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Who Are the Pakistani Taliban?

This photo released in a statement by the Pakistani Taliban shows the fighters who stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 16, 2014.
This photo released in a statement by the Pakistani Taliban shows the fighters who stormed a military-run school in Peshawar, Pakistan, Dec. 16, 2014.

The Pakistani Taliban, formally known as the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, is an umbrella group of militant organizations. Baitullah Mehsud, a leading militant leader from Waziristan in Pakistan’s northwestern tribal belt, formed a coalition of 13 groups in 2007. At its peak, the group claimed 30 or more groups as members. Since then, the group has divided into several factions, often clashing with each other. The U.S. State Department declared it a foreign terrorist organization in September 2010.

Pakistan’s government tried negotiating with the Pakistani Taliban in late 2013 and early 2014, but the efforts failed. Pakistan's military then started an operation against the group's stronghold in North Waziristan in June 2014.

Who are the leaders of TTP?

Baitullah Mehsud, the first head and founder of TTP, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009. He was succeeded by a member of his Mehsud tribe and another famous militant leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, who in turn was killed by a U.S. airstrike in 2013.

The current leader of TTP, Maulana Fazlullah, is not from the Mehsud tribe. Nicknamed “Mullah Radio,” he gained notoriety through his illegal FM channel, whose signal was broadcast through portable transmitters in the Swat Valley of northern Pakistan. Fazlullah used the channel to distribute his firebrand sermons preaching an extremist Islamist ideology. Nobel laureate Malala Yousufzai writes in her book that in the beginning, people, particularly women of Swat, were so moved by his sermons that they donated their jewelry to the cause.

Slowly, the radio broadcasts became more and more extreme, blaming a devastating earthquake in 2005 on sinful acts like dancing or listening to music. He has routinely ordered attacks on girls’ schools and polio workers. The attack on Yousufzai was also ordered by Fazlullah.

What is their objective?

According to their own statements, the TTP's objective is enforcement of Sharia in Pakistan "whether through peace or war.” They also want a total withdrawal from Afghanistan by the U.S., NATO and International Security Assistance Force. They consider Pakistan’s military an enemy because it supports U.S. and NATO forces. They want the military to stop its operation against them, and they threaten further violent attacks if that does not happen.

What is their relationship with the Afghan Taliban?

The groups have the same ideology and consider Mullah Omar, head of the Afghan Taliban, Ameerul Momineen or Leader of Muslims.

Before the official formation of TTP, many Pakistani Taliban fought in Afghanistan — first against the Soviets, then to help the Afghan Taliban defeat other militant groups to take over Kabul and form a government, and finally against the U.S. and NATO forces who ousted the Afghan Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks. Many members of Afghan Taliban, fleeing from the American military assault, sought shelter across the border with groups that are now with the Pakistani Taliban. The Afghan and Pakistani Taliban also share infrastructure such as safe houses, have joint training exercises and have overlapping members.

However, the Pakistani Taliban are not the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban do not carry out attacks inside Pakistan, and do not consider Pakistan’s military an enemy. Rather, they have often worked as Pakistan’s strategic allies in Afghanistan. According to independent analysts and U.S. officials, the Afghan Taliban, particularly groups like the Haqqani Network, have long received support and safe havens from Pakistan’s military and intelligence services. However, Pakistan’s prime minister and army chief have both said that the country will not distinguish among different terrorist groups anymore. Army chief Raheel Sharif also assured the U.S. during a visit to Washington in November that the military’s operation in North Waziristan was against all terrorist groups without distinction.

Why is it hard to defeat Pakistani Taliban?

Pakistani Taliban operate in a complex strategic environment. Their close association and cooperation with other militant and sectarian groups inside Pakistan makes it difficult for the security establishment to isolate them and root them out.

Pakistan watcher Marvin Weinbaum of the Washington-based Middle East Institute points out that some of the Taliban groups were cultivated as an extension of the state’s foreign policy, to be used against an economically and militarily superior rival — India. State support has allowed these groups over the last several decades to expand their influence, spread their ideology and recruit members to a point that they have now become a formidable challenge for Pakistani government itself.

This ties in with the issue of capacity within Pakistan’s governing system. The police and courts are not equipped to deal with terrorist outfits efficiently. Many terrorists have been arrested and then freed because of either a lack of evidence or corruption in the system.

What are some of the big attacks blamed on the Pakistani Taliban?

Pakistani Taliban have either claimed responsibility or have been blamed for hundreds if not thousands of attacks inside Pakistan. Some of the more famous ones:

Assassination of Benazir Bhutto, December 2007. The former Pakistani prime minister was killed in a dual gun-and-bomb attack in December 2007. Even though her death is controversial and a U.N. report partially blames both former President Pervez Musharraf and her own husband, Asif Zardari, among others, for not giving her proper protection, the TTP is officially blamed for the assassination.

Attack on Pakistan military headquarters GHQ, October 2009. An attack on Pakistan’s most secure military complex and the headquarters of its powerful army dragged on for 18 hours as 10 militants first attacked a checkpost at the base and then infiltrated the buildings. More than 40 military officials were held hostage by terrorists before being rescued by the Special Services Group of the military.

Times Square bombing attempt, May 2010. A 30-year-old Pakistani, Faisal Shahzad, who had become a U.S. citizen a year earlier, attempted the failed attack. He told interrogators that he had met members of the Pakistani Taliban who had trained him in bomb making.

Attack on Mehran naval base, Karachi, May 2011. Taliban and al-Qaida militants, armed with AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, held off the Pakistani military for 16 hours, destroying two U.S.-made P-3C Orion maritime surveillance planes in the process and damaging other aircraft. They said this attack was revenge for the killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy special forces weeks earlier.

Attack on Malala Yousufzai, October 2012. The Nobel laureate survived, but the TTP vowed to try again to kill her. They were against her activism for female education and consider her a tool of the West.

All Saints Church Peshawar, September 2013. A TTP-linked organization, Jundullah, claimed responsibility for the attack, which killed more than 120 people. TTP denied responsibility.

Karachi airport attack, June 2014. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which left at least 28 people dead, including 10 attackers and more than a dozen security personnel. The attack resulted in a five-hour gunbattle between the militants and security forces.

Karachi naval dockyard attack, September 2014. Taliban militants said they had inside help for this brazen attack, which lasted several hours.