The Fate of TTP after the Killing of Mullah Fazlullah
Photo Credit: EPA/TTP
By Abdul Basit

The Fate of TTP after the Killing of Mullah Fazlullah

Jun. 29, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The killing of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) chief Mullah Fazlullah, Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist, in a US drone strike in Afghanistan is a major blow to the terror group. Since his eviction from Swat in 2009, Fazlullah was operating from Afghanistan’s border areas. His elimination is the most significant battlefield decapitation of a militant leader since the tragic Army Public School (APS) attack in Peshawar in 2014.


Fazlullah’s killing will further undermine the already-fractured TTP’s organizational coherence, possibly paving way for more defections to the Islamic State of Khurasan (ISK). For now, the TTP Shura has appointed Fazlullah’s deputy Abdul Rehman Fateh, a field commander from Swat, as his successor. From Baitullah Mehsud to Fazlullah, all power transitions in the TTP have been bloody, fractious and long drawn out. Fateh’s appointment is a controversial decision and it is likely to draw opposition. The immediate challenge of the new TTP chief would be to reunify the various TTP factions under his command, plug possible defections to the ISK, establish his authority as the new head, and carry out some high-profile terrorist attacks in Pakistan to prove his credentials.


Like Fazlullah, Fateh is a non-tribal from the Swat district and he is not well-known within the Af-Pak jihadist circles. Going by past precedence, his appointment will be opposed within the TTP factions, as there are more senior and capable militant commanders who can succeed Fazlullah. If this were to happen, the leadership of the TTP may return to Mehsud Taliban where Shehryar Mehsud will be the frontrunner to lead the group. Similarly, another Mehsud militant commander, Mufti Noor Wali, is a likely successor. Noor Wali is a religious scholar who has been with the Mehsud Taliban since 2003 and has served as a judge and head of the TTP’s publication wing, Al-Umer Media.


Fazlullah’s killing will also neutralize the limited organizational resurrection the TTP had achieved in Afghanistan since its complete ouster from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. As a result, the group’s operational capabilities to mount large-scale attacks in Pakistan will be impaired further. 


Five factors have been critical in the ideological, operational, and organizational degradation of the TTP: US drone strikes, the Pakistani army’s counter-terrorism operations in various parts of FATA, the TTP’s indiscriminate violence against civilians, its failure of strategic communication, and the rise of the Islamic State’s offshoot in Afghanistan, the ISK.


First, US drone strikes have decapitated the TTP’s top leadership in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas. The ensuing leadership vacuums, infighting, and ethnic rivalries have progressively downgraded the TTP’s potential as a potent terrorist outfit. TTP founder Baitullah Mehsud was killed in a drone attack August 2009 in South Waziristan, while his successor Hakimullah was eliminated in North Waziristan in November 2013. Other top TTP commanders killed in the drone strikes include the TTP’s master trainer for suicide bombers Qari Hussain (October 2010), the mastermind of the APS attack Khalifa Umar Mansoor (October 2017), and the TTP’s deputy chiefs Waliur Rehman (May 2013) and Khan Said Sajna (February 2018).


Second, the Pakistani military’s counter-terrorism operations have downgraded the TTP operationally and organizationally. So far, in addition to over a dozen small-scale operations, the Pakistani army has conducted six major military operations — Sher Dil (Lion’s Heart) in Bajaur Agency, Rah-e-Rast (Path of Righteousness) in Swat, Rah-e-Nijat (Path of Deliverance) in South Waziristan, Khyber-I & II in Khyber Agency, Zarb-e-Azb (Prophet’s Sword) in North Waziristan, and the ongoing nationwide Rad-ul-Fasad (Rejecting the Discord).


As of now, the TTP is past its prime and it no longer poses an existential threat to Pakistan’s internal security.

These operations allowed the government to retake control of the tribal territories from the TTP, and destroyed the TTP’s command and control system, sanctuaries, training centers for suicide bombers, and IED manufacturing laboratories. The territorial defeat and infrastructure losses hampered the TTP’s ability to attract fresh recruits and mount high-profile attacks in Pakistan. These setbacks also damaged the group’s financial means, as it had relied on extortion, bank robberies, kidnapping for ransom, and toll-taxes collected from vehicles passing through checkpoints in areas under its control.

Third, the TTP’s indiscriminate violence against civilians, particularly the assassination attempt against Malala Yousafzai, the teenage girls’ education activist from Swat, in 2013, and the APS attack in 2014, deprived it of public support, the lifeline of any terrorist group. The post-APS attack environment in Pakistan paved the way for a rare civil-military consensus in the form of the National Action Plan (NAP) to root out the remaining pockets of the TTP from Pakistan. After the APS attack, even those religious-political parties which had advocated for a reconciliatory approach towards the TTP withdrew their support for the group. Recently, the Pakistani government has issued a counter-narrative against terrorism, Paigham-e-Pakistan, in the form of a fatwa signed and endorsed by over 1,829 religious scholars which declares suicide terrorism and violent acts in the name of Islam and Jihad (to spread anarchy) in Pakistan as unlawful.

Fourth, by definition, terrorism is propaganda by the deed, and strategic communication lies at the heart of achieving the immediate and long-term goals of a terrorist organization. In the battle of ideas and winning hearts and minds between the government and a terrorist group, the way the terrorist leadership communicates with its supporters and sympathizers is critical in determining its life cycle. Despite its loud ideological rhetoric of transforming Pakistan into an Islamic State, the TTP failed to articulate its operational strategy and political vision i.e. how it will transform Pakistan into a theocracy. Although the TTP has regularly published several magazines such as Al-Hitin, Ihyae Khilafat, Mujalla Taliban, and Sunnate Khaula, there is no clarity as to what kind of Islam the TTP has envisioned for Pakistan.

Fifth, ideologically, the rise of the Islamic State in June 2014 triggered a series of individual and factional defections within the TTP. The Islamic State’s ideological narrative of its so-called Caliphate, its military victories in Iraq and Syria, and its larger salary packages drew the Jandullah, Orakzi, and Bajaur factions of the TTP into its fold. The first emir of ISK, Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, was the former head of the TTP’s Orakzai chapter. Currently, former TTP factions form the lion’s share of the ISK in Afghanistan. The demise of Fazlullah may trigger more defections from the TTP to the ISK.

As of now, the TTP is past its prime and it no longer poses an existential threat to Pakistan’s internal security. Two of its splinter factions, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar (JuA) and ISK, have eclipsed the TTP. With Fazlullah’s killing, the TTP is entering the elimination phase of its life cycle from where recovery seems least likely. However, the group could remain loosely intact through residual members and leaders. The weakening of the TTP is as much a result of the military operations and drone attacks against it as it is a consequence of the evolving conflict ecology in the Af-Pak border region. Nonetheless, the threat of terrorism to Pakistan is far from over: elimination of one terrorist group does not constitute the elimination of the terrorist threat.

Fazlullah’s killing on Afghan soil involving the US-Pakistan cooperation and Islamabad’s assistance to Kabul and Washington to jump-start the stalled peace process underscores that whether conflict resolution involves kinetic or non-kinetic measures, it requires joint efforts under cooperative frameworks. Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan can overcome these issues in isolation or by working at cross purposes. 

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