Sectarian clashes in Rawalpindi and other cities of Punjab on the 10th of Muharram soon spread to Southern districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where curfew had to be imposed in Kohat and Hangu districts after rioting near an Imambargah in Kohat.
According to the local police, three people were killed in the Kohat clash, that included two policemen and a civilian.
On Friday November 22, Ancholi area of Karachi – that has a large Shia population – was hit by two powerful bombs, killing at least 9 people and injuring many.
The following day, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Shahidullah Shahid issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, calling them a revenge for the Rawalpindi incident.
[quote]The Taliban have decided they will not restrict their battle to FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa[/quote]
Kohat and Hangu are no strangers to sectarian violence and Shia Muslims have been persecuted by Taliban in separate incidents in the neighbouring Kurram and Aurakzai agencies, but this is for the first time that the TTP has publicly stepped in in such a conflict. Its deputy chief Sheikh Khalid Haqqani had threatened that his group would continue to avenge the Rawalpindi clashes. It indicates that TTP is transforming itself into a more openly sectarian outfit.
Dr Husnul Amin, a social scientist who closely watches the trends of militancy in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Arab world, believes that this shift is deliberate. “This is a paradigm shift on the part of the Taliban. It seems that the TTP has changed its strategic thinking and is trying to take its offensive outside of the Waziristan enclave into the urban centres of Pakistan. The appointment of Mullah Fazlullah and Sheikh Khalid Haqqani from Swabi is indicative of that trend.”
The move, Dr Amin said, would help the TTP take its war to the other side of the Indus River, which is not easy without the support and mobilization of sectarian outfits like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Sipah-e-Sahaba.
A Taliban commander from Mohmand Agency – who was present during the Taliban Shura (council) meeting to elect the new emir after the demise of Hakimullah Mehsud in a US drone strike early this month – said the group had decided it would not restrict its battle to FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and would attack “where it hurts the most”.
[quote]”What happened in Swat may happen in Swabi”[/quote]
He was referring to a statement by Taliban commander Asmatullah Shaheen, in which he threated to target Punjab to avenge the killing of Hakimullah Mehsud.
But this paradigm shift has consequences. Another Taliban commander said a clear ethnic divide could be seen during the Shura meeting and later when Asmatullah threatened Punjab. He said that Punjabi Taliban rejected the idea because their funding and recruits came from that part of the country. The Jihad should be restricted to Afghanistan, they said, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa should only be targeted because it was not allowing the Taliban the freedom to move and carry out their plans.
A commander associated with the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group, the strongest of all the factions, refuted the claims of divisions among Taliban factions.
Junaid Khan, a Peshawar based researcher, said the TTP was faced with a serious challenge of division on ethnic lines and it seemed to be trying to remain intact by going the sectarian way. “You know Shia Muslims are not leaving this country and a majority of them are in Punjab,” he said. “Attacking Shias will serve two purposes – it will keep the Taliban united because the Punjabi Taliban also belong to the Sunni-Deobandi school of thought, and it will send a message to it cadres that they are hitting Punjab to avenge the killing of Hakimullah, as threated by one of its top commanders Asmatullah Shaheen.”
Mullah Fazlullah has been nominated as emir of TTP, Junaid Khan said, but Khalid Haqqani is going to be the operational commander. He comes from the settled areas and knows much more about the geography and the strategic locations. “Swabi is very close to Islamabad, and we know that there are pockets of Taliban in different areas on Mardan and Jahangira roads,” he added.
Aneela Khan, a university student from Swabi, said there was anxiety among the people of the district after Khalid Haqqani’s ascendency to the top leadership of the TTP. “We are concerned that what happened in Swat some years ago may now happen in Swabi.”
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