Seventeen-year-old Israr was fast asleep when his phone rang.
It was 2 a.m., and the adolescent was exhausted. He’d been working as a security guard all day. On the other end of the phone was his brother, who told Israr that men had broken into their family home, dragged their father outside, and shot him dead.
“He asked me to rush back home,” Israr, whose name has been changed for his safety, recalled.
I met Israr in Orakzai, one of Pakistan’s tribal belt’s seven districts. Orakzai, like the provinces just across the border in Afghanistan, has a predominantly Pashtun population.
Three days after Israr’s father was murdered, an extremist group known as Islamic State Khorasan Province (IS-K) claimed responsibility.
IS-K accused Israr’s father of being a Pakistani military informant, which Israr denied.
“In Orakzai, my father only had a shop. He would assist his tribe, particularly those who were returning to the area after being displaced by war “Israr stated.
“He had no adversaries. He was one of the community’s elders.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban and the IS-K are engaged in a bloody battle for supremacy.
In Pakistan, the picture is more hazy.
The attack on Israr’s father was not a one-time occurrence. On the same day, another man was killed in Orakzai for allegedly acting as a “informant” for the Pakistani military. IS-K claimed responsibility for the attack as well.
Orakzai is one of seven tribal areas governed by British colonial law, including Bajaur, Mohmand, Khyber, Kurram, North Waziristan, and South Waziristan.
They were only merged with the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and turned into districts in May 2018, bringing them into the Pakistani civilian fold.
According to data compiled by the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies (PIPS), an Islamabad-based research organisation, there has been an increase in violence this year.
Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the Afghan Taliban’s “ideological twin,” is primarily to blame. TTP aspires to follow in the footsteps of its Afghan counterparts by establishing their interpretation of Sharia, a strict form of Islamic governance, in Pakistan.
The TTP carried out 95 attacks last year, killing 140 people, according to PIPS data, and 44 attacks in the first six months of this year.
The TTP increased their activity as the Afghan Taliban made rapid progress in Afghanistan and began gaining control of various provinces beginning in July. From July to September, the group carried out 44 more attacks, killing 73 people. The majority of those killed were members of Pakistan’s law enforcement agencies.
Threats and intimidation
Aside from the obvious violence, the region has been rife with threats and tension for months.
Some residents claim to have received extortion calls from Afghan and Pakistani numbers. Ahmed, not his real name, is a social worker and entrepreneur from the Bajaur district. In July and August, he said he kept getting calls from different numbers.
The men would introduce themselves as Taliban members and demand money.
“They were demanding extortion money,” Ahmed explained. “And, despite my refusal, they kept sending me voice notes and WhatsApp messages, threatening to harm me and my family if I didn’t pay up.”
Ahmed stated that he contacted the district administration and presented evidence to both civilian and military officials.
“I repeatedly informed them about it, but I was told by the administration that I am not the only one receiving these calls, and that many others in Bajaur have received similar threats.”
“They told me that it is impossible to provide security for everyone and that I should take precautions myself, such as installing security cameras in my home.”
Who are the TTP?
Baitullah Mehsud founded the TTP in South Waziristan at the end of 2007. The militant movement arose in response to a Pakistani military operation that cleared the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad, which was home to a radical preacher. He was once thought to be close to Pakistan’s spy agency, the ISI.
The links between the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, according to Dr. Amira Jadoon, an assistant professor at the US Military Academy at West Point, date back to 9/11 and the fall of the first Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001.
According to analysts, following the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban fought alongside the Afghan Taliban, providing food, shelter, and financial aid to the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan’s tribal areas while also pledging allegiance to them.
However, following its formation, the TTP went on a rampage against the Pakistani state, attacking both civilians and security forces. The Pakistani Army retaliated by driving the TTP leadership to Afghanistan, where it has been operating since 2015, waging “low-intensity” warfare against Pakistan.
The TTP became more visible as the Afghan Taliban began their march on Kabul in July.
