Terror groups operating in Pakistan have been linked to numerous attempted attacks in the United States and Europe and, most recently, to the failed bombing in New York’s Times Square. Renewed attention on militancy spreading from Pakistan’s tribal areas is raising fears that the country’s instability threatens Western security.
In a Q&A, Stephen Tankel details the terror groups in Pakistan, their capability of striking beyond South Asia, and how the United States, Europe, and Pakistan can work to prevent deadly strikes. “While there are groups that are capable of striking the West on their own, the threat comes increasingly from the enhanced collaboration among different actors with varying agendas and capabilities,” says Tankel. It’s essential to disrupt the global connections of these groups, in concert with combating them in Pakistan.
The recent attempted attack in New York by Faisal Shahzad is only the latest evidence that groups operating out of Pakistan threaten both the United States and Europe. While there are groups that are capable of striking the West on their own, the threat comes increasingly from the increased collaboration among different actors with varying agendas and capabilities.
Ten years ago potential operatives could walk into a militant outfit’s office, but those days are largely over. Many would-be terrorists from Western countries are turned away because groups fear infiltration. On the one hand, militants are correct to be concerned about infiltration. On the other, people like Faisal Shahzad continue to connect with militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas, receive training and funding, and then return to Western countries. In some cases they do this via direct personal connections to actors. In others, groups with operations outside of northwestern Pakistan and links to transnational networks continue to serve as a gateway to other organizations.
The collaboration between terror groups is at both the organizational and individual level. Sometimes the decision to cooperate comes from the leadership, other times it is the result of members from different outfits networking with one another. Regardless, it means that the United States and European powers cannot gauge threats based solely on who funds, provides training, recruits operatives, or takes credit for attacks—different actors are playing various roles.
The people the United States targets with drone attacks may be the ones planning and deploying terrorists to the West. They may even claim credit for attempted or successful strikes. But these people are not necessarily going to be the same ones who recruited or trained the terrorists. This complicates the international response to terrorism.
The lines between various groups have blurred considerably in recent years and movement of cadres among different outfits has increased. It’s difficult to capture all of the overlapping aims, connections, and alliances, though it’s fair to say the majority of well-known groups now are allied with one another as well as with the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Still, differences exist among these groups over various issues, including their preferred targets and readiness to strike in Pakistan. Some of these actors have even fought against one another in recent years, but overall collaboration is increasing.
The Pakistani Taliban is an umbrella movement that united various commanders and outfits in the tribal areas in 2007. It aims to evict the Pakistan army from the Pakistani tribal areas, destabilize or overthrow the government, and drive the United States from the region. In addition, the Pakistani Taliban has served as a local proxy of sorts for al-Qaeda. The attempted attacks in Spain in 2008 and, more recently, in New York, suggest the group aspires to take its fight abroad.
That being said, the Pakistani Taliban’s transnational reach remains limited and the extent of its involvement in the attack in New York is still being investigated. The rudimentary nature of the device used in Times Square calls into question the level of training Faisal Shahzad received. Moreover, while would-be Western terrorists can find their way directly to the Pakistani Taliban, individuals or networks associated with other actors—particularly Punjabi militant groups—may also serve as a gateway. Incidentally, some of those Punjabi militant groups have more robust overseas connections than does the Pakistani Taliban.
Another important group is the Haqqani Network. Named after its leader Jalaluddin Haqqani and based in North Wazirstan, it has not been involved in attacks against the Pakistani state, but instead focused its activity on the insurgency in East Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network plays an important role in providing a safe haven for al-Qaeda, other foreign fighters, and various Pakistan-based groups. Since the Pakistani military moved into South Waziristan last year, this safe haven has become even more important. Although the Haqqani Network does not appear to be involved in attacks abroad, it is providing the safe haven where attacks have been planned over the last decade.
Historically, most of the major militant groups in Pakistan were Punjabi. The bigger names included Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. Today, Lashkar-e-Taiba’s name means more from an organizational perspective than do the others, which are interwoven with one another. It is the only outfit that remains primarily fixated on India and refrains from launching attacks in Pakistan. However, its collaboration with other actors in Pakistan is expanding and it is increasingly placing the West in its sights.
