This Article is From Dec 17, 2014

How the Pakistani Taliban Became a Deadly Force

How the Pakistani Taliban Became a Deadly Force

File photo of the Taliban's Pakistan unit. (Associated Press)

Q: Who are the Pakistani Taliban?

A: The Pakistani Taliban, formally known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, is a loose and increasingly divided umbrella organization that once represented roughly 30 groups of militants. The group was officially founded in 2007 by a prominent jihadi commander, Baitullah Mehsud, and for years it and allied groups like al-Qaida have been based in the Pashtun tribal areas in northwestern Pakistan, particularly in North and South Waziristan.

Many Pakistani Taliban commanders fought in Afghanistan as part of the movement that swept to power in Kabul. When US forces ousted that movement in 2001, many of its leaders fled across the border into Pakistan. The Pakistanis among them played host to their Afghan counterparts - as well as hundreds of fighters from al-Qaida - providing them with shelter, logistical support and recruits.

Under pressure by the United States, the Pakistani army made tentative efforts to dismantle those sanctuaries in 2003 and 2004, but it was too late. The tribal militiamen, enriched and radicalized by their al-Qaida guests, chafed under the army's attempts to impose control.

They sometimes cooperated in cease-fire agreements with the Pakistani military, only to renege months later. Under Mehsud, the Taliban started to attack the Pakistani security forces and government, even within the country's major cities. Soon, they openly declared their goal of imposing their will across Pakistan.

The United States designated the Pakistani Taliban a terrorist organization in September 2010.

Q: What relationship do the Pakistani Taliban have to the Afghan Taliban?

A: The group owes allegiance to the Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and cooperates closely with the Afghan movement in its insurgency in Afghanistan, providing men, logistics and rear bases for the Afghan Taliban. It has trained and dispatched hundreds of suicide bombers from Pakistan's tribal areas.

The movement shares a close relationship with the Haqqani Network, the most hard-core affiliate of the Afghan Taliban, which has been behind repeated suicide attacks in and around Kabul and eastern Afghanistan. The groups also cooperate and provide haven for al-Qaida operatives, including al-Qaida's leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The wide extent of militant cooperation in the tribal areas has complicated matters for the Pakistani military intelligence agency, which has long provided support for the Afghan-focused Taliban, even while trying to fight the Pakistani Taliban in recent years.

Q: What are the most significant attacks claimed by the Pakistani Taliban?

A: The Pakistani Taliban and affiliated militant groups have mounted a long series of devastating attacks in Pakistan's cities over the years.

One of their most significant attacks in 2014 was an audacious siege of the Karachi international airport in June. The attack, in which a group of 10 attackers fought security forces for hours and killed 13 people, represented the final straw for Pakistan's military.

Within days, an extensive military air and ground assault began against Taliban leaders headquartered in North Waziristan.

It is that offensive that a Taliban spokesman said led to the retaliatory militant attack in Peshawar on Dec. 16 that killed dozens of Pakistani schoolchildren and teachers.

In September 2013, the Pakistani Taliban unleashed one of their deadliest attacks ever, sending suicide bombers to the historic All Saints Church in Peshawar, a symbol of cooperation between Muslims and Christians. All told, at least 120 people died in the attack and its aftermath, which refocused attention on the Taliban's persecution of religious minorities. The attack was ordered even as the Pakistani government and Taliban leaders were exploring peace talks.

In 2012, the Pakistani Taliban shot Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl in the Swat Valley, for advocating the education of girls. Yousafzai went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 and has become a worldwide symbol of the group's indiscriminate violence and subjugation of women and girls. She and her family live in England, in part because the Pakistani Taliban have vowed to attack her again.

Through the years, the militants have also hit Pakistani military and intelligence targets, including a suicide bombing in the canteen of Pakistan's elite special forces commandos, the Special Services Groups, and a hostage-taking inside the army's General Staff Headquarters in Rawalpindi. The Pakistani Taliban were also behind fatal bomb blasts on softer targets like the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in September 2008 and the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar in 2009.

Baitullah Mehsud is also thought to have been behind the suicide bombing that killed former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Under Hakimullah Mehsud, the group demonstrated a close alliance with al-Qaida. He claimed a role in the suicide bombing by a Jordanian double agent that killed seven CIA officials and a Jordanian intelligence official at Camp Chapman in eastern Afghanistan in December 2009, mounted in revenge for the killing of Baitullah Mehsud. The Taliban disseminated video footage showing Mehsud beside the bomber before the attack.

Mehsud later trained Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American who tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in New York City in 2010.

Q: What is the state of the Taliban's leadership?

A: The Pakistani Taliban group is now nominally led by Maulana Fazlullah, a jihadi leader thought to be in hiding on the Afghan side of the border. But the organization has been under pressure from a military offensive in North Waziristan since June 2014, and the main group has suffered at least two major schisms and several bouts of deadly infighting, as rival leadership factions have differed over the group's direction.

Yet Fazlullah was seen as a possible peacemaker within Pakistan's militant firmament when he was chosen to lead the Taliban after the previous leader, Hakimullah Mehsud, was killed in a US airstrike in November 2013.

Mehsud was the Taliban's most flamboyant leader. He was a close aide and deputy to the Pakistani Taliban's founder, Baitullah Mehsud, coming to prominence through a series of daring attacks. He rose to supreme leadership after a US drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud in August 2009.
© 2014, The New York Times News Service