Talibanisation of Khyber Agency
By Imtiaz Gul
Weekly Pulse, Islamabad July 03, 2008
Ironically, at least two lethal radio stations – one run by the Lashkar-i-Islam and the other by Pir Saifur Rehman, who had migrated from Afghanistan to settle down in the Soordand area of the Bara Tehsil, Khyber Agency. Both began a vicious propaganda war against each other through make-shift FM stations, resulting in violent clashes in 2005 between their followers. These clashes then resulted in the creation of Lashkar-i-Islam. Saifur Rehman also followed suit and formally launched Ansarul Islam. March 2006 witnessed some bloody feuds between rival Taliban factions in the Khyber Agency. (More than two dozen deaths within two days in Khyber Agency – in an area that falls in FATA but is hardly about a dozen kilometres from places where the governor, the FC inspector-general, the political agent, and the army corps commander’s headquarters are located.
Both groups defied the writ of the government for a while until February 2006, when a tribal jirga ordered Pir Saifur Rehman to leave the area to ease tensions. The expulsion, however, helped little; rival FM stations continued to spit venom against each other. Also, both radical clerics made a mockery of the administration as well as of the tribal jirga, which had been asking them to shut down their radio stations, but both rivals held their ground.
In some areas of the Khyber Agency, Lashkar-i-Islam practically established a parallel government, launched the illegal FM radio station, and its armed vigilantes would punish anybody they considered in conflict with their agenda. In May 2007, for instance, LI activists demolished 10 houses after picking up all valuables from there. Local militia, media reports said, acted as silent spectators.
“Armed LI activists patrol government roads and have set up illegal check posts as well. They forced private and public girls’ schools to close down and occasionally also forcibly shut down boys schools and colleges.”
The Bara residents alleged that when the political authorities had ordered the FC to take action against the LI, the Mehsud Scouts had refused to carry out the orders, rendering the political authorities helpless before the FC. They also alleged that some members of the Khasadar force are aligned with the LI. “Peshawar is not immune to what is happening in Bara and repercussions will affect the city if the government doesn’t put an end to this parallel government,” they said.
Following external pressures, the authorities finally cracked down on the combatants, forcing Peer Saifur Rehman out of the tribal areas through a jirga. Saifur Rehman reportedly retreated into Punjab for shelter, while Mufti Shakir has been in jail since late 2007. (The political agent invoked the FCR 40 and consigned Shakir to indefinite detention).
Mangal Bagh Afridi replaced Shakir and continues to command authority and respect in the region. Concentrated in several pockets of the Khyber Agency, LI continues to oppose “un-Islamic” practices; no films, no video or music CDs are allowed for open sale in the markets. Criminals, if held, are punished, as did the Afghan Taliban under Mulla Omar.
The surge in religious on the one hand, and in crime on the other, prompted Haji Naamdar to revive his PVPV. Actually, the creation of Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan in December 2007, provided him with the trigger for getting active again (author’s interviews with senior intelligence officials responsible for FATA, May 2008)
Turning Point for Khyber Taliban
Until a suicide attack at Naamdar’s headquarters in Takya, Bara Town early May, 2008, which left around 20 people injured, and a few other incidents including the abduction of the Pakistani ambassador, and execution of several officials, the cleric had reportedly sheltered several TTP militants – both local and foreign – who had fled the military operation in South Waziristan in January.
As a result, a small group led by Baitullah Mehsud’s deputy, Hakeemullah Mehsud, also had emerged and started interfering in local matters like detention and execution of government officials.
But a day after the attack on him, Naamdar ordered Baitullah’s Taliban to leave the Khyber Agency.
“All militants belonging to Baitullah Mehsud’s group have been ordered to leave the Khyber Agency following the confirmation that the attack was ordered by Baitullah,” a close aide to Naamdar told reporters on May 3
Hakeemullah defended the attack by telling Naamdar that he had “documentary evidence that you (Naamdar) were a government puppet posing as a Mujahid”. Hakeemullah had offered as justification a photograph of Naamdar published in a Peshawar-based Urdu-language daily, showing him seated next to the Frontier Corps (FC) Colonel Mujahid Hussain.
Crime, corruption and conviction (religious) keep the agency on the boil, whereby the authorities are reaching out to Haji Naamdar to use him as a shield against the TTP threat that looms large all over FATA. The absence of any legal justice system and the abuse of the FCR have all combined to turn the Khyber Agency into an explosive powder keg.
