Pakistani militants, known as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have claimed responsibility for the abortive terrorist attack in Times Square earlier this month. The alleged conspirator, Faisal Shehzad, has reportedly admitted to attending training camps in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) where the TTP have asserted control in recent years. Yet despite the obvious threat posed by the group to both Pakistan and the West, relatively little is known about them.
The TTP first emerged after 9/11 in response to Pakistan's support for the allied invasion of Afghanistan -- in part due to the way FATA is organized. The TTP have always been only nominally part of Pakistan, loosely administered by Islamabad, but essentially allowed to govern itself.
Local communities there have fiercely independent customs and loyalties, and a strong ethnic identity which does not always align itself with the Pakistani state. Most local tribes in FATA exist on both sides of the Durand line - the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan - and share strong ethnic and linguistic ties with each other.
When the war in Afghanistan started, therefore, many people simply crossed the border into FATA and melted into the background.
The relative anonymity of life in FATA allowed the Taliban and its sympathisers to build a sophisticated and resilient network, which later began asserting itself as a political movement in Pakistan. The TTP, as they came to call themselves, declared an Islamic emirate in parts of FATA, established their own court system based on Shariah law, and created their own police force and system of tax collection.
These actions set them on an inevitable collision course with Islamabad, prompting the start of a guerrilla war between the TTP and Pakistan's armed forces. As so often happens in this region, the government sought to make deals with the TTP, invariably sacrificing justice for peace.
A 2009 truce centered on asking the TTP to stop:
- Cross border activities, including attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan
- Attacking military convoys and posts in Pakistan
- Harbouring foreign terrorists
Trying to peel off the Arab jihadists from their indigenous counterparts would prove impossible for the government.
Since the 1980s, when foreign jihadists arrived to fight the Soviet Union, FATA became a second home to some of the most extreme Arab fighters who later formed al-Qaeda.
Many of them based their families in FATA, safe from the rigors of life on Afghanistan's front lines. Militants would constantly oscillate between spending time fighting the Soviet Union and recuperating at home in FATA with their families. After the war, many also married from within the local tribes, thereby establishing Arab culture and presence in the region.
The arrangement could not last. The fighting between the Army and TTP militants became increasingly bitter; last December, members of the TTP stormed a mosque during Friday prayers at Pakistan's main Army base, the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The TTP killed over 40 worshippers, many of them senior military commanders there with their children. The government released intercepted phone calls during which the TTP spokesman, Muslim Khan, can be heard saying, "Strikes should be carried out on their [Army Officers'] homes so their kids get killed and then they'll realize…."
More recently, the TTP have also targeted the Pakistani intelligence service, known as the ISI, with suicide attacks. Two retired ISI officials were kidnapped in Waziristan last month. One was executed; the second was released.
The TTP is concerned about Pakistan's cooperation with America, and initially focused its efforts on trying to persuade Islamabad to change direction.
After a Predator drone operated by the CIA killed the TTP's leader, Baitullah Mehsud, there are now clear signs that the group wants to enter the war against America as an equal partner to al-Qaeda. This was confirmed by the suicide bombing of a CIA base, killing eight intelligence officers in Khost last December. It was one of the deadliest attacks in the agency's history, underscoring the seriousness of the TTP's threat.
Crucially, the attack took place against US forces in Afghanistan, revealing the broadening horizons of the TTP.
Not only was it TTP's first attack beyond Pakistan's borders, it was also carried out by a Jordanian, Abu Dujanah al-Kurasaani -- signalling greater cooperation between the different jihadist groups operating in FATA.
In his suicide video, Abu Dujanah sits alongside Baitullah Mehsud's brother, Hakimullah, who took over as leader of the TTP after his brother's death, and tells his viewers:
This suicide attack will be the first of the 'Revenge Operations' against the Americans and their drone-teams, outside the Pakistani borders after they killed the Amir of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Baitullah Mehsud, may Allah have mercy on him.
This is a message to all Kaffireen [infidels], that we as Muslims, as Mujahideen, as Muhajireen and Ansaar, we never forget our martyrs, we never forget our prisoners, and we will never forget Aafia Siddiqui and Sajeer Risawee.
And our jihad, Insh'a Allah, will continue until we free our prisoners, and until the Word of Allah prevails.
The TTP have now taken responsibility for the attempted Times Square bombing, signalling the extent of its ambitions.
Learning more about the TTP will be vital for those seeking to contain its threat.