December 13, 2019
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The Pashtuni Rage

Suicide terrorism is nothing new in South Asia. But it is recent for the Pashtuns. And their anger against the US as well as the Pakistani security forces has further increased after the raid on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad in July.

The Pashtuni Rage

Suicide terrorism is nothing new in South Asia. The Sri Lankan Tamils  belonging to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Punjabi Muslims belonging to the anti-Shia extremist organisations of Pakistan such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LEJ) have been practising suicide terrorism for many years.

However, the Khalistani terrorist organisations of Indian Punjab, the indigenous Kashmiri terrorist organisations of India's Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), the terrorist/insurgent organisations of India's Northeast, the Maoist terrorist organisations of India and Nepal and the jihadi terrorist organisations of Bangladesh did not practice suicide terrorism. Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) repeatedly failed in its efforts to persuade the Khalistanis to take to suicide terrorism. Even in Pakistan, the non-sectarian jihadi terrorist organisations such as the  Harkat-ul-Mujahideen (HUM--previously known as the Harkat-ul-Ansar)-- the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HUJI) and the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LET) did not practice suicide or suicidal terrorism till 1999.

The position started changing after Osama bin Laden shifted to Afghanistan from the Sudan in 1996 and formed his International Islamic Front (IIF) for Jihad Against the Crusaders and the Jewish People in February,1998. The HUM, the HUJI and the LET,which joined the IIF, took to suicide or suicidal terrorism thereafter and introduced the virus into the Indian territory --initially in J&K and then in other parts of India. So did the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JEM), which came into existence in 2000 due to a split in the HUM, and joined the IIF. But the small number of Indian Muslims, who joined these organisations, as well as the indigenous Kashmiri organisations kept away from suicide terrorism. The incident in Glasgow on June 30,2007, in which an Indian Muslim from Bangalore tried to crash a car filled with fuel and a gas cylinder into the local airport was the first confirmed instance of the involvement of an Indian Muslim in an act of suicidal terrorism.

Almost all the Pakistani Muslims involved in acts of suicide or suicidal terrorism in the Indian territory were Punjabi and Mirpuri Muslims. Like the Khalistanis and other terrorist/insurgent organisations of India, the Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, did not believe in suicide terrorism. This modus operandi (MO) was not used by them against the  Soviet troops in Afghanistan in the 1980s or against the troops of the Government of President Najibullah after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops or against the troops of the Northern Alliance headed by the late Ahmed Shah Masood. In fact, none of the ethnic groups of Afghanistan--the Pashtuns, the Uzbeks or the Tajiks-- practised suicide terrorism.

Even the advent of bin Laden and his Al Qaeda into Afghanistan in 1996 could not induce them to take to suicide terrorism. That was why for killing Masood on September 9, 2001, through an act of suicide terrorism, he had to depend on Arab volunteers. However, the position has started changing after the US troops started their military operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda on October 7, 2001. The Pashtuns and the Uzbeks also started practising suicide terrorism. Initially, it was the Pashtuns on the Pakistan side of the border, who took to suicide terrorism against the Pakistani security forces in the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Then, the Pashtuns from both sides of the border took to suicide terrorism against the Western and Afghan forces in Afghan territory. This was followed by small numbers of Uzbeks taking to suicide terrorism in Afghanistan as well as Uzbekistan.

The UN has made an interesting study on suicide terrorism in Afghanistan by a team of competent professionals led by Ms.Christine Fair, formerly of the Rand Corporation and now of the US  Institute of Peace, who is quite knowledgeable on jihadi terrorism in the Indian sub-continent. The results of this study were released by the UN on September 9, 2007. According to this study, the number of suicide bombings in Afghanistan  has increased  from 17  in 2005 to 123 in 2006 and has already touched 103 till August 31, 2007. The report added that  most suicide bombers were Afghan nationals, but received training or support in  Pakistan's tribal region where many were recruited from madrasas (religious schools). Unlike the suicide bombers of Al Qaeda, who came from a well-to-do and educated background and were well-trained and well-motivated, those of the Neo Taliban came from poor families and were poorly educated. According to the report,  although the vast majority of suicide bombers targeted  military and government establishments, around 80 per cent of the casualties were innocent civilians.

The report  does not sufficiently highlight the following facts: firstly, the majority of the suicide bombers were Pashtuns-- Afghan as well as Pakistani; secondly, while the Pakistani Pashtuns belonged mostly to the FATA and some to the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), the majority of the Afghan Pashtuns were from the refugee camps in Pakistani territory; thirdly, these Pashtuns took to suicide terrorism only after the US went into action against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and the US counter-terrorism actions--particularly the disproportionate use of the Air Force and heavy artillery-- resulted in a large number of civilian casualties; fourthly,  the Pashtun anger against the US increased after bombings on madrasas in the FATA located near the border, which were suspected to be training camps for terrorists, in which a large number of young students were killed;  and fifthly, though the Pakistani Army took upon itself the responsibility for the bombings, the Pashtuns believed that the bombings were actually carried out by the US troops based in Afghan territory.

