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Who are the Pakistani Taliban?

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
updated 12:22 PM EDT, Wed October 17, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan are not the Afghan Taliban
  • Its goal is to bring down the Pakistani government
  • The TTP claimed responsibility for the attempted Times Square bombing

(CNN) -- While its recent attack on a 14-year-old girl in Pakistan brought international outrage, the Pakistani Taliban take credit for a long list of assaults on civilians and the military in the country's mostly ungoverned tribal area along the Afghan border.

The banned Islamist group, which has intimate links to the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda, unabashedly confirmed it tried to kill teen activist Malala Yousufzai as she rode home from school in a van October 9.

But before that, the group, formally known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), took the global spotlight when Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, attempted to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square in May 2010. The TTP took responsibility, and Shahzad testified that he had received training from them.

The following September, the U.S. State Department designated the TTP a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

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Are they "the Taliban?"

They are not "the Taliban" that the U.S. forces have been at war with in Afghanistan, according to a Pakistani analyst. But that they adopted the name "Taliban" is no coincidence.

Formally known as Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the group is very closely linked with its namesake in Afghanistan as well as with al Qaeda. It shares its religious extremist ideology -- but is its own distinct group.

The TTP also has a different goal, but its tactics are the same, says Raza Rumi, director of policy and programs at the Jinnah Institute, a Pakistani think tank.

"Their primary target is the Pakistani state and its military," he says. "It resents the fact that it (Pakistan) has an alliance with the West, and it wants Sharia to be imposed in Pakistan."

Another terrorism analyst notes that "there is a shared heritage between the two groups."

"The Pakistani Taliban emerged as a power alongside the Taliban as a kind of network of support," says Matthew Henman of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, fighters from Pakistan crossed over the border to fight. They retained close relations with the Taliban after returning home, Rumi says.

There are other militant groups in Pakistan's tribal region not under the umbrella of the TTP, who support the Taliban but do not pursue Tehrik-i-Taliban's goals of replacing the Pakistani state with an Islamist one.

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Where do the TTP's roots lie?

Pakistan's army began hunting various militant groups in the semi-autonomous regions along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), in 2002.

In reaction, militant "supporters of the Afghan Taliban in the tribal areas transitioned into a mainstream Taliban force of their own," according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

In 2007, like-minded militias in Pakistan's tribal region came together under the command of Baitullah Mehsud, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2009.

As a result of its beginnings, Tehrik-i-Taliban are not a unified fighting force but a coordinated coalition of militias.

"Since its formation, the TTP have been dominated by one tribe," Henman says. "That is the Mehsud tribe." When Baitullah Mehsud died, factions competed for Tehrik-i-Taliban's leadership.

The militant groups control different regions within the tribal area and often have different agendas and political objectives. The factions don't always speak with one voice, although it is widely believed they now recognize Hakimullah Mehsud as their leader.

The TTP may have started in the tribal regions, but have since expanded their network.

They are "not just guys hiding in mountains or caves." They maintain loose factions spread out as far as Punjab province, Rumi explains.

"And they have also been joined by criminal gangs" to raise money through kidnappings and extortion. But the TTP have maintained the coalition nature of their roots, which leads to internal strife.

The TTP's opposition to the government and its allies, particularly the United States, has galvanized them beyond their differences.

"When (former president Gen. Pervez) Musharraf sided with the U.S. in 2001 after the 'you are either with us or against us' line from (then-President George W.) Bush, this is when the Taliban began to resent the military," Rumi says.

The TTP do not encompass all militant groups in the tribal regions but does work together with some, such as the Haqqani Network.

What is the Pakistani Taliban's mission?

The TTP are fighting to overthrow Pakistan's government via a terrorist campaign, according to the U.S. State Department.

"They reject the Pakistani constitution," says Rumi. "They reject the democratic process in Pakistan."

Because of Pakistan's alliances with the United States and other countries, the Pakistani Taliban also attack foreign interests in and outside of Pakistan.

Within Pakistan, Tehrik-i-Taliban often target members of Pakistan's armed forces but also kill civilians for political and religious reasons. In a December 2009 bombing of a mosque frequented by Pakistani military personnel, the group killed 36 and wounded 75.

In March 2011, a TTP bomb planted at a natural gas station killed dozens.

An attack on a Sufi shrine in April 2011 killed more that 50 in Dera Ghazi Khan, said the U.S. State Department, which also suspects the group may have been involved in the killing of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 2007.

Assaults on U.S. and other foreign interests have included attacks on a military base in Afghanistan and a U.S. Consulate in Peshawar. The TTP have also claimed responsibility for the assassination of a Saudi Arabian diplomat.