Aversion to foreign troops and commitment to the cause of Afghan Taliban as well as ideological affinity with al-Qaeda serve as common denominators to the militant organisations in Khyber Agency, where, like other FATA agencies, the precarious law and order situation adds fuel to the ever-increasing craving for legal and socio-economic justice.
The nexus between the smuggler mafia and the administration is too often ignored and, or understated under the excuse of respecting local tribal customs and traditions. In the last few years, irrespective of claims made by the local community, the administration has refused to counter the increasing influence of local Taliban elements led by Haji Naamdar. For unexplained reasons, the administration also remained indifferent to violence between the groups led by Mufti Munir and Pir Saifur.
Mufti Munir Shakir, Kurram Agency, had founded Lashkar-i-Islam (LI). In late 2005, his strict Wahabist organisation, developed serious differences with the Brelvi Ansarul Islam of Pir Saifur Rehman. The differences between the two groups often get violent even to this date. Mufti Munir Shakir left Khyber Agency in the last week of February 2006 though, after a stern warning from the political administration was conveyed to him by a tribal jirga through grueling negotiations. He was arrested soon after he left Khyber by some intelligence agency and the political agent sentenced him to indefinite jail.
For instance, in June 2006 LI ran into trouble with the administration after the political administration disagreed with the peace committees that Afridi set up for maintaining law and order in the area. The disagreement also led to tensions and resulted in the closure of local markets for a few weeks.
Afridi has been dispensing vigilante justice from time to time, and also administered public punishments to people he declared as criminals. Besides, his illegal FM radio station keeps delivering sermons and urging people to take to the right path i.e. join the LI for serving God and Islam.
In the absence of effective government control, Mangal Bagh Afridi has grown enormously in his strength. Some locals suggest that depending on the situation the government some times ignores Afridi’s militant activities, and indirectly supports him whenever state machinery is unable to fix a problem.
Under the leadership of Mangal Bagh Afridi, the LI has occasionally picked battles with some of the local sub-tribes. In April 2008, his men had a skirmish with powerful Kukikhel tribesmen of Jamrud because the Kukikhels wanted to indulge in some businesses which Mangal Bagh thought were un-Islamic.
Pir Saifur Rehman: Pir Saifur Rehman (an Afghan who lived in Khyber Agency since 1977 to 2006) is the founder of the religious cum militant group Ansarul Islam (AI). Since late 2005, his group has been involved in hate-mongering over illegal FM radio stations and violent clashes with the rival Lashkar-i-Islam, founded by Mufti Munir Shakir.
He was forced to leave the tribal area after the political authorities of Khyber Agency detained about 40 of his supporters in the first week of February 2006. He was forced by the political administration over it because of his spread of hate through his illegal FM radio station against Mufti Munir Shakir, which had generated violence in the agency. Pir Saifur Rehman reportedly moved to central Punjab for shelter, where he might be staying at one of the Lashkar-i-Taiba or Jamaatudawa, a Wahabist outfit.
Haji Naamdar: Haji Naamdar, in his early 30s, had founded the Amar Bil Maroof Wa Nahi Anilmunkir (Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice). Inspired by the Afghan Taliban supreme leader Mulla Omar, Naamdar espouses enforcement of Islamic Sharia in Pakistan (just as Mulla Omar wants it for Afghanistan).
“Naamdar does nothing inside Pakistan and is interested only in Afghanistan. He runs his own prisons, and his utterances are treated as final, like that of Mulla Omar, the leader of the Taliban,” a senior government official said after a meeting with Naamdar in late April 2008.
Naamdar, opposes suicide attacks inside Pakistan, but justifies them as the “best weapon” against the enemy. “We have to finish our enemy in Afghanistan by any means and suicide bombing is the best weapon.”
Naamdar’s acknowledgement of the presence of Taliban militants and their ‘active participation’ in cross-border anti-US jihad underscored the fact that even Khyber Agency has begun providing militants for the cross-border anti-US activities.
A day after surviving the suicide attack Naamdar told media that he was helping to ‘detoxify’ militants staying with him through ‘Islamic classes’, that teach them that attacking Pakistani forces, people or state installations “is no jihad at all”, and that rather, by “doing so we are strengthening anti-Islamic forces”.
What, however, turned Naamdar into a half collaborator of the Pakistani authorities, were his criticism of attacks on Pakistani people – both civilians and government officials.
Why should Mujahideen target Pakistan when this country provides everything for jihad in Afghanistan,” Naamdar was quoted as saying.
“These [Mujahideen] leaders brainwash teenagers, telling them that each and every Pakistani is their enemy and his or her killing is justified. And it is also jihad that they should keep killing Pakistanis,” said Naamdar of militants targeting Pakistani forces.