Pakistani Taliban in Syria: At whose behest?
by Ramtanu Maitra on 02 Aug 2013 1 Comment

On July 15, Mushtaq Yusufzai, an NBC news producer, reported from Peshawar that leaders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), widely known as the Pakistani Taliban, claim to have sent “hundreds of fighters” to Syria in support of various rebel groups and outsider Sunni jihadis who are fighting to unseat the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. These non-Syrian jihadis from Pakistan are grouping together at the request of their “Arab friends,” NBC news said.


Endorsing that report, Reuters cited Taliban commanders saying they decided to join the cause in Syria in order to fight alongside their “Mujahedeen friends.” One senior commander was quoted: “When our brothers needed our help, we sent hundreds of fighters along with our Arab friends.” He added that his group would be providing the general public with videos of their “victories” in Syria.


The well-known Pakistani author and Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid told Reuters that sending Taliban fighters would be regarded as an act of loyalty by al-Qaeda. “The Pakistani Taliban has remained a sort of surrogate of al-Qaeda. We’ve got all these foreigners up there in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas who are being looked after or trained by the Pakistani Taliban,” said Rashid. He explained that the fighters are like global jihadists, and drew the conclusion that they are aiming to “cement relationships with the Syrian militant groups.”


Pakistan’s denial


In the same report, NBC’s Yusufzai said that “senior Pakistani government and military authorities” have challenged the group’s claims. “How can they claim to be sending fighters to Syria when they failed to resist Pakistani security forces and surrendered their strongholds in the tribal areas?” a senior military official in Peshawar asked. He added that the TTP terrorists wanted international attention. Though clearly eager to reject this development out of hand, nothing these Pakistani military officials have said clearly refutes the claims. What is likely is that the Pakistan military and the ISI, who have had virtual control over these terrorists, are a bit shaken up by the fact that the TTP is now building bridges with a larger group of jihadis, who could later show up in FATA, take over this ungoverned part of Pakistan and be an additional nuisance to the Pakistani military.


However, it should be noted that Yusufzai’s report was not the sole news item about this development. It was preceded by similar reports from other major sources. For instance, Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal published a report on July 12 stating that “the movement of the Taliban in Pakistan has sent ‘experts in warfare and information technology’ to Syria to establish a base and monitor the fighting there.” Roggio also pointed out that a group calling itself the “313 Brigade” has claimed credit for the July 9 car bombing in Beirut, capital of Lebanon, that targeted pro-Iran Shi’a Hezbollah members. The group bears the same name as al Qaeda’s military unit that operates in Pakistan and Afghanistan, although it is unclear if the two groups are in fact one and the same.


Roggio cited a BBC interview with a senior Pakistani Taliban leader known as Mohammad Amin, who has been described as the “coordinator” of the group’s efforts in Syria, in which Amin stated: “They were facilitated by our friends in Syria who have previously been fighting in Afghanistan.” The Pakistani Taliban cell is in Syria to “assess the needs of the jihad in Syria, and to work out joint operations with our Syrian friends,” he continued.


On July 24, Thomas Jocelyn reported that As Sahab, al-Qaeda’s propaganda arm, has released a video featuring TTP commander Maulana Asim Umar, who calls on Indian Muslims to participate in the “global jihad to give a final push to the collapsing edifice of America.” The video, titled “Why Is There No Storm in Your Ocean?,” was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group. Syria, in particular, was featured prominently in Asim Umar’s call to arms. The Pakistani Taliban propagandist claims that the Caliphate “is about to be established once more in this world” and that the “biggest obstacle in the establishment of this system - i.e. America - is licking its wounds in Afghanistan.”


In quest of global Jihad


From the spate of news emerging in this direction, it is evident that the TTP has indeed sent some fighters, or “experts,” to Syria to stand and fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the horde of Sunni jihadis who are out in Syria in search of booty or to unseat a non-Islamist regime of Bashar al-Assad - Pakistani “senior officials” rejection of the report notwithstanding.


This raises two questions: Why has the TTP made this move now, and at whose behest was the move made? To begin with, neither the conflict in Afghanistan nor the conflict in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) inside Pakistan (along the disputed Durand Line that the British drew more than a century ago to separate Afghanistan and Pakistan and which no Afghan ruler has accepted) has been settled.