According to Pakistani Taliban chief Noor Wali Mehsud, the Afghan Taliban’s victory would be a “victory for the entire Muslim people.” He also had a word of caution for Pakistan.
“Our fight is limited to Pakistan, where we are at war with Pakistani security forces,” he explained.
“We hope to seize control of Pakistan’s border tribal region and make it self-sufficient.”
Abdul Basit, a terrorism scholar based in Singapore, believes the Afghan Taliban’s victory has “definitely emboldened” the TTP.
“They believe that if America has failed in Afghanistan, what can Pakistan do?” he explained.
“Furthermore, they have been inflaming ethnic tensions and exaggerating local grievances… Essentially, the TTP is attempting to capitalise on Pashtun victimhood.”
The TTP, however, are a “receding phenomenon,” according to Pakistan’s former national security adviser and retired three-star General Nasir Janjua.
“The TTP has lost favour with the general public. Since the Americans are no longer in Afghanistan, their narrative of fighting Pakistan because it sided with the US has outlived its usefulness “He stated.
“Their increased violence is a result of their survival struggle.”
The ISPR, the Pakistani military’s public relations wing, downplayed the increasing number of attacks in the tribal region by the TTP and affiliated militants.
“Terrorist organisations have been largely defeated. Isolated incidents, on the other hand, do occur “According to a BBC spokesperson.
Good Taliban, Bad Taliban
It is widely assumed that the Pakistani state has a long history of support for the Afghan Taliban and is encouraging the rest of the world to accept their new regime in Afghanistan.
However, over the last decade, it has fought a bloody battle against the Pakistani Taliban, resulting in the deaths of thousands of civilians and security forces across the country.
It is commonly referred to as Pakistan’s “good and bad Taliban” strategy, in which the Afghan Taliban are viewed positively while the Pakistani Taliban are viewed negatively.
Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly displaced as a result of the military’s multiple operations to eliminate militants from tribal areas.
However, the Pakistani government has also attempted to negotiate a peace deal with various factions of the Pakistan Taliban over the years.
The presence of IS-K in the tribal region, on the other hand, causes the Pakistani authorities yet another headache.
In Afghanistan, IS-K is at odds with the Taliban, accusing them of abandoning Jihad in exchange for a negotiated settlement signed last year in Doha. The Taliban are considered “apostates” and legitimate targets by IS-K.
IS now poses a significant security challenge to the incoming Afghan Taliban government, a concern shared by both the Taliban leadership and Western intelligence agencies.
“IS-K has sectarian differences with the TTP (Pakistani Taliban) and regards them as misguided Muslims who are agents of Pakistan, Iran, and other regional forces,” said Abdul Sayed, a jihadist researcher based in Sweden.
Experts believe that the low-level cadres of TTP and IS-K in Pakistan are made up of the same people who switch allegiances and frequently work for both organisations.
IS-K, according to Dr. Jadoon, has a larger goal in mind than the TTP.
“IS-K seeks territorial control in order to establish a caliphate and sees itself as the sole legitimate leader of the global ummah (Muslim people),” she explained.
Forced to flee
With so many militant groups operating, life is difficult for those who must live among them.
A former militia leader who fought alongside the Pakistani military against the TTP a few years ago told me that his entire family was forced to relocate from his village in Mohmand, a tribal district bordering Afghanistan.
“My father was martyred, my cousin was martyred, and our family homes were destroyed,” said Shehzad – not his real name.
“Some of our men have lost their hands, others have lost their legs, and some have neither. We didn’t want to leave our village, but what else can you do when you don’t have a place to live? “He stated.
Ahmed, the Bajaur businessman, painted a similarly bleak picture.
“It frequently compels me to consider leaving my home and taking my family with me. But then where could I possibly go? How can I simply walk away from my house? “He stated.
The young man from Orakzai, Israr, was more forthright.
“When the war broke out 14, 15 years ago, we had no choice but to flee our home. My parents returned two years ago, but my mother is now widowed “He stated.
“The government assured us that peace had been restored in the area and that we should return, but where is the peace?”