All of these groups have a presence in Pakistani tribal areas, but they also have a presence in the Punjab province and especially in the south of Punjab where a great deal of recruiting takes place. Some of these groups also have a presence elsewhere in Pakistan’s other provinces, particularly in Karachi, which has become another jumping off point for the tribal areas. Notably, it is their networks that have enabled some of the highest profile attacks in places like Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Lahore. In the case of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, they also boast robust transnational networks, which enables them to contribute to attempted attacks abroad.
It’s more accurate to speak of a strategy emanating from Rawalpindi—where the Pakistan army is headquartered—than Islamabad, the seat of the civilian government. The army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) continue to differentiate between militants deemed potentially useful to the state and those considered a threat to its existence.
This double game is now known as the “good jihadi, bad jihadi” dichotomy in which the army and ISI protect the former while aiming to annihilate the latter. In between the two extremes there are a host of outfits and the army and ISI might shield some of their individual members while going after others. Pakistan rightly receives criticism for this policy domestically and internationally.
While Rawalpindi continues to cherry-pick enemies, Pakistani militants are becoming less discriminating. Some members of the old militant guard may still practice restraint, but the newer generation is less bound by rules of decorum. Thus, the army and ISI might still be able to exert influence over senior leaders in certain organizations, but this does not always filter down to rank-and-file members. It’s also important to note that small networks of radicalized individuals—sometimes only tangentially related to the historical militant outfits in Pakistan—are developing. In the past, the army and ISI knew who these actors were. That may be less true today.
Recent research suggests the drivers of militant recruitment for many of these men are primarily political rather than economic or social and some of these factors are not within Pakistan’s control. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan, drone strikes in the tribal areas, and Pakistan’s overall alliance with United States constitute key grievances that neither the civilian government in Islamabad nor the army in Rawalpindi can “solve.”
While neither the U.S.-Pakistani alliance nor the United States itself will win popularity contests, there has been a tendency among some Pakistani elites to inflame anti-American sentiment when Washington has pushed for what are arguably much-needed reforms. Further, the army and ISI continue to instrumentalize grievances about the perceived Indian occupation in Kashmir and have used militants as proxies in Afghanistan against India.
It is important to acknowledge, however, that since 2004 Pakistan has lost almost 2,500 soldiers fighting militants, according to the army. Furthermore, it would be naïve to suggest that Pakistan shouldn’t first confront the groups that threaten its own sovereignty and citizenry. The problem is that serious doubts remain about whether this is simply a question of priorities, or if there is no intention of going after some of these actors.
Even if those doubts disappeared tomorrow, the army and ISI would still be faced with the question of how to dismantle the existing militant infrastructure. Taking on everyone at once creates more enemies. Selectively cherry-picking targets runs the risk that groups become more intermingled over time and the threat spins further out of control. What’s needed is an integrated approach geared toward dismantling the entire militant infrastructure, which would include simultaneous efforts in the areas of military engagement, law-enforcement, intelligence gathering, information operations, governance-building, economic development, and the reintegration of former militants into society.
This calls into question the status of Pakistan’s capabilities at the moment. For example, when the army has moved against militant groups in Pakistani tribal areas it often pursued an approach more akin to a low-intensity conflict than counterinsurgency. This means that it as been an overly militarily-based approach, and one that too often involves overwhelming and blunt force. Far less attention has been paid to questions of governance or economic development. When attempts have been made along these lines they have not been particularly successful. The record is not much better in the interior where police forces and civilian intelligence agencies—which constitute the first line of defense against terrorism—remain under-funded, under-equipped, and under-prepared.
It’s easy and appealing to say that Washington should put more pressure on Pakistan to handle terror groups within its border. How to do this is a different story. After the failed Times Square attack the United States sent the message that if a successful terrorist attack in America is traced back to Pakistan there will be no choice but to act. Yet U.S. options will remain limited militarily.