The US/NATO occupation forces are scheduled to leave Afghanistan in large numbers by the end of 2014, and the jockeying between various forces for the seat of power in Kabul began long ago. Although structurally independent from the TTP, the Afghan Taliban do get support from the TTP along the Afghanistan-Pakistan borders. Moreover, the Pakistani military and the ISI are knee-deep in their involvement and are working in tandem with the Wahhabi-Salafi nexus led from Saudi Arabia in order to secure a piece of the action for the Afghan Taliban. Therefore, it is puzzling to find the Pakistani-Saudi duo, who are doing their very best to unleash the Sunni jihadis to undermine fellow Muslims, Shi’as and non-fanatic Muslims of various sects, weakening their hands vis-à-vis post-US/NATO Afghanistan at this juncture. Or, perhaps they are not…?


In addition, upon assuming power in May 2013, Pakistan’s “new” Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (this is the third time he has been elected prime minister of Pakistan in the last two decades, the period that also includes his seven-year stint in exile enjoying the hospitality of the Saudi royal household in Riyadh), gave a call for peace talks with the TTP and other sundry Taliban factions that operate within Pakistan.


On May 20, just days before he assumed power, in an address to newly elected members of his party in Lahore, Nawaz Sharif said “terrorism” was one of the most serious problems plaguing the country and any offer by the Pakistani Taliban to talk “should be taken seriously.” Said Sharif: “All options should be tried, and guns are not a solution to all problems. Why shouldn’t we sit and talk, engage in dialogue?”


It was evident that the prime minister’s assertion that “guns are not a solution to all problems” did not go well with the Pashas of Rawalpindi, who have had an arm-lock on power in Islamabad for decades. Nawaz Sharif, who was brought into politics to counter the “untrustworthy” Benazir Bhutto in the late 1980s by the Pakistani military brass, had a fallout with Rawalpindi in the late-1990s when he was dethroned by the coup orchestrated by Gen Musharraf. Since then, Nawaz Sharif, also known as ‘sher-e-Punjab’ (Tiger of Punjab), has become a part of the Saudi policy implementation apparatus in Pakistan.


Following his Lahore address, there was speculation in Pakistan that the Prime Minister had nettled the Pashas of Rawalpindi. Subsequently, Nawaz Sharif had a multi-hour closed-door session with the military brass. One Pakistani news analyst concluded that Pakistan’s military had been so ineffective over the past few years battling in the Taliban country that they likely were relieved by the prime minister’s suggestion to take a break.


While the question about the timing of the TTP’s announcement of a base in Syria remains unanswered as yet, some observers nonetheless have speculated that foreign fighters, such as those from Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Xinjiang, and Kyrgyzstan, as of now have been doing little in FATA other than acting as targets of the US drone attacks which are slowly, but steadily, taking a toll on their numbers. Since these are valued “assets” of the Wahhabi-Salafi groups, who have long been planning to wage jihad in Central Asia and bring that part of the world into their dreamed-of caliphate, it makes sense to move them out of FATA, where the US wrath is evident, to an area where the FRUKUS (France-UK-US) have quietly joined hands with the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria serving their interest of removing al-Assad from power using violent means.


In addition, some claim that in the upcoming clamor for power in Kabul after the foreign troops loosen their military control and leave the scene, internecine warfare will erupt between various Afghan ethnic groups and sub-groups. The Pakistan military and ISI are expected to play a full or partial role; but foreign jihadis will have little to contribute in that conflict. They are not interested in Afghanistan. They are interested in jihad and, perhaps, money. Both those items are in full flow in Syria. So why not move to Syria?


TTP: an integral part of al-Qaeda


Yet the al-Qaeda-linked TTP is not forsaking its Afghan interest. In a July 19 article in the Washington-based The Hill news daily, Carlo Munoz reported that Afghan army commanders stationed at the American base in Paktia province told him that Pakistan-based terror groups like the Haqqani network and others are calling on “every house, every family” to send fighters into Afghanistan. “The madrassas are emptying in Pakistan,” added Lt. Col. David Hamann, who leads the American Security Force Assistance Advisory Team (SFAAT) at the Combat Outpost Matun Hill.


