Dawn – Tracking the footprints: All roads lead to South Punjab

Nasir Jamal

Panjab, 19 February 2017. The year witnessed a significant de-escalation in terrorist and sectarian attacks in south Punjab as militant violence mostly shifted elsewhere, mainly to the northern cities, in the province.

Apart from a deadly attack on a gathering at the election office of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) legislator Amjad Farooq Khosa in Taunsa near DG Khan in mid-October and a suicide raid in Multan, no other significant incident of violence took place in the southern Punjab that made headlines a year earlier as the hub of nationwide militant activity, especially in Urban Pakistan.

Having said that, the ‘footprints’ the militants left behind elsewhere in the province have more often than not led the investigators back to the southern districts to hunt for suspects and their abettors. “Even of the two California shooting suspects, Tafsheen Malik had links with south Punjab,” a former Punjab counter-terrorism official sighed.

It, therefore, surprised few when police claimed to have arrested 140 suspects from south Punjab just days after a suicide bomber assassinated provincial home minister Shuja Khanzada along with several others at his election office in Attock in mid-August.

“The arrested suspects were linked to various banned faith-based militant organisations active across the province and some of them carried a bounty on their head,” a Punjab police official had said at the time.

A spokesman for Jamaatul Ahrar, a splinter group of the banned Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), claimed responsibility for the attack and said it was carried out to avenge the killing of Malik Ishaq, the emir of the deadly Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.

He went on to say that the attack was carried out with the help of a banned group active in Punjab.

Malik Ishaq’s killing on the outskirts of Muzaffargarh, again a south Punjab district, in a ‘shootout’ with his supporters who were trying to free him revved up hopes that the provincial government had finally woken up to the challenge and was ready to destroy terrorist infrastructure.

However, all hopes were lost when the government failed to initiate a comprehensive police operation.

Even though the National Action Plan (NAP) promises to take action against seminaries involved in militancy, the government has dithered on bringing them under control for fear of backlash from the religious parties as well as the militants.

Police claims having carried out intelligence-based operations throughout the province, denying the presence of a strong network and infrastructure of banned militant groups in south Punjab.

“You do not conduct large-scale operations in any area just on the basis of speculation and public perception,” a police official said, adding: “It is not feasible to undertake such an operation in cities. We’re conducting search raids across the province and not just in one particular region.”

Though the official claimed to have arrested hundreds of suspects, killed many, and recovered arms and ammunition, but was not prepared to concede that the militants still have a large network in the region.

Analysts believe that south Punjab, with thousands of seminaries and a history of having provided foot soldiers to militant and sectarian outfits for decades, now offers a promising opportunity for Islamic State (IS) to strengthen its network in the region.

“The main battle has to be fought in the tribal backyard, but the job will remain half-done unless the militant sanctuaries and support networks in the cities both in southern and northern Punjab are completely dismantled,” warned a Lahore-based security analyst.

http://www.dawn.com/news/1230468/tracking-the-footprints-all-roads-lead-to-south-punjab

BBC News – Pakistan hit by deadly suicide attacks

Wednesday, 15 February 2017. At least seven people have been killed and several more injured in two separate suicide attacks in north-western Pakistan.

In the first, six people died when two suicide bombers targeted a government compound in the Mohmand tribal region.

Three of the dead belonged to a tribal police force, two were civilians and one a paramilitary soldier.

A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jamaat-ur-Ahrar, said it was behind the bloodshed.

In the second attack on Wednesday, a bomber on a motorbike rammed a government van carrying four judges in the city of Peshawar.

The driver was killed, and the four judges were injured. They have been transferred to a nearby hospital.

Peshawar police chief Tahir Khan told media at the scene that the judges appeared to be the bomber’s target.

Pakistan has seen an upswing in militant attacks of late, after a period of relative calm.

On Monday, a suicide bombing in the eastern city of Lahore killed at least 13 people and wounded more than 100, most of whom are still being treated in hospitals.

