January Issue 2015
Cover Story: White Shrouds and Black Flags
There was blood everywhere. Carpeting the floor; sprayed on the walls; across notebooks; scattered neckties; trampled spectacles; pooling across the seats. I couldn’t look away from the bloodied barefoot prints of fleeing children as I walked through the auditorium.
“How can humans be so cruel and barbaric? They didn’t even spare the children who tried to hide beneath desks,” a journalist friend murmured as we crossed the hallway to witness the trail of death and destruction in the aftermath of the massacre that left 134 schoolchildren and nine staff members dead at the Army Public School in Peshawar.
The Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) has claimed responsibility for the grotesque carnage, probably the worst incident in Pakistan’s blighted history of terrorism. The intensity of the attack, however, signals an acceleration of specific tactics. While all their acts of terror are intended to create psychological fear among innocent citizens and security forces, there is now a competition of brutalities to see which jihadi outfit can create the most vicious spectacle. Militant outfits at the forefront of global jihad are vying for recognition as Al Qaeda is giving way to the TTP, Boko Haram in Nigeria and ISIS in Syria and Iraq – the next wave of global jihad.
ISIS trumped Al Qaeda after it captured towns and villages in Syria and Iraq by beheading rivals, executing hostages, destroying historic shrines, slaughtering Shias and announcing a self-proclaimed Caliphate. The leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph Ibrahim, and has sought oaths of allegiance from jihadis across the world, thus challenging the authority of Mullah Omar and Ayman al-Zawahiri.
After Osama bin Laden’s killing in May 2011 and the subsequent deaths of Al Qaeda leaders in drone attacks, there is an increasing romance associated with ISIS among fragmented Taliban militant outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Al Qaeda-backed hordes of Al Nusra fighters, including those who had gone to Syria from Pakistan and Afghanistan, have defected to ISIS.
Some months ago, six commanders, including the former spokesman of TTP, Shahidullah Shahid, and at least three small cadre commanders from across the border in Afghanistan, switched their allegiance from Mullah Omar to Abu Bakr, though ISIS hasn’t formally announced taking them into its fold.
Currently, the TTP coalition of disparate militant groups as well as the Afghan Taliban generally turn to Mullah Omar as their emir, but there are fears that cracks will soon appear in the ranks of commanders searching for an ideological umbrella.
It is believed that ISIS has entrusted its two lynchpins – Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost and Mullah Qahir Nuristani – with the task of forging alliances and creating bridges between various Taliban militant outfits in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Muslim Dost is an Afghan and a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner in his early 50s, who was released in 2006. He is a poet and writer whose book, The Broken Chains, and a collection of poems titled, Poems from Guantanamo, are popular among Taliban fighters. Dost swore allegiance under oath to Abu Bakr, just two days after the latter declared himself Caliph. He is believed to be overseeing the tribal belt and the Afghan provinces of Paktiya, Paktika, Kunar and Nuristan.
Mullah Qahir operates from his home province of Nuristan in Afghanistan, where he is believed to be running a training camp for religious militants. According to Taliban sources, both Muslim Dost and Mullah Qahir Nuristani have been assigned by ISIS to form a 10-member delegation to participate in a grand assembly to be held either in Syria or Iraq, where the emir of Khorasan is to be announced.
Khorasan is a word used by Taliban militants to describe the areas covering much of central and South Asia, including northwest Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. The term and concept of Khorasan carries great significance for all jihadi groups, be it ISIS, the Afghan Taliban or various TTP factions and sectarian outfits. According to their belief, black banners of jihadis from Khorasan will rise and head for Syria and Iraq and ultimately conquer the holy land of Bait-ul-Muqaddas and create a Caliphate across the world. They attribute this belief to various accounts of Hadiths that anticipate this event.
The common ideological moorings have led to common features such as ISIS, Afghan Taliban and the TTP and all its factions carrying black flags.
“…Be it a mujahid of ISIS or ours, his heart beats for the same purpose: martyrdom to hoist Islamic black flags all over the world,” says a Taliban militant. Other commonalities include setting up of Shariah courts as soon as they capture an area to carry out atrocities in the name of punishment.
TTP commanders have named themselves Khorasani, like Mohammad Khorasani, spokesman of the Mullah Fazlullah-led TTP, who claimed responsibility for the attack on Peshawar’s schoolchildren. His original name is Khalid Baltistani. The TTP splinter group, Jamaat-ul Ahrar, is headed by Maulana Qasim Khorasani. Its deputy emir is Omer Khalid Khorasani (original name, Abdul Wali).
However, despite their commonalities, the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban factions are not yet in unanimous agreement about taking an oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. According to Taliban sources in November 2014, Abu Bakr sent a three-member ISIS delegation to ‘Khorasan.’
The delegates – Zubair al-Kuwaiti, Shaikh Yousuf and Faheem Ansari – held meetings with several Taliban commanders, including Fazlullah and Mangal Bagh. In Taliban circles, it is said the meetings with commanders of various factions were held in the tribal belt and across the border in Afghanistan’s Nuristan and Kunar provinces. The ISIS delegates, it is said, also visited Panjgur and Zhob in Balochistan. The Panjgur district shares a border with Iran.
Reportedly, the message ISIS left them with was the need for them to unite. If various splintered Taliban factions unite under the banner of ISIS, Taliban sources say, they will be named Lashkar Ghazwa-e-Hind, and not ISIS or Daesh.
Pakistani Taliban groups split into various factions after Hakimullah Mehsud’s killing and are now on the run following the Pakistani military’s offensive in North Waziristan and Khyber Agency. There are fears that the Taliban, frustrated by splintering and running out of resources, may turn to ISIS with whom they already share an ideological affinity, lured as they are by the enormous wealth and Abu Bakr’s leadership after bin Laden’s killing.
Such unity would severely jolt the Pakistani military’s fresh efforts to rein in Frankenstein’s monster of yesteryear and their more ruthless new offspring. Furthermore, would the US be willing to face the embarrassment they did at the hands of ISIS in Iraq despite spending more than US$ 2 trillion, and see the same script re-written on Afghan soil?
The Taliban attackers of the school in Peshawar were all in their early 20s and belonged to the new breed of Taliban fighters. Exiting the auditorium through the hallway, I saw the severed feet of a suicide bomber amid a pile of melted flesh – completely burnt, but leaving behind a trail of footprints to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in the days to come.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue.