiations with the Taliban are successful and an agreement is reached.
The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist, researcher and trainer on terrorism, conflict and peace development. He can be reached at email@example.com