The Pashtun anger was  against the US as well as the Pakistani security forces. The anger against the Pakistani security forces has further increased after the raid of the Pakistani military commandos belonging to the Special Services Group (SSG), to which Gen.Pervez Musharraf belonged, into the Lal Masjid in Islamabad between July 10 and 13, 2007. In this raid, about 300 young girls studying in a madrasa inside the masjid campus were alleged to have been killed. Practically all of them came from  Pashtun families of the FATA and the NWFP.

As a result of this anger, there has been a surge in acts of suicide terrorism by the Pashtuns in Pakistani territory. These attacks initially started in the FATA and the NWFP, but have spread to Islamabad, the capital, Rawalpindi, where the General Headquarters of the Pakistan Army are located, and Tarbela Ghazi, where important establishments of the SSG are located.The Pashtun suicide bombers have been targeting military and police personnel, though, as in Afghanistan, more  civilians than personnel of the security forces have been killed except in Rawalpindi and Tarbela Ghazi, where many personnel of the security forces and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were killed. There has also been a large number of targeted killings of Pakistani army personnel by the Pashtuns in South and North Waziristan, which has been covered up by the Pakistani Army. For example, the BBC reported on September 17,2007,as follows:"Pro-Taliban militants have killed 18 soldiers in Pakistan's tribal area of North Waziristan, local officials say. The soldiers are believed to have been shot dead after being captured in fierce fighting in the Razmak area that started last Thursday. "

The torrent of  anti-US anger in the Pashtun tribal areas has now been joined by an equally strong torrent of  anti-Pakistani Army and anti-Musharraf anger, with each aggravating the other. The Pakistani security forces have literally been reeling under the impact of this spreading prairie fire of Pashtun suicide terrorism. Not much is known about the identity of the individual suicide bombers due to poor investigation by the Pakistani police officers. In fact, the Police officers are afraid of vigorously investigating these incidents due to a fear that they might themselves be targeted by future suicide bombers.

From the circumstantial evidence available from the Pakistani media and police sources, the following factors emerge: 

  • While the suicide bombers have been coming from all Pashtun sub-tribes, the Mehsud sub-tribe of South Waziristan headed by Baitullah Mehsud has been contributing a large number.

  • Many of the suicide bombers did not belong to any organisation. They were angry individuals acting as Jundullas or soldiers of Allah in order to give vent to their anger. However, the Pakistani media identifies them as belonging to the Pakistani Taliban or as pro-Taliban.
  • While Al Qaeda has been exploiting this anger for its own purpose, there is no evidence to show that it has been orchestrating the wave of suicide attacks. All it has been doing is to keep the anger alive and encouraging Jundulla terrorism by disseminating video and audio messages praising the concept of martyrdom. On July 14, 2007, the day after the Pakistani military commandos captured control of the Lal Masjid, As-Sahab, Al Qaeda's propaganda and Psywar wing, had put out a video of past clips of Osama bin Laden and others, in which they had glorified martyrdom in the cause of Islam. "Arise wherever you are and martyr yourself"--that was the hidden message it  sought to convey. The  video's central message was: "‘By Him in Whose Hands my life is! I would love to attack and be martyred, then attack again and be martyred, then attack again and be martyred.’" The Pashtuns have been following this advice on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

  • Many of the suicide bombers were not recruits for suicide terrorism, but volunteers. Some of them were self-trained while many were trained by the Uzbeks belonging to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and the Islamic Jihad Union or Group  in their training camps in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan. The Mehsuds are strong supporters of the Uzbeks.There is no evidence of Al Qaeda training.

  • The torrential flow of volunteers for suicide terrorism in the Pashtun areas shows no signs of abating.

  • There has been very little involvement of Punjabi and Mirpuri volunteers in the latest wave of suicide terrorism.
In its issue of August 3-9, 2007, the Friday Times of Lahore wrote as follows: 

"Recruits are formally registered  with the Taliban as suicide bombers and given a receipt indicating their registration number. At any given point, there are thousands in line waiting to sacrifice their lives, an observer returning from South Waziristan told the weekly. If one of them is selected to be the next bomber, the news is a cause for celebration in his household. Once confirmation arrives of his death, the funeral prayers are substituted with congratulatory messages for the family....Women, because of the Taliban's strict anti-wife-beating policy, are largely in favour of them..... This is part of the strategy of winning over the mothers, who, according to the Taliban, have the greatest influence on the child as he grows up. Women are thus actively involved in the process of indoctrinating children in favour of the Taliban."

This Pashtun anger on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border can be contained and hopefully reduced only by a change in the present counter-terrorism methods of the American and Pakistani Armed Forces, which involve a disproportionate use of force, resulting in a large number of civilian casualties--particularly children studying in madrasas. It is alleged that during the last three years, at least 600 children studying in the madrasas have been killed by the Pakistani security forces during their bombings of tribal madrasas suspected to be terrorist training centres, either on their own or at the instance of the Americans. While no one can find fault with bombings of clearly identified terrorist training camps, the bombing of madrasas because of a suspicion that they are in fact terrorist training centres is adding to the anger.

B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retired), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

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