If the United States deployed a substantial number of forces then the Pakistan army would be faced with either defending the country’s sovereignty or possibly risking fragmentation among its ranks. Further, the United States remains dependent on Pakistan for assistance in Afghanistan, with the majority of U.S. logistical supplies for Afghanistan flowing through Pakistan. So the message has quickly morphed into one that stresses the need for increased cooperation now so neither country is faced with this situation down the road.
That said, increased U.S. pressure in the aftermath of the Times Square attempt does appear to have had some effect. The Pakistan army is now saying it will go into North Waziristan on its own timetable. The army says it will need to consolidate gains made elsewhere and shape the environment in North Waziristan before it is ready to move in. Washington has been pushing for action in this area for some time, and should be prepared to support the army in its endeavors. This not only means providing additional military equipment, but also aid for development and stabilization operations.
Beyond the question of North Waziristan, another point of contention has been Pakistan’s passive—and sometimes active—support for Punjabi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba that have transnational reach. There has been an attempt to exert stronger pressure in the past year, as evidenced by some of the provisions in the Kerry-Lugar aid bill that make aid conditional on Pakistan taking steps to degrade militant groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba.
Ideally the army and ISI would be willing and able to disrupt the militant safe haven in North Waziristan and begin dismantling groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba. However, it’s probably more realistic to focus on increased intelligence sharing and police action to degrade these group’s transnational apparatuses. In the short term, breaking the links of the international networks of groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, or Jaish-e-Mohammed may be more feasible than fully dismantling the groups in Pakistan. This would make the West and India safer.
Taking steps to increase the capacity of non-military institutions is essential. More needs to be done to support the police and civilian intelligence agencies and delivering support in the forms of money, training, and capacity building is important.
Civilian law enforcement agencies are not only essential to stabilizing militant strongholds and promoting governance, but also key for dismantling networks shared by Punjabi groups that help facilitate attacks at home and abroad. Additionally, promoting intelligence sharing among Pakistan’s different agencies and with the United States is critical. This must focus on all of the militant groups in Pakistan, not just those threatening the Pakistani state or the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.
Devoting money and attention to developing a program to disarm, demobilize, and reintegrate fighters would also be useful. In Pakistan’s civil society there is a push for a reconciliation or deradicalization program. It’s worth noting that the two are not the same and at this stage there’s not agreement on which approach to take. Nonetheless, the United States should be supporting the efforts to scope out and build some type of program to bring fighters in from the cold. Of course, Pakistan may not want to demobilize all of these groups, but creating the means to do so might change the dynamic and help nudge that process along.
The answer extends far beyond what happens in Pakistan even if the country remains ground zero for today’s terrorism threats. A fundamental rethink in Washington’s overall counterterrorism strategy is not in order at this time. From an operational perspective the United States has had a pretty effective counterterrorism approach in Pakistan.
A number of attacks have been foiled before reaching the execution phase and one could argue that the constrained operating environment in Pakistan—due in large part to the drone campaign and fears of infiltration—makes training operatives for attacks against the West quite challenging.
The problem is the potential disconnect between short-term operational goals and long-term U.S. strategy for Pakistan and the region. One of the main objectives outlined by President Obama last year was to disrupt terrorist networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan and prevent international attacks. But, Obama also emphasized the importance of assisting efforts to enhance civilian control of government in Pakistan.
Operational necessity to accomplish the former has meant continued reliance on the army as the primary U.S. interlocutor and drone strikes as the primary means of eliminating the enemy. Neither is a recipe for long-term stability in a Pakistan free of militancy. The problem is shorter-term needs of disrupting attacks often dictate a reliance on military means and preclude longer-term aims.
The Carnegie South Asia Program informs policy debates relating to the region’s security, economy, and political development. From the war in Afghanistan to Pakistan’s internal dynamics to U.S. engagement with India, the Program’s renowned team of experts offer in-depth analysis derived from their unique access to the people and places defining South Asia’s most critical challenges.
Enter your email address to receive the latest Carnegie analysis in your inbox!
You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.