Pakistani militants in North and South Waziristan are ordering every family in those regions to send all fighting-age males into Afghanistan. “Every house, every family ... it is [like] an obligation” to send fighters across the border, Lt. Col. Mohammad Ebrahim, commander of the Afghan army’s 6th Kandak, said in an interview with The Hill from his headquarters in Afghanistan. In other words, the Haqqani group, a key faction within the TPP and a wing of al-Qaeda, is not abandoning its interest in Afghanistan but is probably broadening its reach to become a part of the global jihadi outfit, whose center has now shifted to Syria. The group is acting like a smart investor. Go where the action is. It could be as simple as that.


On the other hand, the second question, at whose behest are they going to Syria, has a very definite answer, and it lies in realizing what the TTP is really all about. To begin with, the TTP works closely with the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network, al-Qaeda, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and a host of non-aligned Taliban groups and jihadist organizations in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda has a strong presence in Syria. Its official affiliate, the Jabhat al-Nusrah Front, and the rogue Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) control territory throughout the country, Bill Roggio noted.


Analysts also point out that the TTP is very closely linked with its namesake in Afghanistan as well as with al- Qaeda. It shares its religious extremist ideology - but is its own distinct group. The TTP also has a different goal, but its tactics are the same, says Raza Rumi, director of policy and programs at the Jinnah Institute, a Pakistani think tank. “Their primary target is the Pakistani state and its military,” Rumi says. “It resents the fact that it (Pakistan) has an alliance with the West, and it (TTP) wants Sharia to be imposed in Pakistan.”


Another terrorism analyst, Matthew Henman of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre, notes that “there is a shared heritage between the two groups.” As he states, “The Pakistani Taliban emerged as a power alongside the Taliban as a kind of network of support.” During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighters from Pakistan crossed over the border to fight. They retained close relations with the Taliban after returning home, Rumi says.


In this milieu, two other strong threads tie the TTP to the global jihadis and Caliphate-seekers, commonly lumped together as al-Qaeda activists. The first is the TTP’s large-scale dependence on Saudi-Kuwait-Qatari funding and drug money for recruitment, training and maintenance of the jihadi fighters and purchase of arms. In addition, they are also deeply, and not-too-covertly, tied to the Pakistani ISI, who safehouses them, trains them and provides them with the target and intelligence that allows them to carry out operations. In this venture, the Pakistani ISI is the literal feet-on-the ground of British intelligence, which still controls the masterminds that keep the Muslims tearing each other apart in order to destabilize all Islamic nations for the financial and resource benefits of the former colonial powers.


Shi’a killers are part of the TTP


The second element is the venal anti-Shi’a ideology of all these global jihadis. This ideology, imposed top-down from Riyadh and London, in particular, has sucked in the Sunnis from FATA and elsewhere. There is oodles of evidence that shows the TTP is engaged in its killing business with another sectarian group in Pakistan, called the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) - the anti-Shia, Punjab-based group, which has also found refuge and training centers in this tribal belt. LeJ, a Sunni-Deobandi terrorist outfit, aims to transform Pakistan into a Sunni state, primarily through violent means. In this year alone, it has claimed responsibility for killing more than 230 Afghan Hazara Shi’as settled years ago in Quetta, Balochistan, where Pakistan’s 33rd and 41st Infantry Divisions are headquartered. Many Pakistani and foreign analysts have made public their views that the LeJ has worked hand-in-glove with the Pakistani ISI in carrying out the Shi’a massacres.


A few pointers on the “313 Brigade” that has emerged in Lebanon: According to an unnamed senior US intelligence official, who spoke to the Long War Journal, “the Pakistani Brigade 313 is made up of members from the Taliban and allied jihadist groups.” As he stated, “Members of Laskhar-e-Jhangvi, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI), Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Jundallah (the Karachi-based, al-Qaeda-linked group), and several other Pakistani terror groups are known to have merged with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, and the group operates under the name of Brigade 313. This group is interlinked with Pakistan’s Taliban and also recruits senior members of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services” [‘313 Brigade’ claims car bombing that targeted Hezbollah in Beirut: Bill Roggio: July 10, 2013].

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