Pakistan: Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Shroud of Terror
On January 18, 2023, a teenager, Raheedullah, was found beheaded in a remote area of Bargai village in Lakki Marwat District. The Ittehadul Mujahideen-i-Khurasan left a dagger and a hand written chit in Pashto near the body, with the message that Raheedullah was found guilty of spying for the Army and the Counter Terrorism Department (CTD).
On January 14, 2023, three Policemen, including Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Badaber Sardar Hussain and his two Police guards, Irshad and Jehanzeb, were killed in a terrorist attack on the Sarband Police Station in Peshawar, the provincial capital of KP. KP Inspector General of Police (IGP) Moazzam Jah Ansari said that sniper rifles were used by the terrorists in the incident, for the first time in Peshawar. TTP claimed responsibility for the attack. The CTD killed the two terrorists who were involved in the attack, Gul Hayyee and Hazrat Umar, residents of the Bara area of Khyber District and Mohmand Hal Yeka Tut in Peshawar, while two to three other terrorists managed to escape.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), KP has recorded 33 terrorism-related fatalities, including 23 terrorists, eight Security Force (SF) personnel and two civilians, so far, in the current year (data till January 22, 2023). During the corresponding period of 2022, the province had recorded 19 such fatalities including 11 terrorists, five SF personnel and three civilians.
KP recorded a total of 527 fatalities (119 civilians, 173 SF personnel and 235 terrorists) in 184 incidents of killing in 2022, as against 300 such fatalities (71 civilians, 108 SF personnel, and 121 terrorists) in 129 such incidents in 2021, registering an increase of 75.66 per cent in overall fatalities. Overall fatalities, on year-on-year basis, have been on a continuous rise since 2020, when fatalities stood at 216 (61 civilians, 57 SF personnel, and 98 terrorists) in comparison to 130 (30 civilians, 69 SF personnel, and 31 terrorists) in 2019.
Significantly, overall fatalities in 2022 are the highest in a year since 2014, when there were 697 fatalities. In terms of SF fatalities, the 2022 tally is the highest since 2013, when there were 181 fatalities. Terrorist fatalities in 2022 were the highest since 2011, when there were 372 such fatalities. The number of civilians killed in a year touched three digits after a gap of five years, with 122 civilians killed in 2016.
Other parameters of violence also indicated a worsening security situation in the province. Total terrorism-linked incidents jumped sharply from 168 in 2021 to 225 in 2022, the highest since 2015, when there were 278 incidents. The number of major incidents (each involving three or more killings) increased from 41 in 2021 to 56 in 2022, the highest since 2013, when there were 72 such incidents. The resultant fatalities in such attacks also increased from 186 in 2021 to 337 in 2022. Similarly, KP accounted for an increased number of explosions, from 32 in 2021 to 45 in 2022 (the highest since 2015, when there were 50 such incidents), and the resulting fatalities spiked from 52 to 129. The province recorded eight suicide attacks in 2022 (the highest since 2017, when there were also eight such attacks) as against two in 2021. In the worst attack, on March 4, at least 63 worshippers lost their lives and 194 others were injured when a suicide attacker detonated himself inside a Shia Mosque in the Koocha Risaldar area of Peshawar.
Of 38 Districts in KP, 16 recorded terrorism-related violence, according to the SATP database. The most violent District in 2022 was, again, North Waziristan District, which accounted for 177 deaths, followed by Peshawar (87 fatalities), Bannu (60 fatalities) and Dera Ismail Khan (43 fatalities). In 2021 as well, North Waziristan recorded the maximum of 106 killings, followed by South Waziristan (51 fatalities), Peshawar (25 fatalities) and Bajaur (22 fatalities). Of 38 Districts, 21 Districts registered terrorism-related incidents in 2021. 2020 saw terrorism-related incidents in 19 Districts, of which North Waziristan had the highest number of fatalities (110), followed by Peshawar (27) and South Waziristan (21).
In 2019, violence in KP had fallen to its second lowest level, in terms of fatalities, as terrorists had started to escape to Afghanistan due to continuous SF operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan. With the Taliban starting to strengthen their position in Afghanistan in 2020, the TTP terrorists who had escaped to Afghanistan started receiving increasing support inside Afghanistan, which helped them in their efforts to revive their campaigns in Pakistan. The process gained momentum with the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan on August 15, 2021.
Though an attempt to start a direct dialogue between the TTP and the Pakistan Government was initiated soon after the Taliban seized Kabul, it finally succeeded in May 2022. After a fractious six months, it came to an end in November 2022. During this entire period, there was not a single phase of peace on the ground.
On the contrary, an October 12, 2022, report suggested that the TTP had re-emerged violently in the restive areas of Swat, as militants detained Police personnel and an Army officer after enforcement officials launched an operation to capture TTP militants. Earlier, an August 12, 2022, report noted that TTP militants had established a check-post at Balasoor Top, besides roaming about freely in other areas of the Matta tehsil of Swat. The areas included Bar Shor, Koz Shor, Namal, Gat Peuchar and among others. Significantly, the Geo Newscorrespondent in Swat, Mehboob Ali, claimed that at least 200-250 TTP terrorists were present and operating in the area.
On December 23, 2022, after analysing the overall law and order situation in KP, the Police department declared South and North Waziristan, Lakki Marwat and Bannu Districts, terrorist ‘trouble spots’. Additional Inspector General of Police (ADGP), Operations, Mohammad Ali Babakhel declared, “Southern districts, including North and South Waziristan [from among the newly-merged tribal districts"> as well as Lakki Marwat and Bannu districts [from settled areas">, are trouble spots.”
Indeed, on December 27, 2022, Federal Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah disclosed that there were around 7,000 to 10,000 TTP fighters in the region, and they were accompanied by 25,000 members of their families. He added that some of the terrorists, who had previously laid down arms, had secretly resumed activities, and alleged, “The biggest reason for this is the failure of [the"> Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government and Counter Terrorism Department… It is their job to stop it.”
Meanwhile, a report presented to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif during the national security review meeting in December 2022, warned that, because of an acute shortage of staff and resources, the KP CTD would not be able to prevent or stop terrorist attacks in the province, and lacked the capacity to fight terrorism.
Significantly, in a daring incident on December 18, 2022, a detained terrorist overpowered a constable at the CTD Complex in Bannu Cantonment (Bannu District) and, after snatching the constable's weapon, freed 34 other detained terrorists. As soon as they came out of the lockup, the terrorists took possession of more weapons and started firing. One CTD constable was killed, while another was injured, and died later. Meanwhile, SFs cordoned off the area and launched an operation. Immediately after the seizure of the complex by the terrorists on December 18, two terrorists were killed, three were arrested, and two security forces personnel were injured in the exchange of fire. Efforts to induce the terrorists to surrender unconditionally continued for the next two days. On December 20, the SFs took initiated an operation against the terrorists who refused to surrender. During the resulting and fierce exchange of fire between terrorists and security forces, 25 terrorists were killed. Three terrorists were arrested and the remaining seven surrendered. Three SF personnel were killed in the operation, while another 10, including two officers, were injured. The TTP claimed responsibility for the incident.
As ‘official’ talks between the TTP and the Government collapsed with the TTPs declaration of an end to the ceasefire on November 28, 2022, an escalation of violence within KP, and the possibilities of its fanning out into other areas of Pakistan, have increased dramatically. The risk of Pakistan’s tribal areas once again becoming the “most dangerous place on earth” is real.