UR resurgent jihad factory seems to be working overtime, supplying well-trained and highly motivated fighters for the Syrian and Afghan war theatres. There’s no dearth of radicalised volunteers to take part both on the internal and external front. Though theoretically still proscribed, the militant groups are back in business exploring new frontiers for jihad.
Pakistanis form one of the largest contingents of foreign combatants in Syria and their number is likely to rise with the growing Saudi influence in this country. Meanwhile, the Afghan front is also heating up with the approach of the 2014 deadline for withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces, attracting a greater number of militants for what is described as the most critical phase of the battle for Afghanistan.
A peace deal on their terms may give the Pakistani Taliban the crucial space to recoup and focus more on their activities across the Durand Line. Radical seminaries have long been the source of an uninterrupted supply of volunteers for the Afghan Taliban fighting the occupation forces.
There’s a long history of Pakistani holy warriors fighting foreign wars from Afghanistan to Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, even getting involved in Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region in Azerbaijan. But the avenue for external jihad shrank after 9/11, with Pakistan pulling back from its policy of using militancy as a tool of regional policy.
Outraged by this change of tack, militant groups turned to internal jihad by declaring war on the Pakistani state. The ban on Pakistani militant groups, however, could never be fully enforced. Afghanistan remained a major battleground for jihadists. Now even that pretence seems to have been completely blown away with the state closing its eyes to the resurgence of militant and sectarian outfits.
Militant fighters from Pakistan started joining the rebel forces fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime as Syria became the new centre for global jihad. Beginning as a movement for democracy the Syrian civil war has turned into a wider Shia-Sunni conflict drawing surrounding countries into the bloody power game.
The Syrian civil war also heralded the resurgence of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups as a major force in the war-ravaged region. These groups now control a large part of Syria as well as the Sunni heartland in Iraq. The development has given the jitters to the West and to those Arab countries that have been actively backing the Syrian rebellion. To offset Al Qaeda’s rising power, these countries are trying to build a so-called moderate Sunni coalition.
But the attempt seems to have failed, as those moderates depend on the support of groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate. Fearing Al Qaeda’s growing influence, the Saudi government has asked its nationals to return home. A major fear is that more radicalised warriors may turn their weapons on the Saudi rulers. But this has not stopped the Saudis from funding and arming the rebels and fighters from other countries.
There are two categories of militants from Pakistan in Syria: those belonging to Sunni sectarian groups like Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) and others from militant outfits including the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The presence of Pakistani fighters in Syria first made headlines last year after the detection of poliovirus which was traced back to Pakistan.
It is apparent that the main motivation behind Sunni sectarian groups like the LJ is to fight the Shia-dominated Assad regime. Most of these fighters are believed to have been recruited from Balochistan, which has become the main sectarian battleground. Others belong to Punjab and Karachi. According to a top provincial police official, many from Balochistan were recruited through Saudi-funded groups, and the administration conveniently closed its eyes to this.
Some reports quoting TTP commanders said the group has also set up a base in Syria. It is also an anti-Shia ideology that has driven the TTP to join the Syrian conflict. The Taliban have close ties with the LJ and other radical Sunni groups.
A Pakistani Taliban fighter in Syria was quoted by a foreign news agency as saying that there was a higher reward from God for fighting evil at home as well as outside. All these groups have close ideological links with Al Qaeda and are most likely to be fighting along groups like Al Nusra.
The most dangerous scenario presents itself once these fighters return to Pakistan. The involvement of Pakistani jihadis in Syria will have serious repercussions and fuel sectarian violence. The widening of the sectarian conflict in the Middle East and its spill-over effect inside Pakistan raises fears of radical Shia recruitment to join the war on the Syrian government’s side. That may also lead to an escalation in the proxy war in Pakistan.
With the extremist narrative dominating the national scene and the state in denial there could not be a better environment for a thriving jihad industry. The so-called peace talks with the TTP have already taken off whatever pressure there was on the militants, giving them licence to venture into other jihadi arenas.
A highly volatile situation in the Middle East calls for a more prudent policy approach by the government and for maintaining strict neutrality on the widening sectarian war. Instead, the prime minister has decided to take sides, with extremely grave consequences for the country. That gives a huge boost to the jihadis. The resurgence of Jihad Inc and the increasing involvement of Pakistani militants in foreign conflicts presents a grave challenge to the country’s stability and security.