"Their ambitions are linked to the agenda of al Qaeda," says Rumi. They would like to bring down the West and the United States, but "given their capacity and network, they are overreaching."

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Why the May 2010 Times Square bombing attempt?

Since the United States is not in a state of war with Pakistan, its military does not pursue the Pakistani Taliban within that country's borders.

Instead, the CIA has hammered the TTP and other targets in the tribal regions with drone strikes, which have inflicted heavy losses but not stamped it out.

The New York City bombing attempt has been interpreted by some as an act of revenge.

TTP leader Hakimullah Mehsud recorded an audio message in April 2010 with a warning to the United States: "From now on the main targets of our fedayeen (fighters) are American cities."

Who within the Pakistani Taliban targeted the teenage blogger?

A Tehrik-i-Taliban militia led by Maulana Fazlullah once controlled the Swat region, Malala's home. Pakistan's interior minister blames it for the assassination attempt and has announced a bounty of $1 million on the heads of those responsible.

In an odd twist, the Pakistani military ran Fazlullah's group out of Pakistan in 2009, forcing it to operate in Afghanistan, where the U.S. military can openly pursue it.

Why did they target Malala?

Malala wrote a blog entry exposing how Tehrik-i-Taliban target schools in her region that coincided with a decree in early 2009 forbidding girls from attending school. She later gave interviews on the topic to international media, including CNN.

Pakistan Taliban gunmen halted a van transporting her and other children home from school October 9, found Malala and shot her in the head and neck. When she survived her injuries, a TTP spokesman promised they'd finish the job the next time.

How did the attack on the schoolgirl affect Pakistani sentiment?

The shooting has prompted an unusually strong and united reaction of disgust and anger among many Pakistanis, analysts say.

"There is a groundswell of sympathy for her and also a very strong demand for the Pakistani state to do something about this issue," says Rumi. Discontent toward the Pakistani Taliban has spread.

There is a lot of support for the TTP's ideological goals among social conservatives, says Henman, but "revulsion" for their tactics.

Why is the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan so difficult to fight?

The Pakistani military has been at this for a long time, Rumi points out, and although there have been successes, the fight drags on in a cat-and-mouse game.

"Tribal areas have for decades now been a no-go area for the Pakistani state," Henman says, and its security forces have not been able to establish a consistent presence there. They are left launching sporadic missions and then withdrawing.

"The militants invariably get pushed out of their strongholds," says Henman. Then they come back when the military is gone. "It's an ink blotting exercise for the Pakistani government."

"The impetus from the Taliban-type of movement is the fight against the military," Rumi says. Fighting them is what caused them to form in the first place. De-escalation should be part of the solution.

"The timely exit of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan is so important not only for Afghanistan but for Pakistan as well," Rumi says.

The London analyst agrees. "Absolutely," says Henman, getting the United States out of Afghanistan "is the key part of their religious motivation."

Like their Afghan allies, the Pakistani Taliban believe it must protect Islamic lands from "infidel invaders." "Pakistan's tacit support for the U.S. efforts in Afghanistan" exacerbates the situation in Pakistan, Henman adds.

Is Pakistani intelligence in cahoots with militants?

Western officials have accused Pakistan's Inter-Service Intelligence agency of colluding with militant groups. Discovering Osama bin Laden within the country's borders in the city of Abbottabad, where there is a dominant military presence, increased suspicions of cooperation in the West.

"There have been a number of allegations by U.S. officials," Henman says. Adm. Mike Mullen in particular accused the ISI of funding and supporting militants. "The (Pakistani) government has explicitly denied it," Henman says, and he himself has seen "no concrete evidence."

The accusations involve groups operating in Kashmir, he says, and Lashkar-i-Taiba, operating within Afghanistan, but he finds it hard to believe the ISI would support the TTP, because they target the ISI and the military.

"You can never draw any kind of definite conclusion," he says, "but it seems unlikely."

How should the government respond?

Rumi recommends a "holistic strategy, which includes military, political and institutional solutions." In the end, the people of the tribal regions need to be reintegrated into Pakistani society.

Henman agrees. "If there is a solution to be found, it is unlikely to be purely military," he says. The TTP can survive massive military efforts and keep bouncing back.

He is not optimistic about Pakistan's government being able to negotiate peace with Tehrik-i-Taliban. The military may be faced with perpetually beating down the militants to contain their capabilities.

Rumi does not expect to see much of an increase in military action by Pakistan's government against the TTP.

"This is an election year," he says, "so no political party would want to be seen as being creating more destruction and war."

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