Quite recently, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque located inside a high-security police compound in Peshawar, killing nearly 100 people and wounding about 200. A commander of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) claimed responsibility for the attack, but the TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani later denied the group’s involvement.
The TTP has emerged as the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan. It is believed to have perpetrated more than 100 attacks since the end of a ceasefire with the Pakistan government in November 2022.
The ferocity of the Peshawar suicide bombing, however, warrants attention to a set of fundamental questions. What motivates the TTP to terrorism? Why terrorists do what they do? What are the different strategies terrorists pursue in seeking their objectives? How does an understanding of terrorists’ motives and their strategies guide policymakers to devise strategies to counter terrorism effectively? How a state response is crucial in determining success or failure of terrorists?
Several analysts have pointed out return of the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan and their close relations with the TTP as a factor behind the recent escalation of terrorism in Pakistan. This is certainly an important factor but there is a need to look beyond this and analyse the group’s logic and strategies behind terrorist violence.
Terrorism can be defined as the use of violence against civilians by non-state actors to achieve political goals. These goals can vary from regime change to territorial control to policy change or social control. However, there is a need to distinguish ultimate goals from strategies or plans of action to achieve those goals. The terrorism literature identifies several terrorists’ motivations/strategies which include attrition, intimidation, provocation, outbidding, and spoiling. We have to distinguish terrorist strategies the TTP has been using for the past year to reveal their objectives behind these strategies. It should lead policymakers to devise a responsive action plan.
How does an understanding of terrorists’ motives and their strategies guide policymakers to devise strategies to counter terrorism effectively? How a state response is crucial in determining success or failure of terrorists?
So far, the TTP has attacked several parts of Pakistan. The most horrific attack took place in an army-run school in Peshawar in December 2014 which led to the killing of almost 150 people, mostly children. Military Operation Zarb-e-Azb launched in June 2014 intensified attacks and as a result most of its fighters and other militants were pushed out of the region. Many, including its leadership, ended up seeking refuge in Afghanistan. Since then, there was considerable decrease in the TTP’s terrorist activities.
However, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan after withdrawal of the US forces from the country in August 2021 provided the TTP with logistic and moral support, which led to its revival and involvement in terrorism in Pakistan. The TTP carried out 267 terrorist attacks in 2021 and 354 in 2022.
The TTP’s main stated objective is to impose Shariah in Pakistan on the style of the Afghan Taliban. It has also demanded to reverse the 2018 merger of Pakistan’s tribal districts from the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and release of group’s captured fighters. The Afghan-Taliban brokered negotiations between the Pakistani state and TTP that led to a temporary ceasefire provided the latter to regroup and plan terrorist attacks in Pakistan.
At the moment, the TTP seems to be working on at least three of the aforementioned strategies: attrition, intimidation, and provocation. First, a strategy of attrition is used to signal terrorists’ strength and resolve which seeks to inflicting pain to undermine the adversary’s will to fight. The TTP seems to adopt attrition as a strategy to show its strength and resolve while inflicting pain on the Pakistani state and people. The attack on a mosque in Peshawar is an example of this strategy.
Second, intimidation is primarily gaining social control over a population by demonstrating that the terrorists have the power to punish the defiant people and the government is impotent to control them. The TTP has been found involved in extorting money in the former tribal areas and parts of the KP, and threatening with dire consequences in case of disobedience.
Third, the provocation strategy is used for inciting the target government into a military response that targets civilians in the terrorists’ home territory. The aim is to persuade the people that the government is so brutal and terrorists’ demands are just. The Pakistani state’s previous counterterrorism campaigns have caused extensive civilian damages, exacerbating grievances of the given population.
After the recent Peshawar suicide attack, voices have emerged demanding a military operation. Such people are probably oblivion to the fact that the military operations incur huge financial cost and collateral damages which mostly work counterproductively. The current political instability and financial crisis would hardly allow the state to go for a tough military operation like Operation Zarb-e-Azb.
An aggressive policy is required to destroy terrorists and their facilitators to prevent any future terror attacks, but the targets must be isolated from general population.
Additionally, outbidding and spoiling peace are the two other instruments terrorists use. Terrorists outbid rival groups by displaying their resolve and will to continue the armed struggle which help them to get recruits and showcase them as zealots rather than sellouts. Terrorists employ a spoiling strategy when a faction is pursuing a peace agreement with the target government which threatens the terrorists’ more radical goals. In an outbidding move, the TTP is likely to get support and recruit while competing with its rival Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) and with the non-violent movement in the region known as Pashtun Tahaffaz Movement (PTM). A spoiling strategy by the TTP can be ruled out as apparently no negotiations are underway with any terrorist group.
Effective counterterrorism strategies cannot be developed without a clear understanding of the strategic logic that motivate terrorist violence. Terrorism works when it spreads fear in target populations, and when it directs governments to respond in ways that helps terrorists cause. The TTP have been employing all these strategies of attrition, intimidation, provocation and outbidding to achieve their respective objectives. To effectively counter terrorist attacks by the TTP, the government response should be calibrated in a way that the terrorist could not achieve their desired objectives during their ongoing terrorist campaign.
Attrition strategy by terrorists seeks concessions from the government. Given the TTP’s irreconcilable, insatiable demands, such as imposition of Sharia and the restoration of the tribal areas and the government inability to grant any concessions, the government is left with the only option of targeted retaliation which means targeting the leadership of the terrorist group, its followers, their assets, and any other thing that could count on weakening terrorists. The government retaliation must be precisely targeted because an indiscriminate response would harm innocent civilians which might potentially provide recruits to terrorists. A targeted and discriminate response is quite necessary as terrorists might be pursuing provocation strategy simultaneously along with attrition.
Intimidation strategy pursues social control of the population. People belonging to different parts of KP reported the arrival of militants from Afghanistan into their respective areas. Even people in Swat protested and demanded an action against the terrorists from the government. The terrorists’ presence in a given area would leave the population vulnerable to their intimidation tactics. The government should do all efforts to deny any space to terrorists among the given population. Strengthening law enforcement is a prerequisite to prevent any terrorists attempt to gain social control. The state also needs to strengthen the criminal justice system to effectively prosecute crimes linked with intimidation.
To avoid falling prey to the terrorists’ provocation strategy, the government needs to adopt a discriminating strategy to cause as little civilians damage as possible. An aggressive policy is required to destroy terrorists and their facilitators to prevent any future terror attacks, but the targets must be isolated from general population. A discriminating response requires a superior intelligence capability. Therefore, the Pakistani state needs to take steps to make intelligence gathering more sophisticated and accurate.
The TTP is trying to outbid its rival group, in particular non-violent group, whose demands are reasonable and within limits of the country’s constitution. By paying heed to the demands of PTM and undertaking efforts to address the genuine grievances of the Pashtun population, the TTP can be deprived of any support from the larger Pashtun population. Recent demonstrations of local people against the TTP presence in Swat areas display considerable disdain against the terrorist group’s methods and demands. Terrorism would probably never end but by taking these steps its ferocity and frequent occurrences can be reduced significantly.
Dr. Samee Lashari a Lecturer at Bush School of Government & Public Service, Texas A&M University, USA. He can be approached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Shahzad Akhtar is Assistant Professor at the University of Lahore. He can be approached at email@example.com