Islamic State’s military prowess and string of defections leave once-formidable Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan on the ropes .
The dramatic rise of Islamic State (Isis) in Syria and Iraq is helping to tear apart the Pakistani Taliban, the beleaguered militant group beset by infighting and splits.
Once the country’s largest and most feared militant coalition, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been on the ropes since a US drone strike killed its charismatic leader Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, a blow followed this summer by the launch of a military onslaught against the group’s sanctuaries.
But the latest challenge to the TTP has come from the startling military successes of Isis and its demand that all Muslims pledge allegiance to the new caliphate it announced in June.
The claim to global Islamic leadership by the self-styled caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi threatens to undermine the TTP, which draws considerable authority from the fact that its symbolic figurehead is Mullah Omar, the one-eyed village preacher who ruled the original Taliban “emirate” in Afghanistan prior to the US-led invasion of 2001.
This week the TTP’s beleaguered leadership announced it had sacked its spokesman, Shahidullah Shahid, after the high profile militant announced he had pledged his personal allegiance to Baghdadi.
The statement published on the movement’s Facebook page said the spokesman had left the group some time before and reiterated that the TTP’s leader, Mullah Fazlullah, continued to back Mullah Omar, “the emir of believers”.
Last week an audio recording was circulated in which Shahid and five other senior Taliban commanders from across Pakistan’s troubled north-western borderlands with Afghanistan announced they were now followers of Baghdadi.
Mohammad Amir Rana, head of the security thinktank the Pak Institute of Peace Studies, said the turning of Pakistani militants towards Isis was highly significant. “This shows [Isis] has captured the imagination and it will encourage many other smaller groups who have been waiting and watching to see what the major groups do.”
The challenge from Isis is just the latest facing the TTP, which has repeatedly splintered since Fazlullah took control of the movement last year after a bitter succession dispute.
Not being a member of the Mehsud tribe which had dominated the TTP, Fazlullah was unable to hold together a coalition of militant groups that originally joined together in 2007.
The movement has fragmented into at least four groups, in part due to disagreements over strategy: whether militants committed to imposing sharia law on the country by force should engage in peace talks offered by the government.
Fazlullah’s authority was further undermined by the fact that he is based in the relative safety of eastern Afghanistan at a time when Pakistan’s army is engaged in a major operation to destroy the TTP’s sanctuary in North Waziristan, which the army claims has killed 1,100 militants since it was launched on 15 June.
Although the TTP disarray and loss of its North Waziristan hideout have contributed to a sharp fall in terrorist attacks in Pakistan, analysts warn that the movement and its various splinter groups are anxious to prove they can still inflict serious damage.
Ehsan Ehsanullah, spokesman of the largest and most formidable new group, the TTP Jamat-ul-Ahrar, told the Report they were now “the real TTP” because they had been joined by so many of the Pakistani Taliban’s original founders.
And he claimed the loss of North Waziristan had not affected their fighting strength. “Before the operation in North Waziristan was launched we moved our resources and basics to safe places,” he wrote in an email exchange. “Changing headquarters does not change ideologies, strategies and the desire to ruin the enemies !!