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TTP’s Political Violence and Jihad

Dr Nazir Ahmad Mir is a Research Analyst at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 14, 2023

    Pakistan witnessed a gruesome suicide bombing in a mosque on 30 January 2023 in Peshawar, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP). Over 100 people were killed and more than 220 wounded. Omar Mukaram Khorasani, the head of the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA), a splinter group of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack.1 The TTP denied the claim and insisted that it does not attack “mosques, madrasas (religious schools), funeral places, and other such places.”2 The statement, however, does not hold much water, given the TTP’s organizational structure, ideology and its past attacks.    

    TTP’S structure and support

    The TTP’s past pronouncements do not indicate any reverence for all masjids or public places. The ‘masjid’ in Peshawar is located in the civil lines, a security area, representing the Pakistani state. The TTP terms the Pakistani state un-Islamic and hence sees it as a legitimate enemy.

    Moreover, mosques of the Shi’ites and the Ahmadis have come under attack consistently from this group. In March 2015, an attack on a Shi’ite imambargah in Peshawar killed 21 and wounded about 200. This attack was claimed by a splinter group of the TTP. Many such attacks have been carried on Shi’ite mosques and madrasas, which have been claimed by various TTP splinter groups.3 The TTP has neither condemned nor chosen to distance itself from such attacks.

    Anti-Shia elements have been added to the TTP in recent years which points to its growing sectarian outlook. In fact, the current chief of TTP, Wali Mehsud, after succeeding Mullah Fazlullah in 2018, sought to expand the outfit’s reach and welcomed the merger of  rabid anti-Shi’ite groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ)/Sipah-e-Sahaba-e-Pakistan (SSP) – which now go by the name of Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), with the terror conglomerate in 2020.

    Having ‘Pakistan’ in its name does not reflect the true character of the group; the group is overwhelmingly Pashtun in composition. Its position and ideology are largely limited to the Pashtun speaking areas of Pakistan, KP and some areas of Balochistan in the east. It cannot claim to be representative of the entire country or having the support of a good number of people in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. Its non-recognition of the Durand Line and time and again announcing its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban further underline its Pashtun characteristic. The effort made by Wali Mehsud to merge Punjabi-Taliban and other sectarian groups has more to do with their strong anti-Shi’ite proclivity than their support for TTP’s ideology.4  

    Among the Pashtuns, there are strong divisions. Despite statements made by then Prime Minister Imran Khan that because of the war on (Pashtuns) Afghanistan, the Pashtuns in the bordering area had naturally gravitated towards their brethren across the border, large sections of the Pashtuns do not abide by the ideology and views of the TTP. The Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM), which has been at forefront of the ethnic Pashtun aspiration and has been extremely popular in the tribal areas, has publicly shunned the ideology propagated by the TTP.  

    Jihad as tactic to claim political authority

    The TTP is engaged in a battle of narrative with the Pakistani state. It says that the state does not practice true Islam and therefore the TTP can wage a legitimate Jihad against it.  Ironically, both the Pakistani State and the TTP seek to use Islam for fulfilling their political objectives and gain power. As Roxanne Euben would argue, sometimes a religious action is made amenable to “market logic” in which the “religiosity” is portrayed “as an instrument to some end external to it”.5 Both the TTP and the Pakistani state want to justify their respective ends by using Jihad as an instrument to mobilise support. Both draw their arguments from religious precepts and use religious leaders to propagate their respective viewpoints.

    The debate within Pakistan had started in the 2000s when Maulana Abdul Aziz, the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) cleric in Islamabad, called the military operation in North Waziristan un-Islamic and asked for not allowing the burial of the soldiers killed in Muslim graveyards. The same line was adopted by the head of the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Pakistan, Syed Munawar Hassan when in 2013 he called the TTP head, Hekimullah Mehsud, a martyr. There are takers for ‘jihad’ of the type TTP-like forces endorse within the mainstream political groups.

    These fringe elements threatened to become the core until the TTP struck at the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014, killing 141 people, including 132 school children. The attack was seen as gruesome and ended up eroding the support-base for the TTP in Pakistan. The heinous act of killing school children ‘militarized the civilian space’ and garnered support for military action against the perpetrators. It gave legitimacy to the state to unleash strong military action against the TTP.

    After losing much of its support in the wake of Pakistan’s military operations, the TTP gained momentum when the Afghan Taliban took control in Kabul in August 2021. Not only did it reassemble many of its members who had left its fold, but also brought in various other extremist factions through Wali Mehsud’s able diplomacy.

    Wali Mehsud also brought back the debate over Jihad, and hailed those joining TTP as the followers of ‘true Islam’. He started directly challenging the religious scholars of Pakistan: “If you find any problem in the jihad that we waged [as against the global agenda of the infidels] … you’re requested to guide us.”6 He asserted that if the Pakistani religious scholars were to stay silent, it meant that they agreed with his message.

    A group of Pakistani ulema did respond to his challenge and declared that only the head of an Islamic country could give a call for Jihad.7 However, the TTP said that it did not recognize Pakistan as an Islamic state. Thus the debate has reached a dead end, given the humongous diversity in the views and the plurality of scholarship on Jihad. But it is likely to take a heavy toll on the people of Pakistan, given the violence that the TTP propagates.

    Call for an Afghan Pakistan

    The TTP has inherent contradictions in its ideology and its practice of political violence by attacking specific targets, including the ones that it considers un-Islamic, labeling them as infidels (deniers of true Islam). On the one hand, it seeks to engage in theological debate with the ulemas in Pakistan, while on the other it spells out its own brand of Islam, which it considers as authentic and legitimate.

    In fact, they have found endorsement of their ideology in Afghan Taliban’s return to power. The TTP has declared its allegiance to the Afghan Taliban and hopes to replicate the same experiment in Pakistan. The TTP’s way of engaging the ulema of Pakistan is in fact a clear exhortation to adopt the ways of the Afghan Taliban and bring ‘true’ Islamic rule to Pakistan.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.