The blast occurred when owners of medical shops were demonstrating against amendments to a law governing drug sales in Punjab province.

Jamaat-ur-Ahrar said it had carried out the attack, as well as two gun assaults in Karachi on 12 February.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-38984070

Dawn – TTP provides core fighting group for IS: US general

Anwar Iqbal

Washington, 13 February 2017. The Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan provides the core fighting group for the militant Islamic State (IS) group as TTP militants in Orakzai tribal agency en masse joined the relatively new terrorist group, says a top US general.

General John Nicholson Jr, the commander of US and international forces in Afghanistan, also agreed with a lawmaker that Pakistan’s strong relationship with China and its growing ties with Russia were a cause of concern for the United States.

The general, who commands over 13,000 international troops, 8,400 of them American, appeared before the US Senate Armed Services Committee this week to brief American lawmakers on the current situation in Afghanistan.

He told the panel that the IS, which in Afghanistan was called the Islam State Khorasan Province, comprised fighters mainly from existing militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Primarily, their membership had come from the TTP, which was a Pakistan-based opponent of the Pakistan regime, he said.

The general said TTP militants in Orakzai tribal agency had, en masse, joined the IS-K and formed the initial group of fighters who then moved into Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, spreading out to about 11 districts initially.

“So, the majority of the fighters in the IS right now came from the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban, and joined the banner of the IS,” he added.

General Nicholson agreed with Senator Angus King, a Maine Democrat, that the Pakistan-Afghan region was a fertile ground for terrorism.

“The conditions in this region also lend themselves to the growth of these organisations. These 20 groups sit on top of a population, between Afghanistan and Pakistan, of over 200 million people, 70 per cent of them are under the age of 30. You know, employment is low, there is radical form of Islam,” he said.

“It’s like a Petri dish… into which you drop the 20 strands of DNA of these terrorist groups. And then what we see happening is convergence and growth in connections develop these.”

General Nicholson noted that of the 98 US-designated terrorist groups across the globe, 20 operated in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, along with three violent extremist organisations.

“This is the highest concentration of terrorist groups anywhere in the world, which underscores the importance of our counter-terrorism platform in the Central Asia-South Asia region which protects our homeland,” he said.

General Nicholson told the committee that the war in Afghanistan had come to a “stalemate” but could be won by providing better training and equipment to Afghan national forces.

To do so, he asked for “a few thousands” more troops and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters for Afghan air force, which he said was a vital component to breaking the stalemate between Afghan and Taliban forces.

The US government is already considering a proposal to replace Afghanistan’s current fleet of Russian Mi-17s with modified UH-60 Blackhawks, designed to handle the region’s formidable mountainous terrain.

Throughout the hours-long hearing, General Nicholson, as well as some senators, insisted that the war in Afghanistan could not be won without Pakistan’s support, but the general emphasised the need to work with Pakistan to eliminate alleged militant safe havens in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, instead of antagonising it by cutting off US economic and military assistance.

Senator John McCain, who chairs the committee, set the tone of the discussion in his opening statement that “succeeding in Afghanistan will also require a candid evaluation of America’s relationship with Pakistan”.

General Nicholson said he was also concerned about the influence in Afghanistan of certain external actors, particularly Pakistan, Russia and Iran, who “continue to legitimise and support the Taliban”.

These external actors were also undermining the Afghan government’s efforts to create a stable Afghanistan, he added. Yet, he warned against a knee-jerk reaction in this situation, particularly against Pakistan. “Our complex relationship with Pakistan is best assessed through a holistic review,” he said.

The general noted that the Pakistani leadership had articulated its support for the US objective of a stable and peaceful Afghanistan, “but thus far we have not seen this translate into any change in terms of behaviour”.

This lack of support was also visible in the freedom of action given to Taliban or the Haqqani Network to operate from sanctuaries in Pakistan, he said.

http://www.dawn.com/news/1314507/ttp-provides-core-fighting-group-for-is-us-general